Why pursue a PhD? Is a PhD degree right for me? Quick 8 minutes discussion

A PhD degree is the highest level of academic degree one can obtain and is typically pursued by individuals who are interested in a career in research, academia, or other highly specialized fields. There are several reasons why one might choose to pursue a PhD:

  1. Advanced knowledge and expertise: A PhD program provides an opportunity to gain advanced knowledge and expertise in a specific field of study, which can help individuals become leaders in their field.
  2. Career opportunities: A PhD can open up opportunities for individuals to work in academia, research, and other highly specialized fields that require advanced knowledge and expertise.
  3. Personal fulfillment: Pursuing a PhD can be a challenging and rewarding experience that can lead to personal growth and fulfillment.

However, pursuing a PhD is not for everyone. It requires a significant amount of time, effort, and dedication, as well as a strong interest and passion for a specific field of study. It is important to carefully consider the potential benefits and drawbacks of pursuing a PhD and whether it aligns with your personal and career goals.

My Case

When I graduated with my master’s degree, I immediately started my career as a software engineer. After seven years in the field, during which I became a senior engineer and took charge of many important projects, I began to wonder if there was something more interesting and challenging that I could be doing. Coincidentally, my wife had always wanted to pursue a PhD, so I decided to join her and apply for a doctoral program.

Why pursue a PhD
University of Chicago (Spring)

Is a PhD necessary for a career in computer science?

In the field of computer science, a bachelor’s or master’s degree can generally lead to a well-paying job in Silicon Valley. In fact, a software engineer with 4-5 years of experience can earn a higher salary than a freshly graduated PhD. Salary information can be found on websites like Levels.fyi. So, some people may view pursuing a PhD in CS as a waste of time and not worth it solely based on salary considerations. However, if you consider overall career development such as future earnings, influence, or work style, the answer may differ. For me, pursuing a PhD was the right decision, and if given the chance to choose again, I would have started my doctoral career earlier.

University of Chicago (Winter)

Should I pursue a PhD? The impact of a PhD on career development.

If you have a research background or interest, you may want to consider jobs that are more research-oriented and do not require urgent product development. Typically, a team like this will have a majority of PhD holders responsible for creating new projects, while those with bachelor’s or master’s degrees serve as engineers to assist with implementation and function verification.

As an engineer, I used to write down assigned tasks for completion. While tasks can usually be implemented, it may take some time. However, as part of a quantum computing research team, I discover and solve problems on my own. There’s a lot of flexibility to choose projects, plan my own schedule, and decide which system part to improve. While there is a high degree of autonomy, problems often have no ready-made solution, which is a challenge but also the most interesting part of my work. A PhD program focuses on cultivating the ability to discover and solve problems, making you more equipped to handle such challenges.

As the expectations for researchers and engineers in a team differ, the problems and outcomes they face on a daily basis also differ. Over time, they will naturally develop in different directions. There is no direction that is better or worse, it just depends on what is suitable for the individual.

University of Chicago (Summer)

What are the benefits of getting a PhD?

There are many benefits to getting a PhD, such as expanding your horizons and building networks. Because you have to attend conferences and travel around, you have the opportunity to meet many very professional researchers. During my PhD, I met many university professors and researchers from national laboratories. Many of my friends from my PhD have gone on to become professors at Ivy League schools. There are also many advantages gained during the pursuit of a PhD. Here, I want to focus on two parts that have changed me personally.

Answer “I don’t know” with more confidence

When I was a software engineer, I used to struggle with confidently saying “I don’t know” when asked a question I didn’t have an answer to. I was afraid that my understanding of the problem was not clear or my knowledge was insufficient, which made me feel like I wasn’t doing my job properly. As a result, I was always hesitant to say “I don’t know”.

During my PhD research, I spent a lot of time reading literature in a single related field, and the problems I faced were often unknown problems. After a long time accustomed to standing on the border between known and unknown in human science, I naturally became used to not knowing things. When I answer “I don’t know”, it basically falls into the following two situations:

  1. Your question is not within the scope of my research, so I don’t know.
  2. Your question is currently an unknown problem for all researchers, and nobody knows.

In this situation, I no longer fear answering “I don’t know”, and I even occasionally feel a bit confident and question why the other person would ask me such a question. 😄

Improved ease and confidence when giving presentations or speeches on stage

Due to having less experience in presenting in front of an audience, it’s natural to feel nervous when taking the stage. I think this nervousness has two causes:

  1. Lack of experience presenting on stage with an audience watching, which can make one feel anxious.
  2. The audience below may know more than you do, which can make one feel nervous about being caught out.

Through training during my PhD program, not only did my experience in presenting and speaking become more enriched, but I also conducted in-depth research in my field of study. Therefore, most of the time when I talk about a topic, I know more about it than anyone in the audience. Thus, the audience is like students who come to learn about the content of the topic, and I am like a teacher conveying my research results. With rich experience and cultivated expertise, it makes presenting or giving a speech on stage more comfortable.

What skills are needed to pursue a PhD?

Passion

I think the ability to discover, think, and solve problems can all be cultivated during the doctoral program. However, the passion for the field is something that is harder to develop. You must choose a topic that you are passionate about, so that you can work on it for a long time and dive deeply into it. If you have a passion for a field, I believe that you already have the ability to pursue a doctoral degree.

Perseverance

Research is a long journey, and sometimes you have already invested a lot of time into a topic, but still cannot find a promising direction. If you give up at this point, the topic will really come to a halt. Sometimes it just takes a little more time to find a very good solution. You need to continue to work hard, persevere, and explore your own path, leading to the research area you have created. Perseverance will be developed during the doctoral training period, and I believe it is a personal characteristic that doctoral students need.

University of Chicago (John Crerar Library)

Summary

I completed my PhD degree in four and a half years, publishing numerous papers at prestigious Computer Architecture conferences such as ASPLOS, ISCA, HPCA, and SC. Along the way, I met exceptional individuals who helped me accelerate my comprehension of quantum computing. Due to these conferences, I traveled to many cities, including Toronto, Heidelberg, Florence, Fukuoka, and several American cities, broadening my perspectives. I believe obtaining a PhD is a valuable investment. I wish for anyone interested in advancing scientific research in their field to find a topic they are passionate about, enhance their skills, and better humanity’s lives.

Xponentia
Xponentia

Hello! I'm a Quantum Computing Scientist based in Silicon Valley with a strong background in software engineering. My blog is dedicated to sharing the tools and trends I come across in my research and development work, as well as fun everyday anecdotes.

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