View Full Version : Life PhD... who's done it, why did you choose your area, what do I need to know?

05-08-2010, 03:36 AM
I'm looking at getting a PhD and as I consider my application, I'm sort of overwhelmed at the number of interesting directions that I could go. I see it as an opportunity to open up myself to options I didn't have when I did my under grad degree (Systems Engineering) or my MBA (Marketing/Finance).

I'm looking at another engineering degree (Systems, Electrical, Bioengineering) or maybe MIS (not wildly different that Systems Engineering, but #4 program in the country)...

There are a lot of interesting areas to study as either as a stand alone PhD or more likely as a minor/specialization:

Solar Energy
Cognitive Science
Remote Sensing/Optics
Unmanned Systems

From what I've read, one of the mistakes people make in choosing a PhD is assuming they will spend a lifetime in one area of study. I'm more interested in gaining a research skill set that I can apply to a wide range of problems/domains.

What was your experience and thought process? What factors did you consider? How did it work out for you?

05-08-2010, 03:38 AM
Don't know, but I'm interested in this. Thinking about going straight for my PhD when I finish this grad program.

Good luck, man!

05-08-2010, 03:42 AM
Don't know, but I'm interested in this. Thinking about going straight for my PhD when I finish this grad program.

Good luck, man!

What's your grad program?

05-08-2010, 04:04 AM
Global and International Studies

05-08-2010, 05:10 AM
I have one...from the elite of elite institutions for what I do.

My question to ask you is what do you want to do? Why are you choosing to get this?

If you want to teach, then yes a PhD is almost a requirement, it's sort of like getting a union card, however if you don't plan to go to academia then it's a whole lot more dubious of a value.

In essence here's grad school(well at least form me)(I was computer science/computer engineering)

Read a bunch of academic papers....learn 'state of the art' from academia's point of view.
Explore and create your own ideas.
Do background research to see what related work people have done
Know which conferences, journals etc to look in. there is a distinct tiering in every field the best papers tend to be in the highest tiers(but not always)
Learn how to set up your own experiments to prove your ideas.
Learn how to structure your arguments to prove your ideas to other people.

Now do you have to do a PhD to learn this? No...

Depending upon what you do the PhD will take quite a bit of time. The question you have to ask yourself is if the PhD is the best place to learn what you want to learn. Yes the PhD teaches you how to find your own answers, formulate your own ideas and create your own research, but that's not to say that you need to spend a full PhD program to learn that. For some it may actually be better to get a research oriented masters. Done correctly it will teach you how to conduct your own research and teach you how to learn in a fraction of the time. You won't be as polished BUT, you won't take as much time either.

After the masters you can go off to industry to get some experience in state of the art systems. For my field academia is years behind industry, and usually ends up playing with nothing more than small scale or toy problems. That's not to say you can't come up with great ideas in academia, but they are usually smallish scale.

You mention that you think the PhD will open up options. My experience is, that unless you want to teach, it in itself, doesn't open up many new doors, and definitely it does close some. Now the truth is, the doors a PhD closes are probably not doors you'd be interested in taking, but it does close them. The reason why I say a PhD doesn't open that many doors(outside of your ticket to academia) is that really a degree doesn't mean a whole lot in the real world. What's important is smart people and good ideas. That's what you look for. Really who gives a shit about degrees in the real world? It's all about what you can do. All a PhD means is that there's less of a chance you're an idiot and if you come from an elite school there's probably a better than average chance you're smart, which is really what people are looking for.

It may sound like I'm being fairly negative on the PhD program and I am and I'm not. I did 2 years MS and 4 years PhD, I almost quit twice but I finished it. You can learn to be creative and self starting in a PhD program, but I question whether it is the best use of time. I almost think we need a new degree 3-4 years total for people who don't end up teaching. Longer than a masters but shorter than a PhD. Teach them how to learn and give them the confidence to develop their own ideas. Then send them off to the real world to revolutionize it.

The ultimate question is, what you want to learn, and how much time do you want to spend learning it?

It's sort of funny you mention people making a mistake getting a PhD assuming they are going to stay in one field, I honestly don't know many people that felt that way. Me personally I'm on my 3rd major area of research in less than 10 years including grad school. Grad school just helps you prepare a set of tools, what you do with them is up to you. A PhD just makes sure your tools are shiny.

But it's now late here, if you have further questions feel free to ask, I will try to give an honest opinion, trying to be as objective as I can.