Vivek Haldar

What is life like for PhDs in computer science who go into industry?

(I just posted a long answer to this Quora question. Reproducing here.)

What is life like for PhDs in computer science who go into industry?

This is one of the most common questions I get during recruiting events. I have a PhD, and have worked in industry for last few years, so I am going to take a stab at answering.

First of all, I want to administer a dose of reality to the OP. Please don’t take offense at this, because I used to think exactly like the OP when I was a green newb. The entire set of questions has an undertone of “how will I be treated special in the workplace if I have a PhD?” You will not be treated special at all. When you go about your day-to-day job, you do not have a halo hanging over your head declaring that you did a PhD. You will earn the respect of your peers and bosses by delivering value to your team, not by possessing a degree. (Also see answer to job security question below.)

It is natural to feel special after a PhD. Academia implicitly drills it into you, because a PhD is academia’s entry ticket. You must be among the chosen ones if you have one. This privilege does not transfer to industry.

About the only concrete benefit of starting out with a PhD is that you will likely have a slightly higher starting salary, compared to those with a Masters.

There do exist venues in industry where research by itself is a specially delineated activity, and researchers are treated differently than regular engineers. They are the well known industry CS “labs”. A few years ago, the big four were: Microsoft Labs, IBM Labs, Sun Labs and HP Labs. They were shining examples of how research could be embedded in a industrial setting, advancing the state of the art while also having a positive impact on the company’s bottomline. But, they were clearly delineated from the rest of the company, and essentially served as an in-house CS department. One of the core activities of such labs was “technology transfer”, so that the cool things they came up with could be disseminated to the rest of the company. Today, the only two still going strong are IBM and Microsoft Labs, while the others have diminished.

What happened in the meanwhile was that Google started operating with a hybrid model of industrial research, where research was not a cleanly separated division or activity, with blended seamlessly into the regular operation of the company. There are people with the title of “researcher” and those with the title of “software engineer”, and a continuous gradation in between, with researchers expected to focus on more ambiguous and blue sky problems, and engineers expected to focus on more immediate implementation and design issues. This is a marked departure from the “labs” model. What it is essentially saying is that every problem that the company tackles is in some sense research worthy.

It was also around this time (early 2000’s) that the expectations of what PhDs should work on began to change. If you graduated with a PhD, the highest status job you could get was a tenure track university professorship. Indeed, most PhD programs implicitly gear graduates for that end. If you could not attain that, the next best thing to strive for was a researcher position in one of the aforementioned industrial labs. And, if you could not even land that, you would go looking for regular industry jobs with the unwashed masses.

The problem with this picture is that there are 10 PhD graduates for every tenure-track position. And, while I don’t have figures, the industrial labs don’t hire at a much faster rate either. And that left regular industry jobs as the only viable option for the vast majority of PhDs. My guess is that the recruitment engines of most major tech companies also wised up to this fact, and started actively pitching to not just bachelors and Masters graduates, but PhDs as well. The new crop of web companies, with Google at the forefront, also started projecting the image that the work being done there was new and cool and challenging and important enough to keep PhDs engaged. Also, the pay was pretty good. When you saw that year after year a significant fraction of the outgoing PhD graduates from your CS department were happily ensconced in regular industrial jobs, option number 3 began rapidly catching up with the other options.

  • What is the day to day life like?

At the broadest level, you will spend about half of your time designing systems and features, and getting those designs discussed and reviewed, and the other half actually implementing those. (Also see the next answer.) As you become more senior, leadership/coordination activities also start becoming a significant part of the job.

You must be a great coder. That is a minimum prerequisite. During one interview, I asked a candidate (a recent PhD graduate) to give me some pseudo-code for the solution he had just described, and he went “oh well, if you must make me code…” That pretty much made me go “no hire.” What did you think the job involved?

  • Do people usually work alone, or with others?

Again, the answer to this question does not depend on what degree you have. The simple truth is there is no job in the modern tech industry that involves working alone.

You will probably evenly split your time between collaborative activities such as design discussions and code review (both for your code, as well as others’ code), and solitary activities such as heads-down coding. The fraction of solitary time goes down as you become more senior.

  • How much mentoring is there? Who can you ask for help if you need it?

Almost never an issue. Most places will actually pair you up with a mentor who is not your boss. This means you should feel comfortable discussing things with them that you wouldn’t with your boss. Also, everyone around you will also help you out, mentor or not.

Remember the crucial thing about asking for help in a way that will make people want to help you–show that you have put in some work and are stuck at some point. Don’t just go around asking questions because you are too lazy to dig.

  • Are good jobs available in all locations? Are you usually required to move after grad school if you want to get a good job?

You are much more likely to land an interesting job at the coasts. West more than East.

  • How many jobs are available and how many publications do you need to get them? How cutthroat is the competition for good jobs?

Most industrial positions will not care about your publications, unless you have none or very few, in which case the question will naturally arise of why you produced so little over your PhD.

Competition is high. You have to be prepared. You have to be specifically prepared for a tech/coding interview. Use your favorite search engine to get inundated with tips for how to prepare. This is a great starting point.

  • Are you only qualified to work in the exact subfield you studied in grad school?

This is another big area of adjustment. Employees will usually try to match you to a position that relates to your research. But do not expect to spend your entire career are in the same field that you got your PhD in. (Why would you even want to do that? It would get boring pretty quickly.) Getting a PhD should have equipped you to tackle problems outside your area.

  • How is job security?

There is no such thing as job security, no matter what degree you have. The only way to be somewhat secure is to have demonstrable competence. Note that I said not just competence, but demonstrable competence. If you are doing great things, but nobody knows about them, it doesn’t count.

All those skills you developed during your research career to promote your work and your papers, to get your point across, to put it in context, to explain why it is important–both in terms of written and spoken communication–will be crucial in developing your career. If you feel like you are not developing these skills during the course of your PhD, then you should really focus on them.

In some places, another way to get security is to be really good at internal political games. You do not want to be at a place like that. If you live by politics, you die by politics.

  • Do you work 9 to 5, or do you take your work home with you?

This, again, is completely independent of what degree you have. How you structure your priorities and your work to get it done within sane hours, and while maintaining some sort of “work/life balance” (I hate that term, but that is a whole other story) is entirely up to you.

  • Are you expected to publish papers?

If your title is “researcher”, then yes.

  • How hungry are people for career advancement?

How hungry are you? It is an entirely personal choice.

  • If a PhD goes into industry, does he usually do the same type of job that you could get with a Master’s? If not, how do they differ, and why are they better/worse?

Yes, you will usually do the same type of work.

At this point, you might be wondering “so are there any advantages to a PhD at all?” Yes, there are. You have to use the skills that you developed while doing a PhD to advance your career. “What might such skills be?”, you ask. The two most important are the ability to work with ambiguous and ill-specified problems, and communication skills. This is where PhDs should edge out others.

But, I’ve seen plenty of PhDs without these two crucial skills, and plenty of non-PhDs with. If all the problems, as well as the sketches of the solutions, that you worked on during your PhD were handed to you by your advisor, and you did not wrestle with any demons on your own, you will probably fall short here.

  • Do most people stay in industry, or do they use their jobs as a jumping-off point to get back into academia?

Except in extremely rare circumstances, I’ve not seen people going back to academia from industry. There has, however, been a recent spate of people moving from academia to industry, even giving up tenure in the process!

  • Do you ever regret getting a PhD?

No. Here’s why.

  • Do most people have time to get married?

(See answer to 9-5 question above.)

  • How are these impacted by the prestige of your graduate school?

Does not matter. The only thing that matters is how you perform on the interview.