Why you shouldn’t do a PhD in systems

by Edward Z. Yang

The opinions presented in this post are not necessarily mine. I'm just one very confused undergraduate senior with a lot of soul searching to do.

When I tell my friends, “I’m going to get a PhD,” I sometimes get the response, “Good for you!” But other times, I get the response, “Why would you want to do that?” as if I was some poor, misguided soul, brainwashed by a society which views research as the “highest calling”, the thing that the best go to, while the rest go join industry. “If you’re a smart hacker and you join industry,” they say, “you will have more fun immediately, making more impact and more money.”

Time. Getting a PhD takes a lot of time, they tell me. Most programs like to advertise something like five, or maybe six years, but if you actually look at the statistics, it’s actually something that could potentially extend up to nine or ten years. That’s a really huge chunk of your life: effectively all of your twenties and, honestly, there might be much better things for you to do with these tender years of your life. A PhD is merely a stepping stone, a necessary credential to be taken seriously in academia but not anything indicative of having made a significant contribution to a field. And for a stepping stone, it’s an extremely time consuming one.

There are many other things that could have happened during this time. You could have began a startup and seen it get acquired or sink over a period of three years: six years seems like two lifetimes in a context like that. You could have began a career as a professional in an extremely hot job market for software engineers, hopping from job to job until you found a work that you were genuinely interested in: as a PhD you are shackled to your advisor and your university. The facilities for change are so incredibly heavyweight: if you switch advisors you effectively have to start over, and it’s easy to think, “What did I do with the last three years of my life?”

Money. There is one thing you didn’t do in those last few years: make money. PhDs are the slave labor that make the academic complex run. It’s not that universities aren’t well funded by grants: indeed, the government spends large amounts of money funding research programs. But most of this money never finds its way to PhDs: you’re looking at a $30k stipend, when a software engineer can easily be making $150k to $200k in a few years at a software company. Even once you make it into a tenure track position, you are still routinely making less than people working for industry. You don’t go into academia expecting to get rich.

Scarcity. Indeed, you shouldn’t go into academia expecting to get much of anything. The available tenured positions are greatly outstripped by the number of PhD applicants, to the point that your bid into the academic establishment is more like a lottery ticket. You have to be doing a postdoc—e.g. in a holding pattern—at precisely the right time when a tenure position becomes vacated (maybe the professor died), or spend years building up your network of contacts in academia in hopes of landing a position through that connection. Most people don’t make it, even at a second or third tier university. The situation is similar for industrial research labs, which become rarer and rarer by the year: Microsoft Research is highly selective and as a prospective PhD, you are making a ten year bet about its ability to survive. Intel Labs certainly didn’t.

Tenure isn’t all that great. But even if you do make it to tenure, it isn’t actually all that great. You’ve spent the last decade and a half fighting for the position in a competitive environment that doesn’t allow for any change of pace (god forbid you disappear for a year while your tenure clock is ticking), and now what? You are now going to stay at the institution you got tenure at for the rest of your life: all you might have is a several month sabbatical every few years. It’s the ivory handcuffs, and you went through considerably more effort to put them on than that guy who went to Wall Street. And as for the work? Well, you still have to justify your work and get grant funding, you still need to serve on committees and do other tasks which you simply must do which are not at all related to your research. In industry, you could simply hire someone to handle your post on your university’s “Disciplinary Committee”—in academia, that’s simply not how it works.

Lack of access. And if you are a systems researcher, you don’t even get the facilities you need to do the large-scale research that is really interesting. Physicists get particle accelerators, Biologists get giant labs, but what does the systems researcher get? Certainly not a software system used by millions of users around the world. To get that sort of system, you have to go to industry. Just ask Matt Welsh, who made a splash leaving a tenured position at Harvard to go join Google. Working in this context lets you actually go and see if your crazy ideas go and work.

Don't do it now. Of course, at this point I’m mentally protesting that this is all incredibly unfair to a PhD, that you do get more freedom, that maybe some people don’t care that much about money, that this is simply a question about value systems, and really, for some people, it’s the right decision. I might say that your twenties are also the best time to do your PhD, that academia is the correct late-career path, that you can still do a startup as a professor.

Perhaps, they say, but you need to figure out if this is the right decision for you. You need experience in both areas to make this decision, and the best time to do this is sampling industry for two or three years before deciding if you want to go to industry. After you graduate your PhD, people mentally set their timer on your potential as an academic, and if you don’t publish during that time people will stop taking you seriously. But if you start a PhD in your mid-twenties, no one will bat an eye. Everyone can have a bad software internship; don’t let that turn you away from industry. We solve cool problems. We are more diverse, in aggregate we give more freedom. In no sense of the word are we second-class.

They might be right. I don’t know.