There’s some advice I’ve read that “when you’ve given the same in-person advice 3 times, write a blog post”. I’ve decided to take that advice and write some of my thoughts on getting a PhD to go into industry.
Opportunity Costs of Getting a PhD
Obviously, having a PhD on your resume, all else being equal, helps you. It shows you’re smart and have a variety of skills. It also gives you a number of important skills for industry.
But asking whether a PhD is a good thing to have on your resume isn’t the right question. Is having a PhD better than having 5+ years of industry experience, or a Master’s degree and a couple of years of experience? My guess is in most cases, no. PhDs take a long time, and aren’t very efficient for learning the specific skills for an industry job. PhDs train you to be a researcher in a very specific field.
Simply put, if you’re just looking for a way of advancing your career, in most cases you’re better off doing something other than getting a PhD. There might be some exceptions to this - like if you’re planning on getting a PhD in machine learning. But for the most part, a PhD is just a slow way of learning some skills. When you factor in the financial opportunity costs as well, it just doesn’t make sense to get a PhD if you’re doing it just for your career.
Risks of Enrolling in a PhD Program
One issue I don’t see brought up enough in discussions about getting a PhD is that getting a PhD carries significant risk. A large proportion of students (estimated ~50%) don’t complete their PhD. Everyone thinks that these statistics don’t apply to them, but quite simply, there is a lot of luck involved in getting a PhD. Many advisers just aren’t good (or have styles that don’t jive well with your own), some departments suck, some research plans don’t pan out. On top of that, sometimes life circumstances get in the way - you have a kid, a family member gets sick, or you find you can’t continue doing it for financial reasons. These are things it’s hard to know ahead of time. There is always a chance things just won’t work out with your PhD program, or that it will require much more time than you originally planned.
Doing it for the Wrong Reasons
Finally - if you’re getting a PhD just thinking about what it’s going to give you on the other end, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. If you’re not seriously excited about the prospect of doing academic research for the next few years, you’re just not going to gain much from the experience. A PhD is a long commitment - 5+ years might as well be a lifetime. It’s also a lot of work - I worked much harder during my PhD than I have at any other point in my life. Academia can also be extremely lonely and isolating, as I've written about before. If you aren’t happy and motivated by the work you’re doing during that time, you’re (1) not going to accomplish much, (2) not learn much, and (3) miss out on enjoying a big chunk of your life.
I’m not against the idea of getting a PhD, and going into it planning to take an industry job after isn’t a bad idea (it’s probably better than going into it expecting a tenure-track academic job, given the prospects of that). However, I think if you’re going to do a PhD, it should be because you love the idea of doing a PhD. If it’s just something you’re trying to get through for the position and prestige you feel you’ll have on the other end, it really isn’t worth it. Given the risks involved, the financial hardship it entails, the cost to your mental health, I really believe you should only do a PhD if you would want to do it even if it wouldn’t actually help your career at all.