The Doctorate Degree

Continue your education to earn a doctoral degree (Ph.D) is a major commitment. For some students it is an obvious choice but others must take serious consideration. I know that traditionally, Asian parents often want their children to aim for the highest degree possible but that concept is no longer valid because depending on your career goals, getting a PhD may or may not be a good step on your career path. Before deciding on whether or not to pursue a PhD, it is important to first understand what it means.

A PhD is a long-term commitment, on the average it takes five to eight years to complete. A PhD program forces you to apply what you have learned to come up with new technology, new theory, and new innovation by conduct research to prove your assumptions on why or why not things are working. A PhD program is all about research to learn more about your field and go as deep as possible so students must really enjoy research and have strong motivation to succeed. There is a difference in a Master's degree and a Doctorate's degree. The Master's degree students learn to APPLY specific technology or theory to solve problems. The Doctorate's degree students CREATE specific technology and innovation. The Master's degree students apply technology on projects and may write a paper about it. The Doctorate's degree students conduct research and submit a thesis or dissertation which consist an original academic data on specific technology, which is worthy of publication in a special scientific journals. They must defend their research work before a panel of expert examiners appointed by the university to make sure that the research is original and worthy.

A PhD is also a requirement if you want to teach at the university level. A PhD in a technical subject allows you to teach college students at the master's level and prepare them for future PhDs. A PhD is also a requirement to conduct research at research institutes of private companies where you work on specific area to develop new technology, new innovation products for the company. However, there is a major issue that you need to consider. The job teaching in colleges and conduct research at private companies are extremely difficult to get and highly competitive. Unless you are an outstanding research scientists and graduate from top universities, the chance to get good jobs that relate to your expertise is limited. This is a fact that many do not consider when they pursue their careers. Basically, a typical college professor will stay in school as long as possible, many is still working when they are in the late 70s when most people who work in the industry often retire at early 60s.

There are opinions about whether students should pursue a PhD right after college or after a few years working in the industry. There is no “right” or “wrong” answer, but for those who are interested in becoming an university professor or research scientist, my suggestion is to continue immediately after receive the Bachelor's degree is a better choice. As a young person and highly motivated, spending another seven more years in school is much easier than for someone who has worked for several years in the industry. It is more difficult to return to school for another seven or more years without salary and a lot of study.

There are also opinions suggested that combining work and school at the same time is another option. The aspect of earning a salary while still pursuing a doctorate degree is economically better. However, I do not agree with that. If you are pursuing a Ph.D program, you must devote all your efforts in your research and you often do not have time for any other things. I have seen many students failed both their academic pursuing AND their career jobs when doing both.

It is possible to work and pursuing a Master's degree at the same time. A Master program only requires two years of study in class where you learn specific skills. There is NO research required for a professional master degree. If a technical person wants to switch to management, it is definitely better to wait five to six years to accumulate enough work experience then pursue a Master's degree to transition into management. Most schools require work experience for the professional master program. By gaining industry experience makes the person more balanced graduate students and more knowledgeable employees.

A PhD is a special degree for people who want to do research or teaching at university. Spending another seven years in school to get your PhD can also set you back financially in some ways. As student, you will not make money as you would work in the industry. If you think your goal is to get good job and good salary than pursuing a PhD may not be the right career path. But if your goal is to be a research scientists and teaching school than select the PhD program could work well. I know students have good intentions and ambitions to pursue the highest degree possible but life and responsibilities often change over time. Having a clear idea of what career path you would like to follow is important but you need all the facts and information to help you make the right decision.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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