Monday, March 12, 2012

Do you need a PhD?

Since I decamped from the academic world to industry, I am often asked (usually by first or second year graduate students) whether it's "worth it" to get a PhD in Computer Science if you're not planning a research career. After all, you certainly don't need a PhD to get a job at a place like Google (though it helps). Hell, many successful companies (Microsoft and Facebook among them) have been founded by people who never got their undergraduate degrees, let alone a PhD. So why go through the 5-to-10 year, grueling and painful process of getting a PhD when you can just get a job straight out of college (degree or not) and get on with your life, making the big bucks and working on stuff that matters?

Doing a PhD is certainly not for everybody, and I do not recommend it for most people. However, I am really glad I got my PhD rather than just getting a job after finishing my Bachelor's. The number one reason is that I learned a hell of a lot doing the PhD, and most of the things I learned I would never get exposed to in a typical software engineering job. The process of doing a PhD trains you to do research: to read research papers, to run experiments, to write papers, to give talks. It also teaches you how to figure out what problem needs to be solved. You gain a very sophisticated technical background doing the PhD, and having your work subject to the intense scrutiny of the academic peer-review process -- not to mention your thesis committee.

I think of the PhD a little like the Grand Tour, a tradition in the 16th and 17th centuries where youths would travel around Europe, getting a rich exposure to high society in France, Italy, and Germany, learning about art, architecture, language, literature, fencing, riding -- all of the essential liberal arts that a gentleman was expected to have experience with to be an influential member of society. Doing a PhD is similar: You get an intense exposure to every subfield of Computer Science, and have to become the leading world's expert in the area of your dissertation work. The top PhD programs set an incredibly high bar: a lot of coursework, teaching experience, qualifying exams, a thesis defense, and of course making a groundbreaking research contribution in your area. Having to go through this process gives you a tremendous amount of technical breadth and depth.

I do think that doing a PhD is useful for software engineers, especially those that are inclined to be technical leaders. There are many things you can only learn "on the job," but doing a PhD, and having to build your own compiler, or design a new operating system, or prove a complex distributed algorithm from scratch is going to give you a much deeper understanding of complex Computer Science topics than following coding examples on StackOverflow.

Some important stuff I learned doing a PhD:

How to read and critique research papers. As a grad student (and a prof) you have to read thousands of research papers, extract their main ideas, critique the methods and presentation, and synthesize their contributions with your own research. As a result you are exposed to a wide range of CS topics, approaches for solving problems, sophisticated algorithms, and system designs. This is not just about gaining the knowledge in those papers (which is pretty important), but also about becoming conversant in the scientific literature.

How to write papers and give talks. Being fluent in technical communications is a really important skill for engineers. I've noticed a big gap between the software engineers I've worked with who have PhDs and those who don't in this regard. PhD-trained folks tend to give clear, well-organized talks and know how to write up their work and visualize the result of experiments. As a result they can be much more influential.

How to run experiments and interpret the results: I can't overstate how important this is. A systems-oriented PhD requires that you run a zillion measurements and present the results in a way that is both bullet-proof to peer-review criticism (in order to publish) and visually compelling. Every aspect of your methodology will be critiqued (by your advisor, your co-authors, your paper reviewers) and you will quickly learn how to run the right experiments, and do it right.

How to figure out what problem to work on: This is probably the most important aspect of PhD training. Doing a PhD will force you to cast away from shore and explore the boundary of human knowledge. (Matt Might's cartoon on this is a great visualization of this.) I think that at least 80% of making a scientific contribution is figuring out what problem to tackle: a problem that is at once interesting, open, and going to have impact if you solve it. There are lots of open problems that the research community is not interested in (c.f., writing an operating system kernel in Haskell). There are many interesting problems that have been solved over and over and over (c.f., filesystem block layout optimization; wireless multihop routing). There's a real trick to picking good problems, and developing a taste for it is a key skill if you want to become a technical leader.

So I think it's worth having a PhD, especially if you want to work on the hardest and most interesting problems. This is true whether you want a career in academia, a research lab, or a more traditional engineering role. But as my PhD advisor was fond of saying, "doing a PhD costs you a house." (In terms of the lost salary during the PhD years - these days it's probably more like several houses.)