This is a response post to the recent PhD-Industry Gap article written by a prospective job seeker who, despite his track record of success in obtaining a PhD and multiple research awards and recognitions, had difficulty making the jump into a software development position. He introduces a metaphor for a just-graduated PhD:
Imagine you’re a brand-new Porsche in 2011. You’re sitting in a dealership, being test-driven by many enamored consumers but never purchased. Later you hear that the 2011 Toyota Camry outsold the Lexus 1.5 to 1, the Cadillac 2 to 1, and the Porsche 10 to 1. You ask yourself: Was it worth being an impressive, expensive car, if no one ever buys you?
I strongly dislike this metaphor because it conflates time in education and rewards in the educational system with absolute value in a related but different field.
This question is close to my heart because I successfully made this jump from graduate school (Computer Science PhD, Penn State Winter 2009) into software development (Rackspace). I measure success here as not only by getting a software development job, but in both being successful at my work and being engaged by it. I think engagement is a key concept missing from this discussion.
Most Computer Science PhDs are going to be able to write code at the expected level. The technical hurdles of a thesis are much higher than almost anything you’ll see in the industry. Because of this when you’re on the interview circuit, companies are probably not asking themselves “can this person do the job?” but “is this person going to like the job?” It doesn’t help them if you show up and decide it isn’t for you 6 months later!
There isn’t a unified theory of post-academic engagement. The things that engage me are pretty personal and what I want to get done when I wake up in the morning. I have always been interested in delivering value through software: I want software that I build and ship to solve real problems for people. I have always enjoyed working on a team and becoming better through the combination of everyone, rather than relying on the few. These are common in the software development industry and means that industry is a good match for what I want out of a job.
I don’t expect everyone to want those things out of their work environment. A lot of my colleagues in graduate school deeply care about advancing the frontier of science and that’s what they’re doing now in their jobs as professors and research scientists. If they ended up at my job I think they’d go out of their minds: our value system is totally misaligned with the things that make them happy. We aren’t advancing the limits of human knowledge. We do definitely try to get things right but there is always a tradeoff between getting it right and shipping. Change needs to be done incrementally and sometimes has justifiable political overtones (“how do we know this is the right change not just in theory, but also in practice?”).
When you’re finished with the PhD you need to ask yourself: “what are the things that make me happy” and then tailor your job search to these things. It is unlikely that you will find a job related to your thesis. While you may have enough experience to start as a medium-to-senior level developer, you need to demonstrate that this is a natural next step in your career. Even if you meet all the qualifications for the job, you will be a harder sell to a company who wants to make sure you are going to like your job and want to do it every morning.
This isn’t to say that a PhD isn’t valuable: I use soft skills that I gained from my time in the program every day. I would love for everyone we hired at my company to have had the experience of needing to bootstrap a multi-year project themselves and get it across the finish line. However the bulk of my time in getting my PhD was in training me to be a scientific researcher, a career I am no longer in.
An academic past is seasoning: it gives you other tools and experiences to apply to your day-to-day. In computer science we are lucky to be highly in-demand. As a result of this there are a lot of possible “next steps” in people’s careers: academic, startup, small company, big company – you can spend your time doing all sorts of great things in all sorts of different problem domains. I think there’s too often a tendency to look at the multi-year investment of a PhD as meaning something greater than it actually is. Ultimately you want to your next step to make sense both to you and the job you want to grow into, and when switching careers the onus is on you to show this.