Should I Do a PhD?

PhD for Me?

That’s the big question facing some of you. There are also some other related ones: “Will I be able put in the intensive work that a PhD requires?” “Is it going to be worth it?” – and perhaps, most important of all: “What scope is there for me after I get my doctoral degree?”

In her article entitled ‘Applying to Ph.D. Programs in Computer Science’ Dr. Harchol-Balter (an associate professor of computer science at CMU who has been involved in the Ph.D. admissions process at CMU, U.C. Berkeley, and MIT) answers these questions in-depth and with a great deal of insight. What is more she does so in a clear, concise, straight forward manner that allows her to cover a lot of ground in one brief, easy-to-read document.

Though she writes with a focus on doctoral programs in Computer Science, students applying for almost any program can read it with profit. In fact all students whether they are applying to master’s or doctoral programs in an American university should read her comments on the ‘Application Process’. They give invaluable tips (especially for top-notch students) on the recommendation letter and the statement of purpose.

Her article covers five main sections:

  • Do I really want a Ph.D.? What does a Ph.D. entail?
  • The Application Process
  • Fellowship Information
  • Choosing the right Ph.D. program for you
  • Current 2010 Rankings of CS Ph.D. programs in the U.S.

The depth of her insights (delivered in a refreshingly direct manner) are apparent no matter where you look. Here are a few random samples:

  • What you should understand about a PhD: “A Ph.D. is a long, in-depth research exploration of one topic. By long we’re typically talking about 6 years. By in-depth we mean that at the end of the Ph.D. you will be the world expert or close to it in your particular area. You will know more than your advisor about your particular research area. You will know about your research than anyone at your school…”
  • Graduate school rankings: “Ranking is based on people’s opinions. Even very low ranked schools have some truly great professors and some very famous professors. Also remember that a famous professor does not imply a great advisor”
  • Choosing the right PhD program: “Count the faculty in your chosen area of research. Now subtract all the ones who are not actually present (their name appears on the web page, but they’re actually at some other school). The number left are the resources you will have to help you with your thesis research.”
  • The balance between course work and research in a PhD: “A Ph.D. program typically requires less than 10 courses during the entire 6 years (including required “core” courses, and required “electives”). The emphasis in the Ph.D. is not on classes, but rather on research. A Ph.D. student will typically take classes only when she feels that they will be useful in her research.”
  • The differences between professor-student relationship in classes and in research:
    • ” In research, you are often working alone, or at best with you advisor and maybe one other student”
    • “In research, there are no grades. There is some instruction (from your advisor), but mostly it’s up to you to be self-motivated and pro-active”
    • “In the classroom, there is a distance between you and your professor. In research, you and your advisor will work side-by-side”
    • “When taking classes, you will almost never see your professor alone. When doing research with an advisor, you will typically have 1 hour per week when you meet with your advisor alone.”
  • Why you should try for a fellowship: “If you are awarded the fellowship, it is an honor that will forever appear on your cv” and “An outside fellowship makes you an attractive target for any school and for any advisor. When I received a 6-year fellowship, I immediately sent every school I had applied to a postcard notifying them. Within a week they all accepted me – Why not? I came free of charge.”

If you are wondering whether to apply for a PhD, this is an article well worth reading. Here’s the link: Applying to Ph.D. Programs in Computer Science.

P.S. included in her article, for those of you who are interested, is the story of how Dr. Mor Harchol-Balter, decided that she wanted to pursue doctoral studies.