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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Advice for Ph.D. Students Seeking Industry Jobs

When I joined USC ten years ago, having followed my own Ph.D. directly with a job in academia, I naively thought a good number of my students would do the same.

But the reality of the matter is that there are few openings in academia for the large number of Ph.D.'s graduating each year from our universities. And these have become more competitive by the year.

To give you a more concrete idea, top departments may receive 200 or more applications for a single tenure track position. Consequently, young applicants for new faculty positions today are locked in an arms race that is spiraling out of control --- my colleagues and I sometimes joke when looking at applications for assistant professor positions that the presented credentials presented by many candidates would have been sufficient to get them tenure just a few years ago.

One could argue that academia has always been selective and competitive. But then, it used to be the case that there were many research labs in industry where the majority of Ph.D.'s could go if they weren't interested in academia or weren't able to find an academic job. For a number of socio-economic reasons, beginning with the late 90's and through the 2000's,  this ecosystem of industrial research has essentially collapsed. With a handful of exceptions like Microsoft Research, there are not a lot of jobs in industry today where a Ph.D.-graduate will be hired to write papers.

Life after the Ph.D. has therefore changed dramatically. A great majority of Ph.D. graduates in many EE/CS disciplines now go to work in development jobs in industry, often in areas that are quite different from the focus of their graduate studies. I have experienced this first-hand. Most of the graduated Ph.D. students from my own group at USC have gone on to software-related jobs in the networking industry.

Vivek Haldar, a Ph.D. graduate from UC Irvine who works at Google has written a nice blog post titled "what is life like for PhDs in computer science who go into industry?"  that echoes my thoughts on the subject (and motivated me to write this). He writes:

It was also around this time (early 2000’s) that the expectations of what PhDs should work on began to change. If you graduated with a PhD, the highest status job you could get was a tenure track university professorship. Indeed, most PhD programs implicitly gear graduates for that end. If you could not attain that, the next best thing to strive for was a researcher position in one of the aforementioned industrial labs. And, if you could not even land that, you would go looking for regular industry jobs with the unwashed masses. 
The problem with this picture is that there are 10 PhD graduates for every tenure-track position. And, while I don’t have figures, the industrial labs don’t hire at a much faster rate either. And that left regular industry jobs as the only viable option for the vast majority of PhDs. My guess is that the recruitment engines of most major tech companies also wised up to this fact, and started actively pitching to not just bachelors and Masters graduates, but PhDs as well. The new crop of web companies, with Google at the forefront, also started projecting the image that the work being done there and new and cool and challenging and important enough to keep PhDs engaged. Also, the pay was pretty good. When you saw that year after year a significant fraction of the outgoing PhD graduates from your CS department were happily ensconced in regular industrial jobs, option number 3 began rapidly catching up with the other options.

Over the years, I've kept in close touch with the alumni from my group, probing them on what they found helped them get jobs and do well in industry. Besides this, having myself worked with and consulted for industry partners at many places, I have observed what they look for in their employees.

It boils down to two pieces of advice that I convey to my own students:

First, they must be able to program well. This applies broadly to many EE/CS disciplines where the primary end-product is software, and even to many hardware-related disciplines where the design and testing process is done entirely in software (of course, in the latter case, additional hardware-related skills may be required). In particular, it's not enough to be good at algorithm design at the level of psuedocode. Besides what they have learned in introductory programming classes, and the ability to program in environments geared for scientific experiments (such as MATLAB), they should be familiar with state-of-the-art  programming languages, tools, and practices. It is very useful for them to do significant hands-on software projects and industry internships during their Ph.D to gain significant experience in this direction.

As Vivek Haldar puts it:
You must be a great coder. That is a minimum prerequisite. During one interview, I asked a candidate (a recent PhD graduate) to give me some pseudo-code for the solution he had just described, and he went “oh well, if you must make me code…” That pretty much made me go “no hire.” What did you think the job involved?
Where does this advice leave students with a more mathematical bent, those who are primarily interested in proving theorems, whose dissertations don't require the building and testing of any software artifact beyond some MATLAB code? Not much worse off. Complementing their strong theoretical abilities with practical coding skills will not harm them, even if they do plan to pursue a research career.

Second, they must be able to communicate well in diverse settings. They must learn to communicate their ideas effectively, not only in a deep and rigorous manner as they must when writing for and giving talks to a technical audience of researchers and faculty in their own field, but also in an accessible and engaging manner to a broader audience. In industry, they will need to be articulate in contributing ideas in informal brainstorming sessions and meetings with their colleagues, as well as in formal presentations and reports, when they need to convince managers and clients of the merits of their proposals and solutions. In an industry setting, unlike in academia, they will need to be able to communicate with people from diverse backgrounds. Towards this end, while doing a Ph.D., they should practice giving talks to people outside their immediate field, and writing for a broader audience.

This second piece of advice also works well for Ph.D. students who don't go on to industry positions. Even at academic interviews one is often talking to smart people who are not in one's own area of expertise. And whether it is writing grant proposals or talking to students, being able to communicate coherently and persuasively with diverse audiences is an essential career skill for academics as well.

In his post, Haldar points out that besides opportunities to hone their communication skills, a significant way in which a Ph.D. benefits someone in preparing them for a career is by giving them an ability to work on "ambiguous and ill-specified problems." I agree wholeheartedly.

A few months ago, I had lunch with some of my former students working in industry in the bay area. After our usual banter, the talk turned to this very topic. I asked them if they felt doing a Ph.D. had been worthwhile, given that they were now working in industry.

They unanimously said it had been worth it. Certainly, there is a spiritual satisfaction obtained from growing substantially in one's learning and from having contributed something new to humankind's collective knowledge. But several of them told me that they felt they also had a practical advantage over many non-Ph.D. colleagues at work. Their Ph.D. training gave them the ability to tackle new problems not only using what they already knew, but also by seeking and reading up on related work in the literature and evaluating different solution approaches to find one that is effective.

48 comments:

Marc said...

"Their Ph.D. training gave them the ability to tackle new problems not only using what they already knew, but also by seeking and reading up on related work in the literature and evaluating different solution approaches to find one that is effective."

I wonder how much of their advantage is due to Ph.D. training as opposed to their natural curiosity and broad B.S. a/o M.S. technical experience that made them good Ph.D. candidates in the first place.

matt said...

"my colleagues and I sometimes joke when looking at applications for assistant professor positions that the presented credentials presented by many candidates would have been sufficient to get them tenure just a few years ago."

Of course, at many institutions this is not a joke but rather simply accurate. Indeed, if ever-increasing numbers of applicants compete for lifetime assignment to open slots among a roughly finite total number of positions--and if natural lifespans don't cooperate by falling over time--then it shouldn't be surprising to find employee quality being negatively correlated with employee age.

Though this sort of gerontocratic aristocracy seems like a weird, unfortunate equilibrium for academia to have gotten itself into. But perhaps it's sustainable? Is there any plausible mechanism by which the young-PhD proletarian masses--the ones who don't want to go to Google--could storm the tenured castle?

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

@Marc: I'm sure that's a significant factor too, and in the absence of scientific data, it is still debatable how "useful" a Ph.D. is. But I feel strongly that the kind of open ended inquiry that one experiences today mostly in the Ph.D. does leave one better equipped to handling uncertainty and coming up with innovative solutions than what is possible with an undergrad/ms degree from most places, even for bright students. My own anecdotal evidence would be the improvement I see in many of my own students between when they start and when they are graduating...

@matt: hence the periodic calls for abolishing tenure... These issues have been a matter in classical fields like physics and math for many years and don't seem to have resulted in any systemic changes.

matt said...

Hmm, have these other, "mature" sciences experienced this kind of competitiveness inflation the past couple of decades? I don't know the numbers, but I could imagine CS being a fairly special case due to recent history.

Just a word of caution re individuals' reports of nonregret about having got PhDs: of course people are often reluctant, after the fact, to conclude that major life decisions were mistakes. An extreme case: it's hard to know what to make of this stuff, but the "happiness studies" people are always telling us that people are robustly made *less* happy, according to various "objective" measures, as a result of having children, though of course nobody ever says they regret having kids.

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

Then again, they are always followed up by articles like this one: "Parents today are happier than non-parents, studies suggest" (USA Today 5/5/12) ...

Mi (Michael) Zhang said...

As an international student, the second advice "be able to communicate well in diverse settings" is the most important and valuable skill I have learned during my Ph.D. training. In this sense, getting a Ph.D. degree for me is worthwhile.

Subhasis Nath said...

Hi...I am doing my PhD student in Metallugical & Materials Engineering in India.I have very strong desire to work in software industry, but I don't have any knowledge on coding. So what should I do to enetr to a software industry ?
Plz help....

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

Subhasis, why not take some programming courses?

Soumyabrata said...

Dear Dr. Krishnamachari,
Greetings! I just started my PhD. study, and this blog post will definitely be a ready-reckoner for me when I graduate. Thanks! :)

Jahan said...

Dr. Krishnamachari,
Thanks for your helpful post. I have been accepted for PhD at two departments in USC: ISE in Viterbi, and IOM at Marshall. I've been thinking for weeks and I still haven't been able to decide. I'm aware that if I go to ISE, I'll probably end up in industry, while at Marshall I'll end up as a faculty.
My question is, years ago when there were only options 1 and 2 (it wasn't conventional for PhDs to go into industry), why didn't PhD graduates consider this third option? Doesn't a job in industry pay more than a job in academia?
The former graduates of my advisor in ISE have gotten great jobs in industry, such as senior analysts, CEOs etc. Don't these kinds of jobs pay more than becoming a faculty?

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

Hi Jahan,

My responses to your two queries below:

"why didn't PhD graduates consider this third option?"

I don't know that they didn't consider the third option before, but my own sense is that the number of Ph.D. students that went to pure industry jobs was lower in the past.

"Doesn't a job in industry pay more than a job in academia?"

It certainly does in many cases. But if a) the pay is one's main priority, and b) getting a Ph.D. is not essential to that job (or to high-paying industry jobs in general), why spend the many additional years getting a Ph.D.? This is something to think hard about before investing several years of your life in grad school.

At least in today's environment, I find it hard to believe that a Ph.D. is the best investment of someone's time if their primary goal in life is to make money. The Ph.D. has a number of valuable benefits with respect to intellectual growth, experience of free inquiry, the reward of contributing something new to human knowledge, and opening up the option of a job in academia. But purely from the perspective of higher earning potential, I am inclined to think that the same time spent in industry after a masters (or even undergrad) or doing an MBA might be better, or at least as good, when you factor into account also the lost earnings and the opportunity cost of time during the 4-5 years of the Ph.D.

A different way of putting this is that if your goal in life is making money, I would advise you to consider a richer range of options than the Ph.D. If you value education and learning for its own sake, or are interested in somewhat more autonomous and more intellectually challenging job opportunities (not necessarily higher-paying), the Ph.D. has no competition.

Julio Peironcely said...

Awesome post. Here's my take on how to find a job in industry after your PhD. I hope it helps somebody.

Cheers,
Julio

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

Thanks, Julio.

Anonymous said...

What is the average time to finish a PHD at USC/Viterbi in EE? Im considering different options.

Thanks!

Brian

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

About the same as any EE Ph.D. program in the U.S. 4-6 years should be typical, though I don't have hard statistics to back this up.

Tarunika Chaudhari said...

sir My self Tarunika. I have completed my ME in CSE recently.I am looking for Phd I am from india.I want to do Phd from Outside from USA or singapore.Want to ask you more...can you give me your id so i can ask you.Pls

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Sitakanta Nayak said...

Hello Sir,
I like your blog,great job you are doing!!!This is Nayak from India.I am a PhD student from Department of Management Studies at Indian Institute of Technology,Roorkee and going to submit my PhD thesis next month.My current research area is AI.I have done masters in both Computer Science and Physics.I am interested for industry jobs.But my fear, I don't have industry experience. Also I am confused in choosing the right field;whether to go for business intelligence, quant analysis or any other field.Any advice of yours or others will be highly appreciated.

Regards,
Nayak
E-mail: eskayiitr@gmail.com

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Bliss Ocean said...

I searched in Google about the job opportunity for Ph.D in Industrial Engg and I have ended up here. Well it's interesting. I am currently a MS student in Engineering Management. Lots of my course works are related to industrial engineering as a result a thought came into my mind whether should I go for Ph.D in Industrial Engg?? I need some expert opinion. BTW I am studying at University of Minnesota, USA.

Harley Watts said...
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James Stone said...
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peterparker said...

Jobs need skills, not degrees.

Morgan said...
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Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

@peterparker: true. however, without a relevant degree, it can be hard (but not impossible, for example, via an online portfolio or via strong recommendations/references) to convince a prospective employer to give you a chance to prove you have the skills.

SEO said...

Good one about graduation and confidence. Exploring different options to pursue my degree in gaming.

Priyanka pp said...

Hello sir. I am working as a lecturer in an engineering institute . I have completed my PG in digital systems (Electronics). Now I want to do PhD. But as an intern in industry. Is this possible to complete PhD while working as an intern? Are there any ways to get such an opportunity in India? And what type of software courses I should do if I want such an opportunity?

Priyanka pp said...
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Priyanka pp said...
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Celestia Jackson said...
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BLOG said...

I am pursuing PhD from University of Clarkson (not on the top list!!) in Mathematical Biology with a good programming skill in C, R and Matlab (not excellent though). So do you think that I can have option in the future? I am curious. Please let me know.

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Dear author,

I am an Indian currently working in UAE as metallurgist after my masters in masters in materials in India . I am very much interested in pursuing PhD and interested in a free research and academic career. . Is getting a good PhD position in US is difficult? . How i can get a good phd position .

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