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I have an engineering MS, I'm considering continuing onto a PhD but I am not completely sure about my desire to enter into academics.

I'm thinking about giving the PhD a strong shot/effort for a year and seeing what happens knowing I may terminate if I hate the experience or if it turns out it's not consistent with my own goals. Additionally the job market may have ticked up within .5-1 years time(I assume COVID has impacted hiring).

How would this impact my job search if I terminated my PhD pursuit? The PhD and MS are at the same university so it will probably show something on my transcript if I leave the PhD program.

Otherwise my MS is pretty strong, I performed well in it and it's in a relevant area.

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    Where are you located? Job market for PhD's might vary by region. – nicola Jun 30 '20 at 7:23
  • US, will move anywhere but east coast. – FourierFlux Jul 1 '20 at 0:28
  • How will the extra education paid for? Are you on the hook, or is it covered by research/teaching grants? – DongKy Jul 1 '20 at 0:47
  • It is paid for, GTA, I will leave before I pay to do research. – FourierFlux Jul 1 '20 at 0:48
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This answer might not be valid everywhere. It's certainly valid for USA and many other EU countries.

I'd go for starting and finishing the PhD without esitation.

In the US the stats clearly indicate that a PhD earns more on average and has a smaller chance to be unemployed. There might be something like over-qualification, but for sure it's more than compensated by a lot of highly paid jobs that become accessible with a PhD.

Keep in mind that even if a job doesn't require a PhD, you'll be a much stronger candidate with it. It's not just having the paper, but the experience of a PhD will give you a lot of skills. You'll become much more skilled in solving problems, managing situations, pushing your boundaries and a lot of other stuff.

Having interviewed and managed a lot of both PhD's and MD's for jobs in Data Science, I can say that the difference is substantial. Of course things might vary depending on the field, but if an option, pursuing the PhD is best and is not even close.

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  • How well would a candidate with 3 years PhD experience stack up against an equivalent candidate with 3 years of work (and no PhD)? – P. Hopkinson Jun 30 '20 at 8:18
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    @P.Hopkinson Of course it depends on the candidates. However, in my experience, a PhD is much more likely to quickly fill the gap and be a better resource after a few months already. – nicola Jun 30 '20 at 9:30
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Make a realistic assessment if the PhD will help you in your career. If yes, go ahead full speed. If not, maybe you should not even start. Why waste the time and the money and the stress?

One extra thought: if you really want to have the PhD, then go ahead full speed. If not, do not bother.

Be aware: there is such thing as "over-qualification". Companies might hesitate to hire you if you have a PhD, considering that they do not have the appropriate work for your abilities - which in turn might make you unhappy.

Another downside for starting and quitting the PhD: you might end up being seen as a "quitter" - somebody who starts things, but cannot finish them. Companies seek people who can start, do and finish their tasks.


In my case: I want a PhD for my own satisfaction, but with a catch - I would undergo the effort ONLY if it is interesting and I can learn something attractive for me. A PhD for nothing is not really a PhD - IMHO.

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  • Are you happy you left? How did you decide to terminate? – FourierFlux Jul 1 '20 at 1:11
  • I did not leave, I did not terminate. I did not even start - I did not find something interesting enough before. Now I have an idea, but I want to prepare before starting, to maximize the chance of success. – virolino Jul 2 '20 at 5:34
  • Sorry, I meant this comment for other post. But still interesting. – FourierFlux Jul 2 '20 at 5:48
  • @FourierFlux :D ok – virolino Jul 2 '20 at 5:50
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As someone who has left a PhD part way through, I do have a little context on this one. The big question is which path you want to go down.

If you're wanting to enter academia, then everything is about the qualifications and papers. What's been done is, unless it's particularly notable or significant to the field, is largely irrelevant. The project that you get next could be almost entirely unrelated to the one you've just done. In this case, you will need to finish the PhD to progress.

If you're wanting to go into industry, the qualification is less required (and, indeed, can be a detriment, if it makes you over-qualified). What's much more important is WHAT you've done, what experience and techniques you've gained. You'll get relatively similar experiences in business, rather than the PhD, and get paid better for it, however.

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  • Are you happy you left? How did you decide to terminate? – FourierFlux Jul 2 '20 at 5:48
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Personally I wouldn't say you "left" your phd pursuit. I would instead say that you had started to pursue your phd studies and have some experience in it. Then leave it at that. Don't discuss about "leaving" it as if you gave up for no good reason. I would state your reasons, "I was pursuing my phd but midway wanted to give X a test run to see how it would fit. I felt the opportunity was too good to pass up and decided to shift my focus temporarily. In the future, I may resume my studies and complete my degree."

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Interviewers will definitely ask about it. I was asked in every interview I had in my job search after leaving my program early. If you have a strong candidacy otherwise, and you can give a reasonable explanation, it should effect very minimally, if at all.

You can use the question as an opportunity to highlight your strengths when asked in interviews— that you aren't afraid to try something out, and that once you realize you are on the incorrect path, you can cut your losses and seek out a better option.

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Well the most precise answer to your question is that it depends. It depends on the MSc. It depends on the PHD. It also depends on the particular professor, the particular institution and country that you live. It is also impossible to predict the career trajectory solely on the ground of having or not a PHD.

That being said try to think of people you think have a successful career and check their academic credentials. In fact usually a MSc gives you far more than the PHD. For instance specific service related licenses such as the right to exercise the profession of a doctor, an engineer or a lawyer. Just to name a few.

Getting a PHD in fact opens up a very limited set of career options on top of the MSc. Especially for an engineering Msc. For instance the more commonly PhD related careers:

  1. an academic career and
  2. a career as a researcher

If you do want an academic career then you do need a PhD. You can pursue a researcher career without a PhD although a PhD will help.

Identify the career trajectory you want to follow and ask peers of the industry for advice. Do not ask academic or professors about the use of a PhD unless you really want an academic career. Most professors need PhD students to run their research and labs, so they're trying to attract talent, the same way everyone else is trying to recruit.

If you don't need the PhD you can just leave. In a role that a PhD is not needed no one will care if you started or not a PhD as long as you do have the required qualifications. Your experience is also of outmost importance. After some years actual work experience outweighs by far the PhD experience.

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  • The degree is EE, i's a mix of machine learning and signal processing, I don't have a strong preference to go into academia but I do want the option to progress in a company into a more R/D focused role. – FourierFlux Jun 30 '20 at 23:01
  • You can work in an R&D focused role with only an EE degree. Also many university labs employ non-PhD researchers. – Spyros K Jul 1 '20 at 7:55
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Getting admitted into a good PhD programme with a reputable group leader/supervisor and a paid stipend is already a very competitive process. If you try that without any real passion, it will likely show. But assuming you still get a good PhD studentship without real motivation... it will be fine to quit after one year. PhDs are a big committment, and it's better to quit after 1 or 2 years than to spend 4 years for something you hate. As a rule of thumb, 18 months should be the maximum time you spend in a lab if you don't complete a PhD. It's a small world, so make sure that as long as you pursue your PhD you continue making fair contribution to the research of the lab which is hosting you. You might even find out that doing a PhD can be incredibly rewarding. But not for everybody: it takes motivation. From day one.

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