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I will finish my masters soon and I'm considering the idea of continuing with a PhD.

My assumption is the process for job search after my PhD would be different, because I have a different and more specialized skillset.

When applying for jobs after graduation:

  1. Should I look for junior positions? Is a PhD a disadvantage for these positions?

  2. If not junior positions, where do people graduating with PhDs tend to get employed (other than academia)?

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    Lot oh PhD questions today... The old Can a PhD have a negative impact on your career in the software industry? seems relevant here too. – Telastyn Dec 3 '14 at 21:44
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    Also, Microsoft Research is a well respected area for high-end computer scientists with research backgrounds. I'd imagine many large companies have similar needs, if not reputations. – Telastyn Dec 3 '14 at 21:46
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    Does your university not have career guidance for those not going to continue in academia – Pepone Dec 3 '14 at 22:39
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    You're putting the cart before the horse. First consider what kind of job you want. Then, if that is a job in research, consider whether getting a PhD would be necessary to get such a job. – RemcoGerlich Dec 4 '14 at 10:32
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    I edited this to be more on topic, hopefully the community will agree and vote to reopen. – enderland Mar 31 '15 at 16:41
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What jobs do they do?

Most important thing to know

All the below hinges on your PhD research/work being relevant and allowing you to add value to a company.

Being super awesome at something that no one makes money off doesn't help you. Spending your 4-5 years of your PhD being a Teaching Assistant and writing a dissertation on something you don't want to actually do longer term is a really, really terrible idea.

I can't emphasize this enough. Too many people go to school for a PhD and then don't get any translatable or marketable skills and effectively waste their time.

Research

Many research positions actively recruit PhD graduates. A non-PhD may not be able to apply for many of those positions, where demonstrated research and specialized knowledge is desired. You might even need post-doctoral work too.

Now if you aren't lucky/good enough to get into those positions your PhD can actually hurt you for "entry level" positions. You will be competing against people who generally are more qualified since they are more recently familiar with the technology. They probably have done internships in industry much more recently. They will be cheaper, or at least, have lower expectations.

Teaching

Keep in mind there are often many people competing for a relatively small number of actual jobs. If you go to graduate school to get a PhD to teach, you might be in for a rude awakening as you find out there are considerably more graduates than positions.

Startups

Sometimes for startup companies the PhD can provide value. Assuming your PhD provided meaningful research/useful skills, the PhD process requires a lot of work which can be beneficial for employees in startups - whether pitching your ideas, writing proposals for funding, mentoring junior students, connections with others doing similar work, or just the general independence and self-motivation required. All these are really beneficial in different startup environments for those with the right background.

This isn't for everyone and isn't every startup.


Do PhD holders apply to junior software positions when they finish?

The only time you should do this is if your entire PhD was a waste of time. Unfortunately, this is often the case so sometimes it is true.

Your academic career should be connecting you with others in the field you want to go into (see below). By attending conferences, publishing papers, and reading research you will know who/where the relevant research is in the world. Your advisor matters. Your university matters. Because you know what you want to do longer term, by the time you graduate you should know and be intimately familiar with who else does your research.

This translates into people who 1) know the domain you are learning and 2) might actually hire you for your PhD knowledge. So when you graduate you already know who is looking for your specific knowledge.

These are reasons why it's important to know what you want to do or at least have a vague idea.

Otherwise, you're back at the starting point you were graduating before - except now you have negatives and no positives.

The bigger question

If you want to do a PhD in a technical field you should know:

  • What type of research you want to do and why. If you don't have something specific you want to do, your PhD probably will be a waste. This means you do research on something you want to work with after graduation. Spending 4 years and lots of lost earning potential to do a project you never use is a waste of your life but something many PhD students do all the time.
  • What benefit doing a PhD offers over working (or a masters). In most cases you are better off from a pay/career perspective doing a masters. If you can't answer this either talk with faculty, industry related to what you want to do, or your school advising/career departments.

And if this all sounds really complicated and hard? Well, you're damn right it is. A PhD should never be a "I want to learn more and then get paid more eventually." If that's your goal you should either do a masters or work fulltime for a while.

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Highly advanced degrees provide no real immediate value regardless of the field it's in. You'll find that those earning their MD will have to endure a residency, and it's common for experienced nurses to know more about the job than the person who is officially a "doctor". The doctor has learned more about the science of it, but not much about the practice of it. The same goes for lawyers and paralegals. The same applies to software engineers and "computer scientists". If you pursue a software development job, you'll really be just the same as just about anyone who is applying at the entry level fresh out of school. All the PhD will say about you is that you can be taught, you can research, and you can follow through on goals.

As for where these individuals work, the answer is everywhere. I've known several PhDs who were simply software engineers, and they progressed along the same career track. They started later because of school, but depending on their ability and leadership qualities advanced faster because of that same schooling. Many go on to the larger companies that require a higher focus on math and theory to accomplish their tasks, but even then just having the PhD doesn't necessarily get you in the door.

Once you've gotten some experience under your belt, however, the acquisition of the PhD can certainly help direct your career into some highly specialized fields with specific innovators. Your theoretical knowledge obtained may even come in handy if you choose to innovate on your own. Even the companies you mentioned aren't looking for fresh noses out of college unless they can show the ability to innovate immediately, complete complex tasks, perform quick theoretical work beyond what you would have been exposed to even in a PhD program. There will always be entry level positions in those advanced areas as well, but in the end it will still take a couple of years of doing any related job before you can find your way into the areas where the PhD will actually do you any good.

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    Highly advanced degrees provide no real immediate value regardless of the field it's in. This is simply not true. It's 100% true for those who pursue crappy advanced degrees or pursue jobs those degrees don't matter in, but to universally state that all advanced degrees are provide no value is simply not at all true. – enderland Dec 4 '14 at 1:07
  • @enderland: The only universal truth is that there are no universal truths. That quote is meant as a generality, and I stand by it given my familiarity with numerous people with advanced degrees in varying fields. Also, I said it provided no immediate value. I did not say it provided no value. – Joel Etherton Dec 4 '14 at 4:37
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    +1, and as a Ph.D. in industry, I lean more towards this answer than towards enderland's one (which I also +1'ed). Re "advanced faster because of that same schooling" - it's hard to disentangle the selection effect of a Ph.D. Ph.D.s are (on average) smarter and more driven than the average grad, so if a Ph.D. advances faster, it's hard to say whether this was because of the Ph.D. or because of these underlying traits, so he might have advanced just as quickly had he not gotten the title. – Stephan Kolassa Dec 4 '14 at 7:28
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If you don't have a clue why you went for a PhD in the first place, you will be hard pressed to make a cogent argument to a prospective employer that your PhD is valuable to them.

Do PhDs apply for junior positions when they start out? Let's put it this way: if I were to apply for a janitor position right now, I'd be treated the same as any entry-level janitor candidate, my advanced degrees, my skills set and work experience notwhistanding. If you have a PhD and you are going for a web design position, you will be treated the same as any inexperienced web programmer out there. And guess what, there are tons of inexperienced web programmers. If you apply for a position where your PhD research topic is extremely useful, don't be surprised if you get that position.

You may not best the best at marketing yourself but this is exactly what you have to do. This means finding a way to convince potential employers that your PhD enables you to contribute in a way that others just can't. If you compete in a context where your PhD does not give you an edge, you will be treated like everyone else. Conversely, if you compete where your PhD research gives you an edge, then you'll be treated better than those who don't have their PhD in your research area..

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