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Given the option to get a PhD at the same time as working and gaining useful work experience (with only a little extra work put towards the PhD), will the PhD offer any benefit to someone who does not wish to pursue a career in academia but instead wishes to explore different work areas in the future?

To be more specific: I'm talking about a PhD in the natural sciences in Europe (so there is very little coursework to do, and most of the work is applied research in a fairly standard work environment on a mediocre salary), and different but related work areas afterwards could be anything from software development and data analysis to building a start-up.

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  • PhD is a bit much, it depends on the job though. But a masters degree is more work friendly than academic.
    – Kilisi
    Oct 22 '16 at 12:13
  • Can you clarify whether you're in the US? And why do you want a PhD in physics if you want to work in IT or pure maths?
    – Lilienthal
    Oct 22 '16 at 12:16
  • @Lilienthal could be chemistry, or a bunch of other subjects
    – Kilisi
    Oct 22 '16 at 12:18
  • A few more specifics to the situation: I started a physics PhD because it was available and interesting. With one year left in the official project, I'm happy to stay and continue, but I get a feeling that I'd be overqualified for the jobs that interest me in areas like software development, machine learning, data science. Most of the work going into the project is the same regardless if there is PhD/no PhD at the end. This situation is probably rather unique, which I why I left details out above to keep it more general.
    – tallyfire
    Oct 22 '16 at 12:21
  • @Lilienthal Not in the US. Studied physics because I love it, realised later (through courses in programming and actual software development) that my real passion lies elsewhere.
    – tallyfire
    Oct 22 '16 at 12:22
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I have a PhD in an Engineering discipline and I'm currently running a sizable product development team. That's at least one data point that a PhD can be compatible with a non-academic career.

Almost every career decision that you make will give you more specialized experience in one field at the expense of less relative experience in other field. In this regard, the PhD is no different than choosing your first job after your masters. It's all experience that's relevant to some career paths and not relevant to others. The more you know where you want to be, the more you can assess whether your next step goes in the right direction or not.

In my experience, the title itself doesn't count for much in North America (different in Europe, though). What counts are your work and achievements and how much they are relevant to your next hiring manager.

PhD is useful to network, actively participate in conference and professional associations, publish and get your name out. Ideally you make yourself a reputation as a recognized expert in your chosen field. The PhD should clearly demonstrate that you are a disciplined critical thinker who rigorously applies scientific methods. It should demonstrate that you can independently tackle complicated problems and that you can communicate clearly and efficiently. All of these can be great assets in the workplace, even if the actual topic of your thesis isn't particularly relevant.

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  • +1 for the insights and I agree it must be an asset with networking. I didn't look at that angle, but it's certainly important in a career.
    – Kilisi
    Oct 22 '16 at 22:30
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It depends. In general, I would only advise people to start a PhD track in two cases:

  • they want to continue in Academia
  • they want to pursue a career where a PhD is useful because it is:
    • necessary, or
    • having one will more than make up for the time and money they invested

This related question on Academia attempts to cover the link between a PhD and being overqualified. Sadly, the accepted answer there is rather oblivious to the US situation where a doctorate definitely does close a number of doors or, if you forgive the tortured metaphor, certainly makes them harder to open. This answer on that question is more realistic.

Now, that being said, I take some issue with your claim that you could only put "a little extra work put towards the PhD". You seem to drastically underestimate the amount of work that goes into successfully completing a PhD track. Of course the experience will vary by region, field and your own skills but for the vast majority of people a post-graduate degree takes an enormous amount of time and effort. You should also keep in mind that doctoral programs in the US are not free and even in Europe where PhD students can ear significant salaries (they're considered semi-faculty) you still need to consider the impact that delaying your entry to the workforce will have on your career.

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  • 1
    Yep a PhD is a lot of work, much of which isn't much use in the real world unless you base your work around your thesis I would think. One definition of 'academic' is 'irrelevant to reality'
    – Kilisi
    Oct 22 '16 at 12:17
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    @Kilisi Indeed. There are some field where they can be required (quants come to mind) and there are still some cases where they can strongly affect salary or growth potential but none of that makes sense for someone who hasn't figured out his career path yet.
    – Lilienthal
    Oct 22 '16 at 12:20
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    Thanks for your answer. As I explained in the comment to the question, my situation is rather specific. I'm in Europe, not in the US, where most PhDs are working PhDs - little coursework, mostly applied work, and can be done in 3 years. I'll update the question to make that clear.
    – tallyfire
    Oct 22 '16 at 12:26
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    @Kilisi - Undergraduates consume research, graduates apply research and PhD create research. There are many positions in the areas of science where you're not told what to do. You have to create things on your own. There may be a specific area of study to your dissertation, but you're suppose to learn the process of generating research as well.
    – user8365
    Oct 22 '16 at 12:53
  • @tallyfire If that's what you're referring to when you say "at the same time as working and gaining useful work experience" then I'm afraid that's simply not true, at least for most of the PhDs falling under the Bologna Process. While you are working during your PhD, those years count for exceedingly little in the "real world".
    – Lilienthal
    Oct 22 '16 at 13:52
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In my experience (in the USA), it isn't the additional knowledge that limits your job opportunities but rather the attitude that seems to accompany the PhD. Many PhD's attempt to enter the workforce with a feeling of entitlement to greater pay and greater advancement opportunities because of their additional academic efforts. There are enough PhD's with this attitude that they have tarnished the whole PhD population and the ones who flaunt their degrees in the faces of their "lesser" colleagues have made it harder for the nice, pleasant PhD's to get fair consideration. Many of the PhD's I encounter in my line of work (software development) keep quiet about their degree and hold out their Masters degree more often as evidence of qualification for the work.

Generally, an advanced degree does help you get a higher starting pay and maybe starts at something just above entry level. But after that, in most work settings, it's all about what you can do. You won't advance any faster than your colleagues unless you are actually better at the work than they are.

Aside from the medical and sociological fields, where a PhD is specifically required, there are some non-academic areas of work that are structured similarly to academia, such as research departments or highly focused science-based work. These opportunities may only be available to those with adanced degrees.

You need to be clear about what your intentions are regarding the work opportunities you will pursue. A PhD is less likely to be an asset in landing a regular software development job. However, if your goal is to land a job that requires a combination of software development and physics expertise, you might be on the right track. You should investigate that job market, though, since it is likely very narrow, and therefore very competitive.

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I think a PhD opens more doors that it closes.

If you are looking at machine learning or data science then it would help. They look for strong analytical skills.

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