Should engineers get a PhD? 11 Points to Consider

Should engineers get a PhD? Depends on what you want to do in your career. There are pros and cons to getting a PhD in engineering.

To decide, you first need to ask your self what type of career you want. Your choice depends on the following factors:

  • Your interests
  • The amount of money you want to make
  • The lifestyle you want to have
  • Your career alternatives

Important Note: I’m going to generalize over each factor in my discussion. As exceptions always exist.

Keep in mind, superstar engineers will transcend any doctorate program. What I mean is, certain people will become very successful with or without a PhD. 

I’ll then go over 11 pointers you need to consider if you’re thinking about pursuing a PhD.

What type of interests do you have in engineering?

With a PhD you can more easily work on cutting-edge problems in tech. Whereas non-PhDs will have a harder time getting this work.

But, if you want to work in industry doing “normal” engineering jobs, a PhD isn’t worth it.

You pursue a PhD because you want to become a specialist or researcher. And of course, if you want a career in academia.

So, a PhD gives you flexibility between industry and academia to lead new ideas. Here’s my perspective between academia and industry on “small” impactful work:

In academia

Your work may not have real-world implications right away. In fact, your work may completely go unnoticed for many years.

Thus, don’t expect your work to be world-changing or even acknowledged. At least not immediately.

But, to a select few your work will mean everything. You can talk about your original work to small groups of people who really care.

In the end, every advancement will help humanity as a whole.

In industry

Your work can immediately advance technology. You’ll work on projects that’ll have an immediate impact on the real world.

Your company will directly align you with research that’ll increase revenue. That said, I see many researchers in large companies who hold PhDs.

For example, some do R&D on batteries. Batteries will be a large part of the future. Every small battery improvement will benefit humanity.

That said, your company will immediately implement your advancements in the real-world.  This is pretty cool, but you may not have ownership over your discoveries.

Regardless, in industry, countless similar opportunities exist for PhD graduates. If you can produce, you’ll find a fit in an industry.

How much money do you want to make?

For starters, don’t pay for your PhD degree. If you can’t fund your degree, it means the market doesn’t value your research.

Now even with funding, depending on your university, you may make $20k to $40k per year. Whereas if you had gone straight to industry, you could bring in $100k plus per year.

Thereafter, you could invest your salary into real estate, businesses, and so on.

So, if you’re all about money, you’ll fall behind your peers who went straight into industry. Because you’ll be pursuing a PhD for 3 to 5 years while eating ramen noodles.

If you then decide to pursue academia, you’ll be staring down many more years of financial hurt.

Without a doubt, a PhD is a huge commitment of both time and money.

Important Note: engineers with PhDs who start multi-million dollar businesses are exceptions. No different than college dropouts who start multibillion-dollar businesses.

In short, if you only care about money, don’t pursue a PhD.

PhD stipends from major U.S. universities

Look at this shortlist of engineer department stipends from major universities from PhD Stipends:

UniversityEngineering DisciplineAnnual PayAcademic Year
UC BerkeleyMaterials Science & Engineering$35,4852020 - 2021
Duke Mechanical Engineering$32,4002020 - 2021
Carnegie MellonMaterials Science & Engineering$28,0502020 - 2021
Stanford Materials Science & Engineering$43,0002020 - 2021
StanfordChemical Engineering$39,5002019 - 2020
Georgia TechChemical Engineering$27,0802020 - 2021
Virginia TechElectrical Engineering$23,0702020 - 2021
MITElectrical Engineering$43,1502019 - 2020

Clearly, you don’t pursue a PhD for the money.

Important Note: stipends are higher in the greater cost of living areas. This is why Stanford is at the top of the list being in the Bay Area.

If you have a thirst for knowledge and your research subject, then a PhD becomes priceless.

What type of lifestyle do you want?

Do you want a cushy life without stress? If yes, then going into academia may not be a good fit. You may bust your ass for years and never get academic tenure.

And in industry, you may only land a regular engineering position. Your PhD would have been a waste professionally speaking.

This professional stress will then affect your personal life. You’ll financially struggle and this will bleed into all areas of your life.

On the flip side, with a PhD you may have access to the world’s best equipment. Also, you may do work in the best national labs and elite universities.

So if you don’t mind living with uncertainty until your later years, then a PhD may be worth pursuing. You’ll sacrifice comfort in the short term, to have the chance to do what you love in the long term.

I use the word “sacrifice” loosely. As again, if you love your research subject, you won’t think of anything better to do.

Do you have alternative life choices?

If everything I’ve mentioned checks for you to pursue a PhD, then answer these 2 final questions:

  • Do you have any other career options?
  • Is any other line of work pulling at you to pursue?

If you answered ‘yes’ to either question, you need to think hard if you want to pursue a PhD. I have friends who dropped out of their PhD programs to start businesses.

Now, they’re founders of multi-million dollar businesses.

Then, I know plenty of others who pursued a PhD only to immigrate to America. They wanted a better life and a PhD was their ticket in.

My point is, don’t blindly follow others. A PhD isn’t something to enter into lightly. The pursuit can be life-altering.

This is further illustrated by the low number of students who pursue a PhD in engineering in the U.S. every year. The below data is for all types of engineering combined according to ASEE.

Calendar yearNumber of students pursuing engineering doctorate degrees in the U.S.
201059,504
201161,762
201263,574
201365,168
201462,587
201567,355
201668,153
201770,026
201869,515

Important Note: the number of awarded engineering doctorate degrees is increasing. But also the U.S. population is increasing as well. Plus, more foreign students are immigrating to the U.S. to pursue a PhD now. 

11 Pointers to consider in pursuing a PhD in engineering

Below are 11 pointers I’ve gathered from my friends and family who have pursued a PhD in engineering.

#1 Importance of your research topic selection

In pursuing a PhD, you’ll gain a lot of experience on a narrow topic. The trick is to choose a topic with great value in the real world.

In other words, choose a research field that has a future. Some great fields would be:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  • Robotics
  • Renewable energy
  • Genetics

Research fields with demand will naturally get more funding in academia.

While in industry, only certain specialties make you a highly marketable job candidate.

#2 Expectations over a PhD degree

In industry, you may not use any research knowledge you gained from your PhD. Rather, you’ll use your newfound thinking style to solve problems.

In other words, a PhD isn’t only about becoming a specialist in a niche field. But also learning how to think and approach difficult problems.

#3 Elitism from a PhD degree

Some people think a PhD will place them on a pedestal. But in industry, you’ll be no different than your peers.

All that matters is you can produce. The skills and passion you bring to a job are more relevant than the 3 letters after your name.

I treat everyone equally. I don’t care about any letters after your name. I want to see results.

By default though, a PhD will make you appear credible on the first impression in most situations. Of course, what you do after the first impression is what counts.

#4 Career opportunities with a PhD

A PhD will open some doors for you. While other doors will close as you become “overqualified”.

For example, a PhD will signal you can independently do and lead research. This is important to large companies that do R&D in-house.

Thus, you can pursue high-level scientist positions with your PhD.

#5  Have a passion for the PhD subject you pursue

Pursue a PhD because you have a deep passion for a research subject. Also, you want to do amazing research alongside other passionate people.

A PhD will deepen your analytical and problem-solving skills. But many other ways exist to sharpen these skills today too.

#6 A PhD pursuit shouldn’t be superficial

Don’t pursue a PhD because it’s what “smart” people do. Or, because you want extra letters after your name.

A PhD isn’t proof you’re smart, or that you can get a job. In fact, some of the smartest people today don’t even hold a college degree.

If you were average going into a PhD program, you’ll more than likely be average coming out. My point is, don’t pursue a PhD for superficial reasons.

On that note, you don’t need to be overly smart to pursue a PhD. If you can get accepted into a PhD program, you certainly have what it takes to finish the program.

#7 Fear of the pursuit

Some people fear the grueling journey of pursuing a PhD. It’s like a mountain that seems impossible to climb.

But, EVERYTHING worth pursuing is difficult. If it was easy, then everybody would do it.

Thus, don’t fear pursuing a PhD. Like anything else, you’ll acclimate to the pursuit.

#8 The PhD pursuit is not for everyone

You need a certain character to finish a PhD program.

You need a strong independent work ethic with a dedication to your field. This will help you overcome the hurdles and loneliness of the journey.

The journey isn’t for everyone. This is further illustrated by the low number of doctorates awarded every year in the U.S. according to ASEE. The below data is for all engineering fields combined.

Calendar YearU.S. engineering doctorate degrees awarded
20108,995
20119,582
201210,035
201310,764
201411,314
201511,702
201611,654
201711,589
201812,156

On that note, if you pursue a PhD, you’re more than likely an ambitious person. So, if you decide against a PhD, you’ll more than likely be pursuing another great challenge.

#9 A PhD program and adviser can make or break you

Your PhD program can determine your success. Even more important is your assigned adviser.

Keep in mind, you’ll do what your adviser wants for several years of your life. For this reason, your advisor can make or break you.

Let’s go over what makes a good and a bad advisor.

A bad advisor:

  • Is a jerk
  • Makes everything about them
  • Exploits you for free labor and burns you out
  • Makes you feel guilty and fills you with uncertainty

A good advisor:

  • Is very nice and supportive
  • Teaches you how to become a great researcher
  • Gives you great life advice
  • Finds conferences for you to attend
  • Finds you fellowships to apply to
  • Allows you to travel to other labs

So, do your program research and choose your adviser wisely.

#10 Stress placed on families

I know people who had families while pursuing their PhDs.

And yes, with a family your PhD pursuit will become more difficult. But it’s doable.

It’s something to consider given how long a PhD pursuit can take.

#11 Industry jobs

Do you want a PhD to land an industry job? From what I’ve seen, the following are two paths for a PhD graduate in industry:

  • Work in well-funded government labs doing research.
  • Work in large companies that can afford to throw money at research. Think of companies like Google, Apple, or IBM.

If these aren’t jobs you like, a Master’s degree is enough to get you any other industry engineering job.

Important Note: in recessions, R&D departments normally remain stable. Because R&D is a long-term investment for a company.

If an R&D project begins when a recession hits, the R&D project will end when the recession ends. Thus, a company can come out stronger after a recession. 

“Should engineers get a PhD” wrap up

This is a very personal question you need to think long and hard about.

For this reason, don’t make your decision based on peer pressure. You need to rationally decide on your own.

I know engineers who wouldn’t trade their PhD experience for anything. While others think their PhD pursuit was the worst decision in their lives.

In the end, a PhD is about the journey. Not solely on the certificate, and 3 letters you get placed after your name.

Do you think a PhD in engineering is worthwhile? Do you think a PhD in engineering will become more valuable in the future?

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