Friday, June 21, 2013

Benefits of Earning an Engineering PhD or Why Bother With all That Hard Work?

As you know, one must put a lot of hard work and dedication into earning a PhD degree especially in an engineering subject. It is only natural to ask: Why even bother? What do I get out of earning such a degree when I could get a job in industry with only a Bachelor of Science? Today, I will explain the benefits of why one would earn a PhD degree.

Before I explain the benefits, there are several reasons why you would pursue a PhD degree:
  • You love doing groundbreaking research and publishing papers on your research
  • You love getting in front of people and presenting your work and ideas
  • You love doing hard work and have a passion for what you do
  • Your career has hit a slump and you are not interested in management
  • You really love academia and the idea of sitting in a cubicle 8+ hours a day frightens you
  • Your career goal is to become a professor, so a PhD is required
  • You want to earn more money compared to other entry level jobs in your industry
  • And so forth...
The main benefit of earning a PhD degree is that you become an expert in at least one field. I say "at least" because the old adage of a PhD'er being pigeon holed into a vary narrow area of expertise with no knowledge whatsoever of other subjects is no longer true. In the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at CMU, PhD students are required to take courses in at least three different areas. My breadth areas, for example, are electromagnetics (i.e., antennas), probability and random processes, and optimization. Because my research is applied, I have to know multiple areas in order to get good, repeatable results. I've also become an expert in Matlab particularly in controlling lab instruments and such because Matlab is so versatile. As far as industry recruiters are concerned, this makes me a valuable asset because I have accumulated a wide span of engineering experiences.

In addition, you have many opportunities to build your professional network. You start with your PhD advisor, as he/she has contacts in both industry and academia. Don't forget about attending conferences, as you can meet experts in your field who you can interact with during your presentation question and answer sessions as well as during the conference itself. Of course, your classmates become part of your network simply because you will work with them, discuss your research, have fun at department events, and become very good friends -- all through the lifespan of your PhD.

Furthermore, you solidify your knowledge and ad to your engineering field by publishing conference and transactions papers. It is a good experience to write papers, as you get practice in clearly telling the stories of your research. This also helps you remember what you learned in your graduate courses and during your research because writing your thoughts down set them into your memory. There is another benefit, of course, for publishing papers: You can get your name out there by publishing conference and transactions papers. For example, if you go to Google Scholar and type ("Jonathan Becker" and "Carnegie Mellon") as between the parentheses, the top three listing are papers I published with my advisor and his business partner. Think about it. Potential employers can Google you and download your work, and they can read what you wrote. This will help them understand what you do before you have interviews with them. It also makes you look really good in their eyes assuming that you did good research and told your "story" clearly.


Jonathan Becker
ECE PhD Candidate
Carnegie Mellon University

Hamerschlag and Roberts Engineering Hall (Copyright Jonathan Becker)