I think it’s safe to assume a lot of people have been asked that question, especially in the context of recently graduating from some institution of higher-education. After completing my PhD in Computer Science in 2011 (four years since May 19th this year), not only did that question get asked quite frequently from family and friends, I often asked it of myself. Before falling asleep every night that year, I would lay in bed thinking about it. For the longest time, I simply did not know.
There is a very common stigma that if you aren’t on track to becoming a professor, highly published researcher, world renown scientist, and all-around academic big-shot, your time (and most likely someone else’s money) was wasted doing a PhD. The 4+ years spending writing papers and proposals, performing experiments, attending conferences, and finally summarising it in an expensively bound book couldn’t be for nothing, right?
There will always be a possibility it was. That is the honest and blunt truth. People go to school either thinking they know what field or career they want to follow, or they don’t (go to school or know what they want to do). People successfully complete school and gain a wider understanding of that field… or they don’t. People use those years of new found knowledge to better science, humanity, industry, business, and maybe the world. Or they don’t.
And I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with that. Sometimes it just takes time to figure out what we really want to do in life.
I like to believe my eventual educational path and my current career path — which is far from being fully defined — worked out for the better. Early on I didn’t know how I was going to fully utilise my PhD. Could I keep up with academics who I believed surpassed me on so many levels? Would I be able to attain grant money or a postdoctoral position worth working on for the foreseeable future? Was teaching and lecturing something I really wanted to continue doing? Was academia something that would sustain me and a possible future family? Or, was the world outside of academics better suited for me?
I originally got into computer science via my intense interest in computers and programming. Today I like to think I got in late, especially when I hear about all the “10 year-old” programming prodigies walking among us. Although I truly was playing with a computer at the age of seven, software and programming were the last thing on my mind. It was simple back then; I used DOS, I played Commander Keen and Space Quest, and occasionally, I broke the machine (I eventually got better at doing that less). As time progressed, our home got faster and more complex computers with fancier operating systems. I only became aware of computer programming and software around the mid-to-late nineties (before then, I didn’t even question how the machine worked or what defined a ‘word processor’ as a functional thing). When the Internet came around, I really started to consider software development as a possible career. Prior dreams of a career in medicine or science had left my mind long before then once I realised I couldn’t handle real human anatomy or the amount of blood one could bleed.
High school led to community college, and community college led to university. Although I was in it for the idea of doing something in software development — a career path then given the apt name of software engineer, where the term engineer was still highly argued — as years passed, I somehow didn’t graduate. Literally, I did graduate (four times to be exact), but until my PhD defense, I didn’t know when to stop. Why? For some reason, I had become less attracted to the idea of becoming simply a programmer. Yes, computing and computer software is a weird field; the nomenclature overlaps and is redundant in so many ways to say the least, but at the time, I had a derogatory mindset towards the field of programming and programmers. Software development and the idea of simply becoming another programmer typing away at a keyboard had become boring.
A programmer was a drop in the pond in comparison to the people truly contributing something useful to the world.
It’s been awhile now, but I think that’s how I felt back then. At the time, other things were going on; even though the dot-com bubble burst had passed, there was a shared feeling that software development was still a turbulent field. Job openings were not abundant and things such as streaming media, cloud computing, ubiquitous connectivity, and better mobile devices were relatively far off. I looked towards research as an out.
I enjoyed research, especially when it involved computing. I studied various topics during my PhD — artificial intelligence, discrete logic, logic programming — and tried to apply them to real-world applications, namely security, authorisation, and XML. It was a good time; like studying for one big test that for the longest time didn’t seem to be getting any closer. That eventually did change and gears shifted quickly, but I handled it all in the end. The PhD and the work it entailed was scary at times, but I really wasn’t worried about my future until I submitted my thesis for examination. Then it came; “what exactly will I do next?”
After months of combing the Internet — job search engines and Twitter for the most part — I was able to find a job that was somewhat research related; a university lab in Ireland needed someone with my expertise and development background to help manage some European Union projects. To top it off, I would be able to start my own research work if it tied in with some of the ongoing work. A funny thing happened before I accepted this job; I was asked about my proficiency in some programming languages that were utilised in the labs research software. I hesitated. It had been so long since I had used either of them. Even though I excelled at both as an undergraduate and had used it awhile back in my own software projects, my PhD had me feeling I had lost the ability to do what I had originally went to school for. Odd.
What comes around…
After joining the initial lab and shifting between another lab a bit later, something clicked though. The last lab I was in had me doing a lot of prototyping and development using some bleeding-edge software libraries and frameworks. After so many years of not programming during my PhD — where implementation was meant to be the last thing on your mind — I was doing some real programming again. For some reason, I fell in love again with something I had forgotten about; building software. I missed the feeling of actually crafting something. I forgot that I actually enjoyed designing code to be functional, reusable, and elegant. Most of all, I forgot that I wanted to make things that people would want to use and appreciate.
Then something else came into realisation: had I made a mistake by doing a PhD? Shouldn’t I have sucked up my pride back then and got into the industry in the first place? If I had just went after my bachelors, I would have eventually got involved in the present world of startups, incubators, angel investors, iPhones & Androids, distributed computing, and all that stuff that makes software development so interesting.
Nah. I don’t regret doing that PhD. And I also don’t regret leaving academia and finding a job as a software engineer.
A PhD is not for everyone and I possibly could have gone on with my life without doing it. It was an experience and another level of study that I choose to do and one that I’m still happy I did. It gave me a skill set and deeper understanding of self-taught learning that for me, could have only been achieved under the guidance of my supervisor and mentor. It taught me to express myself in words and writing to a much further degree. And in my current field of software development, it improved my analytical skills and problem solving abilities. Most importantly, it forced me to ask ‘why’ much more — something I feel I started doing less once I entered high school.
What’s the difference between an 18 year-old programmer and high school dropout — whose company sells millions of dollars worth of “Internet-of-Things” connected lip balm sticks — and the PhD research engineer — whose own open source software is utilised and funded by some very large enterprise corporations? Their formal schooling didn’t define them, but their different choices to learn most likely did. What’s the difference between the version of me doing my PhD and not doing my PhD? Probably a few less years studying some obscure topics of computer science and artificial intelligence and a bit more time honing my Java skills. Or a few more years working in the industry as a software engineer. Or never (re)meeting my girlfriend (now my wife). Or never getting to live in Ireland and visiting the rest of Europe.
I honestly don’t believe in a wasted education. I have faith that learning is fundamental in life, but I also believe that it doesn’t always answer our life expectations. Maybe not right away. A high school diploma, a degree in higher-education, or simply being taught or self-taught, all these paths strive for the same thing; an attempt at improving ourselves and the people around us.
So did my PhD work out for me? Yeah, it did, but probably not in the way most people assume they are meant to work out. It took a lot of self evaluation during and afterwards for me to realise it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.