PhD or No PhD?

The question I’m finally learning to answer

Xiao Ma
Open Sourced Thoughts
4 min readMay 28, 2013


People ask me all the time. I usually tell them the following:

  1. It really depends on what you want to do in the future. If you want to be a professor, get a PhD; otherwise, don’t.
  2. It is a very important decision because you will invest five-to-seven of the best years of your life in doing it.

After watching these answer-seekers walk away puzzled, I realized these are not good answers. The first part is bad; the second, even worse.

It is certainly true that you should follow your heart when making such a decision; however, those who ask this question are the ones who are not really sure which profession they wish to pursue. I believe this is true for most college graduates. When I tell them that they need to decide between academia (i.e., being a professor) vs. industry, they really don’t know which one to choose. More often than not, you can’t really tell how you feel about a job until you actually take one.When you are young and not sure about your career path, you have the luxury to explore different opportunities. Pick one path that you are interested in the most at this moment, experience it, and pivot if you change mind.

Now, the real question is: Will it have been a complete waste of time, if, after getting a PhD, you don’t become a professor? Fortunately, the answer is “no” (or it doesn’t have to be “yes”).

What is a PhD really about? Prof. Matt Might’s illustration nails it. In addition, I think there is something that’s even more important — Earning a PhD is a process that equips you with some essential transferable skills, and does so under high pressure. These skills are “transferable” because they are critical to making work that has impact, no matter where you are. You can certainly acquire these skills by other means, but taking the doctoral route ensures that you will have mastery over those skills and, because of that, is more likely to guarantee your survival in your designated field. The following are the five skills I think the most important.

  1. Critical thinking. A big part of PhD work involves critical thinking. You are constantly required to ask questions, say “no” to what already exists, and find better answers. Critical thinking doesn’t entail blindly criticizing everything, instead, it relies on logical reasoning. Critical thinking often leads to fearless exploration, which, in turn, leads to creativity and innovation.
  2. Problem hunting. My favorite analogy is “painkiller vs. vitamin.” What it means is that it’s always preferable to solve painkiller-like problems over vitamin-like ones. It may sound easy, but it is actually very difficult, especially in academia, where, unfortunately, the evaluation system does not always encourage you to solve the larger, difficult problems. Finding painkiller-like problems requires curiosity, observation and critical thinking.
  3. Fearless learning. Getting a PhD requires candidates to learn a great quantity of things, fast. Along the way, you will encounter many things you do not understand. All of us have our comfort zones, and it is human nature to walk away when faced with something unknown or challenging. It takes courage to push beyond the comfort zone and learn the unfamiliar quickly. Once you get there, you become much stronger intellectually and more confident.
  4. Selling. During the process of obtaining a PhD, you constantly need to sell your work — to your advisor, to your colleages, to conference/journal reviewers, and of course, to your thesis committee members. Don’t get me wrong; by “selling”, I don’t mean that you are promoting low-quality ideas and pretend they are good. Instead, selling is to do all three things well — do great work that solves big problems; convince people that what you do is great, which requires honed communication skills, and ask for feedback and keep improving.
  5. Working independently.The luckiest PhD students — and I’m one of them — meet with their advisors about once a week; the majority sit down with their advisors once a month. So, most of the time, as a PhD student, you are on your own. You need to take initiative, make plans, manage your time well, prioritize tasks, map research directions, look for resources, and actively ask for help when you need it.

Taking all that into account, here comes my new answer to that initial “PhD or No PhD?” question: Go for it if you’re passionate about your field, and, along the way, pay a lot of attention to transferable skills. After all, very few PhD can find academic jobs, however, these skills will help you do great work no matter where you are.

Steve Jobs once said the dots will connect. You can’t make a wrong decision as long as you follow your gut and put your heart into what you do.

PS. since I’m giving advice, I strongly encourage you to read this before you take any advice in any field.



Xiao Ma
Open Sourced Thoughts

Chief Architect @Medium. Serving Engineers. Teaching Machines. The ultimate goal of tech is to help us live better. Built @PatternInsight PhD @IllinoisCS UCSD

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