PhD in Engineering - Logistical Questions

In summary, the individual is considering pursuing a PhD in Engineering and has some logistical questions. They have a background in Electrical Engineering and are currently working on a Graduate Certificate in Systems Engineering. They have concerns about the concept of "research" in a PhD program and the potential for it to be time-consuming and costly. They also inquire about the financial support and whether they can work full-time while pursuing a PhD. Overall, the individual expresses a desire to learn more and make sure that pursuing a PhD is a feasible option for them.
  • #1
I'm considering a PhD in Engineering and I have some logistical questions.

My Background:
By the time I'm done with my current program, I will have been at least a part time student every fall and spring semester for over 10.5 years. Despite the length of time, I still have the desire to learn more, and feel as if I still haven't learned enough. I got a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, a Master of Engineering in Electrical Engineering, and am currently working on a Graduate Certificate in Systems Engineering. I'm about a year away from completing my current program, so I'll have to make a decision soon.

1) I hear all the time that for a PhD you have to do "research", what exactly is meant by this? Is this reading other people's research or going in the field, performing experiments, collecting data, and then drawing a conclusion from this?

2) In a PhD are you really attempting to answer a question that hasn't been answered? I would assume that if this was the case, it would take a significant amount of time, years and years, if not decades. It would also be very costly to manufacturer components that don't currently have the properties you seek. I'm thinking along the lines of "How can I remotely determine if a mechanical switch has failed open without physically actuating it?" "How do I predict imminent failure of component Y?" "What are the effects of switching material A with material B in component Z?" "Can I design a component that has the same characteristic equation as component A but is made of cheaper materials?" "An electrical component that has this characteristic equation does not currently exist, how do I create such a component that does?" "The mathematical analysis to explain this observed electrical phenomenon is not currently know, how can I mathematically explain what is being observed?". Is it these types of questions? I'm just making stuff off the top of my head, I have no idea. I would assume I can come up with some sort of question, and then later find out it has already been answered? I assume I can even come up with questions that can't be answered?

3) Do you get paid a stipend while pursuing your PhD? If so is it comparable to working in industry?

4) Can I work full time while pursing a PhD? I'm part of the working middle class. So if pursing a PhD requires me quitting my job, than I'm not interested. Not working is not an option for someone like me. Taking out a bunch of loans to live off of, is not worth the financial burden to me.

Sorry for the stupid questions. I'm asking these questions because I'm considering it, and want to make sure it's something that I can actually do.
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  • #2
I might answer this in reverse order.

4. No.
To expand a little - a PhD is a full time job. I'm sure you can find examples of people who have worked full time through at least part of their PhD, so it technically is *possible* but they are so few and far between the effective answer is that balancing a PhD with a full time job is not something that anyone should count on.

3. Yes.
Most programs (in physics anyway) support PhD students through some combination of scholarships, stipends, research assistanceships and teaching assistanceships. It's not a lot of money. If you're careful, you can keep from going further into debt, but after tuition, rent, groceries and other essentials, there usually isn't a lot left over.

2 and 1.
You should probably go and talk with some of your professors about this. A PhD is all about learning how to conduct independent research in your chosen field. And yes a lot of those concerns are valid. The thing is, you get paired up with a supervisor and supervisory committee who are there to guide you through the process. For the most part they don't just throw students into the deep water and say 'research or drown' (though some might--it pays to learn about your supervisor's teaching methods). Often supervisors will have projects ready or at least ideas on what to work on and will tell you what you need to do in the beginning. That's because they've been working in the field for some time and know what questions to ask and what the most fruitful means of exploring them are likely to be. As you gain background knowledge, experience, and skills, you should start to figure out what kinds of questions to ask, generating ideas and new skills that will help you to answer those questions. When you finally defend your PhD, you should be at a point where you can conduct independent research.
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  • #3
I agree with all of Choppy's responses. I'll add the following comments.

(1) For a PhD thesis, "research" refers to original research; it does not refer to merely reviewing and analyzing existing literature in the manner that an undergrad does "research" for a term paper, e.g. The best way to get a flavor of what is expected is to read previous PhD theses. Many universities post them for general access on their websites these days. For example, if you Google "PhD theses electrical engineering MIT", you'll be directed to . Read away.

(2) Pursuing a PhD program while working full time elsewhere is highly unlikely. Not impossible, but highly unlikely. In their glory days (long since gone), places such as Bell Labs and IBM Watson did support employees on a PhD program. But even then they were rare; for exceptional employees. And often the employee's boss was an adjunct professor and served as co-advisor; and often the PhD research was related to company research. I have no clue whether any company still offers such programs.

Whether or not the financial support offered by universities is adequate depends a lot on whether you need to support just yourself, or whether you also need to support a spouse or family.
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  • #4
Hey thanks for the feedback, greatly appreciate it. So what I'm understanding is that in order to get a PhD you have to be able to afford to quit your full time job, and live off a stipend that is a small fraction of what you make in industry?

I believe it's true, but then what incentive is there to your financial well being to get a PhD? It seems like it would actually be detrimental to financial health.
  • #5
YoshiMoshi said:
It seems like it would actually be detrimental to financial health.

The world does not owe you a PhD. Or a living, for that matter.
  • #6
YoshiMoshi said:
Hey thanks for the feedback, greatly appreciate it. So what I'm understanding is that in order to get a PhD you have to be able to afford to quit your full time job, and live off a stipend that is a small fraction of what you make in industry?

I believe it's true, but then what incentive is there to your financial well being to get a PhD? It seems like it would actually be detrimental to financial health.
Because there's more to life than just finances. In brief, you need to consider:

(1) Finances

(2) Career development. Will a PhD open up career opportunities that are not available without a PhD? Will these career opportunities offer more career satisfaction? Will these career opportunities offer higher pay [which factors into finances]? The answers are dependent on a large host of variables; such as, your particular circumstances, particular field, particular industry, particular company, and (for large corporations) even particular business unit, division, and functional group within a company.

(3) Personal satisfaction. I know many disagree with me, but a PhD is not necessarily a means to an end; it can be an end in itself. This is in distinction, e.g., to MBA, JD, or MD programs that specifically provide you requisite training and credentials to pursue a career. Research performed while pursuing a PhD can be a satisfying end in itself.

Each of these factors can be discussed in much greater length. If short-term financial hit is your over-riding concern, there probably is no need for further discussion. But if you are interested in further discussion, please ask.
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  • #7
I know the world does not owe me anything. If I were to get a PhD, the world wouldn't owe me anything or even a penny more increase in pay.

Do you have a PhD, was it worth it?

Financially: Seems like a negative, could you explain the positive of it? Was the bump in pay worth the investment? Was there a positive ROI for you?
I'm just thinking, I'll use round numbers here. In industry say you make $100k a year. So over the course of four years that would be $400k. If I was on a stipend while getting a PhD ($25k seems reasonable?), that would be $100k over for years. So I would loose $300k in income by quitting my full time job to get a PhD, not to mention four years of industry experience. $300k is a great amount of money to loose, could go buy a house with that. I would have to get a significant pay bump to ever get that back before retirement. I would be getting it in Electrical Engineering. I'm not familiar with the job opportunities that would become available to me that I don't currently have access to I guess. Or even what the average median salary would be for that position.

Intellectually: Seems like it's worth it. I still feel like I know absolutely nothing. I would defiantly feel more satisficed knowing that I had a PhD, but like you said, the feeling of knowing absolutely nothing, I'm not so sure would disappear. But at least I would feel satisfied knowing that I did everything I could in school to make that feeling go away.

Answering a question that hasn't already been answered would defiantly be satisfying, but it seems like getting a PhD wouldn't necessarily cover that? If like for example observing some physical phenomena whose explanation for why it's occur is not currently know, and then going and developing some mathematical analysis to explain why it's occurring would be a great accomplishment. But something that would take decades to do, and something your average Joe cannot accomplish.

Sorry if these are stupid questions. Thanks for sharing. It's the only way I can learn if it's worth it or not, by asking people who went through what I'm contemplating doing.
  • #8
YoshiMoshi said:
Do you have a PhD

Yes, but I didn't get it for the money. Money isn't everything. And I have plenty of money. I have a comfortable, but not extravagant lifestyle, and can retire any time I want to. How much more money do I need?
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  • #9
Wow, congratulations! I know you didn't get it for money, but was there a positive ROI? Did the feeling of knowing nothing go away after you got it?

I unfortunately don't have as much money as you, and will be probably be working for a few more decades, not by choice though.
  • #10
YoshiMoshi said:
but was there a positive ROI?

No idea. Probably not.
  • #11
If you're thinking about ROI, a lot depends on what you end up doing with the PhD, and the opportunities available at the time.

Certainly there is a major opportunity cost, and I think @YoshiMoshi's post just scratches the surface. Many PhDs take longer than 4 years. I think the typical range is more like 5-7 years these days, though I don't know if that differs for electrical engineering. And not only is it a case of difference in wages, but you might also consider early life investment. There can be a big difference starting to pay down a mortgage and/or initiating a retirement savings plan when you're 25 as compared to 30.

There's also a question of what opportunities the PhD opens up in the industrial or corporate world that you can't get with a bachelor's degree. Certainly on the academic side there are a lot more. The PhD is a necessary (though not sufficient) credential to advance to a typical career in academia. But outside academia the world is a lot different. You don't *need* a PhD to get involved in the research and development wings of most private companies, or at least, there's no legal hurdle to it.

What the PhD will give you is a certain set of skills when it comes to research and the specific tools that you learn along the way. To a lesser extent, you also gain skills in things like project management and teaching, which sometimes I'm surprised are not leveraged more. The thing is you become an extreme specialist. If there's a direct application for that specific skill set, you can often leverage that into a very well-paying career. Unfortunately when you look at these things in aggregate, the problems people are interested in academically don't always overlap with those companies are interested in commercially. Not too many companies have an interest in black hole entropy. But, if you happen to have spent for years developing a new machine learning technique that can boost the sales of widgets by 50%, you might have widget companies beating a path to your door. You might even take the bull by the horns and start up your own business.
  • #12
My advice to anyone considering a PhD is that you should do it only if you believe that you will truly enjoy the day to day life of doing research and want to devote a significant portion of your life/make a career doing research (in academia or in industry). Of course there will be days when you get frustrated, but overall if you do not enjoy the day to day research process, you will have a hard time getting through the PhD and may regret pursuing one later on even if you have the necessary skills.
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