What is a PhD?

Most graduate students consider whether they want to do a PhD or an MS degree.


What is a PhD? How is that different than a MS?

A PhD in Computer Science is a philosophy degree, not a computer science degree. It’s not about gaining technical knowledge, although you will gain technical knowledge as you become an expert in your specific domain. When you’re getting a PhD, you spend only about 25% of your time on gaining discipline-specific knowledge. While you will take a small number of classes, the focus of your effort is on your research projects. A PhD is about learning how to think like a researcher. It often takes 5-6 years to complete a PhD program.

In contrast, a master’s degree focuses on gaining technical knowledge. This is often a 2 year program that focuses on advanced coursework, with a small research or development project as a final “thesis” or “project”.


What will I learn during a PhD?

You’ll spend most of your time learning how to think like a researcher, so you can design your own research trajectory. You’ll learn how to plan and run a study, and how to synthesize literature and develop your own take on it (not just ‘how to read papers’). You’ll network with people already working in your research area. You want to know who they are and what they think and what they value, so that you can learn what you value and what you think and how you’re contributing something new to the area.


What kind of job can I get with a PhD?

The jobs that require PhDs are typically very competitive, like being an academic faculty member or running an industry research lab. Jobs that focus on development or technical skills typically do not require a PhD.

Think about grad school as a time to gain the skills you need to get the job you want after graduation. What kind of skills you need depends on the kind of job you want.

For example, if you wanted to become the world’s best developer, you wouldn’t need to spend six years getting a PhD and learning how to think like a researcher. There are easier and better ways to spend your time to get that job. If you spend two years getting a MS degree and doing summer internships, then four years working in the industry, you’d likely have stronger development skills than you would if you did a PhD.

But, you wouldn’t be a researcher. You wouldn’t have learned how to identify and solve interesting research questions that no one has solved before. If you spend 6 years learning how to think like a researcher, you probably won’t want to work as a developer anymore, because you wouldn’t be using so many of the research skills you just acquired, and you might not have the freedom to pursue any question you think is interesting.