Is it worth it to continue the academic track towards an engineering PhD, or are you be better off going into the industry, paying back those student loans? The answer depends on what you want from your engineering career.
Do You Enjoy Research?
The greatest advantage of the PhD is that it gives you experience in carrying out detailed research. Your Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees are focused on learning things that are already known, but the PhD teaches you to find out new things, to carry out experiments, to report data, and learn from your mistakes.
Ideally, you become a subject matter expert in your chosen focus. That puts you in a great position for jobs that require that specific expertise, or where research skills are highly valued.
Preet Anand, CEO of technology company BlueLight, says that you need to think about what role you want. “A PhD is incredibly important for anyone involved with scientific innovation and research. However, if your aspirations are to be involved with implementation and quickly moving into the business side, a PhD is probably not effective from a time-ROI perspective. It’s especially not helpful if you’re working in software, where the speed of innovation in industry is quicker than the speed of academia.”
Forensic engineer Robert McElroy specializes in technical failure analysis related to automobiles, heavy trucks, and all types of industrial vehicles, and is an internationally recognized expert on the causes of industrial and transportation accidents. He stresses that his PhD has both commercial and technical benefits. “As a serial entrepreneur and forensic engineer, without the PhD, I could never have accomplished what I have been fortunate enough to achieve.”
An Engineering PhD Opens Doors…
Karen Thole, Department Head of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Pennsylvania State University and member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, explains that the usefulness of PhDs in industry quite depends upon the industry itself. “Many high tech industries continue to develop “tools” to help their engineers determine better designs. The development of such tools generally requires a graduate level understanding. And, a company’s tools are what set apart the competition. For example, there are several companies that make gas turbine engines with the basic architecture being the same. What sets companies apart, however, are those that do their own tool development such as predictive codes, design codes, standard work practices, etc. As tools improve, it helps to advance technology and develop better engines. To improve the tools, however, it requires a high level of understanding of the physics, which is where PhDs come in. The more technologically advanced the company, the more it takes some sort of research center, which generally employs PhDs.”
“I have yet to find a jobless, homeless PhD in engineering.”
Naturally, this means that some industries have far more demand for PhDs than others. “The aerospace industries as well as the high tech electronics industries both look for PhDs,” says Thole. “They’re generally the ones which require ME and EE disciplines.”
David Gantshar, CEO of engineering recruiters Shepherd Search Group Inc. notes that the value of a PhD often depends on the character of the senior management. Companies founded or led by PhDs tend to have more respect for those who have been through the same academic training. “A PhD is highly valued in some circumstances and not necessary at other times,” he says. “For a vice president of engineering or another senior executive position, it can be a big plus, especially if the company president himself has a PhD. The PhD degree reflects intense and successful research and would be valued in an R&D environment. If the president of the organization has one, he/she will value those individuals that are “on par” academically and offer credentials similar to those around the table. However for a senior engineering or manager’s position, it is rarely required.”
… Unless It Closes Them
However, one problem faced by many PhDs is that they’re often regarded as “too academic,” and therefore not suited to the pace and pressures of commercial engineering.
Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly a perception you have to battle with, as Gantshar notes. “It really depends on the organization. Some companies might see a Ph.D. as too research oriented and would identify the engineer as insufficiently hands-on. We have seen many instances where a PhD has actually worked against a candidate in these circumstances and the individual with less academic credentials is selected based upon these perceptions.”
What About Non-STEM PhDs?
If you’re thinking of going into the management role, then it may be worth considering a PhD which proves your business credentials. Combined with your engineering experience, it can give you a major advantage over other managers.
Sonja Fisher recently completed her PhD in business. “It has been very helpful,” she says, with evident pride. “I am getting opportunities left and right. I seem to be more in demand since getting my PhD.”
Should You Get Your PhD?
If you’re looking for a research role, a job requiring very specific expertise or a position in a company that’s known for innovation or R&D, then a PhD can pay great dividends. According to the latest Engineering Income and Salary Survey, on average, you’ll earn about 35% more than an engineer with a Bachelor’s degree – typically about $30,000 a year. That’s a huge payoff for those few years of research.
Equally importantly, a PhD will give you a level of job security that a lesser degree won’t give you. “I have yet to find a jobless, homeless PhD in engineering. That’s my simple answer,” grins Thole. Not only that, but it opens up new opportunities. “The PhD really allows you to tailor your own career a bit more. Generally companies want their PhDs to seek out new ideas and think bigger about the field. So, it presents more opportunities to do what you want.”