Getting a good job

From: Chris Kennedy <>
Date: Sat Jul 1 19:33:03 2000

"Eric J. Korpela" wrote:

> > If you amend that to "...learned more about a very specific topic in that
> > extra 4+ years..." then I'd agree.
> That's not my experience. Specialization is required for the project,
> generalization is required for sucessfully completing it. Perhaps it's
> different in engineering than it is in the sciences.

Perhaps. After all, the field that I received *my* Ph.D. in was
CS, and the joke at the time was that only non-sciences tack "science"
onto the end of the name of their field, hence "computer science",
"social science", "space science" and the like. You don't often
hear people refer to "physics science", "chemistry science" and the like :-)

> > The principle problem with Ph.D.s is that their knowledge base tends to
> > be as narrow as any other new grads; the only distinction being that they
> > have significantly more depth in one very specific area.
> I disagree.

YMMV. I'm an empiricist; I call 'em as I see 'em. Is the typical Ph.D.
more clueful than the typical four year? Sure. Is the typical
Ph.D. more clueful that a four year with four years of experience? Generally
not. It really has a lot to do with the dumbing down of CS coursework since
the late 70's.

> > I've had more than one occasion
> > where such people were literally reduced to tears in design meetings
> > as a consequence of being crucified by some staff engineer.
> I've also seen precisely the opposite where an engineer has been so caught
> up in the way things have been done that they can't understand that there
> just might be a better way or a case where the old way won't work.

I haven't observed that any sort of degree or lack thereof immunizes against
being out of touch with reality. Something else about this statement
puzzles me; there's the implication that Ph.D. != engineer. I hold one in my field
and identify as an engineer, so I'm an existence proof the the intersection
of the two is a non-null set.

> > It just means that there are problems
> > > I can drop in the lap of a typical PhD that would take a week to explain to
> > > the typical programmer.
> >
> > "...drop in the lap of a typical PhD who is familiar with the problem area..."
> Again I disagree. If a PhD is unfamiliar with the problem area they will
> get familiar with it damn quick.

Again, YMMV. In my experience there's nothing about someone having a Ph.D.
which makes them particularly more adept at becoming facile with a new
problem space than anyone else. If you're asserting that a new Ph.D. is
better equipped that a new four-year I'll agree, but again, if the assertion
is that the new Ph.D. is better off than the four-year-plus-four of
experience it simply doesn't match my experience.

> That's what is expected of them. If they
> don't do what's expected of them, you don't keep 'em around.

Both those statements apply to anyone, regardless of what sort of degrees
they might hold.

> Then again an
> engineer who is unfamiliar with the problem area will likely come into your
> office every hour and a half to ask a question.

Uh, no. That fits in the category of "don't keep them around". It's
technicians that I expect that sort of behavior from, and they don't
come into my office, they come into the office of someone four steps
down the food chain. So-called "self-starting" is required of

> > When they were done we tried to find other things
> > for them to do, but they were only marginally more effective than
> > our new crop of four-year grads. The person in question is now making
> > use of their Ph.D. by teaching undergraduate CS courses.
> I'm not saying there aren't idiots with PhDs out there.

The person I was referring to was not and is not an idiot. They are
a counterexample to what seems to be an assertion that Ph.D.'s
a mythically endowed with something which makes them superior to
people who don't have them. I have *no doubt* that in some
fields this is the case, but it's not in my industry segment. Most
innovation in my field comes *from* industry, not academia, so anyone
who would choose to spend another four years in that setting is
viewed with something approaching suspicion -- which is why there's
a tiny difference in the average starting salaries for new four-year
vs. Ph.D. holders which essentially reaches a delta of zero after
five years.

> Did you ever
> think that putting the PhDs to work doing the same tasks as the new crop
> of four-year grads was a waste of material? You don't hire a PhD to write
> Visual Basic code, you hire PhD's to do work that you need a PhD for.

I don't hire anyone to do visual basic code. I hire people to work on
formal verification tools, superscalar processor design and mission
critical systems. Nobody is "wasted"; I don't think we have anyone on
technical staff who doesn't cost us six figures so "wasting" someone
is an expensive luxury. People are given projects which stress them; if
I ask someone what they're doing and the answer doesn't routinely include
the phrases "...trying to figure out..." then it's time to give
them something more challenging to do.

> > > It's a different skill set, and should be treated as such.
> >
> > I don't see any evidence that the skill set is particularly different;
> Perhaps that's because you treat them like fresh undergrads.

Uh, no. I treat everyone the same: tell me what you can do, I'll ask
you to do 115% of that, and we'll go from there. That's the reason
we generally credit for having a low turnover rate on technical staff.

> > All the Ph.D. represents is an additional four years of training in an
> > environment that is skewed from the one found in industry;
> Ph.D. must me different where you come from. Where I come from a Ph.D.
> candidate is not getting much training apart what they provide themselves.

Right, which is the same training that the guy with the four year degree
has done, save for the fact that he's been doing it in industry on a technical
team with people who have a responsibility to see to it that he's given
the skills he needs to succeed -- or is assigned to something more suitable.
Thanks for making my argument for me.

> The biggest difference I see between people in industry and people doing
> their thesis projects is that people in industry work shorter hours.

*ROFL* I'm trying to think of the last time that I worked on a project where
65+ hour weeks didn't have to be sustained for the lifetime of the project, and
for the life of me I think it was 1982. Avant! wasn't all that atypical with
it's unspoken requirement that people turn in 80+ hour weeks even when it
wasn't crunch time. The difference I see is that if you're late on your
thesis you can add time, a luxury that isn't afforded in industry.

> > It's all about what you can
> > do and how well it fits with my needs. Everything else is meaningless.
> Of course, and if you don't need Ph.D.'s working for you, so be it.

I've got quite a few (just shy of half the technical staff), but
they work for me not because they have Ph.D.s but because they've
demonstrated the ability to produce results across
the strangely broad range of problems that we address. However they're
*no more able* to do so than their contemporaries with six year, four
year or even no degrees. This may be due to a sampling error; most technical
people in this organization have more than 12 years of experience and
the newbies are never coddled but rather immersed into mainstream
projects with assigned mentors.

> But
> you might want to consider that the guy with the Ph.D. may be able to do
> quite a bit more than you need...

With apologies to Fred Brooks, there's no silver bullet for most interesting
technical problems. This thread began with assertions regarding the
relevance of degrees in the current job market, and someone tweaked your
sensibilities with respect to holders of doctorates (for whatever reason -- as
I said, I've got one and I didn't feel that it was a completely
unreasonable slam). If your assertion is that a newly stamped out Ph.D. is
more clueful than a new four-year the odds are good that you're correct,
but it hardly makes them an ubergeek and in most industrial settings the
delta between the two converges quickly.

I brought this up at a staff dinner last night; of 30 people present more
than half of us had Ph.D.s. *All* of us agreed that if we were faced with
the choice *today* of pursuing an advanced degree or going to industry we'd
forgo the degree or pursue it as a background task for purely emotional
reasons. *That* is the economic reality of the industry that I live in.


Chris Kennedy
PGP fingerprint: 4E99 10B6 7253 B048 6685  6CBC 55E1 20A3 108D AB97
Received on Sat Jul 01 2000 - 19:33:03 BST

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