CS academia vs. industry, with snowflakes
February 15, 2014 11:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm graduating this spring with an undergrad degree in computer science, and I'm lucky enough to have two great postgrad opportunities on the table. But how to choose between a safe and enjoyable industry job vs. attempting the grad school grind to (maybe hopefully) do what I love?

I'm graduating with a CS undergrad degree and need to decide between a dream job offer and the chance to pursue a totally different long-shot dream.

1) I have a job offer from a very prestigious large tech company. If I were to pick industry, it'd absolutely be my #1 choice, especially as a first job. I would be working as a developer/software engineer on an area that I have prior internship experience in, although not my research interest. I'm pretty sure that I would be *happy* working in industry, with a good work/life balance and fulfillment from the work (I like solving problems, writing elegant and well-documented code, creating something that will be immediately useful). On top of that, the financial compensation is about 3x as much as option #2 below.

So why am I even considering something else? Well...

2) I have also been accepted to a PhD program at a top-20 (top-10 in my field) school in CS with full funding. The faculty seem excited about working with me and there are opportunities to pursue a teaching-oriented (vs. all-research) track. My goal would be to get tenure at a liberal arts college. I'm pretty sure that I will be less happy during grad school because I like-don't-love research and I'm prepared to be psychologically "at work" 24/7. I enjoy teaching, although I don't know whether I'll enjoy lecturing vs. one-on-one mentoring.

The snowflake-y part: actually my ultimate goal, and the passion that makes me pause from jumping enthusiastically into industry, is curricular and educational policy. As an undergrad I've served on several faculty-led administrative committees and I love thinking about issues like tenure-line allocations, curricular restructuring (e.g. flat vs. hierarchical prerequisites), comparative research into peer institutions' practices, etc. So my first interest in academia is actually committee service. If I could get tenured at a college with a strong educational mission, I would want to be department chair and eventually provost or something like that.

Downsides: 6 years PhD + 7 years pre-tenure = a loooong time. And I might not be able to persevere through grad school, leaving me to reapply to industry in two years after having turned down my dream industry offer.

Any advice from MeFites who've been through a similar dilemma? I'd especially love to hear from people who can sympathize with/understand why I'm drawn to committee service, the part of an academic's job that everyone universally complains about.
posted by serelliya to Education (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Take the industry job. There are very few of those tenured liberal arts CS positions.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 11:33 AM on February 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do the PhD, unless you're prone to depression. Go for it!
posted by aniola at 11:40 AM on February 15, 2014

Take the industry job. If you aren't 100% committed/excited about teaching and research (and continuing to work on a 24/7 schedule long after grad school) then you will not enjoy being a faculty member. Being interested in the administrative side of academia is great, but not enough to validate this choice if it's the only aspect of academia you're truly passionate about.

This opinion brought to you by an academic librarian at a small top-rated research university with strong undergraduate programs.
posted by turtlegirl at 11:47 AM on February 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your other option might be to get a masters/PhD in education and get a job doing policy work (which will also pay 3x less than an industry CS job but have better work/life balance than being a faculty member). Having the combination of CS and education degrees means you could focus on curriculum work in the science and tech fields if that's your interest.
posted by turtlegirl at 11:51 AM on February 15, 2014

Best answer: There are a lot of sacrifices associated with doing a PhD program, even a funded one, so don't jump into one until you feel 100% about it. You got in once, you can almost definitely get in (maybe not to the same program, but something similar) again in a few years when/if you're sure of yourself.

In the meantime, take the industry job, learn what it's like to work and to not be a student for the first time in your life (I'm assuming you were a traditional undergrad, I apologize if not), and save a shitload of money. Your dream industry job is probably going to give you stock and 401k matching, so max out of your savings while you ponder more deeply.

Leaving a funded PhD program that is prestigious in your field hurts your future opportunities far more than leaving an industry job to go to graduate school (not an uncommon move and no one will speak ill of you for choosing to do so, if you so decide). You have no obligation to make big! decisions! about the rest of your life just because you have a bachelors now, so just move into the next stage, bank some dough, and figure things out. You've got plenty of time.
posted by telegraph at 11:58 AM on February 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would say working in industry for a couple of years has almost zero downside. If you wanted to slide into a PhD program after a couple of years experience, you could. You'll learn so much about yourself and what really matters to you by getting away from academic institutions for a while. Also, if you do go into academia later on, having a couple of years at a good tech company under your belt will open a lot of doors for you, should you need them. Banking on staying at institutions for the rest of your life is a bit of gamble, both in terms of whether the opportunities will be there for you, and whether that path is the one you'll want to stay on. If you do find yourself looking for work 6 years down the line after getting a PhD, or trying to get internships during your studies etc, you will be much much better off with a bit of experience on your resume. Also, save up some money, as telegraph said! That counts for a lot as well.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:01 PM on February 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: PhD in computer science here, 2010 graduate. When I was getting my PhD, my goal until the very end was similar to yours: go teach at a liberal arts school. I was even somewhat interested in committee work and helping shape educational directions, although I don't think I quite had your passion for it.

First: I'm not sure I agree that a tenured liberal arts CS position* would be that hard to get if you're a reasonable candidate. Anecdotally: my undergrad advisor (at a decent ~2000 student liberal arts school) was on a hiring committee for a CS professor, had a hard time finding qualified applicants, and that was not a situation unique to that school.

* That's assuming we're talking about a certain of professorship, though: small school, low profile, minimal research, and not a super impressive salary. The higher profile you go, the more is required of you and the harder it is to get hired. You should definitely think carefully before pursuing a higher-tier professorship anyway though. They basically require full-time teaching, full-time research, and a bunch of committee and advisory obligations on top of it. I know some of that appeals to you, but the totality of it can be overwhelming. Having worked closely with professors in that role, it seems to take a certain kind of person to thrive in it. Personally, I'd rather eat my shoes.

What I'd recommend in your situation? Right now, take the industry job, but as others have suggested, live really cheap. Save all as much money as you can. Bank a bunch of it. Invest a bunch of it (one of the things I regret most now is that I didn't get the chance to invest money in my early 20s, when time and compound interest do a lot of the work for you). But primarily, living cheap will let you smoothly make the transition to a lower-income student lifestyle later if that's what you decide to do. Don't underestimate the golden handcuffs effect: if you get used to living a certain lifestyle, it can be very difficult to give that up to make less money. Living intentionally cheaply from the outset will help with that.

But also, you should try industry now just for the experience. If you pursue a PhD, you'll be ruling out industry for a long time - don't do that unless you've tried it. In my case, I grudgingly took an internship my last summer of grad school at my advisor's insistence, and ended up getting my foot in the door at an awesome company. I still entertain the idea of teaching someday, but right now I make good money doing a job I love... if I'd ruled out industry without trying it, I would have missed out on what I have now. You're young and if you take the job and hate it, you'll only have lost a year or two (and hopefully have saved some cash and paid down your debts if you have any).

Finally, having gotten a PhD: think really hard before jumping on that train. You're right that 6 years of your life is a long time, and the opportunity cost is enormous. And not just financial: it's hard work academically, it can be difficult emotionally, and it requires a lot of sacrifice. I had a hard time feeling like an adult as a perpetual student, and it was hard watching friends level up in their careers and buy houses and the like while I struggled to make the rent with a few weird roommates. That said, it's absolutely the right choice for some people, but I'd recommend really understanding what you hope to get out of it, and if there are other ways to get what you want that don't require such a heavy cost. If you love teaching college that much, maybe try teaching a class somewhere as an adjunct instead of being a full-time prof. If you want to serve in an educational committee role, does it have to be at a university? Could you work with local schools as a volunteer technology consultant, or serve on the school board, or something? I don't mean to dissuade you, but a PhD is primarily a research degree, and if you're seeking it for reasons other than that it's worth careful consideration.

(Either way you should consider a masters degree though. You can do it while working, and often even get your employer to pay for it. Bonus!)
posted by captainawesome at 12:32 PM on February 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wrote a really winded post about how you shouldn't go to grad school if you're not passionate about research, but on a second reading of your post, it sounds like you are passionate about research, just not in computer science. You should got for a PhD in Educational Sciences. You show a lot of passion there. You can do all of those comparative studies without waiting 15 years to be a tenure-track professor on a committee.

If the choice is between CS PhD versus earning 100k at tech job, you might want to work for a year or two while you figure things out.

Memail me if you want to know why I think working before grad school is awesome.
posted by sockpuppetdirect at 2:27 PM on February 15, 2014

Best answer: Entering the software industry with a PhD in the high-end companies also only counts as maybe two years of experience, so it's a slowdown on a career.

Unless you want the phd like nothing else, it's going to be a mixed choice. You can also leave industry pretty easily to get a PhD, but can't test the waters of a PhD nearly as easily.

Also, right now, the software industry is insanely, insanely big. Compare this to the bubble of ~1998-2001 as far as job prospects. If you take a job, and the industry declines, you can go get a PhD then; right now is the time to be getting hands-on experience... and hell, hands-on experience will likely make you a far, far better teacher, anyways.
posted by talldean at 5:11 PM on February 15, 2014

All of the professors who were most helpful to me had an industry background. Something to consider, since if/when you go into academia probably most of your students will be headed into industry.
posted by anaelith at 10:17 AM on February 16, 2014

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