Is a doctoral degree in data science worth it? Know from PhD holders

“Today, people in the industry prefer Ph D candidates because of how they approach the discipline and the out-of-box innovations."

Doctorate degrees have always been a mirage far too superior to achieve. But the recent trends are demystifying pursuing a Ph D. In the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 15.3% jump in the number of jobs in CS requiring a doctorate by 2022. This trend is finding its way in India, with the top engineering institutes like IITs and BITS Pilani now offering several Ph D programs. Students are pursuing their doctoral degrees right after their master’s, but it is not reserved to them only. Many recent programs today are catered towards industry professionals that are being sponsored by their employers in collaboration with universities to pursue their Ph D after having gained work experience. 

This trend is still developing. So, Analytics India Magazine got in touch with AI experts and Ph D holders to understand the nuances of a Ph D in Computer Science and identify if it is worth it. 

Why go beyond a master’s

“Pursuing a doctorate is a four-to-five-year-long process, and a couple of years are spent only in finding the correct problem”, said Dr Pushpak Bhattacharyya. A professor at IIT Bombay, Dr Bhattacharyya, has mentored more than 300 research students, published hundreds of papers and runs a research lab at IIT-B. 

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Despite the process, “Ph D is very much in demand”, Dr Bhattacharyya noted, citing the various attributes of pursuing a doctoral degree. “Ph D is important because it gives the student a long association with the disciple. They go into the foundations of the subject to establish a hypothesis. (And to do so), a huge amount of reading and research has to be done, which allows you to see the gaps in the knowledge that exists. This depth of awareness building is not done when one pursues a bachelor’s or a master’s.” 

Further discussing why a Ph D can be preferred over a master’s degree, Dr Anup Kalia, a Research Staff Member at IBM who earned his Ph D in 2016 and worked with the US Army Research Laboratory, observed, “Ph D holders are eligible for research positions in industry or academia that solely need a Ph D degree and experience in publishing papers in top-tier conferences. Bachelor’s and master’s may not be eligible for these positions.”

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Why should one pursue a Ph D in Computer Science?


Be one with the discipline

A doctoral degree requires students to read through hundreds of research papers written in the field, thereby associating completely with the subject matter. It also strengthens them with skills they may not have developed during the usual theoretical education. “You learn about the fundamentals of state of the art. Ph D is important because it makes you better at reading, writing and presenting, and it helps you find a gap in knowledge and address it,” illustrated Dr Bhattacharyya. 

Recent-Ph D graduates we spoke to were all in agreement with this claim. Discussing the advantage of a Ph D over a master’s, Dr Narendra N P, who pursued his Ph D from IIT in 2016, said, “In Ph D, we would have worked on a problem independently. We know how to formulate, analyse and solve the problem. Also, we will be good at writing and presenting the work. It would be easy for us to communicate with managers and other teammates.”

Develop practical skills

One of computer science’s current challenges is the lack of representation of data scientists in the board room, mainly given the lack of presentation and other soft skills. But given the tough few years pursuing a doctorate, Ph D graduates leave their institutions with a strong character in patience and presentation, believes Dr Bhattacharya.

Dr Maneet Singh, a senior AI specialist at MasterCard, expanded on this building of soft skills, “Working on challenging problems enables Ph D candidates to hone their problem-solving skills, while failures/rejections prepare them for manoeuvring through obstacles in an otherwise ideal project plan. Repeated cycles of paper writing often result in clearer thought flow and improved communication.” Dr Singh pursued her Ph D in computer science and has since worked at MasterCard. 

Know what works

“You learn a lot during your doctoral. Even everything that goes wrong is part of learning. You understand what works and what doesn’t; this helps build expertise when you get into the industry. You develop an intuition that will help you in the industry,” said Kali Krishna Kota, a Ph D candidate at IIT-H. Kali discussed how the challenges faced during the doctoral makes one open to new ideas and equips them to better deal with new challenges and opportunities. 

Identify ‘real’ claims

The disciplines of computer science and AI are evolving rapidly, with new developments and innovations being announced every day. “The length and breadth of Ph D will help professionals understand the real value of the claims and develop their perspective accordingly. It will help them recognise which of the several claims are real”, illustrates Dr Bhattacharyya. 

Experience or Ph D?

The conundrum of the importance of experience or education in computer science is lengthy, and our interviewees reflected the same difference in opinion we see in the industry. 

“Due to the accumulation of such soft skills, I believe Ph D holders might have an advantage for industry positions focusing on cutting edge research-driven product development or business-driven research breakthroughs,” said Dr Singh. But Dr Shah and Dr Narendra N P seemed to have different views. 

Dr Narendra N P said, “In companies, a master’s with five years of company experience is considered better than a Ph D. Also, in terms of salary, a master’s with five years of experience will get a better package than a fresh Ph D.” Dr Ritesh Shah, Senior Principal Data Scientist at Jio, who pursued his Ph D in 2017, had a similar idea. “Within the industry, work experience is valued more over academic qualifications. (Therefore), work experience coupled with a Ph D in CS could be more valuable in the senior and mid-senior roles.”

Intellectual satisfaction or financial gain—why should you opt for a Ph D?

 Pursuing a Ph D is generally confined to the space of academia, but the notion is changing. We asked our Ph D graduates if the common belief of Ph D being all about academics with less financial viability is true. 

“I believe that the Ph D program offers much larger intellectual benefits as compared to the financial ones,” expressed Dr Singh. “During their Ph D, one gains in-depth knowledge about the topic of their dissertation with various opportunities to explore and grasp concepts beyond their immediate area of research. Via media of conferences, talks, and different sessions, Ph D candidates often engage in insightful conversations with leading researchers of their area of specialisation, resulting in sharper thinking and richer thought processes. While financial betterment could be a long-term byproduct of holding a Ph D degree, that might not be the immediate outcome of pursuing one.”

According to Dr Bhattacharyya, a Ph D in computer science is surely financial viable. While abroad, the state of the market says ‘higher the qualification, more is the income’; this mindset is slowly growing upward in India. 

Dr Shah believes, “A Ph D program is for those who pursue intellectual satisfaction, but there are examples where people choose to self-learn and have the right mindset to innovate without a Ph D. It’s the individual’s inclination and passion that matter. Financial betterment for a Ph D graduate is a function of the organisation they belong to. Research and development are practised successfully in very few organisations or start-ups.”

Research for corporate companies: The best of both worlds?

 An interesting trend is the merge of both worlds that occur with doctoral degrees; academia and industry. Dr Kalia defined this new position, “These candidates will be working as an applied research scientist to conduct research, build prototypes and work with software engineers to scale their prototypes into a real-world service or product.”

“Today, people in the industry prefer Ph D candidates because of how they approach the discipline and the out-of-box innovations,” said Kali. She discussed how the struggles and challenges of working on the doctorate enable Ph D graduates to hold a unique understanding of the subject matter with a proactive approach. 

Dr Kalia’s experience is similar, pursuing the degree with the goal of research positions in top-tier companies, “I want to be reasonably compensated along with the pursuit of research.” Talking about the common perspective he has observed in his colleagues, Dr Kalia said, “I have a few colleagues who have left research positions in pursuit of software engineering positions (because of the) motivating compensation in top-tier companies and the ability to work on something that could impact billions of people.” But, on the contrary, he has come across students that have pursued research for the sole sake of intellectual satisfaction. “These are the people who have even left jobs in some top-tier companies to work in academia (because) in academia; you get more flexibility and resources in terms of pursuing your own topic and being well-known in that,” he said. 

So, is it worth it? 

When asked if their Ph D was worth it, all five of our interviewees certainly found it to be worth it for them. Yet, it is a subjective decision, as both expressed through their experience. 

“It’s a choice for someone who wants to explore”, expressed Dr Kalia. “When I joined my master’s program, I had two years of experience working for a software company. Hence, I wanted to explore further, which motivated me to pursue a Ph D. Undoubtedly, it was the best decision I have made, and my current job role is intellectually satisfying. What I observe is that a Ph D gives you that experience in turning a vague and not so well-defined problem into a more concrete problem.”

Defining who should pursue a Ph D, Dr Singh said, “If someone is excited about research, new developments in a chosen computer science field and has the passion to learn, innovate, and experiment, pursuing a Ph D degree could be a wonderful decision for them.” She also shared the other side of the perspective, discussing, “if chosen for the wrong reasons, it might end up being an unpleasant experience for the candidate and the associated people. Since a typical Ph D in CS often requires dedicated commitment and rigour of 4-5 years, it must be pursued for the right reasons only.”

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by Vijayalakshmi Anandan

The Deep Learning Curve is a technology-based podcast hosted by Vijayalakshmi Anandan - Video Presenter and Podcaster at Analytics India Magazine. This podcast is the narrator's journey of curiosity and discovery in the world of technology.

Avi Gopani
Avi Gopani is a technology journalist that seeks to analyse industry trends and developments from an interdisciplinary perspective at Analytics India Magazine. Her articles chronicle cultural, political and social stories that are curated with a focus on the evolving technologies of artificial intelligence and data analytics.

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