Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

Getting a Ph.D. for the money?

Many of my Ph.D. students have admitted to being motivated by financial gain. Stanford is famous for their graduate-students-turned-entrepreneurs. Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google fame come to mind. But I cannot yet point to a comparable success story. Still, I have seen several variations over the years:

  • Some students believe that having Ph.D. on their business card will earn them higher salaries.
  • Others believe that a Ph.D. is an ideal setting to come up with commercially-viable technology.

These approaches appear to violate Dijkstra’s second rule:

We all like our work to be socially relevant and scientifically sound. If we can find a topic satisfying both desires, we are lucky; if the two targets are in conflict with each other, let the requirement of scientific soundness prevail.

I have my own related experience. Shortly after getting my Ph.D., in the middle of a post-doctoral fellowship, I decided to run off and start a company with friends. My business plan was simple: I setup a web site where I said that I would do research for money. No ad, no networking, no product, no gimmick. Incredibly, people would call me with job offers. I did well in the sense that I never worried about money. (See this TV interview about some of my crazy industry work, in French.) I also learned much. My experience has helped me become a better researcher. Indeed, I have become very critical of published research. But I was never able to reconcile the pursuit of knowledge with commercial interests. I did a lot of crazy mathematics, programming, but I never had enough time to think deeply about any one issue. And, as it turns out, I don’t love money nearly as much as I love knowledge.

Thus, I tell my students that they should be in it for the pursuit of knowledge. Some get upset. Others appear to ignore me. A few leave. To sum up my opinion: if your goal is to become a highly-paid consultant or an engineer, the Ph.D. is an overkill.

What do you think?