A Fresh PhD’s Career Decision Tree


Given that Yannick and I stayed in graduate school for such a long time, we made many friends who got PhD’s in various fields–economics, business, engineering, science… Some went for academic career and are already titled professors; some are still struggling for their tenure; some went to industry and become millionaires from IPOs; some got laid off and came back to school. And those fresh ones, seeing footsteps from their senior fellows, feel confused. They seek help, from advisors and professors, from fellow PhD students, from friends, from families. And the truth is: the more people they ask, the more information they gather, the more difficult the decision becomes.

After our discussion with mOOm about the value of a graduate degree and seeing the struggle many of our friends are facing, I decided to draw a decision tree to help people go through the process. This is, by no means, a replacement for advice from an academic advisor, or your career development help center. This is just my little game to find out whether what I learned in textbook can really find some use in real life.

I am not an engineering and science major, but I find PhDs in engineering and science often face a more complicated choices. They can choose to do a post-doctoral fellowship, just like residency for MD. People from economics or business school normally do not have to go through this. So I decided to draw a decision tree for Sisi, a fresh PhD from science and engineering.

Sisi got her PhD in applied math from a top school. As a fresh PhD, Sisi does have some options, and that’s exactly what she and her family are struggling with.
(1) She can get an assistant professor position in a 2nd or 3rd tier university right now, which pays about $60-80k.
(2) She can work in the industry, which pays six figures right away.
(3) She can wait for another year or two as a post-doc fellow, and shoot for a faculty position in a1st tier university.

Here is a very Simplified version of a pseudo-decision-tree.


Two main reasons make this tree “pseudo”. First, Sisi is struggling with assigning probabilities to each branch. What’s the probability of getting unemployed in 2 years? Sisi had a friend who joined a very big and profitable company 2 years ago, and come back to school now due to company re-structure. What’s probability of building a successful business of her own? Go to any bar in Silicon valley any day, Sisi will find 1/2 of people there dreaming of building another google, or at least a youtube. But we had only one Google, one youtube. Sisi believes that she has a technical edge to build his own business, but how can she assign a probability on this?

Second, Sisi puts only monetary value in stead of utility on each node. What makes this decision even more complicated is that Sisi and her family assign different utility to each outcome. Sisi’s husband wants her to go to a 2nd -3rd tier schools, so she can has less pressure and get a baby soon. He also puts higher utility on going to industry, since he has the same dream as a valley girl and wants Sisi to join him.

However, as a female who window-shops designer clothing from time to time, Sisi puts higher utility on “brand names”. Practically speaking, option-3 is the least ‘economical one. Doing a post-doc costs another 2-3 years with minimum pay. After that, if she gets to a 1st tier university, the pay is generally lower than 2nd tier university. Top universities always have higher bargaining power, in accepting students, in recruiting faculty. However, how many 1st tier universities can you find? Supply and demand determine the price. If Sisi wants to get the brand equity of 1st tier universities, Sisi has to pay the premium. Sisi is ready to pay for it, her husband is still hesitating.

And as a female, Sisi puts higher utility on security (on this part, Sisi is not alone ). Getting tenure in whatever university will give Sisi’s family low but guaranteed income and legal status. As immigrants without a green card, Sisi’s first priority is: Security! Security!! Security!!!

Still, the problem of assigning probability remains. I know that many fresh PhDs are facing Sisi’s decision tree. In fact, many friends of ours are on the same boat right now. Assigning these probabilities requires experience, across time, across people. I hope that senior readers who have experienced all these can help Sisi fill in the probability in the tree. If we can get a large sample, the law of large number will work for us.

TIA!

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10 Responses to “A Fresh PhD’s Career Decision Tree”

  1. Golbguru Says:

    Jacqui: That was interesting…I am facing the pseudo-tree right now..although I have not graduated yet.

    I have been observing some of my older friends who are out with a PhD and who are now faculty members in various universities…and I am not liking their situation one bit. So more than security, it’s become and issue of “whether I like it” for me (same for my wife..she is on her phd program too).

    One thing is for sure…I am not going to like publishing papers for a living…security or no security. :)

  2. Jacqui Says:

    Hello Golbguru,

    I have heard many complaints about writing papers like yours. This may be a good thing. I heard that Jerry Yang and David Filo co-founded Yahoo because they were trying everything to avoid writing the PhD disseration!

    Then, for your case, just assign negative utility to academics, the path will be ruled out. Which path are you assigning high utility to? Does your wife have a different preference?

  3. Golbguru Says:

    Honestly, I started on PhD just to be in academics. I mean I can teach…I can teach better than my boss for whom I am working as a teaching assistant (the students say so). And I wanted to go into academia for teaching. But, eventually I have realized that bigger universities care nothing about teaching…all they care about is research funding….or in short paper writing.

    So to answer your question, the path with maximum utility to me (a good mix of pay and security) is the top-most. That is industry-employed-employed-employed. :)
    There is a risk of loosing the job, but I will take that risk if that takes me away from paper writing for a while.

    Also, the way I see it. Industry to academia is a possible route in future….but I am not sure how feasible is going from academia to industry later on. That’s an additional “flexibility” factor in your pseudo tree. :)

    My wife has similar thoughts.

  4. Jacqui Says:

    Yes, my tree is definitely not complete. There are just too many possibilities in life…

    I entered my PhD for the same reason: I wanted to be a good teacher. I wanted to be a teacher even when I went to college. I even transferred once, just to increase my probability of being a professor.

    Then I found out that I might have a better chance being a college teacher if I stayed in a lower ranked university. Top unitersities only want to produce researchers. Big mistake on my side, and I paid for that.

    I was in social science. I have heard people coming back as “lecturer” occasionally, in the summer, when those “real” professors are on vacation. But coming back as a professor? I never heard of that in my fields.

    I am so happy to know that the chance of getting back from industry to academia is not that low for engineering. I am trying hard to convince Yannick that going to industry is a “One Way Trip”, and I do not want him to lose the opportunity of being a professor. But it seems that I just do not know enough about other fields. I will definitely re-evaluate our trees.

    And, I really want to thank you for your first comment about your preference. It woke me up. I think that I am imposing my preference to Yannick. Very bad behavior! It is his career choice. His interestes are more important than anything else. Right now, his problem is that he has interests in both — he already did a good job in publishing papers, but he also wanted to try out industry. In any case, it is not right for me to impose my preference on him.

    Thanks for the information, and thanks for helping me getting back on track to be a good, supporting wife :)

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