This is written in response to a Quora question, which asks whether a PhD was worth it. Feel free to vote there for my answer on Quora!
A bit of a background: after about 10 years working on various database, infrastructure, and web projects, I decided to get more research experience. You can consider it a mid-career change with a caveat that I did not completely change the field (software development and computer science), but rather transitioned to work on more exciting problems.
I do not think it was worthwhile financially, but I have never thought it would be. All in all, I think I might eventually break even. Was it worthwhile otherwise? Have I achieved my goals?
First of all, I started working on problems which I previously had little chance to work on. Before joining the program, I was working a bit on information retrieval (IR) applications and infrastructure. If you are generic web/database developer, you will likely be pigeonholed into one of these exciting positions for the rest of your life. Now, I have projects in speech recognition, NLP, and, IR. In particular, I believe this work can improve doctors lives and prevent their burnout.
Second, I believe my PhD studies was a beginning of a mind expansion journey that I do not intended to finish (till death do us part).
Third, because I worked hard to get a degree from a recognized institution, I get quite a bit of attention from recruiters.
Have I achieved all my goals? The answer is no and it is still a work in progress. I have become an applied scientist, but I am still quite interested in working on more fundamental problems.
I am generally satisfied with my PhD studies. I believe it did open some new doors. However, consider the following:
- I am in the booming field of computer science. Furthermore, I am in the booming sub-field of speech and language processing.
- Although I have not become famous, two of the research libraries I co-authored have become reasonably well-known and my papers get some citations.
- I have obtained my PhD from a recognized institution a bit faster than my department average (by design a US PhD is supposed to take about six years). Doing so was not a walk in the park! I know people who got stuck for 10 years.
- That my original background was applied math and software engineering (combined with substantial real-world experience) was certainly quite helpful in achieving this goal.
- In that, I am still not quite sure what I am going to do in the near future.
Given an about 50% failure rate on a way to get a PhD degree, the potential sleep deprivation, the burnout, loss of interest to research, and other possibly unlucky circumstances, I can easily imagine how getting a PhD can be an extremely frustrating experience in terms of morale, finance, and health.