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Do you need a graduate degree to get an Alt-Ac job?
Dec 5, 2022
On getting a PhD
One of the most frequently asked questions I receive from students with BAs and MAs is whether they should continue in grad school and get a PhD or go out and try to get a job. The most accurate (and annoying) answer is that it depends on the job you want.
For some jobs the answer is a clear yes, you need a PhD, most obviously for any professor job, but also for many research-heavy jobs, R&D jobs, think tanks, and the like. For most non-academic jobs, a graduate degree is not required.
If you’ve done some of the research I suggested in Learning about Alt-Ac opportunities (aka how to get started), then you can get started on answering your own question: do job ads tend to list a graduate degree as a requirement? Do the people you’ve identified who have jobs like this have a graduate degree? If you’ve been able to do informational interviews with any of them, do they think it’s required or preferred? Note that listing a requirement in a job ad is different from actually hiring people with that requirement — focus not only on what’s listed but on what’s actually happening on the ground. If you need to add some skills to your portfolio to be attractive for jobs you want to go after, can a PhD program supply you with the right opportunities to learn those skills? I discuss some things you can do to pick up relevant skills in Prepping for Alt-Ac jobs (aka taking action).
A PhD is a multi-year commitment to a highly complex and difficult endeavor. Personally I think you should only do it if there is something that you are passionate about going in. The process itself is mentally straining and often leads to isolation, stress, and anxiety. You’ll be paid well below the poverty line and you’ll miss out on opportunities to work a full time job, gain on-the-job experience, not to mention start to have savings. Some students go into debt to cover their expenses while studying. I would strongly urge you never to accept an offer that isn’t funded or where the students seem unhappy or unable to make ends meet. Even in the best of circumstances, though you should be aware of just how hard it is.
I say all this as someone who overall enjoyed her PhD program and has no regrets! But let’s be clear. Although your professors may suggest it as a natural extension of your current course of studies, you should go into a PhD program with a very clear understanding that it comes with real down sides to your mental health and your finances. What’s more, professor jobs are rare, may force you to live in places you don’t enjoy, and on top of that they aren’t terribly well paid. And for most non-academic jobs, you simply don’t need the degree in the first place.
On getting an MA
Unlike a PhD, an MA is a more focused and time-delimited course of studies. Should you get an MA? My answer here is generally the same as the answer to the PhD question: it depends. Do you need it, do you want it, and can you afford it?
Only you can answer the want part of the question, so let’s focus on the other two. Do you need it? Well, maybe, if it teaches skills you need to learn and are required for the jobs you want to have, or if it seems that most jobs only hire people with advanced degrees.1 There are several computational linguistics MA programs out there these days, as well as data science MAs, and other similar degrees that seem to cater to what’s popular on the job market these days. These programs will teach you to code, do statistical analyses, and train models that will be required for jobs in AIML and NLP. If that’s what you want to do, this would be one way to gain those skills. There are other ways, such as self-teaching or online courses, of course.
Can you afford it? Well, unlike PhDs, MAs are usually not funded. So this is a difficult question that only you can answer. The return on investment promise is that ML research, NLP, and data science jobs in tech tend to be very well paid, and therefore you should be able to pay down any loans quickly. But of course there are risks, and debt is not to be taken lightly. I am personally risk averse and wouldn’t feel comfortable doing this; but that’s just me.
There are some other potential options to consider: MAs outside the US might be subsidized, such as most degrees I know of in Canada and in Europe. (Of course, moving to another country or continent is not trivial!) Some MAs in the US might offer some funding. And occasionally individuals in a PhD program will master out after a couple of years in the program, and since a PhD is funded2, they will leave with an MA and no debt. However, this is not an endorsement of this approach, which most programs strongly discourage. You may end up leaving with the program refusing to grant you any degree and will have therefore just wasted two years of your life (skills you learned aside).
On doing an internship or full time job
If at all possible, I would strongly encourage you to get an internship while you are a student. This could be either as an undergrad or as a grad student (or both)! Alternatively/in addition, I think it is very beneficial to have a full time job at some point, perhaps between undergrad and grad school. You’ll find that you learn a lot about yourself and what you do and don’t like about a job by working a full time job somewhere. It will make a lot of the research and soul-searching process I describe in other posts a lot more concrete. If you’ve only ever been a student, you have a very limited world view and experience. Consider expanding it, even if it’s a job you’re pretty sure you won’t keep in the long run. You’ll learn a lot, I promise.