So You’re Considering the Ph.D.?

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A light fog settles over the Virginia Tech campus at 7:58 in the morning and the cool air reminds students that winter is coming but isn’t here quite yet. Vibrating off Hokie Stone buildings, classical music from Burruss Hall attempts to uplift the spirits of the students who haven’t made it to their classes. As you take in this beautiful yet often-overlooked scene, you notice the time on your watch and remember your professor promised a quiz at the beginning of your 8 am class. Happy feelings freshly vanquished, you take off across campus toward McBryde when a thought enters your mind, “Maybe I should get a Ph.D.?”

The thought is gone almost as quickly as it arrived and you fasten your seat belt in preparation for the reckless school day that you’re sure to crash into as an engineering student.

Pause here before next week’s test calls your attention. Today’s the day you think about it.

To an engineering student, the doctor of philosophy degree typically doesn’t seem like something that is practical, manageable, or worthwhile. “Engineers get doctorates when they want to spend the rest of their life at a University,” some students may think. Others cite time spent in school or money spent on tuition as reasons to avoid the ominous Ph.D. However, a doctorate in engineering is something that will drastically impact a person’s life although, admittedly, is not for everyone. Amy Elliott, just a few months from completing her doctorate in Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, spent about 2 months this past year as a contestant on Discovery Channel’s “The Big Brain Theory” and ended up being the grand prize runner-up. “A Ph.D. is for people who really, really want to do research,” she said.

Elliott has spent her time at Virginia Tech doing research in the field of Additive Manufacturing (3D printing) and working with DreamVendor. After she graduates, she expects to be a researcher in the field. Ken Brown, a Master’s student expecting to continue his research as a Ph.D. candidate in the spring, is currently working with the Center for Renewable Energy and Aerodynamic Testing (CREATe) at Virginia Tech under Dr. William J. Davenport of the Aerospace and Ocean Engineering department. Brown conducts his research on wind turbines at the Stability Wind Tunnel (on the side of Randolph Hall), specifically focusing on increasing wind turbine efficiency by lengthening turbine blades. Brown hopes to graduate and become a researcher in the field of renewable energy. Both Elliott and Brown hope to conduct research in the same field that they will graduate in, a common trend among doctoral candidates of any discipline.

Yet the question looms, “is it for me?”

Elliott said she wasn’t sure she wanted to pursue a Ph.D. until her second year in graduate school. “My advisor must have seen some potential in me,” she said, citing encouragement from her advisor as a reason she chose to pursue the doctorate degree. “In any organization,” Elliott continued, “the people with Ph.D.’s are usually the ones who get to make big decisions about what projects to pursue and what direction to take the company as a whole.” Elliott believes that a doctorate in engineering allows her to have more say in what project she works on, which is usually not the case for engineers that stop at the Bachelor’s or even Master’s degree.

Brown just recently decided to pursue a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering after spending a year in his Master’s program. “You’re putting yourself into a spot to get a different kind of job,” Brown said of pursuing a doctorate in engineering. “As long as you don’t take a huge career turn,” he continued, “you will likely work in research and development for the rest of your life.” Brown explained that, oftentimes, with a Bachelor’s degree, engineers end up working in design under a project manager and, with a Master’s degree, engineers could end up working in either design or research. Ken wanted to work with “ground-breaking research” which usually isn’t possible with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree alone.

When considering the doctorate degree, engineers must look at the good a degree can bring along with the bad that may result. “If you’re not careful,” Elliot explained, “you can get so specialized in your Ph.D. work that you won’t be able to find a job.” The economy and job market are huge factors effecting the viability of a doctorate degree. “You’re old when you graduate,” Brown said, only half joking. Even if you pursue a Ph.D. right after your undergraduate education, you’re easily 4 or 5 years older entering the job market than you would be if you had stopped at a Bachelor’s. Brown explained that, overall, there are much less research and development jobs than design jobs. “You can’t get a Ph.D. in aerodynamics and then work in design later,” he said. In this sense, the Ph.D. is much more limiting than other degrees. “You have fewer options for where you want to live,” Brown continued, “you have to go where your research is being conducted.” Brown also discussed his disappointment over the likelihood that, as an engineer with a doctorate degree, he will not be working with mechanics or other blue-collar workers who often provide practical knowledge and experience.

Elliot explained, “In undergrad, you are taught basic facts and theories that already exist, and you basically just have to memorize and understand. In your doctorate, you learn to think on your own, develop your own theories, and perform the science or research that needs to be done to prove your theories.” She continued by saying that engineering doctorates have “been trained to do research. Getting a Ph.D. is a 4-5 year long guided exercise in the scientific process… So, when companies are looking to develop new and innovative technology, they look to Ph.D.’s because they are ‘certified’ in navigating uncharted territory.”

Now, resume your life. While you’re studying for next week’s test, consider the possibilities of pursuing a doctorate in engineering.

Author, Joseph Davis, is a senior in Mechanical Engineering. This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of Engineers’ Forum.

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