Grad School, is it worth it?

Grad School, is it worth it?

Last week, I posted on Engineer Blogs about how you can definitely go to engineering graduate school for free (and get paid) if you’re a US citizen.

Helena posted the following comment:

I’m entering college this fall as a freshman, and I’ve enjoyed reading EB for a long time. I’ve always known that I wanted to go to graduate school, but the chances seem to be slimming down, due to the intensity of the undergrad curriculum and the lack of research in my field of interest at renowned universities. The tens of thousands of dollars of debt I’ll have at the end of my undergrad isn’t helping the outlook either. What is the benefit of having a graduate or PhD level degree, as opposed to entering into industrial research for specialized companies?

I intended to write just a short answer but, that really wasn’t possible. I definitely needed more space that just a comment because it is a multi-faceted problem.

It would help me to answer your question if I knew at least your base discipline (ME, EE, Civil, whatever). I’ll assume ME because of the robotics that you mention on your website. For EE, adjust number up slightly and for civil, adjust the numbers down slightly.

To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t worry about your debt coming out of college. Between my wife and I, we had 1/2 of a mortgage between us and it hasn’t been a problem to pay it down. I think all federal loans can be deferred until grad school is finished so you don’t have to worry until then. And, since you’ve committed to MIT, you’re going to get at least a 10% premium in salary because of the MIT name when you get a job after graduation. That is, unless you also get an econ or finance degree like a lot of other MIT engineers and end up at hedge funds. In that case, add a zero to the end of your salary 😀

Now, on to the research. If there’s not a lot of research going on in your desired program of choice, considered sidestepping a little into an area that does. If it’s robotics, there’s plenty of stuff in that area, you just need to know where to look. If you’re still having problems in a few years from now, hit me up for answers then. Since you’re entering UG this fall, you’ve got plenty of time.

UG is all about learning how you learn. If you jump out after a BS, you basically learn how to assess and diagnose existing problems. Grad school is all about learning about future problems. And even if you take classes, you’re still mostly learning on your own. Now that you’ve learned how to learn in your UG, it’s time to apply it in Grad School. Here, the problems are cut’n’dry. (ie: oh shit, we have this broken pipe, how do we fix it?) It’s more like, “There will be corrosion in this pipe and how can we characterize the degradation over time to know when to replace it right before it breaks”.  That’s a MSc level problem. At the PhD level, you have to go deeper and look even more into the fundamentals, future uses and needs, etc. Plus, you not only go deeper in a specific field but you also are supposed to branch out into other disciplines because chances are someone in a completely different field is working on the same exact problem only on a different widget.

As far as job prospects (not including the MIT premie), $55k/year with a BS, $65k/year with a MSc and, $85k/year with a PhD is the target numbers I would use. If you get a job in Cali or NY/New England, you can add a 20% ish cost of living. When you’re in grad school, you’re probably paid $20k/year for MSc and $25k/year for PhD work. If you leave after a BS, it takes about 5-7 years to make up the money, depending on how bonuses and pay raises are factored in. For a PhD, it takes about 10+ years. But the higher you go, higher your potential earnings. For instance, it’s not uncommon for starting faculty in engineering to make $100k+ per year when you factor in summer salary (just google salary with U of State and engineering). If faculty are making that, you can be damn sure industry is paying it as well, and even higher. So you lose some money for 5-6 years, but you immediately jump into a position where you’re already in the top 10% of earners in the US. That’s a damn good starting point.

If we go beyond the financial aspects, the higher your education, the more control you have over what you do for a career. With a BS, someone will be telling you what to do at work. With an MS, you’re probably going in to mid-level management. With a PhD, you’ll either be deciding the direction of R&D or you’re in upper-level management. Frankly, I’d rather be deciding what I want to do at work than have someone tell me what I’m supposed to do. But that’s a personal (and biased) opinion.

Lastly, in your comment, you ask “What is the benefit of having a graduate or PhD level degree, as opposed to entering into industrial research for specialized companies?”. The problem is, you can’t get into industrial research without a PhD, even in specialized companies. I know there’s always exceptions and maybe with 10 years of experience, you’ll get there. However, that door will most likely be shut to you if you don’t have a higher degree.


Whoa! This post was amazing. Thank you so much for all of this information. Yes, I am planning to major in ME, I guess reading MIT FML has gotten me worried about job prospects after graduation or for internships, but I’m not planning to enter the workforce sincerely until at least after grad school. I feel like I’m going to be in school for a looooong time…

From a purely financial perspective (life-time income) the MS the optimal degree for a working engineer. A PhD starts with a higher salary after a delay, but tends not to go much higher (a full professor with 30 years experience doesn’t make much more than a newly hired assistant professor, unless they have gotten super-star status or played all sorts of salary-manipulation games).

Industry is much more willing to hire MS than PhD students, because the companies are mostly not interested in research, only in development. There are a few exceptions, of course, but a PhD is a ticket into research not into $.

One major exception is teaching positions at a university, where a PhD will get you a much higher status and better paid job than an MS will, though nowhere near the pay an MS commands in industry.

My suggestion to students:
1) if you love money, get the BS degree and a finance degree and go wreck the world economy.
2) if you love hands-on engineering, get an MS degree.
3) if you are tired of school, get the BS degree, work for a couple of years, then come back for an MS degree.
4) if you love thinking about weird things, and don’t need to get rich or have spare time, get a PhD and go into academic research.

I completely disagree with your statement that a PhD doesn’t make much more than a person with a MS.

Go look up faculty salaries at state universities and then come back and say that’s reasonable for a person with a MS. Starting salaries with summer salary are ~$100k. Plus you have consulting on the side. After 30 years, you’re probably in the $130k-150k range and you still have consulting and startup opportunities.

In industry, eventually you will be “band limited” based on your MS and your salary will not go higher. Most companies would rather can you and higher an inexperienced MS grad for cheaper.

I’m not sure where you’re seeing that, but even the best paid faculty (outside of administration) at NDSU don’t make that. My husband was very dismayed to discover that he has been making more in industry and as a research engineer (with 20 years experience and a MS at that point) than our advisor, who was a full professor and had been working for the university for nearly 25 years. And the delta is not insignificant.

UC Berkeley is widely considered the top public school in the country, so I’ll pick on them (private schools don’t have to list this data). Also, I’ll stick to ME, cuz I’m an ME 😀

ME faculty Website:

Salary Search over $100k/year

FYI, the department chair makes ~$220k/year and I would imagine a sizable amount in consulting on the side.

An Associate Prof picked at random shows ~$125/year.

I swear I’m not making this up!

Fargo is ~50% cheaper ( than Berkeley so that could be a reason. Also, the rankings of the schools might have something to do with it as well. But if someone makes $150k/yr at UC Berkeley, it’s reasonable to think they would make $75k/yr at NDSU (roughly).

I understand – but I still think you’re inflating the numbers. If pay were really that good in academia, industry wouldn’t be such an attractive option for so many graduating engineering PhDs.

GEARS’ numbers are certainly believable. Canadian universities, being publicly funded, are required by law to publish all professor salaries over 100k. Here’s the 2011 list for Ontario:

One thing that can be quickly ascertained is that associate profs can easily make $100k. Better known professors, such as David Johns (EE, Univ of Toronto) make ~$180k. Even some assistant professors cracked the $100k barrier and at least one making close to $160k.

Yes, these numbers are accurate for top schools. I think things fall off once you get out of the top tier universities, but what GEARS reports is representative of most US state flagship campuses.

Think of it this way: universities must contend with supply and demand, so it is unlikely that academic salaries will be grossly out of line with what similar degrees would bring in industry. I know engineers who left industry for academia and took a (mild) pay cut and I know PhD-level engineers in industry that make less than a typical assistant professor.

Also, one thing to consider when looking at faculty salaries is whether the numbers reported are a 12-month extrapolation of the person’s monthly rate or the actual amount paid to him/her. An assistant professor in engineering might make $8-10k per month, but may not have enough research activity to take a full salary all summer (startup packages usually include some summer support, but it seldom lasts for more than a summer or two). This even happens to associate and full professors if they hit a funding drought or choose to dial back their activities for other reasons. This may explain some seeming disparities in the data.

Your numbers are quite accurate. I am from the University of Calgary, which is a middle ranked school in Canada. Our salary levels are in the same range as the one you have provided.

I’m not so sure it isn’t an attractive option for grads. Many (most?) go into industry because there aren’t enough TT academic jobs opening up. However, there are plenty of people I know that want TT positions but won’t get them.

As a PhD level researcher in industry, I would make more than I would in academia, even with summer salary and consulting. But let’s face it, you’re not going hungry in either case…

Microelectronic industry hires a lot of PhD’s. Starting salaries are easily around a $90-100K, and not necessarily for a research position. A grad school friend of mine had a few years postdoc and just recently started with a company at somewhere between $105-110 K. I think Gears gave pretty good ranges for salaries in the post.

Middle-of-the-road quality full EE profs make around $130-150K (I am at a flagship state school). Superstar senior faculty make $200K+: my 65 year old collaborator who’s an NAE member makes about $250K; I have no idea how much money his various startups bring on top of that, but he’s definitely not poor.

But I do agree with gasstationwithoutpumps that PhD should probably not be undertaken for the money alone: PhD is a research degree and training lasts a fair amount of time and is really open-ended. It’s too painful and long to undertake if you really hate doing research or thinking about weird problems in general. 🙂
An MS is a good option for people who don’t like research, but are smart and capable and want to work for a solid pay.

I am a recent graduate of a small engineering school where around 50% of the engineering students go onto graduate school (and a sizeable portion of them heading straight into a PhD program). I did well in school and assumed I would be headed for a PhD after a few years in industry.

In addition to the peer pressure, a large part of the appeal of the PhD was what GEARS mentioned– I assumed I would be able to ensure that I always got to work on what I thought were interesting problems. The base pay and simultaneous consulting options didn’t hurt either!

Being out in the real world for the last year has let me see entrepreneurs, small business owners, and consultants who get a lot of the freedom to choose their work without a PhD. Although they may have to work harder to achieve equivalent pay, they still get the freedom to work on what they deem “interesting” without a doctorate. It seems like this freedom mainly comes from being your own boss. In a university or a large company a PhD may boost you to the top of the ladder and give you certain freedoms, but ultimately you’re still working for someone else.

These days, it’s actually my desire to teach that has me considering the PhD more than anything else. That and spending 5-7 years getting paid to spend someone else’s money building cool projects that I would try to build anyway. If it weren’t for all the other stuff (grant applications, papers, grading, committees, etc) it would be a done deal.

I have to agree with the appeal of teaching as a motivator for the PhD. Certainly, I could have taught high school, but the things I’m most passionate about don’t fit into a typical high school curriculum. Of course, we’ll see if I still think grad school was worth it when I’m done…

I graduated from university in 1978 (BEng). A few years in the workforce and I went to uni to get a MEng in robotics control. Very painful, but that might have more to do with the prof I was working under.

When I got out, I ended up in manufacturing, but the robotics work never really materialized. In a way, I was a big too far ahead of the curve.

The mfg work eventually got me into running a mfg line with a high tech company…the salary was crap, but they handed out lots of stock options. I made enough from the stock to retire. Now I focus on music and singing.

Some things I’ve learned:
You never know where your decisions will take you.
I ran out of interest in engineering in the first 10 years…some of the jobs were boring (depending on the market, you need to take what you can git as far as industry or salary) and I resigned myself to 20-30 more years of that. I didn’t want to work in mfg, but surprisingly, I eventually made enough money to do something more interesting.

You will never have enough info to make the “right” decision.
There is at least 50% probability of making a decision which will prove to be unwise in retrospect.

Universities don’t prepare you well for engineering in the real world.
It takes at least 5 years for you to develop some of the skills you really need once you’re working as an engineer.

Therefore, the decision to move on to an MS or Phd should be based on more than just the potential money.
A doctorate was described by a professor friend of mine as being, “an intense personal journey” … you must ask yourself whether this is a journey you want to take.

Your extra qualifications may not mean as much as you think.
Once I graduated with my MEng, the job I got paid less money than my BEng job. It took me awhile to work my way back up the totem pole. And yes, some of the Phds worked on research, but it didn’t necessarily relate to what it was they really wanted to research.

Sorry for the long post. Nice blog, by the way.

I think PhD in any fields should be pay little more and respect, but in society they aren’t recognized much, for sure in the U.S. For this reason, they have low pay and the rest Gone to Medical School that potentially makes more money, job security, and respect, even the easiest specialty FP/GP makes more than a starting PhD.

I am looking at going to OSU (Oregon) to get a MEng degree because I’m tired of my chosen profession. I am a nuclear QC inspector and I gross over $120k/yr working about 7 months. My true passion lies in solving problems and building stuff. The info in this post and the comments are rather interesting. Education should never be about money, it should be about PASSION.

@ Lordof theCrabPeople
I am a recent from the program you mentioned.
I would not recommend quitting your job for it. The research here is not cutting edge, and the graduate catalog in N.E. is simply senior level (B.S.) N.E. classes rehashed.

If you are only looking for the piece of paper, though. Then I would highly recommend the coursework only Meng degree.

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