I'm 21 years old and a first year master's computer science student. Whether or not to continue with my PhD has been plaguing me for the past few months. I can't stop thinking about it and am extremely torn on the issue. I have read http://www.cs.unc.edu/~azuma/hitch4.html and many, many other masters vs phd articles on the web. Unfortunately, I have not yet come to a conclusion.
I was hoping that I could post my ideas about the issue on here in hopes to 1) get some extra insight on the issue and 2) make sure that I am correct in my assumptions. Hopefully people who have experience in the respective fields can tell me if I am wrong so I don't make my decision based on false ideas.
Okay, to get this topic out of the way - money. Money isn't the most important thing to me, but it is still important. It's always been a goal of mine to make 6 figures, but I realize that will probably take me a long time with either path. According to most online salary calculating sites, the average starting salary for a software engineer is ~60-70k. The PhD program here is 5 years, so that's about 300k I am missing out on by not going into the workforce with a masters. I have only ever had ~1k at one time in my life so 300k is something I don't think I can accurately imagine. I know that I wouldn't have all of that at once obviously, but knowing I would be earning that is kinda crazy to me. I feel like I would be living quite comfortably by the time I'm 30 years old (but risk being too content too soon). I would definitely love to have at least a few years of my 20s to spend with that kind of money before I have a family to spend it all on. I haven't grown up very financially stable so it would be so nice to just spend some money…get a nice car, buy a new guitar or two, eat some good food, and just be financially comfortable. I have always felt like I deserved to make good money in my life, even as a kid growing up, and I just want to have it be a reality. I know that either path I take will make good money by the time I'm ~40-45 years old, but I guess I'm just sick of not making money and am getting impatient about it.
However, a big idea pushing me towards a PhD is that I feel the masters path would give me a feeling of selling out if I have the capability to solve real questions in the computer science world. (pretty straight-forward - not much to elaborate on, but this is a big deal)
Now onto other aspects of the decision.
I originally got into computer science because of programming. I started in high school and knew very soon that it was what I wanted to do for a career. I feel like getting a masters and being a software engineer in the industry gives me much more time to program in my career. In research, I feel like I would spend more time reading, writing, trying to get grant money, etc than I would coding.
A guy I work with in the lab just recently published a paper. He showed it to me and I was shocked by it. The first two pages was littered with equations and formulas. Then the next page or so was followed by more equations and formulas that he derived from the previous ones. That was his work - breaking down and creating all of these formulas for robotic arm movement. And whenever I read computer science papers, they all seem to follow this pattern. I always pictured myself coding all day long…not proving equations and things of that nature. I know that's only one part of computer science research, but that part bores me.
A couple cons on each side -
Phd - I don't really enjoy writing or feel like I'm that great at technical writing. Whenever I'm in groups to make something, I'm always the one who does the large majority of the work and then give it to my team members to write up a report. Presenting is different though - I don't mind presenting at all as long as I have a good grasp on what I am presenting. But writing papers seems like such a chore to me. And because of this, the "publish or perish" phrase really turns me off from research. Another bad thing - I feel like if I am doing research, most of it would be done alone. I work best in small groups. I like to have at least one person to bounce ideas off of when I am brainstorming. The idea of being a part of some small elite group to build things sounds ideal to me. So being able to work in small groups for the majority of my career is a definite plus. I don't feel like I can get this doing research.
Masters - I read a lot online that most people come in as engineers and eventually move into management positions. As of now, I don't see myself wanting to be a part of management. Lets say my company wanted to make some new product or system - I would get much more pride, enjoyment, and overall satisfaction to say "I made this" rather than "I managed a group of people that made this." I want to be a big part of the development process. I want to make things.
I think it would be great to be more specialized than other people. I would rather know everything about something than something about everything. I always have been that way - was a great pitcher during my baseball years, but not so good at everything else, great at certain classes in school, but not so good at others, etc. To think that my career would be the same way sounds okay to me. Getting a PhD would point me in this direction. It would be great to be some guy who is someone that people look towards and come to ask for help because of being such an important contributor to a very specific field, such as artificial neural networks or robotic haptic perception. From what I gather about the software industry, being specialized can be a very bad thing because of the speed of the new technology.
When it comes to being employed, I have pretty conservative views. I don't want to change companies every 5 years. Maybe this is something everyone wishes, but I would love to just be an important person in one company for 10+ (maybe 20-25+ if I'm lucky!) years if the working conditions were acceptable. I feel like that is more possible as a PhD though, being a professor or researcher. The more I read about people in the software industry, the more it seems like most software engineers bounce from company to company at rapid paces. Some even work like a hired gun from project to project which is NOT what I want AT ALL. But finding a place to make great and important software would be great if that actually happens in the real world.
I'm a very competitive person. I thrive on competition. I don't really know why, but I have always been that way even as a kid growing up. Competition always gave me a reason to practice that little extra every night, always push my limits, etc. It seems to me like there is no competition in the research world. It seems like everyone is very relaxed as long as research is being conducted. The only competition is if someone is researching the same thing as you and its whoever can finish and publish first (but everyone seems to careful to check that circumstance). The only noticeable competition to me is just with yourself and your own discipline. I like the idea that in the industry, there is real competition between companies to put out the best product or be put out of business. I feel like this would constantly be pushing me to be better at what I do.
One thing that is really pushing me towards a PhD is the lifetime of the things you make. I feel like if you make something truly innovative in the industry…just some really great new application or system…there is a shelf-life of about 5-10 years before someone just does it faster and more efficiently. But with research work, you could create an idea or algorithm that last decades. For instance, the A* search algorithm was described in 1968 and is still widely used today. That is amazing to me. In the words of Palahniuk, "The goal isn't to live forever, its to create something that will."
Over anything, I just want to do something that matters. I want my work to help and progress society. Seriously, if I'm stuck programming GUIs for the next 40 years…I might shoot myself in the face. But then again, I hate the idea that less than 1% of the population will come into contact with my work and even less understand its importance.
So if anything I have said is false then please inform me. If you think I come off as a masters or PhD, inform me. If you want to give me some extra insight or add on to any point I made, please do. Thank you so much to anyone for any help.