Biswabandan Panda
5 min readNov 26, 2021

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Just Say “NO” to a Ph.D. in Computer Systems: An Indian perspective

Disclaimer: Before I use a letter (word), a disclaimer. This blog is written as an individual with personal opinions and the views expressed here do not reflect the opinions of my employer (organization) that I belong to. Let’s jump into the Ph.D. now and “why and when to say NO to Ph.D. in Computer systems.” In general, computer systems deal with the study of mechanisms that make a computer work. In general, keywords like compilers, computer architecture, operating systems, computer networks, and some or all combinations of the above keywords constitute “computer systems”.

Let’s put a fictional character into this blog, Gollu, who finished his M.Tech./M.S. from one of the top IIXs in India. Let’s have another character named Pollu who is a Ph.D. student at one of the IIXs.

Here is the list of confusions that come to Gollu’s mind.

Gollu: If an M.Tech./M.S. degree can provide a fantastic salary? Why do a Ph.D. and waste (or invest) four, five, or maybe six years? Ph.Ds get a more or less similar compensation unless they join high-profile research labs.

Pollu: Say NO to a Ph.D.

Gollu: I have all the skills that the industry demands; why waste another five years?

Pollu: Say NO to a Ph.D.

Gollu: In the next five years, I can reach the unreachable heights in the industry, and a Ph.D. will delay that by six years.

Pollu: Say NO to a Ph.D.

Gollu: Can’t I innovate without a Ph.D.?

Pollu: Of course you can. There are so many awesome master's students that I know who do awesome stuff. So, say NO to a Ph.D.

Gollu: You have been saying, “say NO to a Ph.D.,” then why are you so interested in doing a Ph.D.?

Pollu: First of all, we should not compare Masters with a Ph.D.

Gollu: Why? It seems you do not have an answer. So you are running away from the topic :)

Pollu: No

Gollu: Then could you provide me with three solid reasons for doing a Ph.D. in Computer Systems apart from joining academia as a Prof? In my opinion doing a Ph.D. in systems is a futile exercise and a waste of time.

Pollu: There are no solid reasons.

Gollu: Got you. So stop pursuing a Ph.D. and join me. Joining a Ph.D. is THE wrong decision you have made so far.

Pollu: There is nothing right or wrong. It is a subjective debate/discussion.

Gollu: Let me ask you precisely. In general, do PhDs get more salaries than masters in the industry?

Pollu: Yes, but it varies based on the company. Also, ideally, a Ph.D. in Computer Systems should lead to ideas that can go into a product, eventually. If all goes well, one such idea can hire thousands of masters.

Gollu: This is a dreamy answer. In reality, it never happens.

Pollu: Well, all the master's students join IIX dreaming they will join FAANG companies. What fraction of masters students get into FAANG companies. You know the answer. Also, how many master's students become a manager or even a CEO of companies in six years?

Gollu: Point. I can take that. Now that you are answering, what else do you have?

Pollu: Some of the best research labs in the world hire only Ph.Ds. So you can work with some of the best brains.

Gollu: Are you saying Master's students are not the best?

Pollu: I never said that. In fact, masters students can also join some of the best places in the world if they have the mastery :) That is why I said there is nothing right or wrong in doing or not doing a Ph.D. Even without a Masters degree too, you can get more salary than Masters and a Ph.D.

Gollu: Looks like you are in the mood now. Tell me more.

Pollu: Ph.D. provides you a platform to “ask questions,” with rigor different from finding answers to questions. If you want to satisfy your intellectual curiosity, then Ph.D. is for you.

Gollu: What is intellectual curiosity?

Pollu: Reading about new ideas, thinking about new ideas, coming up with new ideas, experimenting with new ideas, all of this is much less in a job. Most jobs are just implementing something that someone else tells you to do. Very little innovation is possible, of course with exceptions.

Gollu: So you must be intelligent to do a Ph.D. right?

Pollu: Wrong. Intelligence comes last in the Ph.D. It is perseverance and grit that matter the most. What is the point of intelligence if you cannot persist with one idea?

Gollu: Hmmmm. What else?

Pollu: Ph.D. is about individuality and not generality. One good idea can make you stand out from the rest of the crowd. It is a feeling that money can’t buy. At the same time, not everyone is intellectually curious. So we should not compare apples with oranges here.

Gollu: Anything else?

Pollu: Ph.D. provides an opportunity to fail and fail successfully. It provides the freedom to procrastinate (of course not for six years) and explore other passions since you are your own boss of course along with your advisor. Also, the perks of student life, campus life, are very different from the corporate rat race. Of course, everyone may not like it.

Gollu: but then Ph.Ds do not train you how to work in the industry. You will have zero industry experience at the end of your Ph.D.

Pollu: That is a wrong notion. Ph.D.s go for internships and can go for internships to some of the best labs both in India and abroad. Note that even folks quit industry and join a Ph.D. program :)

Gollu: What else?

Pollu: You can roam around the world for free :) to attend conferences.

Gollu: What else?

Pollu: Nothing

Gollu: So, in summary?

Pollu: It is just a personal choice and priorities and what you want to do for the rest of your life. There is nothing right or wrong. Superior or inferior.

So, in summary, Just say NO to Ph.D. in Computer Systems if you are not interested in

i) doing research

ii) RnD/research labs

iii) academia

iv) a product based startup

v) developing RnD skills and your skillset is more than enough, and you can do awesome stuff

Gollu: Nicely and precisely done.

Pollu: That is what we learn in a Ph.D. :)

Thanks to Veerendra, who is just starting his Ph.D. at IITB and started asking questions:) Thanks to my mentors and colleagues especially Prof. Debadatta Mishra and Prof. Mythili Vutukuru for sharing their points of view.

Feel free to reach out if you have a better pointer that I can add to the list.

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Biswabandan Panda

Assistant Professor CSE-IITB, Computer Architecture/Systems && Computer Science Education