Your opinions on graduate school?

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Is graduate school in CSEE worth doing?

Someone pointed me to this article: after I mentioned that I was thinking of going to grad school to study "the philosophical foundations of modern physics."

I got into a Ph.D program for CS back in my home state of MN but postponed entry to make some money and live in NYC for a while. After some reflection, I'm wondering if engineering disciplines (like CSEE) are even worth studying at the graduate level. I realize that from a fiscal viewpoint, any advanced schooling (besides professional degrees)will be unrewarding. Somewhere I got this weird idea that grad school would be more "interesting" and "fun" than a regular job. I'm pretty low-maintenance, so the money isn't that big of a deal. However, most of what I've heard about grad-school in general is that it is neither fun nor interesting. Which makes me think that maybe I should just work on my foreign languages, take an Oracle training course, and zing around the world as a consultant making $4000/day (with which I could simply purchase all the fun and interesting experiences I wanted). What do you think? Has your experience as a grad student been "fun" and or "interesting?" Would you recommend it to the average human who isn't also simultaneously running a successful company and publishing photos in national magazines? Is it worth doing for "the experience" or is it mainly just prerequisite work for obtaining an academic position?

-- Thomas Leachmere, October 27, 1998


Not that everything about grad school is bad. You can work any 70 hours per week that you want. If you just want to waste time and never graduate, and you find the right adviser, you don't even have to work at all. And the people you meet are generally smart, unusual, and fun. But for me grad school is fun just like playing Tetris all night is fun. In the morning you realize that it was sort of enjoyable, but it didn't get you anywhere and it left you very very tired.

Michael Booth, commenting on

It is tough to argue with Michael Booth. A lot depends on how much you value being surrounded by interesting people thinking about interesting things. You can make more money selling tires but you have to think about tires all day. Tires are arguably much less interesting than reading Shakespeare. This explains why people go to English Lit. grad school. The difficulty I think a lot of folks have these days is that many companies are working on problems that are at least as interesting as those in academic engineering departments.

It is tough to talk about academic CS in general when you're at one of the top three schools (MIT, Stanford, or CMU). We have lots of people who are more creative and interesting than those in even the best companies. However, because academic CS is sort of a moribund field, as soon as you get down to the second-tier schools you're mostly dealing with people who lack the intelligence and creativity to get a good job in industry. This is death.

So the bottom line for me is that if you can get into an absolutely first-rank school in a field that fascinates you, go for it. Otherwise, look at it as training for a bureaucracy that would make the Prussian civil service look imaginative.

-- Philip Greenspun, October 28, 1998

Ben: you asked (below) which companies to work for to solve interesting problems and create high quality software. But you also asked about "really great places to work." These are certainly things that I tried to combine at ArsDigita. But I'm not that they are naturally compatible. For example, Microsoft has recently attacked some very interesting problems with .NET and the software is really high quality. But salaries are sort of low, the office is in suburban hell, dogs are banned from the buildings, and hours are long. If you're on the .NET team you get to work with some excellent colleagues but you might find that you're doing it 80 hours per week :-)

Now that funding has dried up for small companies the good people have either retired or are piling back into big companies. IBM Global Services has an $85 billion backlog of orders. That's got to be comforting for someone whose startup just failed.

So I guess if you yearn to see your work adopted by the masses, you want to find a market leading software company and try to get a job on the core team. Examples would be Adobe, Microsoft, Oracle. If you want to have some freedom to explore ideas and be creative (and not have to work 80 hours/week before a release), a research lab is perhaps the best option. CMU, MIT, Stanford, and UC Berkeley have sustained interesting groups of computer scientists for decades. Xerox PARC managed for a couple of decades. Big tech companies such as IBM, HP, Mitsubishi, Philips, ATT, France Telecom, et al., typically are able to sustain fairly interesting-to-work-for research labs. Personally, though, I think the best jobs over the next few decades will in academia. Funding is better than ever. Alternatives in industry are probably getting less interesting as companies continue to suffer from the turmoil of new management teams. Look at HP, for example; they brought in Carly Fiorina, MBA to shake the place up and now the profits have disappeared so they'll probably bring in someone else to shake the place up some more. Carly's old company, Lucent, is in even worse shape. Companies measure time in calendar quarters. Universities measure time in 3-6 year chunks, which is a lot friendlier to research.

-- Philip Greenspun, August 26, 2001

Philip, just as you noted the difference between the top 3 CS schools and the second tier, there is a similar difference among companies in the software industry. For a while, ArsDigita was the only company I knew that I would place in that top-tier category. I'm not so sure anymore if it retains that status.

Can you name a few companies that you feel are really great places to work for smart creative people who want to solve interesting problems and build quality software?

-- Ben Ballard, August 1, 2001

I went to grad school myself. Its a good experience, if you are, as you put it, "low maintenance". Grad school, as any other organization, has its goods and bads. Its good to be around a lot of smart people. Its bad to realize after a year or two of grad school that you would never be able to match them intellectually. Its good to be thinking that you are working towards a goal, its bad to get back to your job and realize what a waste of time it was. When I say grad school, I mean hardcore grad school like PhD courses, or MS degrees. I am not considering professional oriented courses like SW Engg. Etc. Just my 2 bits.

Especially for people who went to grad school, there's this great comic available at Its a great piece of reading and I am sure a lot of you would identify with the different characters. Happy reading.

-- Harsh C, January 22, 2006