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PhD vs. Microsoft applied scientist


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Hi all,

I've been holding onto an offer from Microsoft as an applied scientist (in Bing Natural Language Understanding). I also applied to PhD programs, and am waiting to hear back. As I'm looking at the alumni profile page of some of these schools, it seems like a large number of people don't really land top tier/ high paying industry positions even after completing their PhD. I feel like doing a PhD will be fun, but in case I don't make it in academia, do you think it would hurt me for applying to industry positions? What are your thoughts on weighing industry positions vs PhD in general? 

Edited by blehperson
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A PhD will definitely help getting a leg up for certain industry position, in getting your resume viewed, but you already have the offer in hand!  Almost all industry jobs will not really utilize your PhD, so it won't be a huge advantage once you get your foot in the door.  Having a job at microsoft for a few years will look great and make your resume instantly appealing, even moreso than having a PhD, for most positions.

If you're even slightly leaning towards going into industry after a PhD anyways, and you're not independently wealthy, I'd take the job.  If you want to try industry at some point regardless, I'd take the job, because you can always go back to school.  Industry -> PhD -> academia is an easier path than PhD -> industry -> oops -> academia.  You can always go back to school, but you'll probably grow bitter and regret missing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars when your dissertation isn't going so well.

I have a million things I could say about the decision between the two, having lived in both worlds, so feel free to ask any more specific questions.  If this is a job that interests you, I would only take the PhD offer if you couldn't imagine yourself not getting a PhD and have an extreme passion to academic research or teach.

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I began my PhD at age 28 after working for some time, and I definitely think it was an asset for me personally. Years of work experience allowed me to mature and gain some real-world experience (not just work-wise but also with regard to "life skills" like budgeting, paying bills and loans, etc.), and it also gave me some more clarity about why I wanted to do the PhD. Anecdotally, most of the PhD attrition I saw was from students who enrolled in a PhD straight from a BS/BA, whereas slightly older students who had worked a few years were more likely to stick it out to the end.

That said, there are other pros with going to a PhD program right out of college. You're still young so you likely don't have as many financial/family obligations and probably don't mind living on a graduate stipend for 4-6 years (in my case, it was a huge adjustment going from a well-paid industry job to earning about $25k a year as a grad student).

*Most* PhD holders also do not end up working in academia (there are only a finite number of professorship jobs, and of course,  there are other things like two-body problems, family/geographical constraints, etc.). There are a lot of people who finish the PhD and later decide academia is not for them, and that's quite alright too. The unemployment rate for a PhD in STEM is very low, so  the chances are high that you will be able to get *some* job after getting a doctorate. So I might disagree with bayessays that you should only take the PhD offer if "you couldn't imagine yourself not getting a PhD and have an extreme passion to academic research or teach." I actually think it's perfectly fine to do a PhD for "fun" or with the explicit goal of going into industry afterwards, as long as you really want to do it *for yourself* (too many people are enamored by the perceived "prestige" of the degree, but the truth is that most people don't really care if you have a PhD, and if you work in a setting with a lot of other PhD's/researchers, the degree itself is not enough... you still have to earn their respect and demonstrate your competencies).

Edited by Stat PhD Now Postdoc
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I'd also like to add the flip side of the financial argument often made about going to grad school after being in the workforce.  I think the concern about going from making $$$$ to living on a grad stipend is overblown.  You will be able to save so much money working at Microsoft that you will be able to supplement your grad stipend and live much more comfortably than you otherwise would.

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I would also be shocked if Microsoft didn't help fund your PhD (conditional upon your return to Microsoft as research scientist, of course). They clearly want you and see your potential as a researcher, so it would be a winning strategy for them to hire you up front and incentivize you to join them after completing your PhD.

Seems like a no brainer to accept the job, but that's just me :P

Edited by theduckster
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@theduckster Applied scientist is actually different from research scientist.  Research scientists work at MSR and essentially function the way they would in academia (i.e. publishing papers). Applied scientist is essentially data science - the job is to improve Bing/ Windows autocomplete. It is very rare for an undergraduate to get a full time position at MSR as far as I know. 

Edited by blehperson
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I'm in a somewhat similar boat. I've applied to a number of PhD programs for Fall 2019, mostly because I want to be back in academia if only for a few years, but also because I am under the impression that these increase the level cap so to speak on end-game positions, for instance to work at MSR or be director of R&D somewhere, etc. Even if that's not the case from a hiring perspective, I know I would certainly gain invaluable research skills that I wouldn't be able to obtain on my own. I am currently a software engineer and while I like it, I just don't see myself doing it up until retirement.
 
However, I switched jobs a few months ago to save as much for grad school as possible. And just for perspective on my situation, my current salary is $130k (sorry if that's not socially acceptable to mention). I also work remotely and have a very flexible work schedule. Although the company doesn't have a big recognizable name like "Microsoft", it's still a pretty ideal situation. 
 
The thought of moving to a new city with a likely higher cost of living and with ~15% of my current pay.. well it's getting harder to swallow as April 15 approaches?. I think my own issue at the moment, which is different from the views above, is timing. I turn 28 next month. To me, it seems like the door is closing on the PhD. If I don't go this year, when will I? Early thirties, kids might be in the picture. Having absurdly low pay for a 4-6 year window might not be a big deal if you are single, but otherwise, you are asking a lot of your SO / family.
 
Sorry to hijack your thread with personal issues. Got a lot on my mind this season. My timing point may or may not apply, depending on your age. If you are straight out of college, I would absolutely advise you to take the MS job first, especially if you don't get into a dream school. In that case, just keep school on your radar; it's easy to jump into life and all of a sudden realize you still haven't gotten your degree many years later.
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Yeah, @galois makes a number of good points. When considering a PhD, I think it's important to consider the long term trajectory of your career. Right now, having a bachelor's is enough to get the job you want, but no matter how well paid/prestigious the position is, it's still an entry level job and you will eventually get bored and want a more challenging position. At some point, not having an advanced degree will likely limit your career advancement. Of course this is not the case uniformly across companies, but why take the chance? I do think it's reasonable to take the job, see how it goes, and then reapply to graduate programs in the future. However, as someone who worked and then went back to school, I reiterate the points above, it just gets harder and harder to be an underpaid, overworked graduate student as you get older. Ultimately, if you think you will eventually want a PhD (which seems likely), I think you would be happier if you start now and finish by the time you are 27 or 28.  

Edited by gc2012
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