Tomasz Walenta

There’s a bulletin board of job postings in the EQuad that I walk past almost daily. The right, labeled “Academic,” is covered in papers, piled onto each other for lack of space. The left, labeled “Industrial,” is frequently empty. Of what is there, few listings are for jobs in tech.

Princeton sends Ph.D. graduates to Silicon Valley every year, but in an industry in which college dropouts like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg have wielded such influence, it’s hard not to wonder if a graduate degree is valued. As the internet empowers us to learn at home and smart technologies leave consumers hungry for new apps, jobs in tech are increasingly available to those without a formal education.

“Startups succeed because they have really good ideas,” said Tiffany Moy, a sixth-year Ph.D. student in electrical engineering, and good ideas can come from anywhere.

Nikita Dutta GS
Marie Lilly
What does this mean for the Ph.D.? Moy is in the midst of answering that question. After graduating, she will start an engineering position at Apple Inc. that requires a Ph.D., but that was not the case for every job she considered.

“If you want to pivot into roles where not everybody has a Ph.D., it’s a little harder,” she said. “I’ve had interviews where their perception of a Ph.D. student is someone who only likes theory and doesn’t do experiments.”

Anyone who’s spent weeks etching silicon wafers or aligning lasers knows this is not the case; a Ph.D. is as much about methods as it is about science. The challenge, then, is conveying this to employers. As Andy Zeng, a third-year Ph.D. student in computer science, put it: “Sell your Ph.D., not just the title.” He believes Ph.D.s bring “creativity” to tech.

“You’re more likely to take ideas you’ve learned from different places and mix them together to create better solutions,” he said.

This is not to say Ph.D. preparation doesn’t fall short in some regards. Avi Wolf, a third-year Ph.D. student in chemical and biological engineering, worked at Intel Corp. before coming to Princeton and found it more team-oriented than academia.

“The ability to work with a team is crucial for most companies and is not emphasized in most Ph.D. work,” he said. Zeng expressed similar concerns, calling the Ph.D. “more of a solo game” in which “you don’t have as many opportunities to develop communication skills or leadership qualities.”

Caroline Trippel, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in computer science with experience at several companies, sees it differently. “People value higher-education degrees for knowing that someone can drive and steer a project on their own,” she said. 

But while students are cognizant of the job market, Wolf said they should not lose sight of what brought them to Princeton: a “desire for creating new science.” Indeed, many students believe that if they’re passionate about advancing their field, a Ph.D. is irreplaceable.

“More and more startups are focusing on cutting-edge technologies instead of just writing an app and making a company,” said Shuran Song, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in computer science. “Doing a Ph.D. and knowing the most advanced technologies puts you in a better position.”

So maybe all students need is to remember the point of it all — to take a break from job postings and get back to the learning we came for. Ultimately, the curiosity that brought us here may be our most valuable asset.