What’s a Ph.D. degree, and why should one get one?
A Ph.D., or a Doctor of Philosophy Degree, is the highest degree that one can earn in the United States. An essential component of the Ph.D. degree is performing original research, i.e., creating new knowledge, a body of knowledge that was not available before. This essentially means that as part of doing a Ph.D., you are solving a non-trivial problem, for which no solution was previously known. Through a Ph.D. degree, you get training in doing research. You also acquire a lot of advanced knowledge in the subject area you choose, and you become the world’s leading expert in that area.
If you are gifted, creative, think outside of the box, and are passionate about computing, you should definitely pursue a Ph.D. A Ph.D. degree in computer science is highly valued in industry, academia, as well as industrial and government research labs. As a leading expert in the subject area, academia and industrial/government labs will be interested in you and would want to hire you. The computing industry will hire you because you have gone through the training of solving really hard problems in a creative manner, and the companies want to use this skill that you have learned while doing your Ph.D. for solving other issues that they may have, even those that are not related to your subject area. A Ph.D. degree holder gets a lot of respect in the general community as well. Big tech companies would want to hire you as a part of the team engaged in developing future technologies. Above all, earning a Ph.D. can give you the satisfaction of doing something that no one had done before: solving a problem that was unsolved until you solved it.
Doctoral research has been important for humankind’s progress. Many significant and vital discoveries were made as part of an inventor’s Ph.D. thesis. For example, the automatic theorem-proving procedure that underlies nearly all AI reasoning systems was discovered by Jacques Herbrand as part of his Ph.D. thesis research.
It all sounds pretty hard, would I be able to do it. How would one be able to solve a problem that no one else could solve earlier?
It is certainly not easy to earn a Ph.D. A Ph.D. degree requires a large amount of dedication, passion, and hard work. However, during your Ph.D., you closely work with your supervising Professor (your advisor), who helps you every step of the way. Your advisor will be your guide, and that makes things somewhat more manageable. Your advisor will help you in selecting the right problem to solve, brainstorm with you when you propose solutions, and advise you on how to avoid pitfalls, etc. The work and the solution to the problem, of course, have to be your own—after all, it’s your Ph.D.
Your life is also made somewhat easier by a community of scholars—other professors and Ph.D. students – among whom you reside. There are 50+ faculty members and postdoctoral researchers actively conducting research in the UT Dallas CS Department and another 170 Ph.D. students. This community of scholars is there to help you, as well. Your Professor will have their own research group with multiple Ph.D. students, and often all of the group members may be working on different aspects of a larger problem. The whole group is very much like a family and not only provides scholarly help but also a lot of emotional and moral support.
What kind of jobs can one get after doing a Ph.D.?
The job market for Ph.D.’s in computer science is superb. The salaries and perks are excellent too. Computer Science is a rapidly expanding field, and new areas are becoming prominent – AI, machine learning, big data, cyber security, Internet of Things, virtual/augmented reality. Companies are making significant investments in advancing these technologies as well as creating new applications for them. They are recruiting Ph.D. graduates in large numbers at sky-high salaries, perks, and bonuses. Today, the five largest companies by market capitalization in the US stock market are technology companies – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon.com – and they have a voracious appetite for Ph.D. graduates.
Because of the popularity of CS as a degree major, as well as increased investments by the government in computing research, Universities are also hiring professors in large numbers. At UT Dallas, in the last 5 years, we have hired nearly 25 faculty members.
Ph.D. graduates are also sought after by startups, and, in fact, many Ph.D. graduates themselves have gone on to start their own companies. Google was born out of the research of Sergey Brin (though he never completed his Ph.D. after launching Google). Google was based on a research paper that proposed the page-ranking algorithm written while Sergey Brin was a Ph.D. student.
Can you talk about some of the recent success stories from among your Ph.D. graduates?
Every year we interview every Ph.D. graduate and post the story on our news page. This year’s story about our Ph.D. graduates can be found here. Our graduates have gone to work for top technology companies such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon. I should make a special mention of Dr. Ashkan Yousefpour, who just joined Facebook, after finishing his Ph.D. in the fall of 2019. His Ph.D. was in the area of networking and machine learning. You can learn more about his success by visiting our news page. Likewise, I should highlight Dr. Laura Moreno, who joined Colorado State University as a faculty member in 2016. You can read more about her on our news page.
Many people say that doing a Ph.D. has a negative financial impact on that person. Is that true?
Far from being true, it’s actually patently false. Ph.D. graduates of today command incredible salaries, especially if they work for large tech companies. Top earners can make salaries north of $150k per year, with a joining bonus between $50k to $100k and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stock options. Twelve-months University salaries for tenure-track faculty positions can be as high as $175,000. As a graduate with a Ph.D. in computer science, you will always be in demand by companies, Universities, research labs, etc. A Ph.D. in computer science indeed secures your career against economic downturns, as good computer scientists are and will always be in demand.
How long does the Ph.D. degree take, and how much is it going to cost me?
A Ph.D. degree will take at least four years, if not longer. Four to six years is a reasonable estimate for the range of time. The average at UT Dallas CS is perhaps 4.5 years. The good news is that nearly all our full-time Ph.D. students have 100% of their tuition covered. In addition, Ph.D. students get a monthly stipend ranging from $1,850 to $2,150 for covering living expenses. Financial support is generally guaranteed for four academic years. Of course, a Ph.D. student must keep making excellent progress for the continuation of this support.
Do I need an MS degree in Computer Science in order to apply for the Ph.D. program at UT Dallas CS?
No, you don’t need to have an MS degree in advance. If you have a stellar academic record, you can apply right after your BS CS (or equivalent) degree. You will get an MS degree on the way using the coursework that you do as part of your Ph.D.
There are more than 200 Ph.D. programs in Computer Science in the United States. Why should I do my Ph.D. at UT Dallas Computer Science Department?
Excellent question. There are several reasons why you should get your Ph.D. degree in Computer Science from UT Dallas. First and foremost, we have superb faculty who are world-renowned for their research in emerging areas such as AI, Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, Cyber Security, Software Engineering, Data Science, Internet of Things, etc. Our faculty members have received many best paper awards at various conferences, as well as many test-of-time awards, where a research paper is recognized for its long-lasting impact on the field. Fifteen of our faculty members hold the prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award—given to promising young assistant professor through a nationwide competition each year.
Second, we have an incredible system of support for our Ph.D. students. In their first semester, all Ph.D. students are required to take a course where they learn what research and creativity are all about, what is involved in doing a Ph.D., and how one can be a successful Ph.D. student? Students get their first taste of writing a large research paper – a survey of research in their area of interest – in this introductory class. The department also organizes a weekly mixer of faculty and Ph.D. students, where each week, one research lab briefly introduces itself and gives an overview of its research projects. The lab also provides refreshments for the mixer. In addition, the department runs a reward program, where if a group publishes a paper in a top CS conference, it gets $1,500 towards travel expenses to that conference. In addition, there are weekly seminars explicitly organized for graduate students to attend so they can get to learn about cutting edge research in computer science. There are other opportunities, as well. For example, teaching in the summer camps that the CS department organizes for high school students, various hackathons and programming competitions, as well as many other academic, scholarly activities. The environment in the CS Department is exceptionally collegial and supportive of Ph.D. students. Ph.D. students are treated as an integral part of the community of scholars in the CS Department.
Third, almost all our Ph.D. students are fully supported. They also have incredible internship opportunities available to them in the later part of their Ph.D., especially if they plan to pursue a career in industry.
What are the milestones that one has to cross in the Ph.D. program at UT Dallas CS Department?
All Ph.D. students have to pass a Ph.D. qualifying exam in their first year (Exams in three CS subject areas spread over two semesters). Students typically find their Ph.D. advisor in their first year and start on a program of study. They will generally identify their target area of research by their second year and begin reading-related research papers. At this time, a student may also assemble his/her dissertation committee. By the end of the second year or beginning of the third year, they would have identified a specific problem their dissertation would address, and they would start working on solving it in earnest. Once the problem that the student will solve and the approach to solving it has been identified, a thesis proposal will be made to the dissertation committee. Once the committee accepts the proposal, the student will perform the work needed to solve the problem, write the dissertation, and then present it in the final Ph.D. dissertation defense to the committee.
Tell us your own story. How did you become interested in research and doing a Ph.D.?
When I was an elementary school student, someone gifted me with a book that had short biographies of eminent scientists and engineers such as Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, etc. I found the book to be very inspiring. By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be a scientist. Once I got to college, I learned that the most natural path to becoming a scientist was to become a professor and that naturally led me to start graduate school in 1985 to earn a Ph.D. in computer science. In my second semester in grad school, I took a course that covered automated reasoning, logic programming, and computational logic. I was greatly influenced by declarative programming, the paradigm of logic programming, and what it could do. It’s been almost 34 years since, and I am still conducting research in logic programming and computational logic, addressing problems today such as how we can automate human-style common sense reasoning and how we can extract knowledge implicit in a machine-learned model and express it as a logic program (what is termed Explainable AI).
Any parting thoughts that you want to add, Professor Gupta?
While doing a Ph.D. in Computer Science can be highly lucrative, you should never do a Ph.D. for money alone. You should do a Ph.D. for the love of learning. You should do it because you enjoy learning advanced materials in computer science, because you enjoy solving hard problems, and because you want to be known and respected for creating knowledge that will advance the frontiers of knowledge. Also, a Ph.D. requires dedication, perseverance, and hard work, and the entrance requirements are stringent, and only academically strong students make it to the program.