Engineering PhDs — worthwhile pursuit, or expensive indulgence?

Guest Blogger
Head of Arup Advanced Technology and Research (AT&R) in the UK

A Chartered Engineer and Member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Peter has worked on projects from the Millennium Bridge through to being a Logistician and Project Coordinator for a 100 bed hospital in Sierra Leone. Peter is currently involved in diverse projects including the assessment of the impact of electric vehicles on the UK economy to the impact of railway induced vibration on hospital facilities.

This summer several thousand engineering students completed their undergraduate degree. On average they will have undertaken 17 years of education and owe in excess of £20,000. They can now enter the workplace to start clearing their debts.

Naturally these graduates will continue to learn: about how engineering projects are delivered; how teams are managed and how engineering interfaces with other professions. In short this is where their career proper begins.

So why would an engineer consider a post-graduate education? Some will choose to undertake a PhD for the lifestyle, a growing number may be waiting for the job market to pick up, and for others the enjoyment arising from a three-year long immersive indulgence is sufficient reward. But are there really any material benefits to having a PhD?

Let’s start with pay. PhDs may get a small premium on a graduate starting salary, but this will only be realised three years later than their fellow graduates who, it can be assumed, will have received at least one pay rise.

In my field there is little doubt that three years in industry is worth significantly more than the same in academia. The diverse commercial experience that complements a solid degree outweighs deep specialist knowledge in one particular field – most likely gained in an academic context. Like for like I would expect the non-PhD to out-earn their doctor friend for a good few years.

Does having a PhD improve your chances of getting the ‘right job’? In some specialist fields the answer is emphatically yes. If ‘the right job’ is itself niche, then a correspondingly niche education will be an advantage, but without a strong link between the PhD topic and your chosen career path a PhD has little relevance.

What about long-term career prospects? In some countries there is undoubtedly a glass ceiling for those without a PhD, but I have seen no evidence of this in the UK outside of academia.

Entering academia is currently much easier with a PhD – though I hope this will change over time to allow more engineers from industry to share the benefits of their commercial experience, influencing the teaching and research at universities. The current perception holds that before reaching 30 engineers must choose between a career in academia or industry..  In my opinion this leads to  a disconnect between the two domains over time. I feel that removing the implicit requirement of a PhD in academic circles would help mitigate this.

What are the benefits to industry at large from PhDs and the PhD system? Generally people do one of three things with an engineering PhD: stay in academia as a researcher, teach or enter industry. I don’t dispute that a PhD is excellent training for researchers and much valuable research is done by such students. I often hear that the UK punches well above its weight in the scientific research field because of the time and freedom given over to research – but it gives only a passing nod to the two other potential career paths of teaching and industry.

Granted, PhD programmes increasingly require students to take taught modules, some of which may have a commercial element, but in general they are little different from those in the undergraduate degree.

I see hope in the EngD – a doctoral qualification undertaken in conjunction with industry.  A year is normally spent working with the hosting company and a significant proportion of the teaching modules come from the university’s MBA programme.

This is a significant step in the right direction; however it is not without flaws. The mistake is to insist that the same amount of original research is produced.. Hence a 3 year PhD becomes a 4 year EngD – meaning one of the greatest downsides of a PhD, time out of the workplace, is made worse rather than better.

So, is a PhD an expensive indulgence, only useful for specialists or future researchers? Or can the system be improved? I think it can. Personally I would like to see:

•    A single system of doctorates for engineers retained and administered centrally

•    Greater support and advice to undergraduate engineers considering a post graduate education

•     A two year programme of original research at the heart of the PhD

•     The equivalent of one year to be spent on either:

° Further research or taught courses in the specialist area

° A fully accredited PGCE qualification including significant time spent lecturing or in the classroom

° A programme of MBA style courses

° A year in industry

Such a structure would help the thousands of engineers considering post graduate education each year to make better informed decisions. It recognises that engineering is a vocation, in the way that many of the other physical sciences are not, and that a PhD system inherited from them does not meet the needs of the individual or the wider industry.

Post graduate education for engineers is not too much of a good thing – but I do think it can be done better.