Saturday, March 26, 2016

PhD Impaired

My Alma Mater: University of Example.

As I wrote in The Problem with College is College a post-graduate degree in Engineering can be crippling.   To get a job in the field, you only need a B.S. degree and some experience.   If you can co-op with a company while in school or land a summer job or internship, you will do far better than someone with a Masters or PhD in the field.

Why is this?

Well, to begin with, in Engineering school they taught us to "Think like Engineers" - in other words, how to solve problems with available resources.   Sure, we took courses like Statics and Dynamics that would teach us how to calculate the stress on a bridge beam and whatnot.  But what was being taught was not specific solutions to equations, but how to apply these equations to unknown situations - how to solve problems that hadn't existed in the past.  Because as Engineers, no one was going to pay us to solve problems that were already solved in the textbooks.

Graduate level courses are an interesting animal.   In terms of jobs, they don't necessarily qualify you for a better one, or better pay.  And in fact, they can backfire.   If you spend too much time in Academia, you will have the reputation (and thinking skills) of an academic.   And the longer you spend in college, ironically, the less useful your education might be in the real world.

Let me give you a real-world example.   When I went to work at the Patent Office, nearly 30 years ago (July 22, 1987 was the date I was to "report for duty" at Patent Academy), I started out as a lowly GS-7-1225 (Engineering Scale).  The pay was low, but my performance expectations were low as well.  I had time to learn the system and ramp-up to a higher level of productivity and pay, eventually reaching GS-11 in two years.

A friend of mine, who had a PhD, started out at GS-9 and was quickly advanced to GS-11.  He made more money, but his production quota was much, much higher.   So it was harder for him to learn the ropes and do the same things I was doing, and do them in less time.

But it was worse than that.  He was over-educated for the job.   Why he took the job is a good question.   I think in part it was because no one was hiring PhD Engineers except in research labs, and to get those jobs, you had to be at the top of your field.

The problem for him was, he couldn't make a decision on any case he was assigned to.   I talked with him in-depth about this and he explained his frustration.  He was amazed that I was doing so well, even though I had less education - while he struggled with the job.

He asked me, "How can I allow this Patent when I only have 20 hours to search the Prior Art and draft a rejection?  There could be references out there that I never found!  How can I make a final decision in this matter in such little time?"

And I explained to him that as a "dumb" old BSEE, I looked at it from a different angle.   The applicant paid for 20 hours of examination, for which they paid a $265 filing fee (back then).    They paid $265 and they get $265 worth of examination.   If, in 20 hours on average, I can't find a "Prior Art" reference to deny their application with, it gets allowed.   End of story.

Of course, I was coming from industry, where everything has a price tag attached to it.   We allocate so much for research, and when that money runs out, whatever we came up with is our new product.  We can't just indefinitely improve the product - eventually something has to be made, so we can sell it and make money to keep the lights on.

And the same is true in the Patent field.   Patent Examination is not the "final answer" on the Patent-ability of an item, particularly today, when the "presumption of validity" isn't as strong as it once was.   We litigate Patents for precisely that reason.   There is no point in spending tens of thousands of dollars examining a Patent Application for a product that may never sell or never be profitable.  Let the courts decide the more important cases - the Examination process is a coarse seive to screen out the more egregious cases.

It is a pretty good system, too, for the most part.   But my friend couldn't see it that way.  He had to be absolutely right the first time, which was what was taught to him in academia.   He was literally crippled by a PhD degree.

Since he couldn't make his production quota numbers, he eventually had to quit.   And where he went, I am not sure.  He said he wanted to get back into "real Engineering" but I am not sure that after so many years in academia and then at the Patent Office, that any Engineering firm would want to hire him.

Of course, his life path sounds a lot like that of another PhD and former Patent Examiner - Albert Einstein.   So maybe he found some nice professorship at Princeton or somewhere.

This is not to say all graduate degrees are useless, of course.  If you squandered your undergraduate days majoring in "Sensitivity Studies" or whatever, a graduate degree - at least a Masters - may be necessary to get you a job at all.

And of course some professions, such as Doctor, Lawyer, or the like, may require such advanced degrees.  But beyond that, is getting more degrees going to be helpful to you?  Unless you are a New York State schoolteacher - and paid based on the number of degrees you get, perhaps not.

Beyond that, PhDs are rare, and perhaps for a very good reason.    Most are academics - professors, researchers, and so forth.  And these should be rare, exalted positions for a very few deep thinkers.

The rest of us, breathing the less-rarified air, we can make do with a lot less, and in fact, be better off because of it.