Is a PhD in Computer Science Worth It? An In-Depth Look at the Pros and Cons

During my time as a PhD student at UCL I was often asked by students in their 4th year of MEng or by Master’s students who were doing an MSc, for advice on how to “get into a PhD programme”. I find this question weird and I want to explain why by telling my own story. Below I will address the points I believe are the most important. Of course, every story is different but hopefully it will give you some guidance on how to approach this topic, if it is relevant to you.

Are you considering pursuing a PhD in computer science but aren’t sure if it’s the right move for your career? Earning a doctoral degree is a huge commitment of time, energy and money, so it’s smart to carefully weigh the pros and cons before making the leap. In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore all the key factors to evaluate when deciding if getting a PhD in computer science is worth it for you.

The Potential Benefits of Earning a Computer Science PhD

First, let’s look at some of the major advantages that can come with having “Dr.” in front of your name:

Advanced Training in Computer Science Theory and Research

A PhD program will provide intensive schooling in advanced computer science topics that are unlikely to be covered in a bachelor’s or master’s program. You’ll take high-level courses, conduct extensive research, and make novel contributions to the field over 4-6 years of study. This deep specialized knowledge can help open up more job opportunities and set you apart from those with less education.

Increased Salary Potential

In general, PhD graduates tend to earn higher salaries than those with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. According to PayScale, the average salary for someone with a PhD in computer science is $126,002 vs. $102,839 with a master’s. Over the course of your career, that extra earning potential can really add up.

Ability to Become a Professor

If your goal is to teach computer science at the university level, a PhD is a necessity. Being a tenured professor comes with nice perks like flexibility, good pay and the joy of shaping future generations of computer scientists This path isn’t for everyone, but the right fit can find great fulfillment as an educator

Opportunity for Cutting-Edge Research

A PhD program allows you to deeply explore highly-specialized research topics at the forefront of the field. You may get to work with renowned experts and have access to significant funding and resources to pursue innovative projects you’re passionate about. This can lead to major contributions to computer science knowledge.

Increased Leadership Prospects

Obtaining a PhD demonstrates expert-level knowledge and research capabilities which can qualify you for senior roles like Lead Scientist or Director of Computer Science. Many top positions at technology companies, research labs and universities require an advanced degree. The title alone carries clout.

Personal and Intellectual Fulfillment

Some pursue a PhD simply for the personal challenge and enrichment of earning one of the highest academic degrees possible The process requires great intellect, focus and perseverance Mastering complex subject matter and achieving new breakthroughs in the field can provide immense satisfaction.

Potential Downsides to Consider

Now let’s examine some of the common drawbacks and issues students face when undertaking a PhD in computer science:

Significant Time Commitment

Be prepared to devote 4-6 years of full-time study (or 5-8 years part-time) to earning your doctoral degree. This represents a major investment on hold pursuing other life and career goals. The long program length and intense workload can lead to burnout for some students too.

High Financial Cost

Even with teaching assistantships or fellowships, you’ll likely have to pay for tuition, fees, living costs and more while not earning a full income. The average student loan debt for a computer science PhD is $63,000. Carefully consider if taking on debt is worth it for your situation.

Difficulty Getting Admitted

PhD programs, especially at top universities, are highly competitive with low acceptance rates. You’ll need outstanding grades, test scores, research experience and recommendations to get in. There’s no guarantee you’ll be admitted to your desired program.

Phase 1 Exams Can Be Grueling

Many programs require passing qualifying exams that test your mastery of core computer science topics from prior coursework. Studying for and passing these make-or-break tests is hugely stressful for students.

Isolation of Doctoral Research

Once you begin your specialized dissertation research, you may feel intellectually lonely or missing a cohort since you’ll be working independently instead of taking classes together. Self-motivation is vital.

No Guarantee of Professorship or Industry Jobs

Don’t assume a PhD guarantees you’ll become a professor or get hired by major tech firms. The number of doctoral grads far exceeds available faculty roles. Industry jobs often prioritize skills over degrees. Manage expectations.

Opportunity Costs and Delayed Earnings

If you already have a high paying job, leaving it to pursue a PhD means delaying earning that salary for 5+ years. Carefully weigh if the boost a PhD may provide your career prospects is worth these opportunity costs.

High Pressure and Rigorous Program

Earning a PhD is intellectually grueling with stringent requirements like maintaining a high GPA, passing exams, conducting research projects and defending your dissertation. The pace can be intense and stressful, causing some students to burn out or drop out prior to completion. Be realistic about your stamina.

Work/Life Balance Challenges

Between taking classes, teaching, researching, writing and publishing, expect little free time as a doctoral student. Attaining a healthy work-life balance and making time for loved ones can be extremely difficult during a PhD program and cause tension.

Key Factors to Consider When Deciding if a PhD is Worth it For You

As this overview demonstrates, pursuing a PhD in computer science requires carefully weighing a variety of pros and cons. Here are some key questions to ask yourself when determining if doctoral study is the best choice:

  • Career Goals: Is a PhD necessary or beneficial for the specific job role or field you want to work in? Will the advanced degree significantly boost your career options and salary potential?

  • Finances: Can you manage the tuition, fees and lost earnings over 4-6 years? Is taking on student debt wise for your situation? Are scholarships/fellowships available?

  • Life Situation: Do you have obligations like supporting a family or aging parents that would make pursuing a PhD very challenging? Do you need more work/life balance than a doctoral program allows?

  • Motivation: Are you internally driven enough to handle the rigor and extended timelines of PhD study? Are you truly passionate about your intended research specialty?

  • Mental Health: Do you have strategies to manage stress and avoid burnout? Can you cope with academic pressure, isolation and uncertainty?

  • Alternatives: Would a master’s degree meet your academic needs and career goals? Could work experience provide similar benefits more quickly?

Perform an honest self-assessment on these fronts. Since a PhD represents such a major life decision, getting input from mentors and current students can further guide your thinking. Overall, pursue doctoral study for the right reasons – a passion for the work itself and the advancement of computer science, not just the title.

Pros and Cons Summary Table

Here is a quick summary of the key pros and cons covered in this article to further help with your PhD decision:

Benefits Drawbacks
Advanced computer science training Significant time commitment
Increased salary potential High financial cost
Ability to become a professor Difficulty getting admitted
Cutting-edge research opportunities Grueling qualifying exams
Leadership prospects Isolation during research phase
Personal and intellectual growth No guarantee of jobs
Opportunity costs of delayed earnings
High-pressure and rigorous program
Work/life balance challenges

Deciding whether to pursue a PhD in computer science is a major choice with compelling arguments on both sides of the debate. There are certainly many nice advantages that come with attaining such an advanced degree, but also substantial costs and drawbacks requiring careful thought. Take a holistic look at your career ambitions, financial situation, skills, life circumstances and motivations. Getting input from mentors and program advisors can further guide your decision. While not universally required for computer science jobs, a PhD remains the pinnacle of academic achievement in the field and may be a great fit for the small subset deeply drawn to research and computer science education. With thorough self-reflection, you can determine if the long journey to calling yourself “doctor” is the best choice for your goals and needs.

phd in computer science worth it


When I asked students why they were considering applying for a PhD they told me that it was considered prestigious and that it would be good for their career. This is not true, unless you want to stay in academia. Only a tiny fraction of industry jobs require a PhD and usually these are research related. Often a PhD does not teach you the skills you need in an industry environment, on the contrary. During my PhD I worked alone on my project and hence was the only one who ever looked at my code.

I never had any code reviews, I was not following best practices and no one cared how my git history looked like. As long as the code got the job done and I could run experiments smoothly and describe them in papers, it was good enough. So joining a company without a PhD as a junior, and acquiring all the necessary skills over the course of four years until you reach senior level, is better than joining after your PhD as a senior but still having to brush up on those skills. And not to forget – the one who went straight into industry got paid for the past four years, which leads me to the next point.


A Master’s degree in a certain subject can definitely be prestigious and be good for your career, and given Master’s programmes in the UK are only one year long, you can definitely force yourself to get through it, even if it is very tough. But a PhD is not a Master’s and four years (or longer if you decide to do some internships or take a break) are a long time which you can later regret wasting. Also, if you decide half way through that it is not for you, or do not get along with your supervisor (more on that below), the time spent so far will indeed be wasted.

During the first year PhD students usually accustom themselves with the relevant literature, build connections within their research circle, and start outlining their project. It usually takes up to another year to get to your first publication, and if during that time something goes wrong, you have not achieved anything – you will not get a degree and will not have a strong publication record. But how can you be sure that nothing will go wrong? Well, you can’t (that’s life), but there are a few things that significantly increase the chances of everything going well.

Should You Get A Master’s Degree / PhD In Computer Science? (for software engineering)

How much money can you make with a PhD in Computer Science?

Market projections for job growth and compensation are very positive. How much can you make with PhD in Computer Science? Professionals with a PhD in Computer Science can expect to make upwards of $80,000 post-graduation, with some roles grossing up to $200,000 annually.

Is a PhD in Computer Science worth it?

(With Jobs) A Ph.D. in computer science can help students pursue jobs in higher education or advanced research opportunities. Learning about whether this degree is worth it can help you decide on an educational path that suits your preferences and career interests.

How much does a doctorate in Computer Science cost?

A doctorate in computer science can open the door to some of the highest-paying positions in the computer profession. Most reputable schools offer tuition waivers and stipends ($20,000-$30,000 per year) to on-campus Ph.D. students. Programs typically provide online tuition discounts, as well.

What is a PhD in Computer Science?

A Ph.D. in computer science is a doctoral degree that students can earn after completing advanced research on a complex computer science topic, such as artificial intelligence (AI) or network architecture. A doctorate is the highest academic degree students can earn in the computer science field.

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