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Myth #1: You can only do research in an academic setting. Not true. There are plenty of research labs owned by big and small companies and organizations, including government, as well as abroad. In my case, I own and manage my self-funded research lab, publishing in my own niche media outlets (see here.) At some point I run a VC-funded company, and VC’s like to hire PhD scientists as co-founders.

Myth #2: The best outcome is to become a university professor. Not true, very difficult these days, and in my case (independent researcher) I have more flexibility to choose which projects I will work on (not influenced by grant hunting or politics) and produce high quality output — sometimes even ground-breaking — accessible to a large audience, as opposed to esoteric papers read by very few people. I will go as far as to say that my job security and revenue, as an entrepreneur, is better than that of a successful tenured professor.

Myth #3: You are bad at managing a business, forget about it. Not true, you can even start a business when working on your PhD. Not all of us are geeks. Not only did I become an entrepreneur without gaining an MBA, but I do better than most of my MBA peers, as I learned how to run a business (and ended up loving it) from scratch. The result is that my competitors — who hold an MBA — have learned old stuff at school, and lack the original ideas that I have to compete with me. I am eating their lunch. It really helps to be a self-learner, but any PhD worth her grain of salt is a self-learner.

Myth #4: You are not a very social person. Not true for many. And indeed to succeed as an entrepreneur, it helps to be very good at making important, relevant connections at the right time (quality better than quantity here.) It is doable, but not a skill you learn at school. Making efforts to be well-known in a hot field, also helps. As well as “planting seeds” that can go dormant for years but will develop in a big tree at the right time. In my case, I was able to transfer Internet fraud detection expertise (even though my PhD was about image processing) into working for Visa in credit card fraud detection, as a consultant. And later received VC funding (it takes some efforts to get; the right connections help) back again working in Internet fraud detection (traffic quality scoring.) Now image processing is hot again!!

Myth #5: You will either work all your life on stuff related to your PhD thesis, or otherwise have miserable jobs that you hate. Not true, but to escape from this dilemma, you need to embrace and love change (see also myth #4), be passionate about what you do, and adjust your passions over time. I started as a statistician, then data scientist, now I am deeply interested in number theory (with applications to hot problems such as Blockchain.) All of this while pursuing business opportunities to the point of creating and operating (with love) my own successful companies. I also tried to find the right partners for these endeavors (see myth #4 about connections.)

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Comment by Vincent Granville on March 9, 2018 at 7:05pm

Hi Paul,

You are right. You can choose to make the best of your PhD, or not. In my case, I had the chance to work in the corporate world, at the very beginning of doing my PhD, and in the context of my PhD thesis (my mentor got me this opportunity through his contacts.) I think this kind of applied experience should be included and mandatory in all PhD programs. I also published my first paper (in Journal of Number Theory) very very early, despite my PhD research having nothing to do with this subject, and no courses in number theory were offered at my school. It actually helped me get accepted in the PhD program, and that is a seed I planted 25 years ago, that brings rewards even today. I was unable to secure a job in Belgium after my PhD due to high unemployment and lack of interesting jobs, and eventually accepted a PostDoc at Cambridge UK (there were 30 applicants from all over the world for this position, all PhD's from stellar schools.) It helped me in my career, despite the low salary. Last but not least, I was not born in wealth, quite the contrary. Other great piece of advice: never burn bridges.

All the best,


Comment by Paul Bremner on March 9, 2018 at 2:00pm

I'd be curious how you think the experiences/expertise of "Ph.D Data Scientists" vary (if they do) by the type of degree.  Your Ph.D is in math and statistics (according to your LinkedIn profile) which is right in sync with the job of a data scientist. But most people I see out there with Ph.D's have them in things like computer science or the natural sciences.

I remember taking an eDX course some time back where the statistics prof from MIT said she'd noticed the computer scientists seemed pretty light on statistical knowledge.  And then there are folks with degrees in economics, econometrics (something I wished I'd studied), operations research, etc.  Not that I have any axe to grind on this.....I have three master's degrees (none of them quantitative unless you consider an MBA quantitative.)  I actually turned down a Ph.D program that I got admitted to at MIT -- Political Science/Public Policy -- when I realized it would slow me up initially in the job I wanted right after school.  I think any advanced degree you get is what you make of it, and the choices you make in your career, particularly the extent to which you keep learning.            

Comment by Steve Kamotho on March 9, 2018 at 10:03am

This is good. Still my take is that "data science" is a buzz that will pass with time. Math or Physics or a broader field is better as a PhD.

Comment by Chaitanya Baraskar on March 8, 2018 at 7:27pm

this clears my few doubts.

Comment by Yusuf Hamzah on March 8, 2018 at 4:41pm

Thanks for an insightful post.

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