Agile Careers

 

Jim ("Cope") Coplien is an old C++ shark who now integrates the technological and human sides of the software business as an author, coach, trainer, and executive consultant. He is one of the founders of the software pattern discipline, and his organizational patterns work is one of the foundations of both Scrum and XP. He currently works for Gertrud & Cope, is based in Denmark, and is a partner in the Scrum Foundation. He has authored or co-authored many books, including the recently released Wiley title, Lean Architecture for Agile Software Development. When he grows up, he wants to be an anthropologist. 

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Is there a doctor in the house?

 An academic degree is a way for your colleagues to recognize your hard work to prepare yourself for a job. Successful completion of an undergraduate degree supposedly shows that you are smart enough to be able to learn how to do your job in a given field (see the previous installment on Mentoring). A master’s degree, by its name, suggests mastery in some topic. A Ph.D. is at least evidence that you can navigate academic politics (and by inference, the politics of your discipline) and that you can be persuasive in selling ideas. And where I went to school in Brussels, a Doctorate shows your ability to start a research program in any field.

I actually embarked on my Ph.D. program so I could more credibly continue in discrediting the institution, as I had for years. I had seen too many theses taken at face value because of their academic stature, though they remained out of touch with day-to-day realities. I was actually cheated in that pursuit because I found myself saddled with a wise promoter, and found myself in a great environment that challenged me while also giving me opportunities to contribute.

On its face, a degree is a recognition of worthiness by society. Alistair Cockburn once told me that his Ph.D. was largely recognition of work already done. Such recognition does open doors.

These educational opportunities, and perhaps even the associated laurels, probably have some value. I’m not sure whether higher degrees offer any more value than what one can gain on-the-job. In fact, working with my colleagues in Finland, I find that most of the value in their Ph.D. degrees (and, increasingly, in their Masters’ degrees) comes from an action research approach — trying to gain what insights one can from actual on-the-job experience in some area of focus. The good news is that the students’ learning is grounded in day-to-day problems. The bad news is that their research publications are occasionally over-constrained by the artificial limits that the messiness of the real world imposes. Some research deserves to run unfettered.

More important, after having received four academic degrees (and earned enough credits for another), and after having kept my hands dirty working for almost 40 years, I think that the main tie from my academic credentials to my work situation is in the introspection encouraged by the environment in which I took my Ph.D. Academic degrees are not career milestones. For me, my undergraduate degree broadened my opportunities to appreciate the arts (see Ars Gratia Artis) and to develop a love of programming. My Master’s degree gave me a nurturing academic environment in a setting where I had a job related to my degree: Most of the learning emanated from the job, rather than from the classroom.

This perspective has implications for hiring. Why hire Ph.Ds.? It’s not necessarily because they are worth more. In fact, academic achievement tells us little about talent. Most academic programs are rooted in test scores, and those have little correlation with career success or even job performance (Michael Wallach, Tests tell us little about Talent, American Scientist 64(1), 1976).

A career is not a collection of academic degrees. Don’t hang your career success on academic achievement. Use academic institutions for the learning opportunities they provide, partially through the classroom but even moreso through their culture, environment, opportunities for deliberate practice, and opportunities for work-study programs. Employers: hire accordingly, and make a place on your staff for bright folks still working on their sheepskin.

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Smart grad students learn at least as much from their fellow students as from their professors. And they get in the habit of listening to and learning from their peers when they get into the work world. (Your earlier blog item on Mentoring was right on the mark.) An advanced degree is "nice to have", but don't use it as an excuse for not listening to people who have fewer academic credentials for the rest of your life.

Posted on 1/18/12 9:08 AM.

A PhD is much more than "academic politics .. and selling ideas". It should demonstrate that you are able to pioneer new ideas in your field, and that you have the persistence to continue even in the face of problems that appear impossible and in which nobody can help you. The key to it is your research, not your classes or tests. (This experience is borne out in my one PhD and in those of many of my friends).

Can you get this on the job? Of course! Any academic degree is a certification of your capabilities to those who don't know you - after you have been working for a while, your degree becomes - or should become - a less important credential. But you should not denigrate the experience you get from a PhD just because you apparently missed facing the challenges of research. By the way - academic research (as you do for your PhD and working in university labs)) is precisely the place where
research publications are NOT over constrained by "artificial limits".

Posted on 2/6/12 5:37 AM.

I look at a Ph.D. as an indication that an individual is committed to learning. A Ph.D. shows dedication to self-improvement and self-motivation to learn. A terminal degree does not represent an ending but a beginning for continually seeking and sharing knowledge.

Posted on 2/6/12 7:04 AM.

A PhD shows that you have the ability to work with the "big picture" of how an idea fits into the corpus of existing knowledge, as well as the detailed work of planning and doing the research to support the claims. It also shows that you can communicate your ideas (at least to other scientists, and not necessarily those in your own field of research). This list of abilities is much more than politics.

Also, many people put a lot of weight on the "piece of paper", and, rightly or wrongly, will place more faith in what a PhD says over what someone PhD-less who is equally smart and knowledgeable says. For some jobs (e.g., many corporate and government research labs), this is critical.

One final comment on the PhD. From my experience so far, when at a non-university, the following hierarchy is what you will find:
The PhD plans, funds (through grants etc), and directs the research.
The MS executes the research plan.
The BS is a tech who does much of the actual work.
Certainly you can find exceptions to this description, but this over-simplification describes many government research labs.

Disclosure: I have a PhD.

Posted on 2/6/12 8:00 AM.

From interviewing, hiring, and not hiring a significant number of folk from top tier schools, the differences in degree level, especially in the top folk, was clear.

As I noted on my blog back in '99:
9.11.2.1 B.S. degree
When I interview a candidate with a B.S. degree, I typically find two things:
1) they have been taught a relatively small but useful set of BKMs and skills in their discipline, and
2) they are very much able to talk about "what they know, what they have done"

9.11.2.2 M.S. degree
When I interview a candidate with an M.S. degree, I find 4 items:
1) they have been taught a larger set of useful set of BKMs and skills in their discipline,
2) they are very much able to talk about "what they know, what they have done",
3) in the area of their degree, they have a broad set of knowledge which integrates together into a conceptual model of that area of specialization, and
4) using that conceptual model, they can talk about "what they don't know" in the area of expertise.

9.11.2.3 Ph.D. degree
When I interview a candidate with a Ph.D., especially from the best schools, I find a significant additional skill. In addition to the MS's knowledge and BKMS in the discipline, the candidate typically has:
5) techniques to "create conceptual models" of new areas, and
6) given a new problem, can create such a model and talk about
"what they don't know and need to find out".

Susan Corwin
Intel (retired)

Posted on 2/6/12 4:00 PM.

I am a senior practitioner (25+ years experience) currently pursuing a PhD using action research based on my work environment. I'm very careful not to let too many people know I am studying for a PhD as it will hurt my employment prospects. It is certainly dangerous to put it on my CV. This may be an Australian thing, but the last thing employers want is someone with a PhD except for low paying jobs in research labs (and most of them are now closing down).

Why then am I going to all this effort. Because this study is improving my ability to do my job. It gives me access to the academic literature which provides ideas to build frameworks and mental models which can improve my performance (I think Susan Corwin is right). It has encouraged me to be critical, methodical and introspective in a way not encouraged in most workplaces.

It is also my love of learning. I'm over 50 now, but I'll never retire as long as I can find interesting problems to solve, and my research has given me more avenues to explore.

Posted on 2/10/12 11:32 AM in reply to Susan Corwin.