Is doing two PhDs a good path?

  • I am studying a combined bachelor of engineering (electrical) and bachelor of mathematics; I just started this year and will graduate in 2018. The reason why I am doing double degrees and not a single degree is because I love both electrical engineering and mathematics and I could not ignore any of them. So with this in mind, I am thinking of doing two PhDs when I graduate (one in electrical engineering and one in mathematics). Is this a good path or I should concentrate on only one of them?

    You just started your double major. I think it's too early to plan PhD right now. Concentrate on your bachelor of engineering and bachelor of mathematics. Three years later, you'll have much better idea if you really want to do two PhDs. Then ask this question again.

    I wouldn't worry about it. A surprise twist will land you in chemistry or music or something unrelated anyways.

    A good path **to what**?

    Get your BS and then look around...

    I know of a former PhD student at a European university (STEM) who already had a PhD from an Asian university. In the middle of xyr European PhD, xe left completely suddenly, to start a post-doc in North America, much to the dismay of xyr supervisor (at least xe could have told xem). I suspect the supervisor might not hire candidates who already have PhDs anymore.

    You're asking for *advice on a course of action* without stating what your *goal* is. If I asked you "should I take the bus?" I hope you would point out that *you don't know where I want to go*. Do you want to have a career in academia? Do you want to have a career in industry? Do you want to have a lot of certificates on your wall? **What's your goal?**

    No. It sounds like you're full of huge ambitions. Just get through school in easy increments. You'll burn yourself out otherwise. That'll screw up all your ambitions.

    How are you going to have time to tinker with electronics projects, to show that you love electrical engineering? ;)

    Have you considered computer science by the way? It fits in right between math and EE.

    If you can do two PhDs at the same time then perhaps you are standard deviations faster/smarter than your classmates. For career purposes, you should be at institutions that are more demanding. If you are not career oriented, then maybe it would be enjoyable.

  • I suspect that most people who ask about the possibility of doing multiple PhDs are missing something fundamental in what a PhD is and what it's for. This is an understandable misperception because the general populace knows little about what PhD programs are all about, to the extent that even most people who enroll in a PhD program think they know what they're getting into and then find out that what they had in mind is an approximation to the truth (sometimes a good approximation and sometimes not).

    In the various fictive media (novels, comic books, television, film...) having multiple PhDs -- often in confluence with a very youthful persona or explicitly pointed out that they were attained at an early age -- is a standard trope for a certain type of characterization: depending upon the genre it can signal super-genius types, intellectuals, or nerdy/socially awkward types. For instance, Professor Charles Xavier graduated from Harvard at the age of 16, and he holds PhDs in Genetics, Biophysics, Psychology, and Anthropology as well as an MD in Psychiatry. This is obviously meant to be a real-world grounding for his vast mental powers. On the TV show House, the youthful medical student Martha Masters has previously attained PhDs in applied mathematics and art history, and the characterization is less positive: they are not trying to suggest that she's a genius per se -- House is the genius! -- but rather that she has an extremely overachieving personality type.

    Of course, Charles Xavier and Martha Masters are fictional characters. Moreover I imagine they were written by people who are not so familiar with PhD programs. In real life, having PhDs in Genetics, Biophysics, Psychology and Anthropology is not the hallmark of a super-genius: rather it would mean that the person is pathologically obsessed with graduate study. PhD's are not merit badges -- more of them is not better. Rather a PhD is the necessary and grueling training for a specific type of professional career.

    If you are interested in a subject then you read and learn about it. You get a PhD in a subject because you want that subject to be an essential part of your career (which of course ought to imply that you are very interested in the subject). Moreover, although the PhD provides specific technical training in a certain subject, it does not provide exhaustive training: in most cases people spend the rest of their careers continuing to train in these areas. Rather the point of a PhD is to give you enough specific training so that you can henceforth direct your own training and learning. Otherwise put, a lot of what you do in a PhD is learning how to learn. But learning how to learn is actually a rather robust and subject-independent skill. If you learn how to learn genetics, then if later on your interests turn to psychology or biophysics you will be in a much different and better position to train yourself in these areas. In some ways, doing a PhD in one of these subjects and then turning around and doing another is like becoming an internet millionaire who wakes up one day and decides that she wants to sell electronics...so she shuts down her website, gives all her money away, and starts the business out of her parents' basement. (Or maybe it is like what happens in some of my dreams: I am doing high school all over again, and somehow it is not going as well as it did the first time around.) Why are you starting over from scratch?!?

    It is true that "academic transfer" makes better sense between some fields than others. If Martha Masters got a PhD in art history and then decided that she wanted to do applied mathematics instead then she would not have been able to "segue" from one field to the other: she would indeed have had to go back to school. But that makes her story a bit sad: getting a PhD is very difficult and very time consuming, but it is not really a feat of strength, and getting two PhDs in two unrelated areas does not show how much of a super genius you are; it shows that you really changed your mind considerably about what you wanted to do with your life and maybe wasted a lot of your time. No matter how smart you are, I don't see how you can get a PhD in art history and then one in applied mathematics without spending at least eight years. You can't just skip to the end and pass the thesis defense by virtue of your preternatural brilliance: there is coursework, residence requirements, and various other mandatory things which necessarily take time. Her character is comic-booky: it is not really plausible that she could have these two degrees and have gone on to be a medical student while still being in her 20's, no matter how brilliant. [Well, "no matter how brilliant" is a little too strong: if she had graduated college at age 16, then the math works out okay...] Moreover, for someone who is that brilliant it would really be sad that she can't seem to figure out anything else to do besides infinite schooling.

    Electrical engineering and mathematics are rather closely allied fields. For sure do a PhD in one or the other. While doing a PhD in either one you can choose the amount of involvement you have in the other field, i.e., you can do a very mathematical electrical engineering PhD or a math PhD on a mathematical topic with important applications in electrical networks. Then after you get your PhD you can continue to learn and train in one or both fields as you see fit. It is entirely plausible that you could land an academic job in one department while having gotten your PhD in the other department. This is an ambitious goal, but any academic job is an ambitious goal. Getting the second PhD is unlikely to be directly helpful once you have it, let alone worth the sacrifice of 4-6 years of your life!

    Added: By the way, when you mention "mathematics" and "electrical engineering": I think of Raoul Bott, a brilliant and beloved professor whose long career at Harvard ended while I was studying there. I think that his story will be inspirational for many people with this confluence of interests. Check out his bio: he balanced his early interest in these two fields nicely...and only needed one PhD.

    Very well put, I totally agree. There is one exception, though, the PhDs that are awarded *honoris causa*. Having one PhD, the second should be pursued this way, IMHO. It's even arguable that the first one should be pursued this way, basically doing real research and contributions (those are real credentials) and not coursework that implies that you can memorize some lessons but does not necessarily imply that you can do some research contributions. The main (only) purpose of the coursework should be teaching a person how to do these contributions and that's what should matter to award a PhD.

    Indeed, once you have a PhD, there are much easier ways of getting the benefits of another PhD than actually doing it.

    To emphasize how mathematical Electrical Engineering is, the Dean (or Director?) of the college of Mathematics at my school has his undergrad in Electrical Engineering. As you'll learn if you don't already, there is a wide range in every field between the highly theoretical and the highly practical (think EE vs EET) and, of course, every field covers a wide range of material (EE covers everything from the borders of CS to Mechtronics, but this is hardly exhaustive). As Pete is saying, you can make your degree more or less Math heavy by taking those courses.

    In some places of the world, there is no such thing as "grad school" and the only thing you *have* to do to get a PhD is hand in a thesis. So, while you probably won't (want to) do two PhDs by going to grad school, it might make sense to write up a thesis (i.e. book) about a new area you moved into and thus get a second PhD -- incidentally.

    There are universities that award "PhDs by publication" in at least some subjects. I don't know if that happens in the US, but perhaps we can cheer ourselves up by imagining that Martha, while following a typical PhD program in one field, published valuable peer-reviewed papers in the other field and then (perhaps due to her juvenile over-achievement instincts) opted to pursue PhD accreditation for them which cost her relatively little time. When it surely wasn't necessary: once she's in medical school what range of job choice is she trying to keep open? ;-)

    ... of course this doesn't provide a template to follow in real life, because your PhD program in point of fact will not leave you time to throw out novel research in another field in your lunch breaks, let alone getting it published.

    @Steve Jessop: Who says you have to do the second phd at the same time as the first? I actually have a friend who got her phd and went on to a post doc in a related but different field where she first-authored some well recieved papers and then decided that she'd like to stick to that field and wrote up a "cumulative" phd thesis out of those papers. She ended up with 2 phds at age 28. I do admit that it's a very rare course of action.

    It should be noted that a lot of people don't care what a PhD is "for" when they take it, just like many people don't care what food is "for" when they eat it: and these are often the most well fed!

    This answer seems very American to me. In Europe, I think, even in Academia, multiple PhDs are much more valued.

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Content dated before 6/26/2020 9:53 AM