PhD dropout? Lucrative Silicon Valley career


Dropping out of a Ph.D. program is not generally something to brag about. Giving up after years of study and sacrifice could seem a waste, even a failure.

But a small cohort of Ph.D. students is discovering that making it through "all but dissertation," or ABD for short, could make their careers. They're not just student engineers or mathematicians, but also would-be political scientists, linguists, psychologists, even comparative literature folks. As academic jobs dry up, and data analysis finds its way into the softest disciplines, even non-STEM ABDs are finding themselves suited for lucrative careers in Silicon Valley.

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Surprised? So are they. "I never imagined this as a likely outcome, not even a little bit," says Aubrey Blanche, who left a Stanford political science Ph.D. program for a job at Palantir, a prominent data mining company.

Quantifying the trend is difficult, and for now some observers seem to have more hope than data. They point to John Maeda, the Rhode Island School of Design president who jumped ship to become design partner at Kleiner Perkins, as evidence of tech's newfound interest in the arts. "It's not cyclical," says Vivek Wadhwa, a tech entrepreneur and academic. "It's growing." Others note a growing need for tech jobs that require a human touch, like content editors and user experience analysts.

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At Zipfian Academy, a year-old data science bootcamp in San Francisco, about 10 percent of the entrants are from non-STEM fields like linguistics and psychology. "Companies need these new approaches and they're attracted to it," says co-founder Ryan Orban, "and there's a tremendous opportunity for non-STEM people to get into tech."

Dropouts are nothing new to the Valley. Quite the opposite: The tech turk — characteristically, someone too brilliant, too arrogant, too obsessed for the classroom — is key to the Valley's creation myth and the stories it tells about itself. Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Jerry Yang dropped out of graduate programs; Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg never even made it through college; and PayPal founder Peter Thiel doles out $100,000 to talented teenagers if they'll beg off college to work on something he finds brilliant. And businesses established and starting up both have long histories of poaching — or rescuing — ABDs. Sometimes even anthropologists.

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For the most part, though, firms have tended to poach students in STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math. These days, doctoral students in allegedly less "practical" disciplines, like political science, linguistics and even philosophy, are packing up the books and swapping stipends for stock options.

One explanation is that soft sciences have gotten a lot harder. Research in the social sciences was once mostly qualitative, but now doctoral candidates are expected to be at least conversant with things like regression analyses, linear algebra and statistics. Newly minted social scientists are far better at data than Max Weber could have fathomed.

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Tamara Andrade, for instance, always thought she'd be a professor. Her parents are academics, and she became deeply interested in political science her freshman year of college. But grad school was not what she imagined. Results came slowly — "like molasses," she says — and a good university placement seemed too much a matter of luck.

While researching federal infrastructure funding in Stanford's political science department, Andrade began to use simple code to clean up data sets— and found herself gravitating to projects that allowed her to program. She took a natural-language processing class, then one in machine learning. She even began offering her data-analysis services to other grad students, pro bono, including a classmate in the English department who needed help analyzing sentence structure in texts.

And then there's the cloistered world of academia. "There's almost a religious fervor to it — that when you go into the private sector, you are tainted."

After a poster presentation of a machine-learning project, Andrade was approached by an employer looking for "someone with a social science background who can also code," Andrade recalls. "I was, like, 'Yes!'" She now works at Declara, an ed tech startup.

Market forces play a big role. It's less the booming job market in Silicon Valley than the dismal one in academia. Graduate students used to endure years of grinding and crummy pay for the promise of a tenured position afterward. By now, most of the tenured positions have dried up, but the pay remains crummy. Decamping is often the best bet, even at the most prestigious schools.

In 2008, the Council of Graduate Schools found that attrition rates for Ph.D. students in the humanities and social sciences were 49 percent and 56 percent, respectively, while those for engineering were 64 percent.

"The problem we're trying to solve is job placement and career opportunities for humanities Ph.D.s," says Stanford's Anais Saint-Jude, who in 2011 founded a yearlong program, Bibliotech, intended to forge better links between doctoral students and tech. In academia, she says, failure to secure a professorship is considered career death — "which I think is a ridiculous waste of human capital." In the 2012-2013 academic year, "we placed 20 students in compelling positions in Silicon Valley. That same year, the major humanities departments [at Stanford] placed one or two people" in tenure-track positions, she says.

For now, it's much too early to designate "All But Dissertation" a springy stepping stone. Professors are wont to resist the departure of their proteges. Doctoral students tend to get little career guidance for paths outside academia. And then there's the cloistered world of academia. "There's almost a religious fervor to it — that when you go into the private sector, you are tainted," says Saint-Jude. That's one reason, she says, that Bibliotech lasted only two years.

Post-post grad students like Andrade and Blanche see it much differently. Says Andrade: "The longer I stayed, the more I felt that academia is a very old model."

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