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Ask the Experts: My PhD and Me!

Is having a PhD any use at all in the game industry? In this week’s ‘Ask the Experts’ column, GameCareerGuide.com’s Jill Duffy and Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech and Persuasive Games discuss whether this advanced degree is actually useful for getting into the

Jill Duffy, Blogger

September 22, 2008

5 Min Read

Is having a PhD any use at all in the game industry? In this week’s ‘Ask the Experts’ column, Game Career Guide's Jill Duffy and Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech and Persuasive Games discuss whether this advanced degree is actually useful for getting into the game biz. Gamasutra is also running this exclusive breaking-in column for aspiring game developers. For more introductory information on working in video game development, see the Getting Started section on GameCareerGuide.com. Dear Experts, I’m currently a master's student and I have been thinking about my options after I graduate, including getting a PhD. There is an interdisciplinary PhD program at my college that allows the student to choose his or her course of study and thesis board. The PhD would be an extension of my master's thesis, which is a mix of mechanical engineering, programming, and game design. I am interested in getting a PhD because I enjoy teaching and doing research but I don't know how I would use it in the industry. Also this would be the best time for me to get a PhD because I like my research and my current adviser. So I went to a job fair and also did several job searches online for the game industry and there were almost no job opportunities for people with PhDs. Is there a place for PhDs in the video game industry? Will there be in the future? That’s “Doctor” Game Player to You Dear Doctor, My opinion and advice veers toward asking you, what, really, is your goal? Do you want to make games? Is your goal to have a PhD so that you can teach, and if so, what do you plan to teach – game development, engineering, computer science? Do you want to continue doing research related to games? Do you want an advanced degree so that you will be paid more in the future? Is it for your own personal education? The answers are different depending on your goals. Ian Bogost (who has a PhD, by the way) is someone who straddles this ground, so I asked him to share his thoughts on the matter. Bogost is an associate professor in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at The Georgia Institute of Technology. But he also has a games-for-change company called Persuasive Games, and a book by the same title. “In the sciences and engineering disciplines,” Bogost told me via email, “it's possible to pursue a PhD with corporate intentions. Like, a PhD aerospace engineer or materials scientist can get a better, higher paid job somewhere. It's even possible to do this in computer science -- Google and many other technology companies hire PhDs like nobody's business. For maybe sad reasons that are at least all too familiar, the games industry hasn't viewed talent that way. It's not an unrelated fact that games companies don't have R&D. There are probably a few exceptions, but I'd guess only in high-level engineering positions. I doubt even a progressive successful MMO company would think to hire a PhD sociologist, even though that might be a good idea.” I Want to Make Games As Bogost said, if your goal is simply to work in the game industry making games, then it’s not necessary to have that doctoral degree. Having one won’t necessarily hurt you, but it will keep you in school for several years – time that could be spent making games. And if your goal is to make games, then why would you put that off? Bogost put it best and most bluntly with this: “Getting a PhD in order to go into the games biz is a daft idea.” I Want to Teach If your goal is to teach, then the advice we have for you is still different depending on what you want to teach. Game development programs need teachers like nobody’s business. There are very few educational disciplines in which the demand for professors far outweighs the supply (the only other one that comes to mind is economics; those who are qualified to teach economics usually go off in the world to rake in a whole lot of money rather than teach). However, the problem is that game schools and game development departments at colleges and universities want to hire game dev teachers who have real-world game making experience and are qualified to teach, and that’s a rare hybrid indeed. If you only have teaching credentials, that’s not even close to good enough for competitive schools. If you only have game development experience, some schools will actually consider you. You have to have both. So you see how that PhD isn’t really going to be of any use on its own. Power of the PhD You’ve no doubt heard this from your advisors: The purpose of getting the PhD is to answer a question. If you don’t have a question you really truly want to answer, then don’t go for the PhD. “The people who are the most successful in a PhD,” says Bogost, “are the ones who are driven to pursue and answer a question, not the ones who just want the piece of paper. Those folks usually don't make it.” “In general,” Bogost adds, “the PhD represents resolve and creativity. It has a cachet that is unmatched; it's the highest degree that can be awarded in a field. It represents a set of soft skills no matter the discipline that can never do anyone wrong. “But, in general, it is still a path meant for those interested in research and teaching careers. There most certainly are more academic jobs in game design and game studies, and that area will grow. But it's still fairly compact, and the competition is getting tighter. You are right that some schools, especially the ones focused on production, will expect real world experience, not just navel-gazing.” [Jill Duffy is editor-in-chief of GameCareerGuide.com and senior contributing editor of Game Developer magazine. If you have a question about the game development industry or education you’d like her to answer in this bi-weekly column, send it to [email protected].]

About the Author(s)

Jill Duffy


Jill Duffy is the departments editor at Game Developer magazine. Contact her at [email protected].

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