What SpaceX CEO Elon Musk Says About Getting a PhD

SpaceX CEO Elon MuskElon Musk Bearish on Graduate School

In a recent interview, SpaceX and Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk gave young entrepreneurs a blunt reality check: don’t go to graduate school. The tech wunderkind suggested that it could be more “useful” for our best and brightest to avoid the ivory towers.

To be fair, he was answering a question about his own career trajectory.

The interviewer was Sam Altman, president of the startup accelerator, Y Combinator. Altman mentors a lot of young entrepreneurs in his job, many of whom look up to Musk. He says the most-asked question from them is: “I want to be the next Elon Musk — how do I do that?”

During the interview, Altman asks Musk, “Obviously the next Elon Musk will work on very different things than you did. But what have you done, or what did you do when you were younger, that you think set you up to have a big impact?”

Musk mulls over the question and explains that he was famously obsessed with five things in college: making humans an interplanetary race, developing sustainable energy, affecting the Internet, genetic manipulation, and artificial intelligence.

Those were his driving forces, but he hadn’t yet considered building companies to tackle those issues. Musk was starting to work on a PhD at Stanford University in which he would research advanced energy storage technologies for electric cars. But then he had a realization that shifted the course of his life.

“I wasn’t entirely certain that the technology I was working on would succeed,” said Musk. “You can get a doctorate on many things that do not have a practical bearing on the world … [By quitting] I was really just trying to be useful.”

Altman followed up by asking if young people who want to be useful should get post-graduate degrees. Musk gave a hilarious response. “Mostly not,” he said while laughing. “Some yes, but mostly not.”

Musk argued that technologies have an “inflection point” at which their popularity surges. Getting in front of that inflection point is important in order to maximize your contribution to change, but you can easily miss that window if you’re stuck in a PhD program that takes five years to complete.

Considering that Elon Musk has already crossed four out of five things off his bucket list, budding entrepreneurs should consider his advice on how to become a change maker. Watch the entire interview below.