Monthly Archives: March 2013

PhD currency outside of academia

Recently I’ve been following a very interesting discussion on the LinkedIn Group PhD Careers Outside of Academia about the currency of PhDs and their value to their owners in terms of getting a job outside of academia. The discussion was provoked by an article entitled, The road to the structured PhD, which questions the value of PhD training for forging a career in business. The resulting comments from members of the LinkedIn group have been rich in individual experiences and personal stories and includes gems of wisdom and advice to peers. I have summarised some of the comments here (anonymously since the group is members only) to relate some of the shared insights from the discussion (you can see them all if you join the LinkedIn group):

“PhD recipients are full of potential. Yet many of them struggle to find jobs in industry. I don’t think it’s the fault of the job candidates or their training. I think it’s mainly because 1. There’s way too many of them, competing for too few jobs, and 2. Employers have little imagination when it comes to hiring. They so often play it short-term safe, refuse to do any training, and miss out on the longer-term prize.”

“I think it all goes back to the fact that PhDs are not trained for the reality of the job market they’re facing these days. PhD training is structured to serve the academic world. Very few PIs have the experience and/or feel comfortable to give advice and encourage for a career outside of the ivory tower. Therefore, few graduate students are prepared to enter the life science industry and what they’re prepared for is mainly a career in the research department. So what is left for a recent PhD? Many try to get into industry but have not learned how to “sell” themselves to those employers, so if they don’t hear back from job applications, the alternative is a Postdoc in academia, more technical training again tailored to stay in academia….. Our institution has taken a radical approach by designing a program that takes PhD scientists and engineers and teaches them general management skills focused solely on the life science industry, specific career path skills (like regulatory affairs, bioprocessing, medical devices design etc) and, crucial in our program, every student participates in a 2 semester industry sponsored team project. This exposes students not only to more strategic thinking but also provides situations that ask for team conflict management, time management and many more.”

“Consider what someone does to earn a PhD. They study their field until they are at the leading edge. Then they establish and conduct a research project that creates and documents something unique and significant. Along the way they have to demonstrate that they can form and lead a team, manage funding and budgets, and manage a project. They also have to pass many tests of themselves that stress their personality and dedication. These are all valuable traits to a company if the graduate can transition their learning to industrial reality.”

“During your PhD, you acquire new technical skills, but also soft skills that you can transfer in an industrial context. You manage your thesis project, you decide (with your thesis supervisor) of the guidelines, you manage people (trainee, technician), you interact with a lot of people and you present data in an efficient way.”

“I recall a conversation I had with my soon-to-be manager in my first job post PhD. He said “I am going to give you a chance, because someone also gave me a chance when I was a new PhD. You may be a brilliant addition to the organization, or you may fail miserably, but I will take that risk.” His words hold a lot of truth – some PhD folks are not well adapted to life outside of the tower. Others have little or no trouble. Whether you use your dissertation topic to further your career (I did not) or just leverage the vast amount of specialized training you received you must convince a potential employer that your skills translate – and to do so you must believe that yourself.”

So what can you do to increase the currency of your PhD to employers outside of academia?

1. Be aware of your skills and competences (such as project and financial management, teamworking and communication) beyond the subject of your research project, and understand their value to other career areas.
2. Identify gaps in your skills and experience relevant to your preferred career and try to address them by taking on additional work or courses during your PhD or postdoc.
3. Be able to communicate and market yourself to employers in an application form or CV.

Related blogs, pages and articles:

Be good to yourself …

…. “because you’re worth it”, says a major advertising company’s strap line.  And you are!

Distracted by a personal crisis and possibly influenced by SAD, brought on by a lack of sunlight up here in the north of England, I recently found myself feeling rather uninspired and a bit flat. This resulted in me having lower motivational levels than usual and feeling generally lethargic, which is why my blog has been neglected of late. As things start to improve and the lighter evenings begin to kick in I can feel myself starting to come back to life again – hence the rediscovered motivation to write a new blog. I knew the ‘dip’ in enthusiasm would ebb away eventually – I just bided my time and accepted that you can’t work at 100% all the time. You need to listen to your body and respond accordingly, give yourself an occasional break, accept that you can’t be working 24/7, all year round.

“Luxury!”, I hear postdocs and postgrads cry. “We don’t have time for a break. We need to keep going; running experiments, generating results, analysing data, writing papers and so on. It’s all we can do to fit in the odd conference or departmental seminar!”

I’m generalising here of course, as I know not all researchers think this way. However, if you’re one of those who does, take a few minutes out of your schedule to read the following five suggestions, which hopefully demonstrate that even when you’re not doing research you are still being productive:
1.       Read something other than scientific papers relevant to your research – it could be a novel, newspaper, blog, or research/review paper from another field. Reading widely broadens your horizons and promotes innovative ideas, even blue-sky thinking.


2.       Treat yourself every now and again – eat your favourite meal, go for a walk, do yoga, watch a movie, go shopping – it’s amazing how ideas can come to you when you’re relaxing and enjoying yourself.


3.       Get involved in extra-research activities, e.g. join a learned society, where you will receive a membership newsletter, discounted conference fees and access to travel grants (and a little independence!).


4.       Attend career development events – all early career researchers have the right to professional development to help improve their prospects in a range of careers.  


5.       Prioritise your workload – use this model to guide you:
Of course, the obvious caveat to this blog is that if you’re reading it I’m probably preaching to the converted, and you’re already doing these things anyway! 🙂