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.

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