PhDs in Industry

January 28th, 2008 by Potato

I spend my Saturday afternoon at a workshop for science PhD students who may have an interest in working in industry called “Does your science degree prepare you for industrial careers?“. The workshop was to focus on “transferable skills” — that is, when a newly minted science PhD goes to work in industry, they are rarely hired for the specialized knowledge they gained in the course of their thesis. Rather, they are hired on the basis of their transferable skills, which can be applied to other subjects. For example, a PhD student whose thesis was on the migration patterns of unladen european swallows will probably not find a job directly relating to the migration of swallows, but may be able to apply their ability to analyze data, observe group behaviour, or load/unload small birds to other subjects of a more useful nature.

This is all stuff that I pretty much knew already, and that was present in the workshop description. I already knew that if I didn’t go into academia, that I could go do research in industry. But I didn’t know what other options were out there in industry. This workshop was part of a day long conference on teaching, so I thought that it might be useful in pointing out opportunities within industry to apply teaching skills, or where those skills might be valued. Sadly, the workshop seemed to have been designed for morons who didn’t even know that industry existed, because there really wasn’t any information provided beyond what was already in the course description. It was a slow, painful process of saying things like “well, if you do computer simulations of plasma, then you know how to use and program a computer, and that’s a transferable skill. If you volunteered as a lifeguard, then you know first aid and emergency management, and that’s a transferable skill.” I would have to say the workshop seems like it was designed for high school students or undergrads (especially since the pre-printed worksheets had examples like what transferable skills could you say you had from volunteer work or working in a restaurant, or what transferable skills would be gained from classes such as PSY131). It wasn’t the least bit specific to science, to PhD students, or to industry, despite the title and description.

I should have known that nothing good comes from waking up early on a Saturday. Ok, there was one interesting tidbit: a slide about the impressions that business leaders have of people with science PhDs:


  • Lateral thinkers
  • Problem solvers
  • Quick learners
  • Communication skills


  • Fear of risk
  • Time is not valued
  • Priorities not valued
  • No “big picture” perspective
  • Poor people skills
  • Failure to move beyond personal curiosity
  • Poor project management

This was quite interesting to see. They’re the perceptions of business leaders, so it gives PhD students an idea of the sort of biases they have to push through. So rather than being moronic like the facilitator was suggesting and saying things like “my experience in this field shows that I’m a quick learner” or “my thesis work gave me X particular laboratory skill” or “I got a 99% in a class presentation which proves that I’m good at communicating” [I cringed when she suggested to the ESL kids that they say stuff like that in interviews to prove things] — one could leave those things mostly alone unless one really need to sell oneself. There’s a good chance that the business person already thinks some of those things about a PhD student, and instead one must push to show that they have strengths (or do not have weaknesses) in the other areas.

Some of those biases may be inherent to doing a PhD: it’ s a pretty risk-averse and time-wasting path to take. If you had a big picture perspective and good long-term planning and thus knew you wanted to work in industry all along, you probably would have gotten an MSc and a job. So for me, I think that means that I’ve got to focus on building a record of good people skills (d’oh!), project management, and moving beyond personal curiosity to… err… well, what exactly is there beyond personal curiosity? :)

3 Responses to “PhDs in Industry”

  1. Rez Says:

    I’ve no PhD, but I can use some of what you’ve said when I seek my next job!

  2. Leslie Says:

    I spent 10 years placing post docs in industry & academic positions as a recruiter and I’d have to say that many of points they list as weaknesses for doctoral grads are crap. I hope you don’t believe this baloney. Fear of risk? Hmmm … taking 5+ years out of your life to pursue a degree in a field that may mean you’ll still end up driving a cab isn’t risky? Time & priorities not valued & poor project management? Um, how the heck did this person teach, research, write and defend a thesis without these characteristics? Poor people skills are not exclusive to PhDs … just call Rogers customer service. I’ve met docs who were arrogant jerks, humble & sweet, laugh my ass off funny, and anything else you might find in any 10 people you might meet in any restaurant.

    You want a tip: don’t write a boring resume with 88 pages of citations. It’s a resume (read: marketing tool) not a research paper. Say what you’ve accomplished (academic & career), add volunteer stuff, and interests, and then indicate references and citations etc. are available upon request. Have these references and citations readily available to be emailed and always bring 2-3 copies with you to an interview along with copies of your resume. Make sure your introductory email or cover letter is concise and jargon free as possible; it’s a rare recruiter that also has a PhD in your particular field.

    Where to send this stuff? Network like crazy with every colleague & instructor, Dean, etc. you’ve ever met. Buy them coffee, jelly beans or pizza and ask them who you should talk to about your career prospects. Ask if you can use their name in speaking with that person. Ask if there’s anything you can do for them–doesn’t have to be immediate … stay in touch. The academic community is small and you may end up working with this person again. Send thank you cards or short note (not fricking ecards) for their time.

    Interviewing: PhDs, like most people who rarely or never have interviewed for a job, don’t know how to handle this and thus get the reputation for having poor people skills. They don’t. They have poor interviewing skills. So do what you do well: research. Read about interview techniques and how to answer interview questions, and what to ask as well. An interview is a conversation. Repeat that mantra. This is a conversation. They want to know about you and you want to know about them. Prepare & practice a 2 minute blurb to the question, ‘tell me about yourself’. 30 seconds on where you went to high school & university & how you ended up in your discipline; 30 seconds on your research and managing your goals to completing the thesis; 30 seconds on your external life (you do have a life, right?) and interests; 30 seconds on what and how you can offer to the position to which you’re applying and what you want to accomplish for them. Questions you can ask: what objectives do they have for the successful candidate; who would you be working with and for; what is the team like–work on own mostly & then come together or as a unit all the time; if applicable, what resources (tools, equipment etc) do they have?; etc., you get the idea. Last questions: what is the next step in this process, and when will I hear from you. Make sure you know the name of everyone in the interview and get their business card–make sure you ask the correct pronunciation (don’t guess). Yes, you’ll be sending them a short note of thanks–doesn’t have to be a card, but do let them know you appreciate them taking the time to meet with you.

    Telephone interviews … well, there’s stuff you should know for that too.

    Hope this is helpful.

  3. Potato Says:

    Thanks for that! I’m still a few years out from needing it, but it’ll be here for when I do, and I’m sure it can help someone else who stumbles along here.