Saturday, March 16, 2013

Beyond the PhD - advice for PhD students and grads who want to get into Industry

I recently spoke on a Panel at USC at their "Beyond the PhD" conference.  I was struck by how academia hasn't really changed much in it's preparation of PhDs for the outside of academia (clearly, of course, USC recognized this, thus put on the conference).

There were three main things I walked away with that I felt like I needed to share.

  1. PhD students are scared.  They are in a highly competitive environment where the rules are clear: do research and publish. Finish your dissertation, do a post-doc or two, if you are very fortunate, you will get a tenure-track position somewhere.  As they look outside of academia, they don't understand the rules. They see a world of job listings that ask for years of experience at something they don't currently do.  They don't think they have relevant experience, so they don't apply.  They don't know where to look to find someone who would be interested in their knowledge.  The reality is, people in industry usually are not interested in your knowledge (although there are exceptions).  They would ideally like someone who has had the job experience that they are seeking, but that is so they will have the relevant SKILLS to do the job they are trying to fill.
  2. PhD students aren't conscious of what their marketable skills are. Let me illustrate:
    • Sure, you haven't been a Product Manager for 2 years, but you HAVE delivered a rather huge project (your dissertation) on-time, despite needing to juggle the demands of multiple stakeholders (your dissertation committee and advisor).  Didn't that take about 2 years?  
    • Sure, you haven't been a user experience researcher for 4 years, but as a psychology PhD (for instance),  you've been doing more years than that of research with humans. You know how to design a study, implement it and report on it.  You learn methods quickly and can conduct research to find out whatever it is that needs to be learned.  Haven't you been doing that for at least 4 years?  
    • Sure, you haven't been doing technical writing for 3 years, but you have been writing about technical matters for years, and you've also had to translate complex concepts into simple ones for undergrad classes you've been a TA for, right?  Haven't you been doing these things for 3 years?
    • Sure, you haven't been a Big Data Scientist... but haven't you been doing stats on large data sets for years?
  3. PhD students don't recognize the value of life outside of academia.  In academia, you kind of have to go wherever the jobs are, and make very little money until you achieve tenure.  Outside of academia, you can choose where you want to live (within reason), your starting salary will be more than you likely would have made for years in academia (so you can actually afford to live somewhere you want to) and it's relatively quick and easy to switch companies if your current position isn't quite working out.  It was clear from the entire panel of industry professionals, that location (e.g., living where a spouse needs to be for work) was the biggest lure for leaving academia.  However, the second biggest reason, and the one that seems more compelling --- outside of academia you have choice. You don't need to continue to put your life on hold until you nail that tenure-track job.  
All of this said, I love academia.  I always did.  I thought that is where I would stay, but my life has really bloomed since leaving it.  I have awesome and in-demand skills, I get to work with smart people on really challenging problems. I spend much of my time teaching and growing others.  I live in the Bay Area, where I am close to my family, experience wonderful weather year-round, can reach the mountains in 3 hours to ski, and have loads of cultural opportunities to take advantage of all the time.  

Sure, I don't get 3 months off in the summer. I'm still trying to negotiate that... Sure, I don't always get to work on exactly the areas that interest me most...but, I have to say:  I'm not scared, I am conscious of my marketable skills, and I definitely do recognize the value of life outside of academia.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Nice analysis, Wendy. Most of us don't take a portfolio-based approach toward skill-building. For example, my colleagues don't understand why I had one of my students (whom I am grooming for human factors) take a course in program management.

By the way, you don't get three months off during the summer if you are doing academia right, anyway.