I have read and written quite a few articles on how the PhD does not necessarily prepare you for working outside of academia. And that aspect is true, these environments can be, and often are, quite different.
However, I have also been accused of focusing too much on the negative. Too much of a ‘lack thereof’ and not enough of a focus on the positives; the things that are in place and we can build from. So let’s do that now, for the PhD, shall we?
When in a PhD program, you are being trained to be an independent researcher. You are essentially becoming an expert in a specific topic, through a specific, or sometimes even varied, set of methods. So let’s start there.
For me specifically, my topical knowledge extends to financial decision-making. Even more specific, the psychology of money, and even more niche: the effect of payment methods on how people manage and perceive their money. That is niche, but to get to this level of expertise you do actually have to learn most things under the sun with regards to financial decision-making. So yes, I’m also fluent in the psychology of investing, saving, budgeting etc. I know work in a behavioural unit in a bank. So all of that knowledge is still incredibly relevant. Thank God.
The story can be similar for you, looking at your own topic and the larger field it relates to. Your theoretical and topical knowledge is absolutely not a waste of time – it does make you more attractive if you want to stay in the same field, but simply move away from academia. Food for thought.
Skill set Now let’s move away from the topical, which can be quite niche, to something much more generalizable. Your skill set. Let’s start at the methods you used. If you do any kind of analytics, congrats you’re at least a basic data scientist – preferably one who uses R, Python or any equivalent. Which other software do you know how to use? Or before analytics even, how did you gather data? Are you an experimentalist? Do you know how to build RCTs? Do you work with non-human samples – if so, how? And backtracking that even further, how did you get the money for these endeavours? Are you good at selling ideas? Do you manage a lot of different stakeholders? Do you present well? Are you a good designer – so a more creative mind? All of this matters. And then there’s the more obvious skill set that I think all PhDs have, at least at the end of their PhD – you can write, disseminate and deep-dive incredibly well and fast. Because you’ve had to. Similarly, you know how to manage a project. Because all your own research was your project to manage (most likely). These are all very important skills. And yes, you can put all of these on your CV/resume.
Resilience The PhD student experience is one plagued by unstable, non-supportive environments that can easily take pressure cooker shape. This is not up for debate, the numbers are there and so are the horror stories. I’m not saying other sectors don’t have these issues (looking at all the consultancy cults out there…), but academia is renowned for it. Coming out of such an environment unscathed is unlikely. Coming out of such an environment with your sanity somewhat intact, and some if any achievement to show for it, is excellent. This type of resilience might not be something you can easily quantify and put on your CV, but this is a skill. For me personally, the PhD taught me exactly which environment I did not want to work in. Which conditions were acceptable and which weren’t. And what red flags are in people who can essentially ‘make our break’ all of your work. This also relates back to mental health, work-life balance and your (work) identity. The PhD is a long program of work, with very far away deadlines and almost endless negative feedback, very little to no positive feedback and ever moving goalposts. It’s for that reason (amongst many others) that people get sucked in and lose sight of the rest of their lives. The type of resilience you can build in a PhD dealing with this is incredible. That’s not to say that if you’re not there yet you have failed. Sometimes it takes months or years after the PhD to have dealt with it fully and achieve it. But that still counts.
Although resilience is difficult to define, it is the one thing I have taken from the PhD and flaunt proudly. I may have lost some battles but won the war. And that’s the only thing people seem to care about. So don’t think for a second that just because you’re switching battle fields (academia to corporate) that you’re starting from scratch again, you’re absolutely not!
If you want to learn more about making the transition from academia to corporate, how to best sell yourself and how to deal with an ever changing (work) identity, read my new book “The Ultimate Guide to Doing a PhD”, available through Amazon and via World Scientific [and just sent me a message for a discount code!]. And as always, good luck!