The idea that getting a PhD is going to hurt your chances of getting a non-academic job is a misconception. In fact, most PhDs go on to get non-academic jobs and most get paid more than non-PhDs in the same position.
The only way a PhD will hold you back from getting a non-academic job is if you use it as an excuse. Don’t use your PhD as an excuse, use it as leverage. PhD-qualified professionals are in high demand. The problem is that very few PhDs know how to leverage their PhD. Most of them just expect for hiring managers and recruiters to come looking for them. They think that Pfizer, GSK, or Baxter is going to come chase them down and say please work for us. When they realize this isn’t going to happen, they call it quits and blame the system or the job market or the fact that “big companies don’t want to hire PhDs”.
Of course if you get online and search why a getting a PhD is a mistake you’re going to find a thousand unemployed PhDs blaming their failure on the academic system, the economy, or the weather. You’re not going to find the tens of thousands of employed PhDs who are happily employed in non-academic careers and getting paid great salaries because these PhDs are busy being productive and doing meaningful work.
Having a PhD is a significant advantage. Don’t let other people confuse you. PhDs get paid higher than non-PhDs and are in high demand. Trained professionals who know how to create information, not just repackage it, are desperately needed. According to a report by Forbes, entrepreneurship and innovation are at an all time high. A report by the Royal Society found that less than 1% of PhDs will go on to be tenured professors. The rest? They transition into innovative, non-academic jobs (or stay stuck in low-paying postdoctoral positions).
If you have a PhD or are on your way to having one and you’re reading this, the future is yours. The only thing that can hold you back is yourself — by choosing to be one dimensional and choosing to ignore the less objective transferable skills that will complement your PhD and make you a magnet for non-academic success. A PhD offers you the following advantages over other job candidates and over the population in general.
1. PhDs don’t repackage information, they create information.
Less than 2% of the population has a PhD. Why? Because adding to a field is hard. Anyone can learn something and then repackage it. Anyone can regurgitate information. That’s easy. It’s exceptionally harder to create information — to bring knowledge into existence for the very first time. If you have a PhD, you are a creator of information. This is one of your most valuable and most transferable skills. Don’t assume that everyone can create information. Most people can’t even do a book report. You, on the other hand, have spent years creating information and months putting it together into a hundred-plus page story called a thesis just so 5 other people can read it. This kind of innovation and tenacity is uncommon.
2. PhDs know how to find answers to complex questions.
Three of the top desired transferable skills for every non-academic position are critical thinking, complex problem solving, and correct decision-making. In other words, you have to be able to identify problems, find the right problem, and then find the right answer to that problem. PhDs excel in all three of these areas.
If you have a PhD, never forget the fact that you are a researcher. You are highly trained in identifying problems and finding solutions to those problems. Think of all the uncountable hours, days, week, months, and years (even decades!) you’ve spent trying to find answers to the world’s toughest unknown questions. You know how to approach questions from every different angle. You know how to follow a lead through 5 academic journal articles, 7 book references, and a plot in a figure that was published 15 years ago just because it helps prove some minute aspect of your overall hypothesis. In other words, you know how to dig deeply into credible references to find credible information. Employers value this. Make sure they know you have this skill.
3. PhDs don’t fear failure, they learn from it.
Remember when you graduated college at the top of your class and went to graduate school thinking you were going to be a rock star doctor with golden hands who would be able to get world-changing, Nature-worthy data in a few weeks? Yeah, that didn’t last long. You learned pretty quickly that you would have to do some experiments 30 times just to find an answer to the tiniest question and then you’d have to do 30 more experiments to get the right p-value. You failed over and over and over again, daily, without recognition or a decent paycheck. Yet, you woke up the next morning to do it all over again.
Why? Because you knew that each failure would take you closer to getting the one piece data that would bring it all together. You woke up to fail again because you knew that failure is the best teacher—failure showed you what to do next. Do you think most people are like this? No, they’re not. Most people are quit very easily and would rather do nothing than fail. These people fail once and quit, or succeed and don’t get a pat on the back and quit. As a PhD, you have a major advantage over these people.
4. PhDs are very comfortable with uncertainty.
If you have a PhD or are getting a PhD, you’ve probably spent years of your life smack in the middle of uncertainty. You have no idea if your next grant is going to be funded. You have no idea if your paper is going to get passed that damn third reviewer and get published. You have no idea when your committee is going to give you the green light to defend your thesis. You don’t even know if the project you’re working on has a translatable answer at all. Everything you’re doing — your life’s work — could be proven untrue at anytime.
As a PhD, you’re not just comfortable with uncertainty, you thrive on it. You know that without uncertainty, discovery would be impossible. Most people don’t get this. Most people want a sure thing and will spend their entire lives choosing unhappiness over uncertainty. Use this to your advantage. Be willing to take risks that other people are not willing to take. When it comes to your non-academic job search, be willing to invest in networking and in following up. Be sure to communicate your ability to invest and take risks in the face of long odds as well.
5. PhDs thrive on collaboration (also known as teamwork).
Imagine a PhD who really wants to transition into a non-academic job but lacks any real job experience. This PhD believes he is not able to get work because non-academic employers see him as too independent and not a team-player. So, he gives up. This story is all too common. If you have a PhD, you’ve worked very closely with other PhDs students, postdocs, and professionals. You’ve had to carefully share resources and closely collaborate with others to get published and funded. No one is more qualified than you to work with a team.
The key is to show that you know how to be team player by asking the right questions during networking events and interviews. For example, ask, “Can you tell me a little about the working environment at your company? Will I be able to work closely with a team?” or “Given your company’s focus on teamwork, do you think it would be possible, if I’m hired, to schedule short meetings with each department to get to know everyone?” or simply “How important is teamwork at your organization?” These questions will show that you understand the value of collaboration and know how to be a team player.
Do you want to learn how to transition into a non-academic job?
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