From PhD to Industry

In most disciplines, obtaining a PhD is a trap. And I’m not talking about the “grunt work” for “no pay” that one struggles to go through for 3-8 years to obtain a slip that states that you know how to strongly focus on a topic. The real trap is what occurs post-graduation.

The primary reason one seeks to acquire a PhD is to become a college/university professor to teach, research, brag, etc. Each university is always begging for more money, hence they only have a limited amount of faculty openings. Each professor will typically have a group of graduate students, granting one a PhD once every 1-2 years (this value can vary, greatly). However, a professor occupies his position for 30+ years. Thus, there is roughly a 15:1 ratio for candidates to academic positions.

This is extremely important for academic disciplines where the ONLY option is academics and a few possible openings in university/government research labs.  Linguistics, Ecology, History, and biomedicine included. Their only other option is to go into post-doc mode. It’s almost the same as graduate school; more work but more pay (still worse than their BS industry counterparts). As the years go by, the separation worsens, requiring more post-PhD experience before one is even considered a decent PhD candidate (while at the same time fighting against millions of foreign candidates willing to work harder than you for less money).

Some majors are more lenient, where you can indirectly apply your skills to an appropriate job in the industrial sector. Some disciplines have strong financial interests, where patentable, cutting-edge technology can result in large profits in the commercial sector. Biochemistry can be applied to pharmaceutical to create the next Viagra (possibly for women!). The applicability of computer science, physics, and math backgrounds is quite broad and easily adaptable, resulting in future careers in advanced machinery and aerospace, communication, encryption, coding, and even advanced marketing analysis. In order for this to occur, one must accept that their graduate work will have no direct application to their future careers. And after 5 years purely focused on a subject, most are more than willing to try something new.

When someone acquires a PhD, the majority of the skills and knowledge acquired by that individual during that time period are traits that they could have learned without the university’s help. Students “learn how to learn” when undergo their undergraduate studies; and those knowledge fundamentals help assist an employee’s push through their constantly-changing environment called a career [New products, markets, trends, bosses and management, employees and coworkers, technology, promotions, laws & regulations, software, just about anything].

Graduate school is more of a battle of wits, and many of my fellow classmates have agreed that it’s a test of passion and determination. You cannot overcome qualifiers, research, peer-reviewed publications, and the defense without this. This evidence in a candidate is the main feature that drives high paying salaries and recruitment benefits; they are long-term investments which will produce the most output with the minimum external influence required. These words are posted on every job opening: “independent worker”,” quick to adapt”, “enthusiastic personality”, “strong communication skills.”

These skills need to be bolstered about when applying for jobs. Don’t know C#? I don’t, but I could tell you how I learned C++ to build an LED cube. Or how I used old codes in MATLAB and G-code to fix various problems without any former background. Not many expect you to be the perfect candidate, and there will always be a certain level of training. Given the broad variation in technology (including those abstract statistical ones), there are still hidden traits between them all that make them quite comparable. Even the experience of acquiring familiarity with a foreign idea/object gives you the courage to do it again. I have learned guitar over the last decade, and I know I can pick up piano if I give it a similar amount of dedication.

Another factor that employees weigh in on is that they are looking for someone that can bring “value” into the company. They aren’t considered “entry-level” where they are assumed to be fresh. PhDs should be able to teach their co-workers something new related to the business. Unless it strongly applies, please don’t lecture them on your dissertation. There should be opinions and insights that stem from a strong problem-solving skillset. No one knows how to better solve a question with an unknown problem like a PhD can!

There is one major blade that looms over the head of most graduate students, “over-qualified.” And there is a good reason for it. If someone was passionate about an in-depth subject, a particular opening may be viewed as “boring” after a few years. Take for instance the difference between polymers vs steel. Steel hasn’t changed much since the invention of stainless steel with slight changes to the manufacturing process. Polymers are always coming out with new formulas / ingredients (corn). And if someone is doing mechanical tests all day, filing the same form of paperwork, it will get boring, triggering the leave of the employee, the vacancy pressuring the company, and the drag of interviewing/hiring/training that everyone would like to avoid.

Futhermore, there comes the topic of communication. Fighting this topic is mandatory, for the stereotype of a graduate student is a follows: a nerd in glasses, slightly smelly and poorly dresses/groomed, minimal eye contact with physical stuttering, verbal quirks and lack of personal relation/empathy, only excited when his line of work comes up, and so on. Trust me, I’ve been there.

This can’t just be fixed with a quick read from “How to win friends and influence people.” Partake in meetings, make slides and present them, learn to communicate your work to various age levels from middle school / grandparents / various academic backgrounds. And create something physical (or virtual) that can be referenced when asked.

The transition can be easy for some, as many research assistants are funded by industrial sponsors who want a “cheap” consultant opinion. Others find their work purely academic focused and have to work in bridging the gap. For myself, my work was funded by one company in optical polymers, but had no options for full-time employment once I completed. However, my industrial publications and patents did bring in enough interest for 4 on-site interviews that led to 3 job offers (cameras, LEDs, and simulation software).

The delay in previous blogs was due to my constant persistence over the past 3 months in career hunting followed by interviews, moving, and creating a more stable lifestyle. My hobbies have also suffered, so stability is something I’m looking forward to. But my new position will still require an amount of “catching up.” No matter which path in life you choose, the successful individuals are those can stay afloat through their lives. And I’m comfortable with that.

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