What does a PhD mean beyond academia?

If a PhD graduate decides to pursue an alternative career apply for a job outside of academia, in some fields, recruiters will understand what is meant by the PhD on their CV. For a research career in industry a PhD can be an asset if not a prerequisite. Other fields specifically recruit PhDs – some management consultancies recognise the value of a doctorate, academic publishers will be familiar with the qualification, and when applying for a career in finance a numerate PhD can stand you apart from the crowd.

But, how do you explain a three or four year stint of postgraduate study, and more specifically its value, if a potential employer is dismissive of the doctorate? This question was prompted by the article Careers for PhDs beyond academia in the Work section of yesterday’s Guardian.

The comment that leapt out at me (and that comes from a careers adviser at UoL) was

many employers question the commitment of those who have spent seven or more years in academia

There are attributes that it might be reasonable to question about a PhD graduate. If their project was a solitary exercise you might wonder about their team-working or leadership skills. If they were applying for a sales or customer-facing role you might not make the connection between marketing ones ideas in an academic environment and commercial goals. But commitment seems an odd characteristic to question. If you were not committed you would struggle to achieve your PhD.

The article goes on to emphasise that PhD graduates should sell the skills they gained from their degree. With its humanities and social sciences focus, the article suggests skills such as

writing ability [and] foreign languages.

Writing ability should be evident whatever the discipline, from pubilcations and the thesis. In science, skills such as numeracy, data analysis and project management will be at the fore. Beyond highlighting specific skills, is there a way to explain the nature of PhD research? Such an explanation seems necessary, to counter the perception of PhD students as

verbose, individualistic and lacking emotional intelligence.

This would also be useful when answering the What do you do? question, and would hopefully provide a feasible alternative to the not unheard of practise of removing the PhD from a CV (replacing it with “research” or similar) when applying for non-academic jobs.

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17 Responses to What does a PhD mean beyond academia?

  1. Rob Thornton says:

    All too often I see negative quotes and comments about PhDs like those featured in The Guardian article that fail to grasp not only the skills people gain from undertaking PhDs, but also the wider benefits that are created as a result. I wholeheartedly agree with your article Erika, and it reminds me of one I wrote myself in reaction to a short-sighted article in The Economist at the start of the year:
    http://developingengineers.com/education-careers/is-a-phd-worth-pursuing

    Perhaps this lack of understanding shown by employers (and often sadly, politicians) is the reason the UK’s world-leading research is often mismanaged and under threat of resource cuts, when it is undoubtedly one of our best national assets.

    • Erika Cule says:

      I don’t agree that the Economist article is short-sighted. There is some truth in your last paragraph though – the nature of scientific research is sometimes poorly understood by government.

  2. ricardipus says:

    A very wise friend and mentor of mine once pointed out to me that having a PhD is really all about proving that you can finish it, and that if you can accomplish a PhD, you can pretty much accomplish anything (or words to that effect).

    I think the key to articulating the accomplishment of finishing a PhD is something along the lines of:

    1. I identified an unsolved problem.
    2. I figured out what I needed to know to solve it, and taught myself all those techniques.
    3. I applied these technically challenging techniques, modifying and improving them when necessary, and invented some new ones along the way.
    4. I persevered, on occasion presenting my results to high-profile, expert, famous and/or hostile audiences, successfully defending my conclusions and results.
    5. I finished something that only a really small percentage of people can say they did.

    I’m not sure how you write all that on a C.V. or a cover letter, especially without coming off sounding elitist, though.

    • Erika Cule says:

      I like it! Sounds accurate to me, although you are right long-winded for a CV.

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        I was going to say something similar to, although not as detailed as, Ricardipus’ comment – you can spin your skills in problem solving, written & oral presentation, etc. very nicely in all kinds of contexts!

    • Damascus Steele says:

      Gosh, the above description of the Ph.D accomplishment to finishing his Ph.D are things I do in everyday life solving unknown problems that I’m not aware of for everything. The good thing is when I have a problem the answers are out there in cyberworld with immediate solutions most of the time. The sad part is when there are no solutions, just best guess. My father always asked me are you still reading the book or are you writing the book? If your reading then you haven’t arrived. Where your writing the book you are the Forerunner and no one will have answers. It’s left to you to achieve the answers. When you find the answers, test and validate before it is confirmed.

  3. cromercrox says:

    If a prospective employer doesn’t get what a Ph.D. means or implies, then you probably shouldn’t be working for that employer.

  4. Frank says:

    Erica – My jaw dropped when I read that quote about commitment. Perhaps they mean commitment to the ideal of making money as the ultimate aim of all right-thinking people?

    The other day there was a letter in the Metro newspaper which insisted that students undertaking a degree course were “avoiding life”. I think it betrayed a similar worldview, perhaps tinged with envy.

  5. Anthea says:

    I know from experience, from what friends (now ex-friends) have said that I think that doing a PhD was a means to ‘avoid life and having a good time at the tax-payers expense’. I suspect that they were watching too many films about graduate student life in an imagined past…which never existed. I think that these ex-friends are at heart jealous of me having chosen to undergo the experience.

    However, I agree with ‘ricardipus’ that it’s important to state, perhaps in the cover letter that finishing a PhD enabled me to more or less do what ricardipus has already outlined. I’d think that I’d say this in an interview since I do think that its a bit too long to put in a cv.

  6. Rachael says:

    I’ve been offered three PhD’s, I geuss im just trying to weigh up what I can do afterwards, Im not extremly intelligent, just dedicated. I get the feeling sometimes, these PhD people are abit up themselves, well the ones I have come into contact with, because they’ve done something academic lardy de dah…..but, I geuss I just havnt thought in terms of the whole ”Life” (apart from the great experience I will have doing it) I will gain……Help?

    Thanks 🙂

    • Erika Cule says:

      Hey Rachel,

      Congratulations on getting three offers!

      You are wise to weigh up what you could do afterwards before you start. You wrote:

      Im not extremly intelligent, just dedicated.

      You might not think of yourself as extremely intelligent, but you are likely more than capable – you have been offered PhD places. That said, I think that the role of dedication vs intelligence is often underplayed in the popular understanding of the PhD process – people who don’t know assume that to get a PhD you must be super-bright but the reality is that, as I have been known to say, a PhD is not about clever, it is about endurance.

      As in every walk of life, you will find arrogant types in academia, but I hope that by looking around Occam’s Typewriter (where most but not all of the bloggers have a PhD) you will see that we are, in the main, humble about the science we do. We celebrate our successes but I don’t think any one of us would claim superiority on the basis of our academic achievements. (Other bloggers may correct me here!)

      You mention the great experience you will have doing it, but be aware that sometimes it will be a terrible experience as well. Have that in mind.

      The questions I would put to someone in your position are: Have you done any research in the area you are going to do a PhD in beyond relatively short undergraduate exercise? For example an extended research project or a summer placement? In my experience that is the only way to get a glimpse of what your life will be like day to day. And, look around at your options for after graduation – if your potential supervisors only suggest academic careers, ask to speak to PhD graduates who have gone on to do something else, to have a realistic assessment of what your options will be. This will help you to establish whether there is anything specific you can do during your studies (teaching experience, industrial collaboration) that will broaden your options after you graduate.

      Good luck making your decision.

      • Julie Gould says:

        I had a similar experience. I really loved my undergraduate degree in physics, but for the first two years I was adamant that I would not continue in research.

        I had worked in a few labs and have done two summer research projects, both of which weren’t incredibly exciting and put me off even more.

        During my third year, my tutor said I should think about doing a PhD, that I would be perfect for research. So I thought, if people are saying to me that I would be good at it, I may as well have a look at what its all about. I went to visit a few different departments, spoke to countless post docs and PhD students, and before I knew it I started getting offers.

        I then had a significant amount of pressure coming at me from several people, all telling me that I should definitely take up the offers. Some even telling me which offers to take and which not to.

        All this pressure built up and it overwhelmed me. The problem was that I found all the projects very interesting, but none had really grabbed my attention and made me go “OOOOOHHHH I would like to spend four years doing this.”

        So, I decided to take a year away from physics to think it all over and try something different. And in the space of a few weeks after making that descicion, I realised that a PhD is definitely something I would like to persue, I just have to find the right project. Taking this year away will give me the time to scout around and look for a PhD that is perfect for me.

        Rachael, good luck with making your decision!

  7. Pingback: The Practical Ph.D.: Can a Doctorate Help You Find a Job? | Science Under The Scope

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