Putting Your Science to Work: Applying Your Ph.D. Skills in the Practical World

The business world is waking up to something that I have known for years: Women and men with a science Ph.D. have a powerful set of workplace skills, values, and experience that make them highly effective in the world beyond academia.

Don't believe me? Check out the front page of The New York Times Business section. A few weeks back it ran an article describing the growing trend among top management consulting firms in hiring non-MBAs--in particular, they're looking for Ph.D. scientists and engineers. According to the article, these organizations (many of which have starting salaries above $100,000) are finding that holders of Ph.D.s and other advanced degrees have stronger problem-solving abilities, communication skills, and work habits than MBAs have.

Six years ago, when I began writing and speaking on the subject of career development for scientists, the Ph.D. degree was rarely displayed in the business world. Today, one out of four consultants at McKinsey and Co. (one of the most prestigious consulting firms in the industry) comes from a non-MBA background, and the majority of these people hold Ph.D.s.

What makes a Ph.D. so special?

Most Ph.D. scientists fail to realize the broad range of practical skills and experience that come with obtaining the degree. Sure, we're all smart people, but to survive and thrive in graduate school we had to develop other skills, such as time management, organizational skills, persuasiveness, and so on. More importantly, as part of our Ph.D. education, we had to literally confront the unknown and explore the frontiers of human knowledge. But to succeed in science you need more than gray matter: You need creativity, passion, and drive. These are the true traits of the entrepreneur. Other degree programs, including the MBA, simply can't teach people these things.

The Curse of Brains

OK, I know what you're thinking: If Ph.D. training were so great, we'd have scientists running the world by now! In fact, graduate science education has its weaknesses, just as it has its strengths. The greatest weakness is narrowness. We spend years and years focusing on a teeny, tiny part of science and, as a result, can have difficulty dealing with broad issues. The Ph.D. experience can also promote a degree of risk aversion. After all, seldom is anyone rewarded with a Ph.D. for trying a bold new approach ... and failing! So, despite the wealth of transferable skills and valuable traits that people with science Ph.D.s possess, many can be left feeling like their options are very limited.

In addition to thinking too narrowly, many Ph.D. scientists buy into a number of myths about job hunting and career development. The trouble with myths is that they often have a kernel of truth to them. But in general they tend to distort reality and leave you with false impressions about your options.

Overcoming the Myths of Your Job Search

The first myth of your job search is that your technical skills are the most important asset you can offer an employer. True, we Ph.D. scientists have spent years developing our technical skills, so it is not surprising that we tend to value them greatly. But your career success--in or out of research science--will be strongly influenced by the nontechnical skills that you have mastered, especially when you advance to the point at which you are managing a laboratory.

The second myth of your job search relates to determinism versus serendipity. Most of us went to graduate school with a clear (if somewhat naive) vision of our future careers. We would go to grad school, get our Ph.D.s, do a postdoc, then another postdoc, then a third postdoc (OK, OK, so I'm exaggerating a bit), then land a faculty job, get tenure, grow old, and die! It all seemed so simple and unwavering.

However, life rarely works in a deterministic fashion. In fact, one basic law of the modern job search is that 5 years from now you will be working at a job that you would have never imagined 5 years ago! Moreover, chance encounters, unexpected opportunities, and setbacks will be a part of your life forever. Maybe you'll meet the partner of your dreams and she or he will end up getting a dream job ... in a part of the country where you never wanted to live! Maybe you will end up getting that dream faculty job but not get tenure. Everyone will have his or her share of setbacks. But I have found that the people who end up being the most successful (and the happiest) are those who have been able to turn their setbacks into opportunities.

The final myth of your job search is that the only place in which you can successfully apply your prodigious intellectual skills is academia. We spend most of our life in academia. We excel in academia. Many of us genuinely love academia. So it is not too surprising that many of us feel that career paths other than academia are second best.

Granted, academia might be a great place for some of you, and we will always need people who want to push back the frontiers of science. But I guarantee that academia is not the right place for all of you! Each of you has exceptional skills, values, and experience. And there are many other places where those attributes will be appreciated in smart people like you. Don't be afraid to consider a nontraditional career path just because it is unfamiliar to you, your adviser, your family, or your peers.

And Now I Say Farewell

This particular column marks an important transition for me as well. It is the 50th that I have written for Next Wave. And it is also my last. In the past 4 years I have shared with you what I have learned about successful career development strategies for scientists. In turn, many of you have divulged your thoughts, insights, stories, and pieces of advice. For this I am extremely grateful.

Although I will be moving on to new challenges, I wish you all the best in your career and your future. And I do hope that our paths will cross sooner or later. In any case, please stay in touch--and feel free to keep writing me fan mail. I can always be reached at peterfiske@yahoo.com!

The second edition of Peter Fiske's career guide, Put Your Science to Work: The Take-Charge Career Guide for Scientists, will be published next month. Peter expects that you'll find it to be a practical, comprehensive, and valuable tool for your career development--just as his Next Wave columns are!

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at phds.org) on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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