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BEYOND THE PROFESSORIATE

Does a PhD actually make a difference in a non-academic work environment?

The degree will probably not get you the job, but hiring managers will recognize that you have critical thinking and project management skills, says one panelist.

By JENNIFER POLK | JUN 07 2018

In this fourth and final part of our series on workplace policies and norms outside academia, our panel of five PhDs answer questions about entry-level jobs in their fields, career progression, transferable skills, experience and the value of their doctoral degrees. Be sure to read part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series.

  • Raj Dhiman, PhD (chemistry, University of Toronto), is an inside sales manager (small business) at Rogers Communication.
  • Monica A. Evans, PhD (educational policy, Michigan State University), is a workforce analyst at the U.S. department of labor.
  • Niem Huynh, PhD (geography, Wilfrid Laurier University), is manager of graduate student recruitment at Concordia University.
  • Brad King, PhD (history, University of Toronto), is a vice president (organization and strategy, museum learning) at Lord Cultural Resources.
  • Rachel Leventhal-Weiner, PhD (sociology, University of Connecticut) is the data engagement specialist at the Connecticut Data Collaborative.
  • Josh Magsam, PhD (English, University of Oregon), is director of community success at Discogs.com.

Will I start in an entry-level position if I move into your field? What are those jobs called?

Raj: If you are transitioning from academia into sales, yes, you will likely need to start at the entry-level to gain experience. Look for titles like “Inside sales representative,” “Business development representative” or “Sales development representative.”

Monica: You would start at a lower GS (“general schedule,” the U.S. federal government pay scale) level and either move to another GS position at the same level, or a higher level position.

Niem: The ability to connect current skills and experiences, even if they are not directly called for in the job posting, is a promising way to show how you can be successful. If one is able to clearly identify their strengths and what they bring to a job, this helps the employer see your value and where you could fit in the unit. Sometimes, it may be necessary to start in an entry-level position to gain experience but the promotion may also be faster.

Brad: It depends on your experience. If you have already worked in the field, you might be able to start at a higher level. But most new employees start at the consultant level (also known as “junior consultant”).

Rachel: If you have no experience in the field of interest or you can’t translate existing experience, you may have to start in an entry-level position. Anyone who has been in a graduate program has skills that would set them apart in a pool of entry-level candidates. Some industries have a way of denoting levels of work including “analyst,” “associate,” “junior,” “senior.” It is always a good idea to find the organizational chart of companies/organizations you like and see how they do it to understand the hierarchy.

Josh: Yes. Community success representative, community success coordinator, or even customer service representative / coordinator.

What does career progression look like in your field?

Raj: You can progress into more senior sales roles either by taking on more responsibility or working in a more complex sales cycle (essentially, having larger-sized businesses as your clients). Expect to put in at least 12 to 18 months with consistent performance before career progression becomes a topic of conversation for you.

Monica: Moving up the GS ladder is ideal. Supervisory positions are usually needed if you want to become a director, which is typically a GS 15.

Niem: One of the fabulous things about working at a university is that there are so many career paths to choose from. The move could be horizontal as well as vertical.

Brad: A consultant (junior level) is responsible for basic desk-side research, writing proposals, and contributing to reports. After three to five years it is possible to advance to senior consultant, where staff take on greater project management responsibilities and begin to make recommendations based on the research and consultation for the task at hand. Senior consultants usually begin to generate their own projects as they gain increased experience, and at this point they may be promoted to principal consultant. Principals generate work for themselves and more junior staff, are responsible for leading projects and all recommendations resulting from the research and analysis.

Rachel: In my field (nonprofit research/advocacy/education), career progression depends on where you work and your local professional ecosystem. People who work adjacent to the government tend to either stay in the same organization for a long time or make their career progression by moving to a sister/partner organization. If you aspire to stay in an organization or a place for a long time, it is important to ask about career ladder/trajectory.

Josh: We have two branches here: (1) increased specialization in products and projects (specialist roles, project manager) and (2) leadership / management (team lead, manager, director). It’s going to depend on whether you’re more process and project focused, or whether you excel at collaboration, teaching / coaching, and so on. Introverts are successful in both fields; it’s a myth that managers are always the extroverts while the “doers” are introverts and manage the project. Our company has a mix in both types of roles, and this helps balance things out. I’m generally very introverted but I do enjoy teaching and coaching, and I’ve found that I genuinely enjoy management.

What skills do I already have that would make me a good candidate?

Raj: Communication skills, with verbal ones being the most important. Having solid writing skills also gives you an advantage over most entry-level sales reps. Interpersonal skills are critical, thus, developing your teaching experience as a grad student will serve you well.

Monica: Writing ability, the ability to analyze data, especially quantitative data, and project management skills.

Niem: Speak to a career adviser at your institution to identify the types of skills you already have. It is also useful to speak to someone who doesn’t know your work to provide an outsider’s perspective. I think the key is to challenge ourselves to develop skills we either don’t have yet or those that are at an elementary level.

Brad: PhDs have the ability to find what’s significant in large volumes of information (in terms of the goals of a particular project). They have superior research skills and are usually excellent writers. They have analytical ability and often facility with multiple languages. All of these are very useful skills for any kind of consultant.

Rachel: My job requires skills as a project manager and a creative content developer. Strong communications skills are key; I have to be a good writer. And really impeccable oral presentation skills, too; I have to be a skilled public speaker.

Josh: Project management! Whether you teach or are more focused on research, you know how to plan a project along with objectives, key results, metrics for success, and scheduled reviews. In a classroom, these are lesson plans, assignments, grades / feedback, final exams, and so on. If you’re research focused, the comparison writes itself. You’re goal-oriented. Even if you love the process of research, there’s a projected outcome with a deadline and you’re focused on it. If you teach, you are already in management: You coordinate schedules, personalities, and coach multiple skill levels every day. Academics set very high goals and are very self-critical, so they level themselves up very quickly! The former academics in my company are among the most driven and self-critical people here, and as a result, they are consistently top performers when it comes to achieving outcomes and completing projects.

What kind of additional experience would a PhD, with limited non-academic work experience, need?

Raj: Get a side hustle if you do not already have one. Tutor students, offer writing services, or find consulting work in your field. Being able to drum up business for yourself will give you a rough sense of what salespeople are doing everyday.

Monica: I advise everyone who wants to work in government to spend time working on a grant program, handling budgets and managing staff. You can do this in a volunteer position. Public affairs experience is always a good skillset to have too.

Niem: As a former graduate student, I have found the university setting a rich place to explore new skills, observe politics of a workplace, and develop emotional intelligence. For example, chair a meeting, take initiative to organize a session or event, give talks on and off campus about your research, connect with people in units outside of your own. Each of these target specific soft skills that will be useful for employment.

Brad: Experience related to the field in which the company works; in my case, with museums, or with arts and culture, or with consulting in general.

Rachel: Flexibility and willingness to experiment with new applications/technology.

Josh: For my field, not much. If you’ve ever had a customer-facing position, even if that was a work-study job in a library, then you know how to deal with questions, find answers for people, manage expectations, help people solve problems, or so on. If you’ve worked in a coffee shop or a bar – or have any food service or retail experience – you know how to handle a direct relationship with a customer!

Will my PhD matter? What will matter about it?

Raj: No. My PhD was a slight hindrance as people viewed me as a flight risk due to my education, thus it was hard to land work. It might help down the road if you are looking to move up because you have a level of maturity that most candidates don’t have coming in. Your specialization may also help depending on the type of product you end up selling; someone with a science degree could work in medical device or pharmaceutical sales. What you need to do is drill down on your transferable skills so you can position those effectively on your resume and in interviews. Network as much as you can and leverage your connections to help you during the job application process.

Monica: It may get you in the door with certain positions. It may help you progress, if you have the additional work experience, on to other positions. My office has about 15 people, and there are four PhDs, including me. None of us are managers, but we lead major initiatives. I don’t think our PhDs got us our jobs, but I think our intelligence, analytical skills, and communication skills help us excel in what we do.

Niem: The experience and learning that goes into receiving a doctoral degree is the essence, not simply having a doctoral degree. For example, I realized quickly that my PhD didn’t matter in a flower shop if I could not spatially arrange an attractive bouquet. I think what matters from the doctoral experience are the many soft skills that take time and practice to hone (e.g., professional communication, being a productive and desired colleague, making connections across units, identifying gaps and solutions, asking open-ended questions that move the project forward, strong presentation skills, answering impromptu questions thoughtfully, being succinct in responses, etc.).

Brad: It does matter. The PhD is still a prestigious degree and it says a lot of positive things about the person holding it, quite apart from the skills outlined above. It’s also prestigious for a company to have staff that hold PhDs:  it suggests that the company has intellectual firepower, and that helps sell our products. So there’s value for both the individual (in terms of the skill set) and the company.

Rachel: This is a question I ask myself ALL THE TIME. I would never have developed the worldview, mindset, or level of creativity without my PhD. However, I do many tasks that don’t require a PhD. It is helpful to have the credential to validate my experiences and it is useful to have the training/network to fall back on when I have a question. We all think of our PhD as the end of our training but truth be told, all of our fields are changing and evolving and keeping up our skills would be necessary inside or outside of academia.

Josh: The degree will probably not get you the job. But hiring managers with a keen eye will recognize that you had to develop critical thinking skills, project management skills, etc., and they’ll be eager to add those skills to their team. Your coworkers will respect that you’ve achieved something significant and they’ll understand that you have a lot of knowledge that will help the team realize its potential. And as more PhDs enter the non-academic workforce, you will start to build a better network of individuals with similar skills, a similar background, and a similar respect for the struggle in leaping between academia and the private sector. In some fields, particularly STEM, you may even earn a little more from the start based on your degree being a professional certificate. Those of us from the humanities and “soft sciences” may not have that advantage right away, but it’s still a significant asset in the long run, particularly in management.

ABOUT JENNIFER POLK
Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website: FromPhDtoLife.com.
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  1. Former Salesman / June 8, 2018 at 16:47

    Worth noting that if you move to sales, at least with Rogers, you might be faced with an unpleasant experience.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/rogers-employees-reveal-pressure-sales-tactics-1.4491926

  2. Marisa B / June 11, 2018 at 15:26

    I am a Ph.D candidate, and landed an account management sales role even before my defense. I had a little sales experience before, small scale. I now sell technology solutions for researchers – it just so happens that I also used this tech in undergrad/grad school. So my 9+ year relationship with the company turned into a job offer. My experience as a customer helps me in my job on a daily basis. For students considering industry positions, but don’t know where to start: who are your vendors or suppliers? Can you build on relationships with them? Go visit your vendors at conferences and say hello. They’ll remember you (it worked for me)! You can also talk to them about what they’re looking for in colleagues, even if working for that specific company/industry isn’t viable.

    • Jennifer Polk / June 11, 2018 at 15:31

      Awesome, Marisa! Congratulations and thank you for sharing your story… and advice!

  3. Req Uired / June 12, 2018 at 07:31

    “No. My PhD was a slight hindrance”
    “I don’t think our PhDs got us our jobs”
    “I do many tasks that don’t require a PhD”
    “The degree will probably not get you the job.”

    That’s 4/6 interviewed. So basically if it’s about getting a job, you don’t need to do a PhD. It’s really only for your own development.

  4. Jerome / June 13, 2018 at 16:01

    Seeing all these articles and reading other posts about the fear and horrors of finding a job as a PhD grad makes me wonder about something in a general sense: do many PhD candidates actually not give much thought into the career opportunities in their field?

    I am in a small field and was very aware that their would be few job opportunities available upon graduation, but that when a job was available there would be relatively little competition in terms of applicants. I didn’t want to work in the private sector or outside of my field, so I became quite strategic and planned accordingly to better my chances (i.e. be more competitive) if and when a job came up. Not to mention devising backup plans in case I saw my post doc stint going past 2 years.

    Obviously there aren’t professorships or government research scientist positions for every graduate, but if you are spending 10+ years in post-secondary school education, the very least you should do is give the future some serious and honest thought. Hoping for the best career-wise is not a solid game plan, but I’m starting to get the impression that this is exactly what many people are doing. Then they are shocked when they don’t get a job or that there isn’t a 1:1 ratio of professorships to new grads.

    It’s like climbing a mountain and not considering how you are going to get down.

  5. Bob / June 20, 2018 at 13:47

    Geez, here we go again.

    Jerome, your point of view is what’s wrong with the graduate program and why it hasn’t improved.

    First, you can’t even come to a consensus on whether a graduate education matters (which, if I may add, is what this article is about). If you read the articles posted by other faculty and follow the results of the 10,000 PhDs project, the narrative that’s put forth is that a graduate education DOES matter. So, Jerome, are you rejecting those reports then? Are you, then, also a believer that graduate education doesn’t matter?

    Second, you gloss over the problem that the graduate program establishment in Canada is nothing more than a giant propaganda machine. And everyone that says otherwise is labelled a malcontent. They’re shushed and oppressed. Why is that? Should public tax dollars be continued to support such a program? We should keep doing it because as long as we’ve gotten away with it before, why not keep going?

    When Trump University does this, people scoff at how he’s crooked. When NCAA uses student athletes, the establishment is criticized for neglecting the well-being of students and not preparing them for the world. But when Canadian academics do it, it’s the trainee’s fault. This culture of having a double standard needs to stop and it’s become apparent that the only way that’s going to happen is if enrollment and funding plummets.

    I hate to harp on this again but the most critical question isn’t “whether graduate education matters” but rather “what people are trained to do”. I really applaud Marisa for sharing her story, but what about the humanities grad student? What vendors would they converse with? Should every graduate student be encouraged to loiter the hallways now waiting for salespeople? Now, it’s perfectly OK if graduate training is devoid of real purpose; but then the thesis of this article is pointless. We also really need to take a serious look at whether it should be a government funded mandate.

    Jerome, I understand what you’re saying. What I don’t understand is why, then, this practice is allowed to continue. I fear your sentiments, Jerome, feed into that narrative. Trainee voices should be heard. They should be allowed to provide negative reviews of the training program without being told, en masse, that it’s their fault.

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