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.