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Doing vs. Thinking: Valuable PhD Transferable Skills

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PhD graduates come in different shapes and sizes; those passionate about an academic career, and those that are not. As it becomes clear that an academic career is not the ultimate goal - panic, dread and feelings of lack of accomplishment may start to reign. Suddenly, that published paper that seemed like the ultimate key to eternal success, seems just OK. Regardless, armed with a suite of transferable skills brave PhD graduates throw themselves nervously into the 'outside world.'

But what have they actually done?

Well, it depends on who's asking.

Academics have a long standing reputation of being 'thinkers,' that is, those who ponder, write about their 'ponderances' and talk about doing them, rather than actually doing them. While it is generally true that academics enjoy the pondering process, the different degrees of 'doing' and 'thinking' will vary according to the field of study. In this particular instance I am going to focus on graduates that have devoted a significant portion of their time to the lab, regardless of subject matter.

Let's re-examine what motivates these PhD students:

1. Achievement
Generally if someone has committed to doing a PhD then they have some sort of ambition to publish research and crave for that much sought after eureka moment. For those who haven't experienced one, go look for one right now, they are addictive.
2. Results
Lab based PhD students are only as good as their last experiment, that is, the aim is to produce, produce and produce. Without those sometimes frustratingly elusive novel results, they may as well quit early and walk away unscathed.
3. Promotion
PhD students are status hungry, I don't think I have ever met a PhD student whose sole ambition was to be a postdoc for the rest of his/her life. In fact, the whole process of working hard to obtain a prestigious title should speak for itself.
4. The Learning Loop
If knowledge is power, PhD students should be the most powerful humans on earth. The thirst for learning becomes part of their DNA. A PhD graduate's brain is wired to absorb information, and remain very curious. It sounds pretty fun, but it can also be exhausting.

So, what do these skills look like when reframed, repositioned and repackaged for the real world?


1. Innovation is the main driver
During a PhD the emphasis is not just on churning out data and writing up a lengthy technical dissertation. Data needs to be completely original and must fit into the larger body of research, often dictated by whoever is funding it. This means that not only does it need to be a new discovery; it also needs to tell a compelling story that is publishable and valuable to the next scientist who needs that discovery to advance.
2. Problems turn into friends
Problems for the PhD researcher aren't seen as hurdles to overcome, but rather the essence of the work. The thesis itself is driven and defined by a problem, and experiments are little mini problems that are designed, implemented and analysed. Without problems, research would be pretty boring and probably deemed unnecessary too.
3. Working is a balancing act
Perhaps the main culprit of the 'thinkers' branding that PhD graduates get, is associated with the perceived lengthy process of literature review and writing up, along with the length of time it takes to complete the degree. In reality, a lot of the time is spent actually doing the experiments rather than planning or designing them. The deadlines are then set by the funding body, and careful time management is required to meet them.
4. Confidence precedes action
Research is not a means to an end, it's a rasion d'etre. Understanding and knowing what is happening before deciding on a course of action is very important, the last thing anyone needs is a recycled eureka moment. In fact, PhD students are excited when their planning process is cut short, more time to experiment, means more time 'playing in the lab'.

Sadly when PhD students decide on a non-academic career they aren't always equipped to talk about their skills, and the real world doesn't necessarily welcome them with open arms. It seems the ignorance may be two-sided too, what neither the applicant or prospective employer realises is that a PhD graduate's skill set should be highly valued in a business setting, and is almost taken for granted in the academic world.

Half way through my first postdoctoral position, I was hired by a management consulting firm that had long since cracked the code. Here's what I was told:

"Classically people think hiring PhDs is great because they have area expertise, however, they know a lot about their particular topics, but tend to know very little about even some related topics. Instead what we look for is their methodology: years of training in time management, perseverance, a passion and aptitude for quick learning, and of course that craving for the moment when they've realised they've solved the problem."

So, perhaps it is time for more industries to get creative with their hiring strategy and act as bravely as their prospective employees who are willing to take the leap. In fact, a little reframing, repositioning and repackaging never hurt anyone.