Rebranding the PhD

This is the twelfth and final article in the weekly Transitioning PhD Blog Series, written by contributor Shweta Krishnan, PhD. If you’re contemplating a career transition, sign up here if you want to join my monthly mailing list.

About a year and a half ago when I had just started my job as a technology transfer analyst in biological sciences at Duke University, part of which was directing an internship program with graduate students, I got my first call for career advice from one of the students. Thrilled to be in a position to help, I brushed up on my “long PhD followed by a short postdoc but was always hatching the grand plan of leaving academia” story. Unfortunately, that didn’t serve as an adequate answer to the question I got: “If all I’ve trained in is science and I don’t have any skills besides being a scientist, how am I supposed to find jobs outside academia?”

Part of that question bothered me, and it is a long-held misconception I have always said needs to be more recognized by the industries at the periphery of core science: “I don’t have any skills besides being a scientist.” My interaction with that student wasn’t the only time I’ve been asked something like that. In fact, I have since realized it’s a concern that plagues many graduate students. Isn’t it interesting, that after spending five to seven years wading through the maze of academia and convincing a panel of world-class professors we are worthy of the highest academic degree, the level of our self-confidence is inversely proportional to the number of years we’ve been graduate students?

Actually, PhDs very much have valuable, relevant skills aside from those directly related to our chosen discipline, but we need to be aware of them ourselves if we expect the world to notice. The PhD is not just about performing extensive and original research in your field of choice; it is beyond biology or engineering or history. It’s about perseverance in the face of frequently hearing that our hypothesis is wrong, of being made to defend and re-defend our results and of feeling, well, just plain stupid. It is about running a lone race with a finish line that can sometimes seem like a mirage; in fact, you may suddenly discover you have wound up behind the starting point. However, I assure you this race has rich rewards, only one of which is the prestigious doctorate degree. It presents you with a shiny set of transferable skills applicable to a wide range of fields and roles, both within and outside academia.

Problem solving is at the forefront of these core skills. As we go through our PhD journey, we become experts in how to break down a complex problem to its very core. We then work our way up by carefully designing experiments that change one variable at a time while modifying our hypothesis with results obtained at each stage. That approach, that solid training is not to be taken for granted, and it’s not something one can apply to their research projects alone.  The beauty of this skill is that it can be transferred to any complex problem in any business. Therein lies a PhD’s value: in designing strategy and analyzing convoluted webs of data to find solutions and future directions. We had to do it to get our degree with little to no help; we can certainly apply it over and over again in other situations!

Besides the art of problem solving, the most powerful skill I learned was the aptitude to teach myself new skills and to be resourceful and efficient in doing so. I call it powerful because I use it every day in my job as a technology transfer analyst who has to constantly make decisions about cutting-edge new research. Do you remember walking back from that committee meeting or seminar feeling like the slumped PhD Comics  cartoon figure with a speech bubble that said something like, “Great, why don’t I also become a Jedi Master while I’m at it?” But do you must, and we do. We devour the mandatory umpteen molecules of caffeine, Google furiously, read fat books we can barely carry, and strain our eyes reading paper after paper until we have a clue where to begin. In a higher-level job in industry, which is dynamic and challenging and has to rapidly evolve with new technologies entering the market, this mastery is welcomed and necessary. So instead of being exhausted after finishing those mental gymnastics, we PhDs should be nothing but proud and satisfied—don’t you agree?

Project management is another valuable skill PhDs (perhaps inadvertently?) develop. Think about it: as graduate students, we have all juggled multiple projects at a time because it wasn’t wise to bank on one. We have managed timelines, collaborations, and played musical chairs with our projects without letting something slip. We have had to set deadlines and be self-motivated to stay on track, be organized, and set new goals at each stage to ensure graduate school obligations are ticked off. There are, in fact, entire career tracks built around scientific project management, aka, the person who keeps it all together. That could be you!

These skills—problem solving, the capacity to learn quickly, and project management—very well might be the skills that help you secure your next job. The good news is that slowly but steadily the growing cohort of industries sitting on the threshold between academic science and the commercial landscape are looking at us PhDs from a new perspective. Perhaps the best example of an industry that desperately needs complex analytical skills for projects steeped in core technical areas and is actively hiring PhDs is the consulting industry. Moreover, PhDs are now getting interviews for business development in small pharma and medical device companies. Gone are the days when these fields wouldn’t dream of hiring anyone but MBAs or other marketing degree holders. In their article “Top 10 List Of Alternative Careers For PhD Science Graduates,” website cheekyscientist.com has put together some great options for today’s PhD science graduates, and I am happy to say I personally know people who have snagged each one of those jobs. Regulatory affairs and technology transfer are just a couple of other fields that are not included in the article and also come to mind. And if you think that this optimistic outlook is only for science and engineering graduates, social sciences and arts graduates are now walking into big data, finance, and consulting. All in all, this is a great state of affairs from just five to seven years ago.

Perhaps the PhD is the new black? Refreshing thought, but it can’t be sustained if PhDs don’t realize their own worth. Beginning to think about what lies beyond that defense date is overwhelming enough, and running low on self-confidence won’t help matters any. So, my friend, what I’m trying to say in summary is this: The biggest challenge of a PhD is that it isn’t constructed like any other degree. There aren’t a series of exams and structured projects that you can pass to earn your diploma. Maneuvering this PhD process is the challenge, and along the way—whether you like it or not—it arms you with a wonderful set of relevant and valuable skills in addition to your core subject matter expertise. Of course, a PhD’s biggest strength is that expertise; it is our foundation and pride, and the reason we get that extra interjection at parties and family gatherings. But it doesn’t have to limit us. As you contemplate those internships and networking tips and work on updating your LinkedIn profile, keep in mind everything you bring to the table. Every success story will make the exit route from academia a little more accessible, and as for the next generation of PhDs, well, they will have you to thank.

 


About Shweta Krishnan, PhD

Shweta Krishnan, PhD, works in the field of technology transfer at Duke University’s Office of Licensing and Ventures (OLV). As Licensing Analyst, Biological Sciences, Shweta works with the associate directors of licensing to evaluate the market opportunity and competitive and patent landscape of inventions in the life sciences space including drugs, diagnostics, and medical devices. She identifies potential licensees and assists with licensing negotiations and agreements, as well as manages the Fellows internship program at the OLV.

Prior to joining the OLV, Shweta was a post-doctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She earned her PhD from Duke University in Pharmacology and Cancer Biology in 2014, where her work focused on elucidating the actions of the progesterone receptor in breast cancer pathogenesis, with the goal of developing therapeutic interventions for the clinic.

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