Who can help you get a job outside of academia when you finish your PhD?

Career counselling professionals with a special interest in PhD student issues are rare. In December last year I was invited to give the keynote at the annual meeting of Australian post graduate careers advisors in Sydney. Naturally leapt at the chance to spend a day with a whole group of professional PhD Job Whisperers.

Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 3.58.50 pmIn the afternoon there was a panel discussion with three experienced HR consultants – the people who hire PhD candidates into industries other than academia. It was a fascinating and, for me at least, quite an eye opening discussion.

The panel members told us how they worked with PhD graduates and what they thought of them. Since there weren’t any PhD students in the room to offend the panel was, well – frank.

Science students, fresh out of their PhD were described as emotionally unaware, poor team players, bad communicators and inept project managers. The elastic deadlines in academia were criticised for breeding a culture of indifference to the value of time and a certain lack of pragmatism that doesn’t work outside of academia.

It was hard to listen to the panel with a generous heart.

Everything they were saying was contrary to what I had observed in practice. I spend my working life helping PhD students, the majority of whom are working in the sciences. I have enormous respect for the work scientists do. I admire their diligence, attention to detail, creativity and resilience. They tend to have strong communities and extended friendship networks because they often work in large teams.

Contrary to many of the stereotypes in the media, scientists are ordinary people. You would be hard pressed to pick most scientist PhD students I know out of a line up of ordinary young people. Scientists can have pink hair, tattoos, Tshirts with incomprehensible slogans on them and hipster beards. The scientists I have come to know through the years are far from the ‘propeller-head’ stereotype being presented (yes, the panel actually used this term). Ok, some of them are further along the Austism Spectrum than others, but hopefully our community is learning to see the value in those of us who are not neuro-typical.

At the end of the discussion I had to challenge the panel to explain themselves. In typical academic style, I went in at what I thought was the two weakest points in their argument: deadlines and teamwork.

I pointed out that the pressure to get results and publish is intense in academia. Academics must manage ill-defined projects over long time frames. Academic work is often frustrating and needs a high degree of commitment, creativity and enthusiasm. Surely these are the right skills and attitudes for business?

Well, yes and no it seems.

The panel pointed out that in business decisions are often made on partial information. This can be uncomfortable for researchers who like to carefully collect evidence and do a considered analysis before offering an opinion. In fact, careful answers are what most academics hold most dear; you are not being an academic if you skip steps, leave out details or don’t entertain the possibility you are wrong.

What was initially described to be a ‘problem’ of the scientists was looking more like a culture clash – and this feeling only intensified when I asked my next question.

How was it possible for science graduates to be bad at team work? They grow up in a lab culture where sharing and collaborating are the norm. You can’t really DO science without collaborating at some level. After years and years of this even those who are not naturally disposed to play well with others will pick up some team work skills?

Well yes of course, the panelists replied. When you get a team of scientists working together in a non academic setting they collaborate like mad. They are the very model of best practice in team work.

So long as they are with other scientist types.

They just don’t get along with other people that well. ‘Other people’ being non academics and people who are not trained in the same discipline.

Scientists often found it difficult, the panelists explained, to communicate with non scientists. Communication involves much more than merely translating technical terms and concepts into non specialist speech. In the workplace telling someone a fact is not enough; scientists must learn to use the facts to persuade people to adopt a position or a new practice. Scientists do not usually have good skills in this because they get used to dealing with people who think the same way. This made sense to me – there is enough climate denial, anti vaccination crusades and anti-wind farm advocates out there, despite the best efforts of scientists to tell them the facts.

Facts do not, in fact, speak for themselves at all.

If you do not get good at persuading people with facts the communication problems multiply. The panelists gave examples of scientists criticising decisions they thought were wrong and asking uncomfortable questions they knew the other person couldn’t answer.

Basically acting like a normal academics.

This kind of nit-picking, critical behaviour makes most non-academics feel stupid and defensive (it probably makes most academics feel the same way to be honest, but we learn to hide it better). Combative academic behaviour that is perfectly acceptable in a lab meeting just makes you seem like, well – an asshole.

It seemed to me that the problem they were describing is not easily solved. It’s not that PhD students are not socialised properly, they are socialised too well. Everything about the PhD curriculum is designed to generate more academics, not researchers who work in business settings. If we do our jobs as educators, by the time they graduate, most PhD students are very good academics, which means they are likely to be poor at being in most business settings.

Changing this academic formula to produce more ‘business ready’ graduates is dangerous. I don’t just say that to be conservative. The way knowledge is built in science communities – and in other ones for that matter – relies on criticism and those extended timelines to make sure the conclusions are as right as they can be. We wouldn’t BE academics if we didn’t work this way – but we could work on being nicer to each other when applying this criticism.

If you want to move outside of academia when you are finished – and 60% of you will – you will need to be prepared for the possibility of culture shock. It probably wont be an easy transition, but does this mean you shouldn’t do it?

I asked the panelists if any of the people they placed ever found the culture shock too much and went running back to academia. They claimed none of them did. Once they had accustomed themselves to the new culture, which happened pretty fast most of the time (we are good learners remember?), most PhD graduates find non academic settings quite comfortable. And they certainly like the pay!

How about you? Have you had experience of working on the outside in a research role? Or are you thinking about it? Do you have any tips for people looking to make the jump? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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