Sun 13 Nov 2011
The focus of this session was on the skills that you learn in grad school which can be applied to non-academic positions.
Ana Chang from Oracle moderated, along with Monica Martinez-Canales (Intel), Rebecca Parsons (ThoughtWorks), and Umit Yalcinalp (Adobe Systems) as panel members.
What does a PhD get you outside of academia?
The non-academic options fall into 2 categories:
Jobs that require PhDs, like work in research labs
Jobs in product development and consulting-some of these don’t require PhDs, but may be looking for a Master’s
Having a PhD demonstrates perseverance.
There are a lot of ABDs out there, so completing the phd says something about you beyond the particulars of your field.
Having a doctorate carries respect and cachet in some circles.
We look for an ability to think critically, which the PhD demonstrates
Critical and analytical thinking about problems can be a hard quality to find in product development work
A PhD is about formulating and solving problems
In product development, a PhD allows you to sort out what is broken, what needs attention
It teaches you strategic thinking, a critical eye, and perseverance
My advisor made it clear to me that as a phd student, I had to demonstrate a broad understanding of an area, identify a problem, and then go deep into solving it. Then you have to step back from the depth and detail and show how your work affects the big picture. Both the big picture and the detailed drill down are important. And you have to communicate with people in and out of your discipline.
Context and problem solving are the most important things you learn and they can apply to any field.
You can simplify complex things into something that business/product units can understand and work with
PhDs are good communicators and good problem solvers, you just need to be enthusiastic and persistent in order to get your ideas implemented
Communication skills are crucial, not just the concepts but the details
Effective presentations are also key
Graduate school teaches you how to accept and welcome critiques, which can be a rare ability in industry
What kinds of stereotypes do people have of PhDs?
I was asked why I would want to work in industry
I was asked if I know how to write real code instead of solving toy problems
I was told I was hired despite the PhD, rather that because of it
It’s thought that academics don’t live in the real world, that they have a strange notion of time-terms, semesters, etc
You will confront these stereotypes when applying for non research jobs
You just have to prove them wrong
People think you are book educated, with no applicability to the world
Overcome that by relating your work directly to what the company does
Ask questions to understand how the business works, and to demonstrate that you can fit in
A PhD conveys that you can learn-show it
Demonstrate learning agility: how quickly can you bring and idea into practice
Think about the business aspects of your research. Every degree field has a role to play in product development somewhere
By asking probing questions, you can form an idea in the interviewer’s head about how you can help them
People always want to know how much you can code and how quickly
You should ask why we are building something
Cranking out lots of code is not always the most effective thing if you don’t know why
You are not a code jockey, but you can make a difference by thinking about why and how you are developing the code
How has a phd helped your career?
Most PhDs are research rather than product development
We do have a whole building of PhDs to work on the supply chain and manufacturing
You have to break down barriers to convince them that you are practical and willing to get into the lab and do some of the grunt work, the trench work
Then the engineers will begin to trust you and you can provide a conduit for them to be heard
Then you have an entire vertical view of the company and can see the big picture
But you have to get into the lab and get some industry cred
I tell people who have spent 7 years in the lab that they are a industry “Dr”. Give them respect and credit
You can become a translator between academics and engineers
This is true not just in a large company
The ability to get down in the weeds, to write code, to stay up until 3 in the morning, is critical to establishing cred
The PhD gives you a T of knowledge: broad at the top, deep in one area.
Use that translate from the day to day work of the company to larger policy decisions
PhDs are trained in seeking out interesting problems to solve
One thing a PhD allows you to do is sit on national review boards for DARPA, etc, and women’s groups,etc.
This introduces you to a very powerful cohort and network
Volunteer on committees, make friends at conferences
How early do you have to decide? What would have been different for you if you decided earlier?
No decision is set in stone, you can change anytime
There are many different posts
But, there is a dirty secret in academia where if you spend too long in industry, it is hard to get back into academia.