Are you working in
academia? Would you consider other professions? Do you think that your PhD
experience doesn’t suit you for a commercial or industrial career? Do you think
that PhDs aren’t needed in business? It’s my belief that PhDs are making
significant contributions to the success of a majority of businesses and that
the need for PhDs in industry is growing.
When I was an
undergraduate, I was set on graduate school, a PhD, and a life of teaching and
research. I got into a graduate biology program, but because I did not have an
assistantship or tuition remission, I needed to find something to pay the bills
while I went to school – something related to my freshly-minted BS in biology.
So there I was, adrift with a destination in mind but without a way to get
My first stop was
teaching science to middle school children at a private school. A friend had
been offered the job but couldn’t take it. So there I was, teaching 12- to 14-year
olds, taking classes evenings and on Saturdays, and looking for a professor who
liked my MS research proposal enough to let me do my research in his lab.
Being a science
teacher hadn’t been in my plans. It wasn’t academia, but it was an “eye
opener.” The work was challenging, stimulating and rewarding. I’d had no job-specific
training (the private school had no requirements for certification or a degree
in education), but with a little help from my faculty friends and the role
models among the teachers that I’d had, all went well. After earning about half
the credits needed for an MS, I found a mentor and got a teaching assistantship
plus tuition remission. I was back “on shore” in academia, teaching undergrad
labs, doing research, and finishing coursework.
I did an
(obligatory?) post-doc, followed by 2 years as an adjunct at several colleges
and universities, and then more than 5 years as an assistant professor. The
problem was that those years were not consecutive and at the same university.
Here’s the deal; I did like teaching, had mentored several grad students,
published, and received grant funding for my research. The problem was that the
chance of tenure – and keeping my position – was only one in five.
There were five
non-tenured faculty members in our department. One did get tenure, one moved to
a nearby university and three of us “got on the boat” and changed careers.
Sound familiar? Probably. What’s the take-home message? It’s pretty much the
same as the one in Kipling’s story of “How the Leopard Got His Spots.” Be aware
that the best place for you might not the one you are the most familiar with,
and be willing to “get into other spots.”
After some research,
i.e., a careful review of job postings, I began to appreciate the opportunities
for PhDs in industry, an area many of us had once considered to be the “dark
side.” My strategy was to apply for everything that looked interesting and I
felt I could do. My move was to a medical device company looking for a PhD with
teaching experience and good presentation skills. My role was to tell groups of
physicians, nurses, medical technologists, and therapists about the medical
rationale for our products and the clinical studies that evaluated them. The company’s
research soon became as familiar to me as my own research had been. It was
great to meet with clinical end-users and to think that we were helping them
improve standards of medical care.
I stayed in the
commercial world. Seemingly the prevailing winds kept me from sailing back to
the shores of academia. I guess I had found my niche. There followed jobs in
medical communication agencies and in big pharma. In each case, I was reminded
of the value of a PhD education in preparing one to deal with new challenges,
avoid self-imposed limits, and help others benefit from valuable research
My general advice? Be aware. Investigate
opportunities for PhDs in the commercial world. Explore websites like
Biocareers.com, sciencemag.com, and LinkedIn.com, network at congresses, and find
a good headhunter.
Business skills? For the most part, you need
to be a good communicator, especially to non-scientists. Be a good listener and
learn to interact well with others in a multidisciplinary team with a common
goal. The human resources departments in many large corporations have an
extensive catalog of training to develop business-specific skills. If they
offer a selling skills course, take it!
Some of the PhDs, PharmDs and MDs I’ve worked
with also had MBA degrees. My own opinion is that the second degree does not
provide the “added value” to ensure entry into or success in the commercial
arena. If you are interested in drifting away from academia into other spots,
some “academic insurance” might be helpful, however. The undergraduate
economics departments and business schools of nearly every college and
university, including the one where you earned your PhD, have a wide selection
of relevant courses to choose from.
So there you have it. These are some of my
own views, based on my own experience, of PhDs and working in the commercial
world. It’s a big world out there and one in which PhDs are both needed and
Cheers for now,
Clem Weinberger, PhD
The Stylus Medical Communications