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Ultimate PhD Networking Guide: How To Create Opportunities Out Of Thin Air (Part 2)

Part 1: Grad Student Advice Series: How To Network and Add Value To Yourself and Others

I stared at the computer screen. I knew no one outside of academia. I thought about setting up a LinkedIn Profile but didn’t see the point. A feeling of hopelessness set in. I heard about the importance of networking before but didn’t know what to do or how to take those first steps.

I signed up on LinkedIn despite my complacency and skepticism. I said to myself, “Like this will change anything.” This is supposed to do what for me exactly?

I stared at the screen. ZERO contacts. I knew of a handful of people I could add, but very few who actually knew of my accomplishments and personally knew me outside of academia (or who I worked with closely in a different field). A few professors maybe and a few people I worked with during a summer internship a while back. Sure I had my thesis committee. But I thought “they will probably just want to write me a letter to do a post-doc (at least that is the respectable and ‘expected’ thing to do upon graduation).” Beyond that, the only people I knew were the ones I’ve met at conferences, seminars, joint lab meetings, presentations, or just networking on campus.

The number of contacts just sat there. I had maybe 25 or 30 tops after about a month or so. I didn’t know where to go, until a friend told me about the importance of informational interviews.

What is an informational interview? I didn’t have a clue. I said “Yeah right. People will actually take time out of their day to talk to me? About what?”

I’ll tell you one thing: The Ultimate Networking Tool Is An Informational Interview. I don’t care if you are a graduate student or a post-doc.

Networking is about information exchange right? The real goal is to provide information about yourself and gather information about other professionals and potential opportunities. So let’s get into exactly how I used informational interviews to “create a network out of thin air” in a short amount of time.

A lot of PhDs don’t know what they want to do past the PhD stage simply because they lack information. I was one of them.

I also didn’t see the value in a PhD until I started networking. In all honesty, I wanted to drop out with a Master’s degree. But informational interviews saved my PhD.

You can’t get enough credible information by just sitting behind a computer screen and reading about what someone in industry is doing. Or by talking to people who are in academia and have never been OUTSIDE of academia or had any working experience/knowledge (a lot of professors will even have skewed perceptions about what industry is all about, career prospects, and what matters beyond grad school). The best way to find out is to TALK TO THAT PERSON. Plus, once you learn about one position you may become interested in another or learn about different paths/transitions to take.

– Most senior-level employees believe that there is intrinsic value in having connections and facilitating connections. It’s a cheap, relatively easy way to make the world a better place, and they consider their actions “paying it forward.” They know that new opportunities can be created–all by giving up a few minutes of their time.

– “Opportunity hires” occur even during a hiring freeze or in companies that have recently downsized. This happens when no specific opening exists and yet good people surface via informational interviews. So it makes good sense for both parties to reach out for informational interviews; for you, having a personal connection means you’ll be in a better position for a job interview invitation; and for them, the possibility exists that you’ll be a great “find.”

Source: Tooling Up: The Informational Interview

Step 1: Set up your LinkedIn Profile

Some things that may seem “obvious” aren’t obvious in reality, because I see people miss some of the most basic and important practices. Have a catchy headline that tells who you are. This shouldn’t be some boring title like “Graduate Student at UW-Madison” or “Manager at Company X.” That doesn’t tell me anything about who you are and the value that you bring to the table. Don’t be afraid to make it a sales-pitch here.

Your summary should have important points without lengthy paragraphs. Tell people the highlights of what you have done. Make it stand out. Talk about what you are interested in doing (your informational interviews and corresponding positions will match up with the field(s) of interest you list here). If you want to talk about any special skills, specialties or interests, now is your chance!

Your LinkedIn Profile is basically your online resume. If you have a polished resume, it is as simple as copying and pasting. If you don’t have a resume, well you better get to work. Because networking without having a resume (if asked for or if you want to offer it for feedback -I’ll mention this in Step 4) will only leave you empty-handed for potential future opportunities.

You don’t have to do everything at once like get recommendations or endorsements. People worry about needing to have a complete LinkedIn Profile right off the bat. The important thing right now is to focus on your informational interview strategy, not on having an A+ LinkedIn profile with 500+ connections. After all, quality beats quantity. You must have the basics to make contact (and start doing informational interviews), but you will build as you go. You don’t have to join 50 groups all in one day.

Join LinkedIn Discussion Groups and be an active participant. You will establish an online reputation and it will get you noticed. If you have a professional blog, even better (see below-only 18% of those surveyed actually have a professional website and only 2% have a professional blog).

Going further, you can even have people contact/message you for possible collaborations or value opportunities via LinkedIn Discussion Groups. Either way, you are getting your name out there. One group I actively participate is “PhD Careers Outside of Academia.” Also, keep in mind that some LinkedIn Discussion Groups will even have internal job postings that aren’t available elsewhere (you’ll have to find the ones specific to your field).

Statistics That Should Concern You

Based on a survey by dougsguides, the need to network and have a professional blog is imminent:

44% of people surveyed ONLY have a network between 5 and 15 people! That’s almost half!

Only 13% of those surveyed have done three or more informational interviews! More strikingly, a whopping 54% have never even done an informational interview!

86% of those surveyed already have a LinkedIn Profile But Most Likely Don’t Know How to Use It!

And, Only 18% have a Professional Website and Only 2% have a Professional Blog!!

So what are you doing to stand out from the crowd? Do you have a professional blog? Do you have a LinkedIn Profile that you are actually using? Are you doing Informational Interviews? Are you building your network that a lot of graduate students and post-docs are lacking? Do you lack career direction or marketable skills that allow you to cross over to alternative PhD careers? Also, make sure you check out MyIDP on Science Careers to assess your interests and skill sets:

Step 2: Start Making Contact (Getting the Ball Rolling with your Existing Network)

Hit up your Number #1 contact. What I mean by that is the most well-connected person that you know. This could be a professor on campus. The first thing to do is go through their network on LinkedIn and look at their connection list. Then pick your top 5 contacts that they have listed. Don’t just go with all the same positions (or one company). For example, I picked Scientist, Field Application Scientist, Product Manager, CEO, Sales Rep, etc.

Set up an informational interview with your “key” contact. Ask to be introduced to the top 5 contacts that they know (if they don’t know your top 5 “personally” then ask for them to make alternate suggestions or meet with more than one key contact). Aim for someone high-up position wise. Why? Because once you start following the emerging network that will spiderweb via introductions, chances are if you stick with people who are more experienced and high-up position wise, they are more likely to keep the ball rolling for you (based on more high-up introductions). If the person is new at their position or at the lower-end (less connected) of the company you may reach a dead-end sooner.

If you don’t have time to set up an informational interview with your key contact (or they are in a different city), then you do it via email or LinkedIn. Your message should say something like:

Dear Dr. __,

I am a X year PhD Student (or post-doc) and I am starting to explore careers outside of academia. Therefore, I am conducting informational interviews to learn more about these potential opportunities. After doing some of my own research, I found fields 1, 2, and 3 of interest to me. I saw that Person X was in your professional network and was wondering if you wouldn’t mind introducing me to that person so that I could conduct an informational interview? I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks for your time.


Signed You

The hardest part is getting started. But once your key contact introduces you to those top 5 people (or however many you see fit), it will spiderweb to an endless network. A lot of times that person may be out of town or won’t respond right away. You can follow up a second time. If you still get silence, then move on. Don’t annoy the person.

Ideally, these top 5 contacts (which stem from your initial key contacts) should be in your area (nothing beats face-to-face contact), but if you are looking to move or build your network elsewhere-do a phone interview instead.

If you “run dry”, lack initial key well-connected contacts (like I did), or want to expand further (as I would suggest/recommend anyways), proceed to step 3.

Step 3: Start Making Cold Contacts (Optional)

The first informational interview I ever did (officially) outside of academia was done and set up cold. Keep in mind that Step 2 is the most ideal step and best way to start since introductions get things done faster and are more credible (and you are more likely to get a response). Do step 3 if you want to branch out to different contacts and different companies or expand on talking to people in certain positions that your current network is not acquainted with (maybe there are top 5 companies in your area that you are really interested in learning about or even working for).

I went on LinkedIn and typed in “Field Application Scientist” (as an example). I found a huge list of people. So I narrowed it down to people JUST within my area (Madison, WI). I am fortunate enough to live in a city with over a 100+ biotech companies. So everyone’s situation may be different. But, from there I messaged my top 3 picks (you can do more if you wish: up to 5 or 10 which will depend on your schedule and how aggressive you want to be-if you aren’t getting responses you can increase the number to however you see fit).

I worded the message similar to Step 2:

Hi (Insert name of person),

I did a search for ‘__(Insert Position)__’. Your name came up in the search on LinkedIn. I was wondering if you would be willing to conduct an informational interview? The ____ track is a career I was interested in pursuing and I was hoping to learn more about it. If you would be willing to meet in person that would be much appreciated. I am currently a PhD graduate student at ____. There are numerous questions I had about whether this position was a good transition in order to be able to move away from the lab bench and go more into ____ . Please get back to me at your earliest convenience. I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for your time.



Does it actually work? Yes. It’s not 100% but guess what? They were once graduate students too (assuming you pick someone with a Master’s or PhD). They know of your situation! They know what you’re going through because most likely they went through the same thing. That is why 60% or more of the time they will respond and most will agree to take at least 30 minutes out of their day to speak with you. My success rate was 75% or more at first. But it led to almost 100% after the cold contacts introduced me to the people that they knew (it no longer become cold-the first initial contacts were cold then it was no longer viewed in this manner). If the person isn’t available in-person, then do it over the phone.

But I didn’t stop at Field Application Scientist. After I did the informational interviews with FAS’s, I noticed that they mentioned this type of position as being a stepping-stone. So I learned more about the types of roles they transitioned into. So I followed the dots. One example of this was going into Marketing or Product Management. I’ve also spoken with people who were at the laboratory bench and moved away from it. I asked them how they made the transition and if they were happy with their decision. I’ll get to the questions in Step 4.

The career path that you wish to learn about and/or pursue is uniquely up to you and your interests. Therefore, choose your interviews and network contacts accordingly.

Still stuck?
This should get you started:

Part 3  (Proceed once you have digested all the material)

Step 4: Start Asking The Right Questions (Questions to Ask) +  My Story
Step 5: Follow Up, Offer Value, and Stay In Contact

Further Reading:

1) Part 1: Grad Student Advice Series: How To Network and Add Value To Yourself and Others

2) Do Your Research: Find Your Future Career Interest On PhD Career Guide or

3) Check out PhD Branching Points and Versatile PhD

4) Tooling Up: The Informational Interview

Grad Student Advice Series: 10 Ways To Be A Successful PhD Student

From Start To Finish

Your PhD is going to be the focus of your professional and personal life for at least four years, so it is important that it will be time well spent. Here are some tips and points to consider to make sure you are a successful PhD student from The Graduate Recruitment Bureau.

So how do you get from start to finish and what can help keep you motivated throughout?

1)     Choose The Right University

*Research ahead of time which Universities express/match up with your best research interests and goals. Dig deeper as to what programs are ideal (look at alumni placement ratings-where do they end up? what percentage go in what sectors?), who has available funding, which programs offer stipends (is being a TA a requirement?), if there are training grants you should apply for (i.e. NSF or NIH), and which professors are looking to take students. With the NIH sequester in play, you’d be surprised how competitive things (positions as a result of funding) are becoming.

*Chances are if you email these professors ahead of time, you can meet with them prior to the start of your graduate program and beat out the crowd for limited lab slots available for grad students. The early bird gets the worm, as some graduate students even start working prior to the official start of the semester.

Financial backing is important, as your PhD can’t begin without it, so a major step for being a successful PhD student is to get financial funding, and as much of it as possible. PhDs are not cheap with all the material, equipment and research that is required. So, the more  secure financial aid you apply for, the less you need to worry about (if the financial aid is required and is graduate program dependent).

If funding is of concern, get in contact with any relevant business or organization(s) that might be interested in your research and willing to fund it for you. For example, research charities or councils that have shown a keen interest in your area of study fund doctorates and academic institutions will have lists of the PhDs they offer.

*Many life science programs give you a stipend to support you (and you might have to TA on the side). When that is not enough, check out 7 easy ways to earn an alternative income here:

2)    Keep The Passion

An undeniable necessity for being a successful PhD student is to have a real passion for your topic. Your PhD will be your life for the next 4 or more years, so you need to be really committed to the subject with no risk of finding it tiresome.

The passion you feel for your subject will be tested throughout the course of your research due to work, time and supervisor pressures, so the bond you share needs to be indestructible. If you aren’t 100% committed to your topic, then you can’t put in the needed effort and passion that are key ingredients for a successful PhD. So, make sure you are really interested in the research you are about to undertake.

3)     Learn

Knowing the experts in your field can only help you and your PhD be a success. Apply to work with a prestigious tutor/mentor, as after all, who better to be your mentor than the leading expert in your field? If you don’t ask you don’t get so don’t be afraid to try.

In addition to having a tutor/mentor who seriously knows their stuff, you need to read, watch and listen to your favorite authors and researchers and then try and make contact with them. More often than not they will be more than happy to spend some time discussing their latest findings and theories with you- they are the Hollywood Royalty of academia so let the know you are their number one fan. You never know, they might have some life changing opportunities for you.

4) Network

Your PhD is going to take up a substantial part of your life, and it is important to realize that a successful PhD student will change their priorities from year to year. In the first year, you need to network and get your name out there and be known. If people don’t know you exist, how will they know about your research and whether it is something really ground-breaking that they should take an active interest in?

After your PhD, you are going to need contacts and opportunities and your research is the key to open all these doors, so take the time in the first year to spread your word and get involved in projects. In the final years, your main priority should be your work, so it is sensible to turn down some event invitations- you should have made a big enough fuss about yourself in the first year to be able to not attend some events and still not be forgotten. Build yourself a solid basis and name early on, and then complete your work knowing that the interest and knowledge about it is still out there.

5) Read

Doing a PhD means making an original contribution to the field; one of great value, interest and benefit. Your research needs to complement existing research and not replicate anything.

Therefore, you need to read as much as possible including every piece of theory and research that has ever been done in your area. Know what has been found, what hasn’t been proved, what’s been suggested, successful and ignored. If you don’t know what is already in existence, then you can’t make an original and reputable contribution to the field. Therefore, it is essential that in order to be a successful PhD student that you start hitting those books.

6)     Communicate

It’s great that you’re doing all this research and discovering all these fascinating trends, but if you cannot communicate your research and progress effectively-then the real potential of your PhD will be lost.

Brush up on your communication skills. Your written communication needs to be impeccable; logically ordered, easy to follow and with a clear message. Obviously, grammatically correct and with no spelling errors too! When presenting your work to audiences at conferences and meetings it needs to be an exciting, engaging delivery.

Additionally, make sure you are presenting your work to the right people. To be a successful PhD student you need to be more than a great researcher; you need to be able to convey your findings and theories to a specialist audience in a way that will create and retain your professional, reputable image. This means no stuttering, no monotonous lengthy speeches and no waffling, unpunctuated sentences.

7)     Work hard

A good work ethic is pivotal to your PhD success. You need to work hard and play hard to stay motivated and sane during your PhD. It is essential that you allow yourself breaks if you feel as though it’s all getting too much and a touch of cabin fever is setting in. An hour’s break or a day off can do your research the world of good. If by lunchtime you are going mad then go for a jog, do some painting, bake a cake- whatever you do to reconnect and re-establish control. On the other hand you can’t take too many breaks, so keep in mind that you still need to stay productive.

Treat your PhD like a job– as it essentially is- which equates to five days a week and having down-time on weekends. Or, if you need to work weekends then make sure you allow yourself some relaxation in the week. The balancing act of work and play is a fine art, but master it and you’ll be a successful PhD student.

8)     Persevere

Perseverance is the key to success with all PhDs, as most research won’t instantly fall nicely into place right from the get-go. You need to stick with it and constantly reassess and modify your method(s) to achieve the best you can and derive promising results.

This means you must be organized as well as tenacious. Keep meticulously detailed notes at every stage of your work so far and have a plan of action so you always know what the next stage is. It doesn’t matter if in reality the next stage doesn’t pan out as planned, but by knowing which direction it is headed will help to channel your energy and research to make the most efficient use of your time.

9)     Stay productive

When inspiration strikes, jump on it. You don’t have to stick to the traditional three part strategy of completing a PhD- reading, doing, writing. Apart from being a long winded and tiresome method, it might not actually be that productive. If it’s necessary to do some research to back up your writing, then it is fine to read some more.

Or, if it makes more sense to carry out the experiment or data collection over a longer period of time, then do it alongside the reading and writing. There is no right way of working, so just do what is best for you. Just make sure you keep things fresh and moving forward to be successful.

10) Publish

Obviously your PhD is going to be published on completion, but write it up and publish it in various places as you go along. At the natural end of each stage do a write up and publish it online, for example, on your own blog or relevant websites.

Get people excited about what you are doing and keep them in the loop with your progress. Write up each chapter in the form of an article and then rewrite them to encompass your whole PhD.

If you want to learn more about the importance of science blogging and gaining online exposure, check out this post by the Next Scientist:

Note: * in above article paragraphs indicates comments contributed by The Grad Student Way (United States specific)

About the Author

Written by Anna Pitts, a Marketing Assistant and Online Researcher at the Graduate Recruitment Bureau. Her work involves PR and outreach and writing informative, interesting advice based articles for graduates and students.

Further Reading

Top 10 Most Valuable Lessons and Things I Learned In Grad School

Why Relationships Matter In Grad School: 5 Ways To Maintain

Story Context

First of all, I would like to thank Ryan for the opportunity to contribute to his site. As a former student, I know how important it is for graduate students to have a community for emotional support and to stay on top of valuable resources (as this article will touch on). After I finished my PhD I realized that in order to get my degree I had to overcome many of the same barriers as other graduate students.

Going further, this brought up a key question: Why wasn’t there a book that summarized all the tricks and tips of navigating graduate school? In order to answer this question, I interviewed over 100 students from 30 different disciplines (over the course of two years) to learn what their secrets to success were in graduate school. I covered areas such as financial support, elements of a thesis, time management, communication with your PI and coworkers, writing skills, and career planning.

From this, I published many of their ideas on my newsletters, which are accessible on my website (, as well as my book (“The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.: 200 Secrets from 100 Graduates”). I continue to receive questions from students around the world, and I address them through my blogs.

With that said (stemming from graduate student issues), Ryan has recently approached me about a very important topic: How can significant others (or spouses) support each other if one or both of them are graduate students? I can certainly relate, since my fiancé and I were graduate students at the same time, and we got married during my last year in graduate school. (For simplicity, I will use spouse and significant other interchangeably.)

Graduate Students Need Support Since They Are A Vulnerable Population

If your worth as an individual depends on your achievements, then you’re extremely vulnerable in graduate school because you’re bound to not succeed some of the time.  —Myriam Mongrain

The other common personality correlate Mongrain identified for depression was a lack of social support. Graduate students can get so caught up in their work, especially when they’re driven by perfectionist tendencies, that they forget to be social, she says. They stop seeing friends and talking with families. Loneliness and isolation build and contribute to depression. Depressed people aren’t very fun to be around, so the cycle of isolation continues.

How prevalent is depression among graduate students? Much more prevalent than in the general population, says Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

In a 2008 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 6.4% of the general population in the United States reported having depressive symptoms within a 12-month span. (The percentage for younger adults is slightly higher.) By contrast, about 15% of the 4553 graduate students who responded to Eisenberg’s 2011 survey reported experiencing depressive symptoms—as defined by the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—in the previous 2 weeks.


Could emotional support offered by a significant other during graduate school help lower depression rates?

The answer is YES.

Your Pillar of Strength: Significant Other Support Other in Graduate School

While the pressures in graduate school can put the best relationships to a test, they also present an opportunity to deepen your support and commitment to each other. Your relationship might be strained financially and emotionally as you pour every ounce of energy into a thesis that will only materialize in a few months or years.

However, it is no secret that one of the most important factors influencing personal happiness is the quality of your long-term relationship. So the question is, how can you and your spouse support each other to give your work the attention it needs? The strategies I share here are from couples I knew personally where one or both of them were graduate students or post-docs. So here they are…

5 Ways To Make It Count:

1) Commit to your relationship

A strong relation can endure financial hardship, long-distance, and any other personal or professional challenges brought on by life. If you want to create a mutually supportive environment in your home, you first need to strengthen your commitment to your spouse. Be proactive and give him/her the kind of support that you desire, by doing as much as you can to make his/her life easier. No matter how busy you are, there is always time to do something nice for your spouse. Your spouse will surely appreciate it, and probably return the favor doubly.

2) Spend quality time together to create a mutually-supportive environment

Knowing how busy graduate students are, I am sure that this suggestion is raising some eyebrows. “How can I spend time with my spouse/significant other every day when the majority of my time is spent working?” you might ask. Remember that you are not in this boat alone. You are part of a team. If you function as part of a team you can come up with better strategies than if you tried to row alone. No time or money for elaborate dates?

A simple 15-20 minutes of connection every day (over tea in the evening, or an ice-cream during the day) will probably strengthen your relationship orders of magnitude more than an expensive get-away once a year. Use your 15-20 minutes together to solve challenges together as a couple, and soon you will come up with more creative answers than if either of you had ruminated alone.

Besides the daily 15-20 minute check-in, students have found that a weekly date can do wonders for re-energizing their minds. Once again, I would like to emphasize that elaborate dates (although fun occasionally) might not be the best investment of your time and money. Simple activities such as watching a movie together every Saturday (perhaps at home if you cannot afford movie tickets or find a babysitter), going on a hike or working out together can do wonders for opening up lines of communication so you can provide each other the support you need.

Keep in mind that the date is about being together. Having the certainty that there is always a person you can count on is the most powerful support one can have, especially during a challenging time such as graduate school.

3) Get creative with your finances

Graduate student relationships are frequently under financial strain, due to low stipends and student debt. Ryan’s excellent book is full of ideas to help you generate additional sources of income.

I would also like to share a story about how one spouse turned her hobby into a small business. My friend Stephanie was a working mom and wife of a postdoctoral associate, and they were just barely scraping by. She was artistic and while her husband traveled, she enjoyed doing crafts with her children.  She especially liked decorating scarves and jewelry boxes. Around Christmas time she showed her crafts to her friends and they were eager to buy them as holiday presents. Soon she was generating income all-year round, and even built a website to sell her art.

For other ideas on managing your money and investing in your future, I recommend the following articles:

4) Reach out to a support network.

While your spouse is (hopefully) your best friend, it is not realistic to expect him/her to provide you all the answers and support. If you connect with graduate student organizations in your department or hobby group, you can find out how others have solved problems similar to yours.  Some schools have groups for spouses, which can be especially helpful for internationals, who do not have a permit to work or study in the United States. Besides getting answers to practical issues such as obtaining visas and student discounts, you will probably significantly improve the quality of your life and your relationship by growing your circle of supportive friends.

5) Be proactive about planning your future together

The two-body problem can be one of the most significant factors influencing your job search. Take comfort in knowing that thousands of students have found solutions to this problem without sacrificing their professional aspirations. It does take creativity, determination and commitment, however, because the job market is so competitive. Specific job searching strategies are beyond the scope of this blog, but I can recommend books and articles on this topic. In fact, I have devoted an entire chapter to career planning in my own book (see below for more info), because I believe that it is never too early to begin networking and exploring job opportunities, especially if you and your spouse will be looking for employment simultaneously.

More About the Author

Dora Farkas, Ph.D., completed both her Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and her Ph.D. in Toxicology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After she earned her Ph.D. she worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at Tufts University in Boston. As a graduate student, and later as a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Farkas realized that there was a real need for a guide book to help doctoral students finish their degrees more efficiently. She began her quest for this guidebook by casually conversing with graduate students, and noticed that students in different fields faced similar challenges while completing their dissertations.

Reference Books and Online Articles:

The Academic Job Search Handbook by Julia Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong

Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt: Advice for Humanities PhDs by Kathryn Hume

Best wishes,

Dora Farkas, PhD
Founder PhDNet
Author:“The Smart Way to Your PhD:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates”

Further Reading:

  1. Issues with Significant Others During Grad School
  2. Grad Student Advice Series: Lack of Social Life, The Effects, and What To Do About It

Life After Grad School: What Matters and What Doesn’t

Pure research is a wonderful thing; the ivory-tower isolation, the focus, and the unhurried pace may be the only way that some problems can be attacked. In taking a job, you’ll trade that life for a steady paycheck and a universe of opportunities to work with other people on fantastic projects.

Putting it in Perspective

This article addresses the transition after graduate school into the workforce. This is important for two reasons. First, the PhD is NOT the end-game. You wrote your thesis, successfully defended, but now what? You are an “expert in your field,” but yet you might not have any career goal(s) laid out in front of you.  Second, graduate students who have spent their whole lives in academia need to know what to expect and HOW to transition into the workforce. So, what DOES and DOES NOT matter once you get your PhD?

Doctoral students in many disciplines realize the odds are against them. But students are often afraid to approach their advisers about other nonfaculty career choices, for fear of disapproval. And the professors themselves may not know how to advise students about any other careers than the research life, although given the dismal job-market statistics in recent years, that ignorance about nonacademic options becomes less and less acceptable. ~The Future of the PhD

The Reality

Traditional graduate programs prepare you for a life as an academic. If you are lucky enough to find a teaching or research job in a university, that’s great. But according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, fewer than half of all PhDs will ever hold tenure-track positionsand a good proportion of those won’t get tenure. So for most PhDs, the job opportunities lie outside the academy, in the world of business and industry.

Life outside the academy can be hugely rewarding: the diversity of jobs (for profit, non-profit, industry, governmental, military, consulting, policy and on and on), opportunities for career growth and change, job mobility, and jobs in development, marketing, sales support, administration and management which go far beyond bench work or basic research.

And the pay is much better: the National Science Foundation reports that in 2011 a PhD grad in the physical sciences leaving for industry made a median salary of $100,000; those opting for academia made $54,000; and the poor post-docs came in last at $47,000. Clearly, the future for most PhDs is in non-academic jobs.

Another Graph Published in Nature jobs international salary survey, 2010

Some, but not many, grad schools and departments are starting to acknowledge that most of their graduates are headed to non-academic jobs. For example, the Visiting Scholars and Post-Docs program at UC-Berkeley (where I am a Visiting Scholar) has a robust lecture program which brings in local PhD-entrepreneurs to discuss how to prepare for the transition, as well as an industry exploration program which introduces graduates to local businesses and provides workshops in career options, recruitment processes and business cultures within the private sector.

If your university or department provides resources like these, you should take advantage of them even if you haven’t committed to leaving academia. It’s a good way to keep your options open. And there is nothing better than getting some real industry experience through an internship or external research project.

I think the infusion of PhDs into the workforce is a great thing – they bring intelligence, critical thinking, research skills and methodology. One big challenge is that being an employee is very different from being a student.

Think about it: you’ve spent 12 years in pre-college, 4 years in college, and maybe 6 years in grad school – not to mention post-doc time. So 22+ years of being a student hasn’t really prepared you for life as an employee. It’s a culture shock when everything that used to matter suddenly makes no difference and – worse – when things you never cared about suddenly have huge significance.

I know – because I successfully made the transition over 30 years ago.

I’ve got tools, assessments and links to useful resources for making the transition on my From my perspective and my work helping college students at all levels find and thrive in their first jobs, let me point out what does and doesn’t matter when you take that first job.

Your school and your degree don’t matter

The online forums are full of resentful comments from PhD job-hunters about how ‘the hiring managers don’t appreciate how smart I am’. Welcome to the real world. You should be very proud of your degree, especially if you got it from a prestigious school. It’s a good credential. I don’t mean to denigrate your achievement, but your Stanford PhD won’t get you a promotion or help you win an office argument.

By getting your degree you should have acquired skills, resources and attitude that enable you to tackle complex problems. The degree doesn’t guarantee that – and the hiring managers know it. You will have to demonstrate your skills or you won’t get the job.

And once you are on the job, don’t expect to be the glorified “go-to person” simply because of your advanced education. There are plenty of smart people out there with skills and degrees you don’t have (see below), and your solutions, comments and suggestions will have to compete with or complement theirs.

The quality of your work matters

What does matter is the quality of your work. In college, you had a choice – work really hard and get the ‘A’, or settle for something less.

At Michigan I took a summer course in the Philosophy of Science. It is a great subject but the professor was terrible. I was so bored and just wanted to sit outside in the sun. For the term paper, I sat down at a typewriter (these were the days before word processors, my friends) and wrote a stream of consciousness, 15-page tract, which I didn’t even bother to edit or retype. I was happy with the ‘B-‘.

That’s not a good strategy at work. I urge you not to make quality a dependent variable in your business work. You always have to do your best, given the time and resources allowed. Remember that you are no longer just working for yourself. Other people will be depending on what you produce, just as you will be depending on the output of others. Consider how you feel when a work product you’ve been expecting from someone else is a piece of junk. Don’t end up being that unreliable person.

Another reason the quality of your work matters is that you were hired on your credentials, but you’ll get promotions and raises based on your contributions. During your evaluation, it’s better to have a body of work of which you can be proud, rather than to be making excuses.

As a final thought on this subject, go back and read my blog “Why Do We Need All These People?”. You’ll appreciate that when the time comes to ‘right-size’ the workforce (and it always does), the axe falls on the least productive first.

Results (and profits) matter

Research is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Sure, there are lots of pressures to produce results, but you have the intellectual freedom to pursue the most fruitful (and interesting) lines of inquiry. And the results might be a deeper understanding of an arcane chemical reaction, or the influences on an author, but it does advance our knowledge of the world a little bit, even if it isn’t earth-shaking.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to give up that freedom to pursue the merely interesting – or even the very interesting – in order to pursue the practical.

Unless you work for a non-profit, your company is in the business of selling something: services or products. There has to be a buyer for what you sell. Now there are a lot of reasons that people buy stuff, but usually you need to be solving a problem they have or filling a gap between what they have and what they want. That means the marketplace is going decide what you sell, not you.

This has been a particular pitfall for many of the life sciences grad students I know who have gone to industry. They will see promising research on interesting pathways discarded for good and sound business reasons (like the market is too small, or insurers won’t pay for the therapy). No one is going to pay you to be smart – they will pay you for work that helps them generate a profit.

NIH and NSF grants don’t have to be paid back. Shareholders and investors do. If there is no business reason for the work you are doing, it will come to an end sooner or later.

Some people see the need to focus on the profitable and practical as a negative aspect compared to working in pure research. On the other hand, creating a marketable product or service ensures that you are making something of real value and of interest to people other than just yourself.

Other people matter

Probably one of the hardest things to learn as an ex-student is how to work with other people. Unless you’ve had an unusual grad school experience, you probably worked on your project by yourself. Even if you worked as part of a large lab, your project augmented the other work going on, but other people didn’t depend on your results, and you didn’t depend on theirs.

Business is a team effort, and being a team member and resolving team issues are skills you’ll have to acquire fast. You may find, as I did, that working with others who are brilliant and fun is actually the high point of your job.

There is an even bigger issue here. In your lab or department you were surrounded by people who had skills and perspectives similar to your own. Sure, the professor is more accomplished than the freshman intern, but that’s a matter of degree, not style.

You are going to find all kinds of different people in a company: people who are good with numbers, people who are good with tools, people who are good with ideas, and people who are good with people. They are all necessary.

There is a tendency, especially among technical hardware or software product developers to think that their contribution to the organization (building the product or service) is the most critical to the company’s success. I know because I was one of them.

Those of us in software development thought that sales and marketing were superfluous, because a good product will sell itself. If that’s your opinion, I suggest you move into Sales for a couple of months and try it out. You’ll develop an appreciation for the skills it takes to match a client problem to a solution, and the emotional strength it takes to recover from rejection. And you might even enjoy it – God knows some people do!

The point here is that it takes a variety of skills, personalities, viewpoints, and backgrounds to craft a successful business. Don’t make judgments on peoples’ value based on their titles, place in the organization or education.

Your boss matters

There is one person in your company who is going to matter more than any other – that’s your boss. Figuring out how to work WITH your boss – not FOR him or her – will be time well spent. In your first days, you should make sure that you understand what your boss expects of you and the best way to do that is sitting down and talking.

I think the most important thing you can do is see your boss’s problems as your own. Understand what motivates your boss and how your boss is judged and rewarded. Not the actual compensation of course, but what are the priorities? Is on-time delivery of products and services more important that the actual features? Is being on-budget more important than anything else? You won’t know until you ask.

Managing your boss is a complex issue. That’s why I devoted an entire guide to it.

Wrapping It Up

So life in the business world is different from grad school. Not necessarily better, but surely different. Pure research is a wonderful thing; the ivory-tower isolation, the focus, and the unhurried pace may be the only way that some problems can be attacked. In taking a job, you’ll trade that life for a steady paycheck and a universe of opportunities to work with other people on fantastic projects.

I meant this post to provide a realistic guide to how your life will be different in the business world. Don’t be daunted or put-off by the differences. Millions of grad students have made successful and lucrative careers outside the academy. I did it. You can too.

About The Author:

Doug is an educator, consultant and serial entrepreneur with a PhD in biology who has founded or been an early executive in four companies.  In the summer of 2011, he began “dougsguides” to help college students make the transition from academia to the business world.  He now devotes most of his time touring college campuses spreading the dougsguides message. You can like dougsguides on Facebook, follow @dougsguides on Twitter and connect with Doug Kalish on LinkedIn.

Further Reading: 7 Steps You Can Take Now To Make It Possible

  1. Start Networking Before You Get Your PhD (Not After)
  2. Stand Out From The Crowd: 7 Ways
  3. Consider Hiring an Executive Coach
  4. Don’t Make These 3 Mistakes In Your New Job
  5. Practical Solutions To Fix the Disconnect Between Academia and Current Job Market
  6. Do Your Research: Find Your Future Career On PhD Career Guide or
  7. Check out PhD Branching Points and Versatile PhD