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