Let The Truth Be Told: Get The Right PhD Advice When You Need It

Moral of The Story: Practice What You Preach

Many online blogs/sites serve as a guide or resource, or to help provide advice and insights. But, at the end of the day, you still have to create opportunities on your own as PhD student. You just have to know where to get the best information and WHO to get it from.

What is frustrating nowadays is where or more importantly, WHO to get your graduate or career advice from. With all the blogs popping up, and the talk of alternative science careers, it is very easy to get OVERWHELMED and confused. Who should you listen to? Who is qualified and who isn’t? Is this advice realistic and/or feasible? More importantly, what steps do you need to take in order for this to even happen?

These are questions that you must keep in mind every time you read a blog or site, or even talk to someone within a certain field. In many cases, the blogger may just be venting frustration. Others have a passion to CHANGE something or improve it (i.e. graduate education, promoting awareness, etc.). Others write from experience to help others. Unfortunately, there are also those who just want to “better their name” and get noticed. What’s missing here is you must practice what you preach.

Let’s say you wanted to start your own blog with a focus on how to run your own business on the side while working a full-time job (or while in grad school). Let’s also say that you are currently in the midst of doing this yourself or you are thinking about doing it, but lack the experience (and like to talk about it).

Now we can twist the story around and say you already have successfully ran your own business on the side while working a full-time job. What’s the main difference here? There are the talkers and the doers. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather take my advice from a doer.

To put this in perspective, let’s look at a few scenarios:

Scenario #1: There are those who ARE and those who ARE NOT qualified

Let’s say there is a PhD student that is AWESOME at science. Let’s also say this particular student is tracking two first author publications in prestigious journals and will graduate in a timely manner. Let’s call this PhD student, “the academic.” Now the academic may not care about alternative PhD careers. The academic has been highly successful and is “on track” in his or her mind, and this may lead to a prestigious post-doc position and ultimately (hopefully) to a tenure-track position. But let’s be realistic. Maybe in the back in the academic’s mind, the thought of alternative PhD careers is not absent. Maybe the academic has come to realize that only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years.

So, why not keep an open mind? However, the point here is just as the academic will generally not take sound academic advice from someone other than a Professor (which is founded on experience, knowledge, credibility), why would he or she take advice from someone who has never worked in industry? In other words, are you going to get concrete advice about alternative PhD careers (i.e. going into industry) from someone who lies solely in academia? And just because you WANT to work in industry (as many bloggers do), this doesn’t make you qualified.

This is EXACTLY why you must branch out from academia if you wish to go into industry. You aren’t going to learn a sufficient and credible amount of information by forgoing networking, or by simply reading blog posts. I will continue to say this to PhD students, post-docs, and scientists in academia until I am blue in the face.

I recently heard a recent comment that was very intriguing:

How can you expect scientists or someone who lies in academia to step out of their comfort zone? We are trained to work hard and be independent, many times in social isolation. It is against our personalities and what we are used to doing on a daily basis. Therefore, it is really hard for us [to be expected] to network or even realize the need to network.”

I hate to say it, but enough with the excuses already. Unless you want to end up as a potential unemployed post-doc 5 years down the road still trying to figure what it is you want to do, start networking NOW. Networking is a skill that can be learned, regardless of your personality or situation. It will open up many doors and opportunities for you. I’ve already written a lot on graduate school and post-doc networking, so this post will not go any more in-depth on how to network. If you would like to recap, go here: The Dire Need To Network While In Graduate School.

But let’s also say that the academic does start networking and does find a credible source of industry-related careers. What are these sources? Online, they must come solely from someone who has worked in industry or who has some sort of experience. Some of the best advice I’ve ever read comes from Science Careers Magazine, the Tooling Up Series. The rule of thumb hereĀ  is to be CAREFUL, when reading other blogs/sites (that don’t have nearly as much credibility as AAAS) from someone who has never worked in industry.

Although it is easy for others to write articles about how dark and gloomy it is out there, and give you a shopping cart list of potential careers, it won’t add value to your action plan and/or career goals. And many times, it may just be that they think if they write about alternative careers-they will get noticed for doing so. In a way, it is not to benefit the reader but themselves. However, many bloggers and sites add TREMENDOUS value and open up your eyes to many things, but you should not rely SOLELY on getting your information from behind a computer screen.

The funny thing is that it is typical of grad students or post-docs to find their answers ONLINE. Let’s Google “How to transition from academia to industry.” I am guilty of this 3 years ago. But it won’t get you anywhere. Just as easy as you can go on PubMed and type in keywords related to your research, unfortunately career advice is NOT essentially the same.

So if it doesn’t come from reputable online resources like Science Careers Magazine, where DOES it come from? The answer is staring right at you. Stop reading the computer screen, your iPhone, or iPad, and get OUT and start talking to people in the field. I am certainly not an expert on how to become a Medical Science Liaison (for example), so I’m not going to write you an article of my own describing what it is. Even if I went out and interviewed a MSL and had them write me a guest blog article for others to read, this will potentially add value to the readers (as blogging is a great way to educate and reach a large audience in a short amount of time), however the most value is going to come from what action YOU take on your own.

If you haven’t yet, check out thepostdocway.com which has a great list of GENUINE interviews that has everything spelled out for you. Use these as a STARTING POINT, and go from there.

The person that is reputable, credible, and is going to be the most valuable to you (with your direction, goals, and career advice) is someone who is already working in the field. If you want to learn about a position in industry, go TALK to someone in the field with years of experience. Those are the people you should take advice from and who are qualified.

The best advice you can also get from someone is a hybrid. If someone is currently working in BOTH academia and industry, they know the best of both worlds. I know many professors at UW-Madison that run their own companies while having commitments on campus and running their own labs. I respect those who have experienced and can appreciate both worlds. And because of the collaboration between academia and industry by one of these professors, it opened up an unforeseen position in product management for me the last 6 months of my PhD.

When a PhD transitions from academia to industry, it is essentially the same story. When they were fresh out of school, how did they make this transition? Many at times think that this is entirely individualistic, and what worked for someone else may not work for them. Although there is no guarantee, you choose which advice to internalize and put into action. By talking to PhD’s who made the transition, you are already 10 steps ahead of someone who is stubborn or complacent when it comes to networking.

If you do need a great starting point and you feel that you truly benefit from reading online posts about PhD transitions, Dora Farkas (who has her PhD and currently works in industry) wrote an article on PhD Career Guide titled: “Making the Leap from Academia to Industry: How to Set Yourself Apart from Other Candidates.” I’ve also had guest authors such as Doug Kalish write articles on “7 Ways to Stand Out From the Crowd” and “Life After Grad School: What Matters and What Doesn’t.” These are all great articles, written by reputable scientists who have successfully made the transition. Keep this in mind when digesting information from blogs.

Their goal (as well as The Grad Student Way’s) is to provide you with enough information, tools, and advice to “kickstart” your PhD or graduate career. It is a wake-up call.

Scenario #2: The Wanna-Be’s

Many PhD’s end up taking a post-doc only to find out later that it may have been a huge mistake. Others embrace the experience, and broaden their skills as a scientist. Just as the PhD’s who near graduation realize what is coming in comparison to the post-docs who have already experienced it-there are blogs popping up all over the place. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and wants to be heard, but at the end of the day, how are you truly helping others?

That’s great if you want to vent frustration, tell others of your bad experience, try and change something, or promote awareness. But you have to practice what you preach. (If academia is not for you, and you’ve come to realize this, that doesn’t make you any more credible than the next person)

If I write a book on how to network while in grad school or beyond the PhD, you obviously would be less apt to read it had I, the author, never networked a day in my life (experience speaks for itself). It is easy for anyone to read about networking online, then regurgitate that information. It is just as easy as it is for someone to write a list of 50 alternative PhD careers. Therefore, the same applies for those writing about alternative PhD careers in industry.

Someone who is in the “midst” of being qualified or is a “wanna-be” typically wants to write about it in hopes that it will become a reality for them. They hope that the more they talk about it, think about it, and dwell on it… It might happen for them. Don’t DO this. Although online reputation is very important and can get you noticed as a PhD student, enough with the recycling of information. The purpose of a good blog is to add value to your readers.

I could VERY easily write a 4,000+ word blog post on alternative PhD careers and give you a giant overview with a paragraph description of each type of position. But at the end of the day, where does it get you? Would you even know what steps to take in order to transition into one these careers fresh out of graduate school? I’ve already written about how to approach your thesis advisor and come up with an action plan. This is something that you should follow (whether or not you are ready to even approach your thesis advisor). The key is to come up with an action plan and execute it.

The Grad Student Way’s intention is to provide sound advice and HELP PhD grad students and post-docs see the reality, allowing you to have clear information in order to ACT on it. Even though listening to a success story might motivate you, this just might be something that was entirely individualistic. Therefore, it is necessary to focus on the readers as a WHOLE, and the VALUE that it can add. What worked for me may not have worked for you, but I can only hope that you, the reader, can see I once struggled where you used to be and now write from experience.

Scenario #3: The Brute Force Blogger

I see a lot of Q&A blog posts, which is fine but you have to look at how it benefits the reader. Many bloggers lack the drive to actually go out and interview the person in the field (in-person or over the phone), then they proceed to post a glob of Q&A series online, and promote it all over the place on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+. It is a brute force method, only to really benefit the person who hosts the blog and bring in more traffic to their site. It takes the work off their shoulders since all they have to do is write a giant list of questions, and make the person writing the answers do all the work.

Q&A posts are great in some cases and have many benefits of getting expert advice outside one’s field of knowledge, however the reader has a very hard time siphoning out the important and relevant information. Where is the interpretation and value added to the reader?

One thing that is missing from Q&A blog posts is the fact there is no face-to-face contact. The reader doesn’t get to meet the speaker. Also, the reader doesn’t have the opportunity to learn what value he or she can add to a network contact. What is missing here again is EVERY PhD student has the opportunity, time, and power to do these Q&A sessions on their own (it’s called an informational interview)! So what are you waiting for? Do not take networking out of the equation and rely solely on a computer to get your information. Therefore, these Q&A posts should serve as motivation for what is out there!

A good example of a very thorough and genuine interview that will really add value to your career planning can be seen here. The main difference here is the author of this site actually spent time to type up these interviews, summarize relevant information, develop a podcast, and ultimately add value to the readers and listeners.

I’ll just end by saying, don’t confuse brute force blogging with someone simply trying to promote their content. There is a difference. Again, it comes down to the value that a blogger is adding to the reader. Beware of the bloggers simply trying to promote themselves and their own name.

If the blog/site you are reading from falls in the list of “credible” and adds value to you as a reader, then I encourage you to dive in and digest/internalize all the relevant material. But the real question here is: How are you going to use that information?

As I said earlier:

Many online blogs/sites serve as a guide or resource, or to helpĀ provide advice and insights. But, at the end of the day, you still have to create opportunities on your own as PhD student. You just have to know where to get the best information and WHO to get it from.

Now, once you know what to look for, go put it into action!

Further Reading

Come Up With An Action Plan!

Who are the scientists that industry wants to hire? “Brilliant people who are creative and curious and can communicate” ~William Banholzer

Are You Ready For A Career In Industry? How To Succeed By Really Trying