The strengths offered by PhD graduates can soon turn into weaknesses when entering a non-academic career. In this blog, I spell out what some of these strengths are and aim to make you aware of the potential pitfalls so that you don’t fall into this trap.
There is surprisingly little research on the advantages/disadvantages of employing PhDs over other graduates, and so much of this is based on my own experience of working alongside different types of graduates. I have a PhD, so automatically I think everyone else who has one is insanely brilliant like me, and so there may be some bias here! But joking aside, I have tried to reflect on my own experiences fairly and without bias. Often reflecting on some of my own weaknesses induced through undertaking my PhD.
Attention to detail
Attention to detail is a key skill in most professions and can be applied to problem-solving, critical reasoning, and thinking in-depth, among other areas.
It’s easy to overlook the value of this strength outside of academia but it’s undoubtedly a key skill the majority of PhD students have. Perhaps more significantly, graduates who do not hold a PhD don’t initially tend to possess the same attention to detail. At least that’s my own experience. I have often found it quite frustrating working with new graduates who missed important details and made simple errors – errors PhD graduates tend not to make. Of course, attention to detail is a skill that can be acquired but to have this skill from the get-go is a real bonus for employers.
On the flip side, the same attention to detail that can make PhD graduates such an appealing proposition can also be a major weakness, which has the potential to drive employers crazy! I’ve seen this at first hand, where simply too much time has been spent on a project by looking at the detail, at the expense of ensuring the design, structure and content are fit for purpose and suitable for end-users.
Finding the right balance can be hard for PhDs but it’s important to recognise the need for it, to be clear on what the end product needs to be, and to deliver clearly to the project brief. Don’t forget that, outside academia, the same attention to detail is not always required. This skill is best used to draw out inaccuracies and to ensure written work has logic, but this should not be at the expense of delaying project delivery and making things too complex. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but I expect that even organisations like NASA skip a few corners to ensure projects are delivered on time and on budget!
Capacity to learn and do research
While PhD graduates might find themselves focusing too much on the detail, their ability to be reflective, analytical and their propensity towards self-learning means that this hurdle can soon be overcome. In fact, PhD’s tend to have a greater capacity for learning and acquiring knowledge through their ability to conduct research and find answers to problems. Ok, of course everyone has the ability to learn, to read and research issues. But PhD’s are pro’s in this area, their skills have been honed and tested through the trials and tribulations of undertaking a PhD, and it’s difficult to deny this advantage.
The potential pitfalls of this capacity to learn are undoubtedly linked to the previous point around the potential for focusing too much on the detail. It’s not always useful to get lost in trying to understand everything to the nth degree and sometimes too much knowledge is not useful or even necessary.
Getting lost in research and learning can give you a bad name, especially if it delays project delivery or adds additional costs to a project. You also need to beware of the ‘boffin-tag’ as it may hold you back. Boffin’s are often cast as introverted and lacking key social skills. Grounds that could be used to rule you out for promotion and other work-related opportunities.
Always think about the bigger picture, and what a project really requires in terms of inputs and time. Needless to say, a good project plan is a must with clearly defined deliverables.
Self-disciplined, ability to self-manage
If you can walk into a new role, be given a project brief and deliver it to deadline without too much fuss or intervention you will be greatly appreciated by employers. PhDs tend to have this ability after 3-4 years of what tends to be largely self-managed work. Of course, in any new role, you will have questions and require input but you will know how to plan your time and manage the task effectively.
But what about the dangers? How can your ability for self-discipline and self-management work against you? Undertaking a PhD can sometimes seem quite a solitary pursuit, particularly when you are writing your thesis. Equally, the majority of PhDs are afforded a great deal of flexibility and while this gives you the ability to manage yourself and your time, it can also mean that when you are suddenly thrust into a non-academic work environment, with set working hours and little scope for working from home, you can begin to feel like a caged tiger.
Sadly, not all employers are sold on flexible working, so espoused within academia. This can prove difficult for PhD students and you have two options: (1) try to encourage your employer to introduce more flexible working, or (2) put up with it and learn to bear it. There is certainly no harm in raising this issue with employers, especially as it may prove critical to your future career choices. If you do feel ‘caged’, it’s often best to try and address the issues one way or another.
Don’t assume you have all the answers, be open to new approaches and ways of working. Your PhD will have given you some wonderful gifts and skills that are highly valued and sought after outside academia. Make sure you take advantage of these by combining them with new work-based skills. Use your analytical skills to identify which work-based skills you may be lacking and try to assimilate these quickly. Combining these skills will be a sure way of kickstarting your career outside of academia and making you an employer’s dream!