Surviving as a Ph.D. in Industry

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Copyright 2011 by
Peter G. Raeth


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Within the career development forums in which I participate, there is a growing realization amongst those soon to earn their Ph.D. that there is a severe shortage of teaching and research assignments in academia. This group is also realizing that their academic programs have fallen far short of preparing them for careers outside academia. This is especially true for those who have gone from Nursery through Ph.D. without getting any life or career experience. In this piece I offer my thoughts on the realities of surviving and functioning as a Ph.D. in industry.

What a person most needs is a sense of what makes an in-demand person in industry. This goes well beyond specific skills, especially those only learned at a rudimentary level. There are several talks I have given that contain slides on this topic. See the first, second, and last talks in this group ( For seeking a career prior to graduation, see talks five and six in this set ( A real theme to consider is that the culture and expectations of industry are much different from those in academia. One must adapt.

Translate your academic achievements into industrial successes, or at last a clear vision of potential in industry. Answer these questions:

  • How will a company benefit from what you know and have accomplished?

  • How do your dissertation results show your potential to contribute to a company's top and bottom lines? (savings and income)

  • What significant industrial problems should a company entrust to you? Why? What potential do you have to solve those problems?

  • What new products might you create?

  • What competitive advantage do you bring?

These are questions you need to answer. It is expected that you will be able to give a good answer since the doctorate is supposed to be testimony to your ability to conduct research and development that creates something significant and totally original. Your achievement should also illustrate your ability to manage a budget, schedule, and team so that clear results are achieved. Rather than acquiring rudimentary technical skills in some new domain, you should spend your time investigating the industry for which your doctorate most suites you.

Industry demands that you communicate effectively (listening/speaking, writing/reading, comprehension/understanding). Do your writings make your work accessible, understandable, and usable? A story to illustrate: During an international science fair for high-school students I was asked to pick a first and second place winner for a particular company. There were 109 projects to judge in less than two hours. The first cut was easy because there was a clear differentiation between those who had been coached by academics and those who were coached by industrial professionals. The academic works’ titles were filled with obscure terminology and had no sense of results. The industrial titles were clear and understandable, and clearly pointed to what was accomplished. About 50% of the projects were eliminated on that basis. It was not even necessary to go to the exhibition floor. From there a quick review of the posted material showed that most projects filled the squares without telling what was done, how it was done, and why it mattered. Eliminating on that basis left five projects. A detailed review and interview were conducted of those projects. The choice from there was easy. The two selected projects delivered results that could be readily put to use to solve complex problems. They also yielded scholarship candidates that the company could develop as future interns and, later, as employees.

Communicating beyond your peer group is essential. In my experience, people with money to spend on R&D are not members of your peer group. You have to be able to communicate value to those people. What it comes down to is this: If nobody understands your work, nobody will use it. If nobody uses your work, nobody will see any value in it. If nobody sees any value in your work, nobody will fund it. If nobody funds your work, your job goes away, and so do you. So, even if your peers think your work is worthy of a Nobel Prize, you still have to sell its value to those who provide funding. I have made such comments during talks at conferences. They never fail to totally enrage someone in the audience who is from academia. You have to realize that you are not paid for being smart. You are paid for producing results that are understandable, usable, and valuable. Your funders make that judgment, not you nor your immediate peers (although having good references is very important).

Here is a basic outline for presenting results:

  • Situation: problem you were trying to fix, goal you were trying to achieve
  • Action:     what you did about the situation
  • Result:     what came out of those actions
  • Why it Matters: who should care and why

Be sure to answer these questions:

  • What was the impact on the top and bottom lines?
  • What was the benefit to the company and its customers

Concerning job hunting: Searching mass-aggregation sites is a very good start. After that, it is best to know your industry and what companies are active in that industry. Then go to their individual company websites to see what openings are posted there. Many companies do not list jobs on the mass-aggregation sites because they are picky as to the resumes they want to attract. Be keen to develop a personal network. Put into that network at least as much as you take out. Be a benefit to your network at least as much as you ask of your network. Always seek win-win situations and exchanges. Job hunting is much aided by publications and presentations in respected industrial journals and conferences.

Being Apart: Peer pressure can be a good or bad influence. However, I have found that following the crowd is generally not a good idea. Standing aside from the crowd can be uncomfortable. However, as a problem-solver in industry, I have found it necessary to do so. Difficult technical problems tend to result from what the crowd normally does. A solution can not be had because of people's desire to be accepted by the crowd. That is where objective thinking must depart from the crowd to produce a solution. Herein lies a lot of opportunity. If everyone is doing something, let them do it. Instead, find something that is critical that others can not or will not embrace. Then learn to do it, and do it the best anyone has ever seen. Here are two good quotes on this idea:

If lots of things were easy, anyone and everyone would do them. The term for this, commoditization, really means nobody makes any
money doing it. It's the hard that keeps average participants away
from some things, and makes the effort of the few who tackle the
problem and deliver results valuable. The way to financial success is to take something hard, so much so, few other people can do it, and make it look easy.

Don Dingee, Industrial Embedded Systems, Spring/Summer 2006, v 2, # 1, p 7


Find what is tough to do or what is important to your customer or
company. That is how you establish a niche. If you are only chasing
the easy stuff, you are very replaceable. If it is no-muss no-fuss work, anybody can do that. To have a defensible niche you have to stay close to your customer or company, and understand what is
important to them. If you perform a valuable service better than
anybody else then you will remain in good stead.

Steve Gordon, The Trucker, April 1-4 2012, v 25, # 7, pp 4,12

The concepts outlined above have aided me greatly as a Ph.D. in industry. Applying those concepts within a constant cycle of study-learn-work-produce has made it possible for me to function at the doctoral level while providing service to those around me. The result is skills and reputation that are greatly in demand for assignments that are hard to fill. You can achieve this in your own transition from academia to industry.


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