Overcoming the PhD Stereotype

Overcoming the PhD Stereotype

Guest post from David Giltner, PhD, founder of TurningScience.

When I’m honest with myself, I’ll admit that there are two main reasons I got a PhD.  The first was the realization while earning my undergraduate degree that one doesn’t truly become a scientist with only 4 years of college.  If I wanted to become a physicist, I needed a PhD.  


The second reason was that I wanted to prove I was smart.  I wanted to prove it to myself, and I wanted to prove it to others.  Once I’d completed a PhD, I’d forever have those three letters behind my name that proved to everyone for all eternity that I was smart.   

During my last year of graduate school, I decided that instead of pursuing the traditional career of a research professor, I’d launch my career in industry.  My first job involved developing sophisticated lasers for scientific applications, so I was surrounded by many other PhDs, and I was able to relish the confidence I’d established with my degree. As I began to move out of the lab into leadership roles that brought me more in contact with the business elements of the company, I began to realize that not everyone in the real world thought I was smart just because I had a PhD.  I realized that there were many stereotypes associated with a PhD, and I still had to show people that I was smart.  Sure, they believed I could solve complicated physics problems, and that I could work for years to understand some complex aspect of how the universe works that most people will never understand.  But to them, that wasn’t as important as understanding how business works – how people create things of value for other people and make a living doing it.  

Academics work on a problem just because it’s interesting.

This was a bit of a wake-up call for me, and caused me to re-evaluate some of my career choices.  In the end I decided that both the PhD and the career in industry were great choices, but realized that I had a lot to learn about how companies worked.  Academia had trained me in some very valuable technical skills, but it had taught me very little about how things get done in the real world. To many people in the private sector, I was just a stereotypical PhD.

The PhD Stereotype

What is the PhD stereotype? Here are five main elements that I’ve discerned during my two decades in industry:

  1. They love to work on a problem just because it’s interesting.  You will find people in management at many companies who think PhDs are life-long academic types who just want to study a problem for the rest of their lives and never get to something they can ship as a product. I was rather surprised to find many people who genuinely had no interest in a problem if the solution wasn’t deemed to have value.
  2. They need to completely understand a problem before they can move on. Graduate school trains us to do this, but I think the scientists’ innate curiosity makes it easy.  When we were working on our dissertation projects, we knew damned well that we’d better have investigated every aspect of our chosen problem, because our committee was going to grill us when we defended.  In industry, projects have timelines that have to be met, and complete understanding is usually a luxury.
  3. They like to be the smartest person in the room. I suspect most of us who went to graduate school regard our intelligence as one of our most valuable assets. Academia trains us to be the experts – to pass the test, to complete the degree, to get tenure, or to win the Nobel Prize, typically considered the pinnacle of an academic career.  Industry values expert teams rather than experts. It’s much faster to find someone else who already knows it than to learn it yourself.
  4. They like to find fault with others’ ideas. To be fair, this is an important aspect of the scientific method.  A hypothesis is proposed to explain an observed phenomena, and then everyone tests the hell out of it to see if they can break it.  If no-one can find fault, the theory survives.  This tends to train us scientists to value finding fault and pointing out why something won’t work. People in industry are more focused on finding a solution than a fault.  Sure, testing for faults is important, but the primary focus is on finding a solution that gets around the difficulties.
  5. They tend to be extremely specific when describing anything.  As scientists we are taught to be very specific in both our written and verbal communication. This can lead to complex descriptions that can be difficult for people less familiar with the details to understand. Industry is all about teamwork, and this means simple descriptions are much more effective. Complex descriptions have less influence in industry, and therefore make you seem very intelligent, but not very smart.  


Don’t be that PhD

I know, I know, not all PhDs are like this. But all stereotypes are based in truth.  There is a hesitancy to hire PhDs among many people in industry, specifically because they are aware of the stereotype.  Many managers have had bad experiences with PhDs who had technical skills the company needed, but whose behavior was too close to the stereotype to be effective. Don’t be that PhD.

Overcoming the PhD Stereotype

One of the best ways to get past the stereotype is to break the stereotypical habits in favor of habits that make you much more effective in the private sector. Here are 5 critical habits that PhDs who are successful in industry learn quickly in order to excel. Master these, and your manager will see you as the exception!

  1. They make sure their work always helps the company’s bottom line.  Above all else, companies exist to make money. In graduate school, most of us had the freedom to work on an interesting problem simply because it was interesting and brought an advance in knowledge. In the real world, if it doesn’t add to the company’s bottom line, it’s not worth doing.  Don’t get lost in work that is fun but doesn’t result in real value. Make sure your work will reduce costs, increase yields, or result in a new product with a clearly identified customer.
  2. They figure out what matters and what doesn’t.  In industry you are frequently faced with many pressures all at once.  You have to learn to identify which tasks will end up making a difference and which ones will not.  Otherwise you will be consumed with too much work to do, and too little progress to show for it.
  3. They realize it’s more important to be effective than to be right.  In academia you have to prove you’re smart to succeed.  In industry, it’s about getting things done.  No one cares if you are smart if you can’t produce a desired result quickly.  
  4. They learn to sell themselves and their ideas. In science, the data speaks for itself. Not so in industry. Business is a game, and everyone is busy playing their own position.  If you see the right direction to go, don’t wait for others to see it too.  Stand up and sell it!  
  5. They learn to make decisions without all the data they’d like to have. Business moves forward when decisions are made and action is taken.  More analysis just leads to delays and lost profit. Analysis is an important foundation, but you have to recognize when you have reached diminishing returns and it’s time to move on.  Make a decision, and then work to make your choice the right decision!


Interested to learn more about this topic? Dave gives the workshop How to be more employable in the private sector, in which he discusses topics like the PhD stereotype. 

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