Why earning a PhD is an advantage in today’s industry job market

Don’t despair if people try to talk you out of pursuing an industry position — your degree can open many doors, says Isaiah Hankel.
Isaiah Hankel is the founder and chief executive of the website Cheeky Scientist.

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Scientists in research laboratory discussing project

Industry employers value candidates with PhDs because they are expert innovators.Credit: Thomas Barwick/Getty

“Companies don’t want to hire PhDs because they’re overqualified and too independent.”

That’s what a career counsellor told a roomful of fellow students and me during my fourth year of graduate school at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. We were attending a mandatory seminar on alternative careers that the university was holding for graduate students (I was studying B-cell development and T-cell function), but the instructor giving the presentation was an academic career counsellor who did not have industry experience.

I looked up. “What?” I asked myself. How could my PhD be a liability to my career?

I had decided just two months before the presentation that I would pursue a job in industry. I was 100% sure I wanted out of academia, because the data on my prospects of becoming a faculty member were very clear. A 2010 report from the Royal Society in London found that only 0.45% of science PhD graduates would ever become professors (see Data from the US National Science Foundation in the same year indicated that the number of postdoc positions in the United States had more than tripled over the previous 30 years, whereas the number of full-time professorships had decreased sharply.

Worse, the US National Institutes of Health recommended a salary of only US$37,740 that year for a starting postdoc through its National Research Service Award programme (which provides guidance on postdoc salaries), and few US institutions were actually following this recommendation. Accounting for inflation, things have not improved much today — a 2017 report shows that 72.4% of all postdocs make less than $49,999. Still, after hearing just one counsellor tell us that our PhDs would be a liability, I tossed aside these grim facts about my prospects in academia and was ready to start searching for a postdoc position anyway.

I went home that night feeling like I had wasted my career. What was I doing? Why was I getting a degree that wasn’t going to take me anywhere? I had heard shocking stories from a PhD student and two postdocs who weren’t able to get industry jobs, but I had never taken them seriously until then. The fact that my sample size was three (n = 3) never crossed my mind at the time.

As a result, I stopped applying for jobs outside academia for more than a year, and this became one of the most stressful periods of my life. I was convinced that getting my PhD was a mistake, and that my career was over. It wasn’t until I went through a severe but temporary ailment, caused by stress, that I started applying for jobs again — properly this time. Instead of merely uploading CVs online, I started attending networking events and reaching out to employers on LinkedIn.

Soon, I started setting up informational interviews (informal chats with employees of an organization or in a field that interests you) and getting job referrals, followed by phone screens (informal phone interviews that help hiring managers to decide whether to invite the prospect to an in-person interview) and site visits. Within a few months, I was hired for my first industry position as an application scientist. What got me hired? My PhD.

The hiring manager told me that the owner of the company hired people with PhDs before other candidates because they were “expert innovators”. Indeed, part of the requirement for getting a PhD is mastering a field of study and then advancing that field through new, peer-reviewed discoveries.

My PhD wasn’t a liability after all. In fact, it was a valuable asset.

Today, I consult with Fortune 500 companies and manage three biotechnology start-ups. My ability to learn quickly, deal with repeated failure and rapidly solve complex problems is a result of all the time I spent testing, repeating and tweaking experiments during graduate school.

Misconceptions are powerful if you believe them. The key to avoiding a limiting belief is to think and act like the PhD graduate you are. With a PhD, you should not trust a sample size of three. Likewise, you would not trust one person’s word as doctrine. Instead, you would ask for further evidence and look to the data for answers.

Hold your career to these same standards.

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