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Earning a PhD help you learn tools and techniques in your field, and lets you become an expert in a very specific field of science. However, once you get your degree and try to enter the labor market, you're competing against people who are younger than you (i.e. recently graduated non-phd engineers) and may have actual work experience (i.e. non-phd engineers with a few years in the market).

There are, of course, some positions in which they cannot compete, including research and teaching position. Those are the minority, though... in most other fields it seems that holding a PhD is not as important as (for example) work experience.

So, I would like to know:

  • Is work experience more important than having a PhD in the many work environments?

  • What skills can I acquire/demonstrate during my PhD to become more "valuable" than a non-PhD candidate for the same job?

  • Thank you for your feedback. Maybe it's because I don't know what can I do once I get the degree, that it doesn't seems broad to me (that's the question I'm looking for an answer here). But you're right that it's excluding academia. – Alfonso Santiago Aug 25 '14 at 13:54
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    @earthling - I disagree; this is very relevant to "life as a graduate student, postdoctoral researcher, university professor". The majority of PhDs end up leaving academia, so they probably care about this very much. Given all the edits (including my own), I'm reopening the question... please flag if you think it should still be closed. – eykanal Aug 26 '14 at 12:16
  • What skills can I get during a PhD [...] ? The skills the student tries to get and the ones related to his major. The question still seems too broad to me. – Enthusiastic Engineer Aug 26 '14 at 13:04
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    @EnthusiasticStudent: If you look at eykanal's answer, you'll see that most skills are independent of the major. – user102 Aug 26 '14 at 13:15
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This question is too broad, but I have a feeling it's a commonly asked one, so I'm going to try to answer it anyways.

To address (what used to be) your second question first: holding a PhD does not make a job candidate any more desirable for the vast majority of positions. Indeed, it can be a factor against the candidate, as they will be perceived as more expensive. For positions where a less-qualified candidate could also fill the role, being overqualified is rarely a good thing. Jobs that are specifically looking for a PhD will typically state that in the requirements. For example, "Masters required, PhD preferred" is a common one in certain parts of the banking sector. However, for entry-level positions (data entry, lower-level analyst roles, etc), you may be at a disadvantage.

Regarding your first question, though, you're being overly harsh on yourself. The process of earning a PhD is significant work experience; indeed, that's your main selling point when looking for your first job. Depending on what you did, you will have some or all of the following experience:

  • Identifying, clearly stating, and figuring out how to address a problem - this alone qualifies you to be a consultant at any large firm; this is all they do, all the time, for different clients
  • Project management
  • Advanced technical writing - your thesis, academic publications
  • Communication skills - working through the peer-review process
  • Public speaking - presenting at conferences
  • Experimental design - your research project
  • The art of researching - the simple knowledge of how to properly find articles, sources, etc
  • ...

Even better, you've been doing all that for four years. You should be selling every single one of those points as hard as you can when you move to industry.


EDIT: The above answer stands for the edited second question as well; as a graduate student, you will want to learn all of the above if you wish to enter the workforce. More specifically, though, almost industry positions seeking PhD candidates will apply to value the following three above most else:

  • Self-starter - shown in that you got your work done
  • Collaborative - demonstrated through successful collaborations with other researchers (successful = researched together, published together)
  • Good communication - demonstrated through publications, public speaking, conference presentations, teaching, etc.

During the PhD, aim to do those things, and during your job search, emphasize all those traits in your resume and during interviews.

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    I don't think these skills you have listed are necessarily gotten during a PhD period. A PhD student and an engineer, both can get public speaking, communication skills, etc even during their professional careers, BSc internship programs or even by registering in some general social classes. Even almost every MSc student and an engineer with masters degree has learned how to do research by attending a research methods class. The user is looking for skills which are gotten specially by studying PhD. – Enthusiastic Engineer Aug 26 '14 at 13:26
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    +1 for You should be selling every single one of those points as hard as you can when you move to industry. You should always see the skills you have that others don't - and good communication skills is no so common for most engineers (at least the ones I have worked with). – earthling Aug 26 '14 at 13:27
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    @EnthusiasticStudent: I don't think eykanal claimed these skills were exclusive to a PhD holder. They can nevertheless be more developed than compared to someone who just get their MSc (or even against someone who has worked for a few years after their MSc). – user102 Aug 26 '14 at 13:41
  • @CharlesMorisset Who needs academic writing/research skill in engineering industry? – Enthusiastic Engineer Aug 26 '14 at 13:50
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    @EnthusiasticStudent - As an engineering PhD myself, and as a manager of other engineers in an industry position, I could not disagree with you more. Engineers need to be able to not only do work but also communicate that work both internally and externally in a clear and concise manner. – eykanal Aug 26 '14 at 16:24
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I think the answer in large part depends on the kind of job you want to work when you have completed your degree. You mention that you do not know the kind of job that you want to work when you get out of a the program. This is unfortunate. A Ph.D. = specialization, a mistake many Ph.D. students make is to assume specialization = job. In fact, specialization can make it harder to find a job. If you're goal is to enter into industry than I think you have an interesting road to navigate. The job market will be kinder to you if you have a range of skills that you are really good at, the Ph.D. program is going to pull you in the opposite direction. You're wise to want to understand better what it is about getting a Ph.D. that will make you standout in the workforce, but you'd also be wise to look at some skills for your desired positions that you might not develop while in the Ph.D. program, and look to develop those too while you are in the program. For me these skills are computer science skills. For you these skills might be something different.

Unfortunately, unless you are in the hard sciences, and even then specialization can be a demon, having a Ph.D. might not mean all that much when stacked against someone with a Master's, wider breadth of skills and more industry experience when looking for industry job.

  • I know in which direction I'd like to go, but I'm far from knowing what work I'd like to have. As I said in the original question (not the edited one), during the first years of my bioengineering courses, I didn't knew which were the different posibilites to work in as a Bioengineer. Luckily, I found in the PhD something I like. And beside that, with your way of thinking you need to have your life figured out up to when you are 40, think that I'm not able to do now (neither when I was 18 and I choose to get in Engineering). – Alfonso Santiago Aug 27 '14 at 7:30
  • @Alfonso Santiago: that's not what I'm saying at all, thank you for putting words in my mouth. ;) What's the biotech industry looking where you want to work? Are you specializing in something that will make it difficult to find jobs in those places? Do you want to work at. Big company, startup or be flexible enough to do both? – bfoste01 Aug 27 '14 at 10:27
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    sorry if I misunderstood your answer. For me, knowing what I'd like to do 5 or 10 years from now is almost imposible. Now I'm working in high performance computational biomechanics (HPCB), something very specific, I think, but those simulation skills can be useful in other areas too. I, actually, don't which is the demand of "HPCB simulators" in the labour market, that's something I should answer myself. About in what kind of enterprise I'd like to work, I think that I'm not brave enough for a startup... but maybe my bravery would change three years from now ;) – Alfonso Santiago Aug 29 '14 at 7:44

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