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In recent years there has been much talk of difficulties in the academic job market, and of many PhDs transitioning out of academia into the private sector. From what I've observed, it seems that those PhDs that did get private jobs experienced pay and hours much better than what they would have gotten as academic post-docs. Of course, academic freedom, and opportunity to publish or teach are often not as good, but those are somewhat subjective factors.

However most PhD programs aren't really suited to this sort of thing. They are designed (sometimes explicitly) for producing future professors. There is emphasis on teaching, academic research (ie. stuff that you can publish and bring in the cites), writing grants (to agencies like the NSF), and all sorts of academic-y things. These skills don't really seem like they would sound very attractive to a private sector employer, who I assume have, contrary to academia, some regard for making money and less for things I've listed.

Of course there are two main things the PhD has that a company concerned with profit rather than publications would want:

  • Specialized domain knowledge
  • General reasoning and analytical skills

Everything else you could get from non-PhDs cheaper. These, luckily, are things that PhD is designed to teach anyhow. However, there are often many soft skills I see in job ads, which seem relevant, like:

  • Computer skills
  • Proficiency with programming languages
  • Experience with frameworks and libraries of commercial use (.NET, phone apps, web administration, ecommerce)
  • "Works well with others"
  • "Good communicator"
  • "Can assume leadership role"
  • "Can supervise team of junior workers on project"

These are things that, if you want to learn while doing a PhD, sometimes you need to go out of your way to do so. And even if you acquire a skill, how do you convince the employer that you actually have it, as opposed to just saying you do?

So suppose you were a PhD student, but your goal upon graduation was not to start at a postdoc and aim for a college professorship, but do get a job in the private sector. This can be an industrial R&D job very similar to your PhD research, or it can be a supervisory role in an area related to your expertise (eg. fish biologist works at fishery), or it can be unrelated except for using the same skills (eg. physicist working in finance). What would you do differently during your PhD from your faculty-bound peers?

Does it make sense to sort of "flavor" your PhD work with things relevant to the private sector, so you can go into your job search having developed these tangential skills more than the average PhD would? Or is it better to just focus on research, and hope that employers will appreciate your academic success, and see your potential if you applied yourself to their business instead?

Someone will inevitably ask for what field, let's say biomedical -> biotech, software development, finance or healthcare. However, I encourage you to answer in a general way, that would apply to many disciplines; I think such an answer would be more useful.

  • @ff524 first question sounds like the same thing, but the accepted answer is not what I'm looking for at all (I want to know how and whether to invest in developing specific skills). Second one is asking about competing with non-PhDs, I want to compete with other PhDs (who also want the same industry job). – Superbest Jul 26 '16 at 6:10
  • There are other answers besides for the accepted answer. Also, if you want better answers to that question (if it is asking the same thing), you can invest in a bounty on it to attract more attention. If you're not asking the same thing, you should edit your post to focus specifically on the aspect of the PhD -> industry transition not addressed in that question, instead of the rather broad title "Advice for a PhD… who is aiming for industry". – ff524 Jul 26 '16 at 6:11
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    Why bother getting a PhD if you just want to work in industry? The level of specialized knowledge involved outside of academic research is much lower, and "general reasoning and analytic skills" is vague (and not what the second list you describe, which sounds like the job skills for the manager of a team of a software engineers, focuses on). – anomaly Aug 26 '16 at 3:31
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In general, the optimal thing for a PhD student aiming for the private sector is to quit the PhD as soon as he or she can get a relevant job. There are exceptions if the private sector job involves actual research, and some private sector jobs require the specialized knowledge of an MS or MA degree.

Beyond the basics and the necessary theoretical knowledge, the soft skills and the relevant technical skills are much more easily picked up while working in industry, since you get daily practice in the specifically relevant skills. In addition, one generally gets paid much better in the private sector than as a PhD student.

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    I disagree. You say that "In general, the optimal thing for a PhD student aiming for the private sector is to quit the PhD as soon as he or she can get a relevant job." If someone get a relevant job in the present, in the future after PhD it will also get a relevant job. – Mikey Mike Jul 26 '16 at 12:02
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    I disagree with sentiment, there is a job market for pH.d's outside of academia. Many financial firms would jump at the chance to hire mathematical PhD for financial analysing. – Repmat Jul 26 '16 at 12:23
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    This is too anecdotal for me to make it an answer, but I had a student who had done enough research to make a dissertation and had decided he wanted to go into industry. I talked to friends who do hiring in the field he wanted to work in, and they thought that having a completed Ph. D on his resume rather than an abandoned one would be be more valuable than getting into the field a year earlier, because it would show he could stick with a lengthy self-directed task. He spent a lot of the year he was writing polishing his coding skills and making industry contacts, and he got a good job. – David E Speyer Jul 26 '16 at 14:11
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    MikeyMike - at the cost of several years and $100K in earnings. Repmat - not really - most jobs will tend to prefer a MS with a specific concentration in the relevant areas of math - the exception being the small minority of jobs expecting actual original research. – Alexander Woo Jul 26 '16 at 20:50
  • @MikeyMike: Sure, but you're sacrificing several years (and the earnings you'd have during that time) for something that's completely useless to your future job. It's nice to get the title, but what's the point in having gone through a PhD program if you're just going to be writing code or being a middle-manager for the duration? – anomaly Aug 26 '16 at 3:41
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My opinion is that this is defintly possible! I work at a institute (ntnu.edu/ipk) that is very much connected to the industry. There are different course groups, but some groups have as much as 3-4 case companies for each phd student. Thats means that the student is actually doing a lot of research on the company.

I think if you want to wprk in the industry, you should go for a phd program where they plan to cooperatw with companies. This is either clear in the phd description or the supervisors should know something about this.

You could also talk extra to supervisors that have strong industry contacts. My exoerience is that its big differences about how much professors and groups focus to cooperate with industry.

Anyway, research with a company is mandatory in a phd if you really want to work in the industry later. Maybe thats also what you need to motivate yourself through your phd.

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