Have you ever received a job application from a PhD graduate and weren’t sure what to do with it? These applicants are often overlooked due to common misconceptions that prevent recruiters from tapping into a rich talent pool.
“What PhD candidates are looking for is that opportunity to prove themselves [and] learn some new things,” says Vay Cao, founder of Free the PhD, a company dedicated to helping postgrads find jobs outside of academia. Having faced the struggle herself after receiving a PhD in neuroscience from Brown University, Cao now advocates for people looking to move beyond the classroom. “[I]t's worth it to talk to the person and figure out what they bring to the table.”
So why should nonacademic employers take a second look at PhD candidates? Let’s address those misconceptions one by one, and then take a look at the transferable skills an advanced degree can provide.
Misconception #1: PhDs are so qualified they will demand tons of money.
In fact, starting salaries for university professors and researchers are modest compared to jobs in other industries, and many PhD candidates are accustomed to working lower-paid research positions for a year or two after completing their degrees. As a result, salaries in the "outside world" can seem pretty competitive.
“Part of the leverage hiring managers and recruiters have is that, if [the candidate has] zero work experience, you can push back a little bit and say, … ‘You don't have a lot of concrete experience to warrant a higher salary, but maybe we could put you on the fast track for acceleration and promotions,’” Cao says.
So the idea that PhD candidates are unaffordable is likely unfounded. All potential hires, PhD or not, will go through a salary-negotiation period; have a conversation with the person to see what they want and what they have to offer.
Misconception #2: PhDs won’t have the right interpersonal skills.
In fact, having an academic background makes many PhD candidates effective and efficient learners, well suited to a variety of teams.
Cao adds that those seeking to leave academia may be doing so because their skills don’t mesh well with that world. Many PhDs love to teach, interact with others and present to groups, and they simply need a chance to develop those skills in a corporate setting.
“As a hiring manager, I actually would be less concerned about them not coming in with the knowledge [than I would with other candidates],” Cao says. “I would have a lot of confidence they could learn very quickly on the job.”
Misconception #3: PhDs are overqualified and will get bored.
PhD candidates are like other top performers on your team, says Cao. The question isn’t how to keep them busy; it’s how to keep the entire team stimulated.
After all, boredom doesn’t just apply to PhDs. For top performers to remain challenged and engaged on the job, their day-to-day work must present opportunities for growth, advancement and ownership.
Cao suggests managers ask PhDs questions such as, “I know you used to tackle some pretty hard problems. Do you see some problems, alongside the work you're already doing, that you'd like to take on?”
Transferable skills include problem-solving, persistence and communication
So much for misconceptions. What are the transferable skills PhDs bring to the table?
1) Complex problem solving. Companies in every industry deal with a lot of big-picture questions, such as how to launch a successful go-to-market strategy for a product or tap into a particular demographic. PhD graduates are built to tackle these types of questions, says Cao.
Many in the corporate world struggle with big-picture questions because they “don't know how to even start attacking the problem,” she explains. “This is exactly the kind of question that PhDs start their careers trying to figure out.”
“Coming up with rigorous, data-driven methods of solving a problem, especially ambiguous problems — that's literally what they had to do for many years,” she adds.
2) Grit and persistence. Companies want candidates who are willing and able to put in the work to get something done — which fits PhD candidates to a tee.
“These are people who have been handed a problem to solve, and sometimes very little else, and have to figure it out themselves,” Cao says.
Got jobs that require “thinking outside the box” and “independent problem-solving”? PhD students are accustomed to working without a lot of resources or assistance, so they learn to thrive with their own creative problem solving through persistence and grit.
3) Strong presentation abilities. PhD grads regularly present their research findings, and many are armed with advanced presentation skills. Just because these are scholarly presentations doesn’t mean the abilities don’t translate.
“They may have to teach classes or [serve as a teacher’s assistant], so teaching, coaching and mentoring are experiences that [they] have,” Cao says. To apply these skills to the corporate world, she adds, “all they have to learn is ... the protocol for talking to the VP, the CEO or the client. [PhDs] are very good at taking a new protocol and adapting to it.”
4) Grant writing. PhD students are often adept in writing grants for their own research, having “had to justify why they needed money … [and] show how they would use it in a budget,” says Cao.
Though many graduates don’t talk about them with recruiters, such fund-raising skills can be a huge asset to startups, nonprofits and small businesses. These organizations often have to apply for government grants or write business proposals — which involve similar processes to writing research grants.
Consider PhD candidates to diversify your workforce
So the next time you receive an application from a PhD candidate, take a second look — not only for their transferable skills, but also to diversify your workforce. A lot of these candidates are leading their fields in innovation and research, and that can transfer directly to your industry.
“As a recruiter or as a hiring manager, one of the things I think you can assume is that if this person has been discovering new things in a field that's adjacent to the focus of your company, they may actually bring a lot of value [in] coming from that leading edge,” Cao notes.
What’s more, PhDs “really care about what they do,” Cao says. “These are people who will spend 9am to 9pm in a lab by themselves tackling problems without any help. Just imagine … the things that you can accomplish … if you take them into your work environment, put teammates alongside them and give them knowledge and tools. The sky's the limit.”