Don’t pursue a PhD as skills training for “the industry”!

Based on another recent conversation on LinkedIn-this time far more productive and polite compared to my previous experience, I want to expand a little on the answer I posted.

Ashley Ruba, a UX Researcher @ Meta Reality Labs, wrote about her experience of leaving academia after her PhD to pursue a career in the digital design industry with Meta:
Unfortunately, I often hear PhDs lament that they have no transferrable skills. First of all, stop that. You have transferrable skills. You just weren't taught how to identify and market them. This is why academics struggle to write resumes (more on that later this week).
Okay, so what are your transferrable skills? For UX Research, my biggest transferrable skills are:

1. Qualitative research methods & analysis

2. Experimental and survey design

3. Statistical analysis (using R)

4. Public speaking

5. Technical writing

Do you have these skills too? I bet you do.
Experiences, industries and sectors vary widely, but this is not the first time that those who left academia will stress transferable skills to land (often) better paid, more stable and less exploitative careers outside the university. But based on this particular conversation I am bit more hesitant, especially for those who are contemplating pursuing a PhD, perhaps with the thought that they can always transfer into the industry if they do not like the experience in higher education.

But for many, the best PhD option will be not to undertake one, rather than relying on an “alt-ac” career after many years in academia.

Generally speaking, I think that most PhDs offer very poor value for money vis-a-vis building up a skill base-especially if the PhD is (partially) self-funded. But let’s go focus on Ashley’s skills she outlined above.

Qualitative research methods & analysis + 2. Experimental and survey design
It is great that you have qualitative research and analytical skills, but perhaps 80% of those will probably not be needed in most companies or institutions. Maybe you are an expert in survey design-but wouldn't a four-week course be perhaps enough for most tasks that the job requires? Based on how many poorly designed surveys I come across “in real life” there is definitely space for improvement, but you are unlikely to use your intricate knowledge of NVivo to a meaningful extend, because it is labor-intensive, i.e. expensive…

Statistical analysis (using R)
After four to six (perhaps a few more in the US) years of precarious PhD research you may have built up specialized knowledge in R but you are competing with someone without a PhD who may have time to develop R-skills on the job for five years, tailored to the industry, while making a decent income. When you started your PhD at 25 and your direct competitor started a job, what can you bring to the table that the competition does not have? And we have not even touched the delicate subject of ChatGPT & other AI tools…

Public speaking
You will most likely encounter some of the worst public speaking performances of your life in academia. Brilliant scientists reading out their 25-page conference paper, a struggling PhD student at an 8:00a.m. panel with 5 colleagues in the audience and the proverbial “more of a comment than a question” interlocutor who disrupts a Q&A.
Many PhD students become better speakers throughout their journey, but again, joining an organization like Toastmaster or investing into a professional training (which few universities do) may be better “skills training” than working your way through the conference or faculty meeting circle for years.

Technical writing
Similar to public speaking, academia does not reward good writing of any kind-open a random academic journal of your discipline and you will encounter some of worst writing-but, hey, after 2,5 years in progress, four rounds of revisions and a happy Reviewer 2 the article was published…in a journal…with an IMPACT FACTOR!
Good writing is not required in academia, including for internal documents, strategy papers or grant applications.

It is difficult to generalize, of course, but in many cases you have spent the last five or so years working on a niche topic, with a methodological specialization and often isolated in a particularly hierarchical and bureaucratic structure, the university.

This is not to say that a large company, foundation/non-profit or public sector institutions does not come with its own idiosyncrasies, inefficiencies, bad presentations and bosses who are terrible communicators, but you may have lost four, five or six years on the direct competition who has been socialized into those idiosyncrasies.

As much as we should criticize large management consultancies companies, whenever I speak with (distant) friends in the industry they are very clear about how the company approaches skills development: When you join the company, you will be sent to a “mini-MBA” if your background is very different from business studies. And then you will talk with your boss about skills you need to develop and often send to short, expensive, hands-on workshops with top-notch coaches and facilitators. I am not endorsing the industry at all, but this is the 5-year younger competition you may be up against when you apply for an industry job with a 90-minute CV-building workshop under your belt that your university offered in year 3 of your PhD…

Long story short: Pursue a (ideally fully funded) PhD by all means, but keep in mind that PhDs are mentally and financially challenging and should not be treated as simply another degree that adds to your university study credentials.
(“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham, www.phdcomics.com)

And for #globaldev readers I can recommend to posts from the archive:

Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies? (a classic from 2011)

Should I transition from aid work to academia? Some don’ts & don’ts (from 2018)

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