Astrobetter:Ph.d transition issues

Here are some transition issues that Ph.D.'s often face when moving into industry:

  • Learning to fail - The thing about Ph.D.'s is that since age five, we've played the same game. Pass the tests, get to the top of the class, move to the next level. Repeat until age 25. The trouble with this history is that it can give Ph.D.'s a crippling fail of failure. Imagine yourself in some class, you study yourself to the bone, and then you fail the test, and everyone in class knows you failed the test. It's the stuff that people have nightmares over.

The trouble with fear of failure is that industry is all about "constructive failure." If you send in your resume, there is a 90% chance that you it will get immediately tossed in the trash. If you go into the interview, there is a very good chance (>80%) that you won't get the job. The good news is that if you get up and keep getting the door slammed in your face, then you may find some thing that works, but this involves learning to fail.

  • Learning to work in situations where intelligence may not be the most important thing - In school, the most important thing is to be smart, and you'll never get into trouble by being too smart. This is not true in industry. In industry, there are skills that are more important than intelligence, and there are often jobs in which intelligence is a bad thing.

A lot of jobs are "shut up, follow orders, and do this boring thing" and someone who is smart is often less willing to shut up, follow orders, and do this boring thing. A lot of times employers are reluctant to hire Ph.D.'s because Ph.D.'s have a reputation for being smart, and sometimes the employer is looking for someone that isn't smart.

  • Learning group responsibility - Imagine you take a test. You get a perfect score, but the person next to you was partying all night and they fail, and you get their school. Unfair? Unreasonable? Yes in school. But that's how businesses work. You can be 100% great at your job, but if the company does under because of someone else's stupidity or maybe because of no one's fault, then you lose your job. This is why social skills suddenly become important. If you are individually brilliant, but someone else fails, you lose. However, if you have some magic, and you can keep the person next to you from failing, you win.
  • Learning to work in unstructured situations - O.K. take the test nightmare. Now imagine that you come to class and you don't realize that there is a test. You think there might be a test somewhere, but no one tells you what the test is on, or even that there is a test.

The thing about this situation is that its how industry works. Academia is highly structured. They tell you what the test is going to be on, what you have to write on the test, and you just do it. Industry is highly unstructured.

You can see this in hiring practices. If you apply to a university, they will have an application form, an address to send your application to, and if you get rejected, you will get a rejection letter. In industry, you first job is to figure out who to send your application to, what that application looks like, and you may never get a reply, because you sent it into a black hole. It's very common to have this nice web form that takes a job application, and that application goes nowhere, because the people that maintained the site all got fired a year ago.

For most academic job searches, people will tell you want the qualifications are. If it's a job in the history department, then presumably they don't care about your ability to make pancakes. For industry jobs, people often will not tell you what the qualifications are because in a lot of situations, they don't know what the qualifications are.

So this is an unstructured environment in which you don't know what the rules are, and the moment you figure out, they all change on you. But this is known as the "real world."

One of the main pieces of advice that I give Ph.D.'s is "do not take more classes." A lot of the habits that Ph.D.'s have to overcome are the result of being on a campus environment, and you just have to get out of school to continue your education.