As originally drafted for the “Reimagining Your Career Inside and Outside the Academy” workshop at the AEJMC 2022 Conference in Detroit, MI.
I was recently asked to provide my thoughts on the PhD program to industry job jump. I do so below, breaking down my advice into the early, mid, and late PhD program phases. As a data scientist, my two-cents do derive primarily from the particular experiences I had in getting into that particular domain, but most of what I have to say here is broadly generalizable to industry job search overall. In addition, based on my experience going more or less straight through academia from undergrad to PhD, some of my comments are specifically intended for those with a similar background, and readers with significant industry experience between undergrad and PhD may find they have their own specific know-how already.
Entering Your PhD Program
– Your Research Identity: You might hear from time to time that part of the grad school experience is to discover and cultivate your scholarly identity, and this is true even if you want to go into industry. It’s okay to bounce around a bit early on for sure, but try to get at least an idea of what you want your area of expertise to be as soon as you can, and ideally it should be connected to your industry aspirations. As Emerson says, “the voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks,” but you want a clear vision of which direction you want to zig (and perhaps zag) to get you started.
– Your Dream Job: It might seem far off, but it can be helpful to poke around from the beginning to see what kind of jobs you might want post-PhD. Job listings generally explicitly state what kind of skills they want applicants to have, and this information can provide guidance on what kind of courses you should take and experiences you should have during your PhD program to help you gain those skills. Speaking of planning…
– A Long Term Perspective: If you’re entering or have recently entered your PhD program with an interest in going into industry afterwards, from early on you should be mapping out your plan to help you achieve the scholarly identity and target jobs you arrive at from the steps I recommend above. Look at the list of courses provided by your department and your elective allotment and the like to figure out some plan of courses you want to take and milestone timeline that contributes to your goals. You don’t want to arrive at the end of your PhD program just to wish you had become familiar with concepts you haven’t touched that are key to your target industry/job.
During Your PhD Program
– More Methods: Take as many methods classes as you can — I lump statistics and data analysis under methods as well — and recognize there will be occasions where you need to self-teach yourself methods that you can’t take courses for. Theories provide guidance on what questions to ask, but methods give you the toolkit to investigate those questions, and familiarity with these methods can stand on their own even in contexts where particular theories may become irrelevant. A broader methodological toolkit will have you well-prepared to investigate a wider variety of questions for a future employer.
– Summer Internships: Landing at least one internship, ideally more, in your industry of interest during your doctoral studies will greatly enhance your profile when it comes to the industry job search (How do you land an internship? Reach out to your alumni networks, and see also the “Reach Out Voraciously” tip in the next section). You will absolutely have the occasional peer who manages to land an awesome industry job without having had such experience, but they will be the exception not the rule. Having these internships on your resume will be a nice “stamp of approval” that shows you can thrive putting your research skills to use in industry.
– Self-Direction: Even with advisors and committee members who are super supportive of your industry aspirations, given that much of their own experience often comes from academia, there can be limitations to the support and advice they can provide if getting an industry job is your goal. Thus, a lot of knowing what kind of skills you want to pickup and picking them up, figuring out which internships you want to go for, and the like fall to you, and it’s important to have a high level of self-guidance that builds on the support and knowledge your mentors and coursework give you.
Departing Your PhD Program
– Reach Out Voraciously: When you start applying for jobs, don’t just send in applications and hope for the best. Get on LinkedIn to try to figure out the hiring managers or recruiters for the positions you apply to and introduce yourself directly. There are also websites out there that will help you figure out the email address formats of various employers as well as to check whether certain email addresses you figure out via the former are functioning email addresses. Use these tools wisely.
– Don’t Lean on Similarity: You may find some level of comfort in interviewing with and the possibility of working for someone with a PhD, but do not let this unduly influence your level of interest in different positions. In my first post-PhD job, I learned the most from some of my colleagues and mentors who aren’t PhDs. Because remember, dropping everything for several years to work on a PhD for a pittance RA/TA salary is a luxury not everyone has, and every year you spent working on your PhD is a year someone who didn’t get a PhD spent working and gaining industry experience.
– Stay Humble, Pick Your Battles: Your PhD is a very specific credential in a very specific area, and it’s critical to remember this and not let one’s nascently certified expertise in the particular domain spiral into a big-headed attitude about everything. And even when your expertise is directly relevant to a task, often times, there will be bureaucratic or practical limits to how far you can get things exactly way you think they should be — you only have so much political capital to push back on so many things, so get comfortable with picking your battles and disagreeing-then-committing.
Whenever I poke around on job boards, it’s hard for me to not get the feeling that there’s more of a market for and interest in PhDs in the industry than ever before. From data science to consumer insights to user research and beyond, there’s a lot of demand for these days for the very skills PhD programs drill into their students. Trying to make the leap from PhD program to industry can feel daunting, but you will not be the first to do so, nor will you be the last.
At time of writing, Danny Kim (PhD, University of Pennsylvania; Forbes 30 Under 30) is Research Affiliate at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and will soon start an exciting new job in the entertainment industry!