“Do you think your PhD fucking impresses me?”
I was sitting at a table in Ottawa’s prestigious Chateau Laurier for one of my worst job interviews ever. This angry little man in front of me had a PhD himself. And while ultimately I decided that I would rather be unemployed than to work for him, his words stung me. They activated a little voice in my head that I was trying to ignore.
Your PhD means nothing in the real world…
Fortunately, I would discover that his apparent disdain for PhDs was not shared by most employers. And what I think he meant was–your PhD alone is not enough to carry you in the real world.
And it’s not.
During my time working outside of academia, I’ve learned how important it is to build a holistic identity. Your PhD is only one part of this. The crass way of talking about this is “building your personal brand,” although I know there’s been a lot of pushback to the idea of personal branding lately.
So while you don’t have to think of yourself as a brand, if you want to work outside of academia you DO have to think of yourself as more than an academic, and definitely as more than a PhD. Employers will respect your PhD, really, but the PhD is just one small part of a big, amazing you.
Around the same time as the nightmare interview, I had a much better one for a job running policy round-tables (I took this one). I waited for them to ask about my PhD. They knew I had one, after all. I was sure they’d want to hear about my research (and I was prepared to talk about it in laypeople’s terms).
They didn’t ask. Instead, I spent a ton of time talking about how I organized weekends-away for teenagers when I worked non-profit.
I was a bit insulted at first, but it taught me something about PhDs transitioning into the real world. Most academics put the PhD and their research topic at the center of their identity, as if it’s all encompassing and speaks for itself.
It’s not. Employers want to know if you can solve their pain. If you can add value to their clients. If you can take initiative and work without constant supervision.
Building a broader identity
When you leave academia, your PhD fades into the background. It’s not that it doesn’t carry any weight–of course it does. But it’s like the really-good engine under the hood of a car. You don’t see it when you look at the car, but it dictates what the car can do.
You’ll do best in altac work if the PhD is behind your identity, but if your identity is bigger than it. The PhD should be an afterthought when people think about me. My goal is to build a skill-set that brings so much value to the world that people say, “Oh wow, he can do so much. And he has a PhD too!”
So, start to think of yourself and your skills as a package to offer the world. The package is made up of a bunch of different skills and accomplishments alongside of your personal identity. The PhD is just a part of this.
Some of the elements in the package can be built up on the side of a PhD. Do you know how to code? Do you speak a second language? Have you run projects? How about social media campaigns?
Other variables can be changed almost instantly. Is your LinkedIn page clean, well-written, and compelling? Did you shower and put on clean clothes this morning? Are you dressing for a job you want, or the job you have (aka grubby PhD student)?
Start cultivating a much broader identity and skill-set, and make the PhD the icing on this cake.
The most effective PhDs are leaders first
What does PhD mean to the real world? Well, since my mom cracked jokes about me being a well-educated barista during my whole degree, I assumed that PhD meant “over-educated,” “too erudite and specialized,” or “weird.”
Let me tell you how the world really views your PhD.
No matter what your degree-field is, PhD means leader. The real world thinks that PhDs are leaders.
It does. You are training to be a leader… whether you end up as a Professor or a CEO.
PhDs are the highest-educated members of our society. Your brain is like a finely-tuned engine that can deal with the most complex problems. You can see the big picture as well as the minute details in a way that many people can’t. You’re a highly-trained analytical machine. You know your field better than 99.99999999% of the population.
But when we come out of academia, our identities are often the opposite of leaders. To be a PhD student is still to be a STUDENT after all. You have to get marked occasionally, pass tests, and be told what to do by adults. Many grad students end up being trained to wait for people to tell them what to do, especially supervisors.
Wrap your head around the fact that your Post-PhD identity doesn’t work like this. Nobody will hold your hand through your post-PhD reinvention.
You are a leader.
What is a leader?
Someone who takes action.
Someone who makes decisions.
The most effective PhDs I meet in the real world (and in academia for that matter) are leaders first and foremost. That’s what you are training to be. If you can internalize this, you’ll conquer the world.