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Post PhD: how to transition out of academia?

  1. Nov 27, 2013 #1
    I would like to thank this forum for numerous threads discussing various ways to transition out of academia after getting a PhD in physics. However I still think that I am missing a key factor leading to successful transitions.

    I also have nobody to ask in person. All of my friends who got PhDs in technical fields (and had not previously worked for a few years in a company) ended up in postdocs.

    The most recent one was a guy who realized that science was not his domain in the second year of his PhD. So he decided to focus on getting programming and statistical experience instead. He still ended up getting a PhD (with fairly subpar publication record), but he also had a few successful projects in Java, C, C++, Python and R though his research, freelancing and hobbies. He also had a couple of programming internships in industry in his BS years. During the last few months (while writing his thesis and continuing to sharpen his programming skills) he was applying for every non-senoir programming position throughout the nation, including entry-level jobs and paid internships. I was sure that this guy would be the first among my PhD acquaintances to get a non-academic job. A couple of weeks ago after several months of unsuccessful job hunt he started applying for postdoctoral openings too, although he knew that his publication record was far from stellar. Guess what kind of job offer he ended up accepting this week? A postdoc.

    What do you think is a key for a successful transition from academia apart from having previous corporate experience?
     
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2013
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  3. Nov 27, 2013 #2

    MarneMath

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    Well, i'm not an expert on this, but one thing I noticed that made it difficult for some people to actually find a job is in ability to successfully translate their skills into kill corporate buzz words. They focus on using the jargon and buzzwords that they are use to hearing in academics, but fail to realize or find out what those skills mean in the business world and how to phrase it so a HR guard will allow the resume to pass the filter. So my advice is to translate your general resume to be specific for each job using words associated with that job.
     
  4. Nov 27, 2013 #3

    Pythagorean

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    The career seminars I attend suggest you do screenings with corporate employers. You wouldn't be explicitly looking for a job, but you'd be feeling out what the typical work day looks like, what kind of expectations and culture surround the work place and what kind of things employers are looking for. Apparently, employers are willing to do this a lot with people (especially academics looking to go corporate).

    Sometimes it can lead to a job, but that shouldn't be the expectation at all; think of it more like a corporate workshop.
     
  5. Nov 27, 2013 #4

    Dr Transport

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    I had no trouble transitioning directly from my PhD to industry, it is all in how you market yourself. My company just hired a recent PhD out of school and two of my best friends left graduate school and came to work with me. It really isn't that hard.
     
  6. Nov 27, 2013 #5
    But that depends on your research doesn't it? In my group we worked with thin films and many of our graduates went directly into the semiconductor industry. Others in different research areas had little to no industry applicable skills after graduation and struggled to find a meaningful employment.
     
  7. Nov 27, 2013 #6
    I would imagine having a best friend at a place you are looking for work helps along the way.
     
  8. Nov 27, 2013 #7
    I don't think that assuming it's all about buzzwords really increases the chances of getting a real job. Quite the contrary, I believe part of the problem is that physicists greatly overestimate themselves, especially in comparison to other academic fields. A PhD in physics, for example, does not imply any more skill than a fresh B.Sc. in engineering. It merely implies more experience with things like making plots, using screwdrivers, giving talks, writing texts about complicated issues, coping with frustration, tolerance to coffeine overdoses, ... . Not that these are not important experiences. But if you asked physicists about their strengths quite often you'd get answers like "being good at abstract thinking" or "being good at solving problems" - which adds an interesting perspective to the picture of industry applications being all about buzzwords, btw.
     
  9. Nov 27, 2013 #8
    I personally left the field after my PhD and had to start at the bottom (software support). Most important part is getting in somewhere and while you may feel your initial job position is not that glamorous, if you are 'PhD in physics smart' then you will be fine and rise quickly. I am very glad I left academia and can go back to self directed study 15 years later in early retirement ;)
     
  10. Nov 27, 2013 #9

    AlephZero

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    Agreed, from the employer's perspective a key thing is that the applicant has some realistic ideas of what working in industry is about, and what they can contribute to the company's objectives (not just their personal objectives!).

    If an interviewee things they are going to get paid to sit in a corner from day one and continue working on their PhD research, it probably doesn't matter how bright they are - thats not the way industry operates, most of the time.

    If the "clueless" get through the selection process, however smart they are, usually everybody loses. I remember one guy we hired whose PhD had been fairly heavily experimental, and wanted to do something more theoretical. After 6 months he was complaining that he wasn't involved with any experimental work (which was true, because he had ignored any opportunities to get involved!) so we moved him to another department. A few months later he was complaining about the lack of theory. The good news was, he found himself job elsewhere soon after that. The bad news is, we wasted most of a year on him, with no return on our investment of time and money.
     
  11. Nov 27, 2013 #10

    jasonRF

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    Depends upon the individual more than what degree they had, in my experience. Not too long ago I interviewed a freshly minted electrical engineering PhD whos attitude was essentially "I am brilliant. If you can provide a well funded stimulating environment for me then you are in luck."

    Not sure what this means. If we need someone to program FPGAs, and a BS in electrical engineering has experience, then for that job most physics PhDs are less qualified than the BS EE. But if we need someone to work with minimal supervision to think of new approaches to solving a large problem that we have, a physics PhD will often be more useful than a BS EE.

    jason
     
  12. Nov 27, 2013 #11

    jasonRF

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    I am an electrical engineering PHD in industry who interviews a fair number of folks for my company, including some physics PhDs. I am not a hiring manager (shoot me if I become one!) but here is my take. If you are looking to go into finance/business then igore some of this - I know nothing of such things!

    On your resume emphasize transferrable skills. Indicate leadership, initiative and innovation that has lead to success. Include non-academic if relevant (eg. you started an organization that brings science into poor schools, etc.) If you know how to build lasers, do fancy statistical inference, machine learning, build efficient numerical simulations, use CAD software to design complicated mechanical parts, build large c++ software packages, etc., then include that. Don't list your web site unless it is professional and something you want us to see. I never google a candidate looking for info, but if you give me your home page address on your resume I might take a look.

    Write a good cover letter that makes it clear you understand what we do, why you want to work for us, and what you bring to the table that can help us. Give examples to support your assertions.

    Use any contacts you have. They will not get you the job, but they may get you an interview.

    If you get an interview, your communication skills are a BIG deal. If you cannot explain your dissertation research to me in a way that allows me to understand what you did, how you did it, and why you did it, then you are in trouble. No, you do not need to explain the details of the standard model to me but I need to understand enough about what you did to see how you could fit in with our company. Also, we want to work with people that communicate well for obvious reasons. Be prepared to answer questions regarding everything on your resume in a way that an educated engineer / mathematician / computer scientist could understand. Be prepared for hard questions. Ask good questions. Be nice to the secretary (who wants to work with a jerk?).

    It is certainly tough out there, and companies can be pickier than they were when I finished (before the dot com bubble burst). Try to keep a positive attitude and keep working at it. I wish you the best.

    jason
     
  13. Nov 28, 2013 #12

    Dr Transport

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    Thin films, yes, esoteric areas like string theory which have no bearing in industry, no. In the latter, the ability to program is the thing you need to stress in your resume.


    In general, condensed matter physics PhD's find it easier to transition, my friends who worked in astrophysics and plasmas found it harder. In my line of work, given the choice between a high energy theorist and a condensed matter experimentalist, I'm going to choose the latter. On the flip side, if I get resumes from a high energy experimentalist and a theorist in semiconductors, I'll have to really look long and hard to make a decision, both have skills I need.
     
  14. Nov 28, 2013 #13

    Dr Transport

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    A decade ago, yes, now, not so much. The hiring/interview/selection process is so automated, the buzz words in your resume is the key. The best thing I can do now is to tell my friends about which specific posting to look at and apply for, after that I cannot do anything legally to help them along until they get into the interview.

    I agree with JasonRF, everything he said is absolutely correct.
     
  15. Nov 28, 2013 #14
    Even JasonRF said having contacts will get help you get the interview. Getting the interview is the biggest hurdle for physicists transitioning out of academia who likely arent going to fit the buzzwords.

    With the down economy contacts are even more important because jobs are scarce. Contacts that are really good friends are better than acquaintances
     
  16. Nov 29, 2013 #15
    I can't do better than the posts above, but I'll chip in my perspective:

    Quite true. Working in industry has been humbling, as you come across many skills where experience cannot compensated for by sheer intellect, e.g. accounting, software development, tax law, managing people, persuasion, negotiation.

    I do think that I have a slight edge in terms of learning ability because of my physics research background, but the baseline amount of time needed is already so substantial that you cannot expect to master any of these just because of a small increase in learning rate.

    Finally, my firm is in a small part of finance where academic PhDs are highly valued. Even if you take the mean across the most established firms (in terms of age), the headcount is perhaps 30. Most of the firms in this space are so small that, (1) there are only 0-2 hiring managers, so the people that you work with will inevitably have a part to say, and (2) I wouldn't expect the hiring process to be automated. If you're so small, skill matters as much as your cultural fit. I don't mind people who are bad at expressing the relevance of their skills. In fact, my experience tells me that the match to our job requirements has been a fairly powerful contrarian indicator of what their actual job performance turns out to be. I don't know how you'd make use of this information, but just thought I'd point it out.
     
  17. Nov 29, 2013 #16

    Dr Transport

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    Depends on the company, like I said, my employer does not schedule for interviews based on my requests, that is out of my hands until I get the list of vetted candidates, the best I can do is to tell my preferred candidates, i.e. friends, what some of the buzz words are, and the specific requisition number to apply to. I cannot see the entire list of applicants at any time what so ever.
     
  18. Nov 29, 2013 #17

    Choppy

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    One key, and I almost hate to say it, is that you have to be willing to jump through some hoops. And that can mean getting some profession-specific training so that you have the certification you need to be hired. The PhD has likely made you an extremely educated person. But it hasn't given you a lot of profession-specific skills, or at least, not ones that can be conveyed in a legislation-heavy working environment.
     
  19. Dec 3, 2013 #18
    Thanks to everyone. That's a lot of useful input.

    Choppy, does it usually mean going back to a university, or can it mean self-education and some professional certificates? It's just that looking at my peers who have better marketable degrees (CS and EE), university does not seem to offer a lot in terms of profession-specific skills (such skills appear to be mostly learned on-job). Am I wrong?
     
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2013
  20. Dec 4, 2013 #19

    StatGuy2000

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    Profession-specific training could involve going back to university to apply for residency in say, medical physics (Choppy's chosen field), taking additional CS courses in university, or taking profession-specific training offered through community colleges (e.g. radiography technicians, dosimetry, etc.)

    You can also try self-education as well (such as what ParticleGrl had done to break into statistical analysis/data mining, if you follow her posts here at Physics Forums).
     
  21. Dec 4, 2013 #20

    Choppy

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    A lot of jobs, particularly "professional" ones are driven by certifications. What that means is that in order to do certain jobs, you need to have jumped through a set of "hoops" - taken the right courses, earned the right degree, written a set of exams, submitted an application process with a professional governing body, etc. in order to be recognized as a qualified individual in that particular profession.

    So for example, if you were interested in doing engineering work, although as someone who has a PhD in physics you are likely quite capable of doing such work (or at least learning it on the job) you are constantly going to have an uphill battle when seeking employment because you don't have the certification that employers are looking for. One option for you is to simply return to university and get an engineering degree.

    For the record, I realize this is the last thing most people want to do after having been a graduate student and an undergrad before that, and that financial pressures, such as having to repay student loans can be prohibitive to such a plan.
     
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