What is the Value of a PhD in the ‘Real World’?

by on 10th of February, 2012 in Career Development & Networking

Outwith the academic world, it’s a strange concept to many, this “Doctor of Philosophy”. And I’ve found that not only is it met with varying degrees of awe, incomprehension or even disdain, but you also tend to ‘sell’ it according to your audience.

Within academia, it’s expected, a given, yet also fully understood and appreciated. Life is straightforward for 3-4 years; it’s your vocation to get one and everyone else has one.

It’s when you leave this environment where everything is measured on academic merit, and everyone from undergraduate to professor knows their place in the food chain, that people’s perception of you becomes an issue. How do you play it when you move into a more corporate role? Play it down for fear of being labelled (with my most hated term) ‘boffin’?

It can be hard to moving into a role where a PhD is not an essential job criterion. Once you’ve left benchworld well and truly behind you, the reaction to your PhD can generally go one of two ways. Non-scientists in particular, and much to our embarrassment, can be quite in awe of the fact that we are ‘doctors’. To this I usually assure them that I am not a real doctor, “I merely hold a PhD” (although a friend of mine who is a ‘real’ doctor was once nice enough to indulge me by stating that he categorically believed it was fraudulent of physicians to use the term doctor and we, the doctoral degree holders, are the only ones who can lay claim to this title).

But then you worry that this casual brushing off of your qualifications makes you seem an academic snob, belittling mere BSc/major degree holders.

On the other hand, when you get the ‘oh gosh I could never understand all that brainy stuff’ (read: ‘I don’t rate your PhD at all), one can become a bit defensive of one’s credentials. Credentials that took 3-4 years of the proverbial blood sweat and tears to achieve, FYI.

Yet despite the temptation to play down past academic pursuits amongst more corporate peers, a look at the top level management, or even the board, of any global life science or technology company will reveal a high percentage of PhDs, all of whom started out at the bench. So why the shame?! It’s an interesting thought; do you have to play down your ‘boffin-ness’ to get ahead in the corporate world?

Further reading:

The ‘What do PhDs do’ survey, 2004, gives an interesting insight into the career paths of PhD graduates, focussing on those in the UK. Interestingly very few PhD graduates in biological science had gone into sales, marketing, finance or management. However a larger number (67%) remained in research (academic or industry).

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3 thoughts on “What is the Value of a PhD in the ‘Real World’?”

  1. Excellent topic. These are interesting statistics you are mentioning, although maybe a little dated. I would say that these trends may be changing as more and more PhDs find themselves struggling to get a competitive job offer in the US economy and more and more R&D positions from private pharma/biotech companies being outsources elsewhere.

    In regards to feeling uneasy about your PhD,you have worked hard, really hard to earn it, why be ashamed of it now? Has one learned nothing useful from this experience? Both as a scientist and as a person? Those who believe that having a PhD would hinder you from being a productive and forward thinking individual obviously do not know what it is like to be a PhD. However, as you noted, once a person with PhD in sciences decides to move away from strict wetlab research, you have to highlight other skills you have developed while working on your PhD, such as trouble-shooting, management, presenting complex data and ideas to audience of varied background (conferences, meetings, etc), the list goes on! Do not sell yourself short by feeling ashamed or uneasy about a very valuable learning experience,since most likely you only get one chance in your lifetime to earn a PhD.

  2. Hi Yevgeniy, you are right about the stats. I was surprised by them as well as I thought a lot more science graduates and PhDs would have gone into industry and business-related roles. This was a great survey but unfortunately I could find a more recent one.

    I personally see my PhD as an asset, and indeed it has been in my career so far. I’m away from the bench now but am still interacting with scientists, as well as business people, daily. I do find though that the PhD can be a little misunderstood in certain circles so I thought it would be an interesting subject to write about to see how others felt. Thanks for your comment!

    1. Hi Vicki, it is indeed a very interesting topic and you bring up some very valid points. A lot of people misunderstand what it means to have a PhD. One can probably draw a little cartoon titled “PhD through the eyes of ______” and you fill the blank. In some circles it tends to intimidate people. In others, like you said, it is understood and expected. It is the “I’m not that kind of a doctor” phrase that gets a lot of people confused.

      In the end, the person who holds the title knows exactly what it was worth for them, people who work and interact with that person can learn to appreciate the skills and initiative that the person with PhD can demonstrate. Yet, it is just a degree, and like any other degree, it provides no guarantees. It is how one applies their skills and knowledge that would determine whether that person succeeds or not. I think as PhDs, we are just more accustomed to living on that fringe (experiments not working, having to troubleshoot, think on the spot, and most importantly, adapt to become successful).

      Thank you for addressing this topic, and for keeping the discussion going.

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