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?
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).