You have a PhD. Now what?
When I was a librarian, people thought I sat in a room all day with dusty books. Meanwhile neither I nor my colleagues could remember the last time they read a book for pleasure.
Now that I have a PhD, people think it’s the same, only possibly worse because tenure and not getting fired and boring, pointless lectures. As if.
I am not too interested in the stereotypes.
(Okay, maybe once in a while I will blast “Our Lips Are Sealed” by the GoGos over a Bloody Caesar in frustration.)
I got into a PhD because, at around 2009, I had a research alien inside of me that wanted to know how social media would impact democracy. That alien was going to come out no matter what. Why not train the alien to work for good? That’s been my PhD journey, except the alien and I went on to learn other things like how historians can use web archives, what are the cybersecurity risks of quantum computing and why is Canada so resistant to populism compared to other countries? With a combination of great mentorship and hard work, I got out of my PhD in four and a half years and secured two great postdoctoral positions.
Doing the PhD gave me a head’s up on all kinds of trends. In 2012, I learned the basis for “Defund the Police” from The Politics of Attention by Bryan Jones and Frank Baumgartner, a book that was written in 2005. Incidentally, I learned about Universal Basic Income (UBI) even earlier, except it was called the Negative Income Tax (NIT). More recently, I learned about post-quantum cryptography and what it can do to prevent attacks from quantum computers. What being a PhD taught me is that the solutions to a lot of problems already exist — it’s the social side of things that’s challenging. Academics do not generate huge revenue. They do have the answer to a lot of problems businesses do not care about right now (but will five-ten years from now).
I also stretched myself to develop skills that I never thought were attainable. I needed to use quantitative analysis of social networks to answer my research question, so I learned to master Python and R and Markov Chain Monte Carlo to analyse a network. I learned functional programming so I could work with huge datasets with Apache Spark. I just ran a dashboard in Power BI to look at some data around global populist sentiment.
While learning all this amazing stuff, I also learned that I am not on the tenure track. My interests and passion just do not mesh with writing research papers. I have some pretty good output so far, but I am more interested in products and services than I am in research papers. Time to move on from academia!
Now I want to apply my skills to problems in the “real world.” The first step has been to speak to people who know a little about the business world. Here is what they told me about being a PhD and trying to get into Industry:
- Many businesses will believe the stereotypes: either that you are over-qualified or entitled. You will need to explain why your PhD was a passion project, rather than just an extension of your college years.
- Whatever you learned to work with for your research, SQL-Python-Tableau is your stack now. Microsoft’s Power BI is an up and comer. Brush up — and more importantly, learn to dig into a dataset and pull out an answer to a specific problem. Also, build a dashboard that will keep track of that issue over time.
- Like academia, businesses are learning how to pivot their instructional materials to the online world during COVID-19. More than the actual instruction, businesses are struggling to put out well-designed instructional content via a learning management system. The focus should be the UX of online learning than the instruction itself.
- Start developing content that shows how your skills match business needs. Go where you think the jobs are. If you are looking at code, then contribute questions and answer to Stack Overflow or send a bug fix pull request to Github.com. Find communities that connect to your passion and contribute what you can. Ross Simmonds usually has some good advice around a content strategy.
- Build a portfolio by looking at business case studies and come up with a response. Know the lingo. For example, learn about how a turnover rate matters to a business and what kinds of data will help businesses understand what is going right or wrong.
- As much as you may be sick of learning new things after a PhD, you might still need to reskill. For example, in Toronto, you might want to take some courses at WeCloudData.
Beyond these quick tips, I learned that, as busy as they are, some entrepreneurs are super generous with their time and invaluable advice. They can also use all the support they can get as they struggle to compete against huge tech companies (you know their names). As such, I am going to do what I can to draw attention to cool companies from now on.