A Decade of PhD: What I’ve Learned from Academia and Industry

Today is Cinco de Mayo! It’s also the 10th Anniversary of my PhD defense…. something I carefully timed for late afternoon on this day in 2009. (I wanted to make sure I could celebrate the joyful occasion — or drown my sorrows — with 2-for-1 margaritas. Fortunately, the situation was liquid joy; unfortunately, I still got a hangover.)

I’m writing this post to share what I’ve learned about the value of getting a PhD (is there value?) and the applicability of PhD-level work to industry. If you’re considering more education, maybe this will help you decide whether it’s the right choice. If you’re in industry and trying to figure out whether to hire PhDs, some of what I write here might help. But first, some background!

I never even thought I’d get a PhD — it certainly didn’t happen out of intent or design. My family was poor and I studied ridiculously hard so I could “escape it.” I didn’t think I was smart enough for a PhD, even though I started college at 16 taking half undergrad classes and half grad classes in meteorology. I aced my grad classes and very maturely ignored my required classes, so I got kicked out. (At the same time, I wasn’t really fitting in with people… my roommate called me “Nerdcole”.) When I was let back in the department head wouldn’t let me take any grad classes so I got bored and burned out… not surprising since I was supporting myself, and working three jobs to make that happen. I quit school to work at an e-commerce startup when I was 18. A few months later, thanks to (good) peer pressure, I took 3 credit by exams to see if it would get me over the finish line, and thanks to some side skills I had picked up in vector calculus and statistics, it worked and I got the BS. But I was still left with a pretty bad GPA, and even worse self esteem, and I was convinced no one would ever let me into grad school.

I figured I’d focus on industry and help companies grow. There was no other choice.

The Back Story

After spending a couple years building web sites and storefronts (a huge feat in 1995 and 1996!) I took a job at a national lab as a systems analyst, supporting older scientists and engineers and helping them get work done. The main lesson I learned during this time was: Alignment between strategy and objectives doesn’t come for free (teams of people have to spend dedicated time on it), and most people are really disorganized. There had to be a better way to get work done.

A few years later, I was a traveling Solutions Architect, parachuted once or twice a month into CRM software implementation fiascos around the globe. My job was to figure out what to do to turn these jobs around — was it a people problem? An architecture problem? A training problem? A systems thinking problem? A little of everything? I had a couple weeks to make a recommendation, and then I was on to the next project (results were usually pretty good). But since this required evaluating technology decisions in the context of business and financial constraints, my boss suggested that I use the tuition benefits offered by my job to get an MBA. I had taken 9 credits of science and industrial engineering classes since I’d graduated, so I contacted two of the local MBA schools to see if they’d accept me and my credits. Sure enough, one of them did! I took evening classes for a year and a half, and eventually ended up with an MBA. But I never thought I could (or would) go farther — I’m not that smart, I’d tell myself. Also, it’s expensive. Also, a PhD would probably make me less marketable. (All lies, spoken by a lack of confidence.)

Shortly thereafter, the travel started to get to me (I was flying at least three days a week), so I looked for an opportunity to grow and cultivate a software development organization. (That’s how I ended up in Data Management at NRAO.) A little management led to a lot of management. A few years later one of the organization’s leaders said it was “too bad I didn’t have a PhD” — because in a highly scientific and technical organization, it would give me more credibility and make me a better leader.

“Will you pay for it?” I asked. “Sure,” they said. I just had to find a suitable program that wouldn’t require me to go full time. I’ve always loved learning, and I couldn’t resist the temptation of free education — even if it meant I’d have to balance the demands of a challenging full-time job and a first-time baby at the same time. That’s how much I love learning, just for learning’s sake! I still didn’t think a PhD had that much value, unless you were studying to be a lab scientist or you were dead set on becoming a historian and teaching for the rest of your life. None of these personas was me, but the free education thing sold me, and I didn’t really think about how relevant this step was to my career direction until much later.

Fortunately, I found the perfect program for me — a hybrid academic/practitioner PhD that would help me develop the research and analytical skills to solve practical problems in business and industrial technology.

The next few years were pretty rough, and by the time I got my PhD, I was in my 14th year of post-college professional employment. First lesson learned: it’s probably not the best move to start PhD coursework when you have a three-month old. I have no idea how I made it through.

Shortly after graduating, the impacts of the financial crisis hit our federally funded organization and I was able to segue into a second career as a college professor, teaching data science and manufacturing/EHSQ classes. For the past year, I’ve been back in industry (maybe permanently; we’ll see) and have a better sense of the value of PhDs in industry.

Value of Getting a PhD

There are lots of reasons I’m happy with the time I spent getting a PhD, other than the fact that it helped me get an entirely new job when the economy was down:

  • First and foremost, I’m a better critical thinker. It’s now my nature to look at all parts of a problem, examine the interactions between them, and make sure I have all the required background information needed to start working on a problem.
  • I’m a better writer too. I look at reports and presentations I wrote years ago, and can see all the holes and places where I made assumptions that weren’t valid.
  • I developed a new appreciation for clarity. Researchers want to make sure their messages, methodologies, and models are clear and unambiguous… through the contrast, I was able to recognize that in industry, there’s often pressure to skip due diligence and move fast to perform. This pressure leads to ambiguity, which tends towards what I call “intellectual waste” – people assuming that they see a problem or a project in the same way because they haven’t taken the time to guarantee clarity.
  • It’s easier for me to quickly determine whether information might be true or false, or whether there are gaps that need to be closed before moving forward. (It’s possible that this skill is more from grading and evaluating student work… something that’s orders of magnitude harder than it seems.)
  • I realized that words matter. Really thinking about how one person will respond to a word or phrase, and whether it conveys the meaning that you intend, is a craft — that’s enhanced by working with collaborators.
  • And although I knew this one prior to the PhD, I found that data matters. Where did your data come from? Can you access the original? What kind of people (or instruments) gathered it? Can you trust them? The quality of your data — and the suitability of the methods you choose — will impact the quality and integrity of the conclusions you generate from it. Awareness of these factors is essential.

Value of Caution

One of the biggest lessons was the most surprising. Early on in the PhD program I was told that my opinion didn’t count — regardless of how many years of experience I had. Every statement I made had to be backed up and cited, preferably using material that had been peer-reviewed by other qualified people. At first I was kind of offended by this… didn’t these academics have any sense of the value of actual real-world employment? Apparently not.

But something funny happened as I developed the habit of looking for solid references, distilling their messages, and citing them accurately: I became more careful. And in the evolution of my caution and attention to detail, the quality of my work — ANY work — improved tremendously. I was able to learn from what other people had discovered, and anticipate (and resolve) problems in advance. I learned that “standing on the shoulders of giants” actually means figuring out when solved problems already exist so you don’t waste time reinventing wheels.

Something else funny happened as soon as I graduated: all of a sudden, people were asking me for my opinion. But the habit of due diligence was so ingrained that I couldn’t express my opinion… I was compelled to back it up with facts!

(I think this was the point all along. Go figure.)

The beauty of going through the entire messy process of PhD coursework and comps and research and defense and editing — the entire end-to-end process, not cutting out in the middle anywhere — it gave me the discipline and process to root out accurate and complete answers to problems. Or at the very least, to be able to call out the gaps to get there.

There’s a lot of pressure in industry to move fast, but due diligence is still critical for accurate self-assessment and effective cross-functional communication. Slowing down and figuring out how you know what you know — and making sure everyone is literally on the same page — can help your organization achieve its goals more quickly.

Value of PhDs to Industry

So employers (especially in tech) — should you hire PhDs? Yes. Here’s why:

  • PhDs are trained to find gaps in knowledge and understanding. Is your strategic plan grounded in reality, or is it just wishful thinking? Are your Project Charters well scoped, budgeted, and planned out? Is your workforce prepared to carry out your strategic initiatives?
  • Many PhDs with experience teaching undergrads are great at making complex topics accessible to other audiences. This is fantastic for training, cross-training, and marketing.
  • PhDs love research and writing, and can help you with gathering and interpreting data and content marketing.
  • PhDs love learning. Want to be on the cutting edge? They’re great in R&D… they can help you distill new insights from research papers and interpret and apply them accurately.
  • If you want to do AI or machine learning, or anything that uses Big Data, make sure you have at least one PhD statistician with practical analytical experience. They can prevent you from spending millions on dead ends and help you apply Occam’s Razor to avoid unnecessary complexity (the kind that can lead to technical debt later).

Will there be drawbacks? Sure. The habit of caution may need to be tempered somewhat — you don’t have to probe to the bottom of an issue to generate useful information that a business can use to make progress.

Bottom line… don’t be afraid of PhDs! We are mere mortals who just happen to have spent several years trying to figure out how to get to the core — the fundamental truth — of a complex problem. As a result we know how to approach problems like this — problems that many businesses have lots of. (We are not overqualified at all… we just have an extra skill set in something you desperately need, but may not realize you need it.)

Getting a PhD was challenging, frustrating, and maddening at times (especially the final part of getting your camera-ready text ready for ProQuest). I never planned to do it, but I’d totally do it again. I think my only regret is that I got a PhD in a hybrid business/industrial engineering discipline… it allowed me the freedom to pursue my interests, but if I was at the same crossroads now, I’d get a PhD in statistics to complement my MBA. Overall, this is a pretty tiny regret.

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