Friday, I'll be giving a keynote address at the University of Calgary's career day for PhDs and postdoctoral scholars. I'll be ad-libbing it but in preparation, I wrote a script. Here it is:
Beyond the Obvious
First, I want to give a tip of the cap to Daniel Oblak and the PDAC team for having not only the vision but the guts to put on this career day in which options beyond academia will be explored. Why guts? Because some in the academic community view careers outside of academia as second-class work. Some students and post-docs don’t feel they can talk with their advisor or peers about non-academic careers lest they be viewed as less than.
In fact, if we’re really being honest, we’re forced to recognize that some academics don’t make the greatest of contributions. Consider, for example, the philosophy professor whose life's work is critiquing Heidegger’s hermeneutic circles and whose ideas never went further than a relative handful of other professors who chose to read it in an obscure journal. Or even cancer researchers. Alas, too many of them spend their lifetimes without having made significant progress against the disease. Some PhDs make at least as big a contribution and are as happy or happier in a career outside the halls of academe.
It is in that spirit that I sally forth this morning with this talk I’ve titled, Beyond the Obvious. I’ll share some specific careers that are perhaps not obvious and some not-obvious research areas for study that are exciting—well, at least they seem exciting to me. Then I’ll spend a little time talking about some not-obvious keys to success, no matter what career you pursue.
First, a bit of reassurance. It’s easy to believe that a PhD prepares you mainly for work that’s explicitly connected to your research area. In fact, countless employers have hired PhDs because they hold transferable skills: problem solving, project management, written communication, oral communication, plus because their mind is good enough and their work ethic persistent enough to have earned a PhD.
Beyond-the-Obvious Careers for PhDs
Here are some careers for PhDs that you mightn’t have thought of. Of course, this is just a sampling and none may be right for you but I hope it will at least remind you that you have more options than you may think:
Let’s start right here at the university. Every research university produces patentable technology and the technology transfer office—here it’s called Innovate Calgary--is responsible for figuring out how to turn those technologies into products that can be commercialized: licensing, joint ventures. PhDs are hired to help make that happen.
Staying in the field of education, there’s little doubt that ever more learning will occur online, from preschool to graduate school. But to date, most online courses are not outstanding. Imagine instead that an intro to statistics course taught not by whomever happens to have room in his or her class on your local campus but online by a dream team of the world’s most transformational statistics instructions, those rare souls who have the ability to get students to understand statistics so well that it becomes part of way students think. Imagine further that because the cost of such a course could be amortized across many thousands, even millions of students, world-class immersive video-centric simulations could be embedded into the course. PhDs will be needed to design such courses and the IT infrastructure for the courses.
Science magazine editor. Many people love being an editor of a magazine such as Discover, Popular Science, Psychology Today, American Scientist or Scientific American---I apologize to the Canadians--I did look for a major scientific magazine with Canada in the title but couldn’t find one. Maybe there’s an opportunity for you: Start Canadian Scientist or Scientific Canadian. People love the job of editor of a science magazine because they’re constantly exposed to new and important ideas. It’s not easy to land a job as an editor of such publications but a PhD in science puts you ahead of many other applicants.
Alas, one field that appears to be recession-proof is security. So PhDs may find important work working for government or on a government contract regarding bioweapons, cyberterrorism, as an intelligence analyst, cryptographer, and so on.
Also key to our security is energy. PhDs are employed in everything from solar to nuclear, energy generation to energy distribution, from technical consulting to policy making.
Of course, public policy goes well beyond energy. PhDs are hired by corporations, nonprofits, and industry to craft all sorts of policy—from immigration to transportation. They also hire people to get policy enacted, for example, as a lobbyist.
Or try to make change from the inside--as a politician. I couldn’t find the numbers for Canada but 20 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have a PhD and 22 are MDs.
Nearly every product, especially in health care, is subject to a thorough evaluation process. Companies hire people, many with PhDs, as regulatory affairs specialists: helping the company meet the requirements with minimum red tape. On the other side of the table, government employs people to ensure the requirements are met. When I first heard of regulatory affairs, it sounded like a boring career. But having spoken to a number of people in the field, they tend to really like their job: It’s complex, requires interaction with people not just documents, and they’re always learning about a product on the cutting edge. Regulatory affairs is an under-the-radar career that, because it doesn’t sound sexy, may be easier in which to find employment.
The investment industry hires PhDs for their quantitative analysis skills. For example, you might be developing an algorithm for predicting which stocks are worth buying or how to reduce a stock portfolio’s risk with minimal impact on its profit potential.
Ph.Ds are hired by credit card companies to develop algorithms for, for example, determining the probability that someone’s online credit purchase is being made with a stolen credit card.
If you’re a bench scientist looking to move into industry, you might consider being a Field Application Scientist. You work for companies that sell sophisticated lab equipment. Your job is to go to the customer’s lab, perhaps as salesperson, more often as the technical expert explaining and demonstrating the equipment, training personnel on how to use it, and troubleshooting problems. For example, I’ve seen this with operating room equipment and medical devices. The Field Application Scientist is right there in the operating room.
Or if you fancy getting still more education, your employability may be enhanced by adding, for example, a law degree to your PhD. Science PhDs with a law degree have become, for example, intellectual property attorneys. Petroleum Engineering PhDs with an MBA have become oil industry executives.
And of course, countless PhDs have pursued careers that don’t require a PhD: from nonprofit management to owning a low-status business. The book, The Millionaire Next Door, profiled 750 millionaires and found that a disproportionate number owned what the author called “dull-normal businesses:” businesses with little status, in which most of the business’s competitors don’t have PhD-level intelligence, skills, or drive, which should make it easier for a PhD-level person to succeed in that business. Examples of dull-normal businesses: owning a chain of espresso kiosks, a sand blasting business, used truck part brokerage, a mobile home park maintenance service. Those careers are not for everyone. Most people seek a measure of status. But sometimes, status can be the enemy of contentment. You can quote me on that.
Beyond-the-Obvious Research Ideas
But let’s say you want to pursue a career as a researcher. Here are a few ideas for research areas that you mightn’t have considered. The research directions you hear about are likely to derive from your professors and courses. The following derive merely from my attempt to identify important unmet needs. For example, a health sciences PhD might want to study why hospital personnel—who know that the simple act of washing hands frequently will reduce patient infection—often don’t do it, and what could get them to? A molecular biology or neuroscience PhD might want to study the biological basis of that attribute we call intelligence: the ability to learn quickly, remember well, and reason abstractly. A music PhD might want to study why some pianists can, almost effortlessly play anything they can hum in full arrangement (I must admit I am one) while others can’t, and how that skill might best be taught. A political science PhD might want to study why university faculty tend to get mired in office politics and what could make university committees more effective.
To bring another measure of practicality to this talk, I’d like to ask for a volunteer to come up here to the stage, someone who is unsure what he or she would like to do careerwise and I’ll try, in just a few minutes, to help them identify a well-suited direction to explore. Who’d like to volunteer? (I’ll do one or two Few-Minute Career Counselings)
Finding a Good Mentor(s)
Your career success depends not only on choosing a well-suited career but on other things, for example, finding a mentor. Many of us hoped we’d find a mentor, someone who really believes in us, takes us under wing, gives us wise counsel, opens career doors for us, and so on. Alas, too often that hasn’t happened. In the spirit of this talk’s theme, ‘Beyond the Obvious,” may I suggest that you go on what I call a “first date” with a faculty member or administrator you sense could be a great mentor. Reveal something about yourself—for example, that you’re considering a career outside academe. How did that person react: asking good questions or prematurely judging you? Do you feel that person will bring out the best in you or make you feel small? As in romantic dating, you may have to go on a few “first dates” before finding a good mentor.
Mentoring needn’t be a structured, weekly affair. That professor with whom you had a successful “first date,” could simply be someone you call on as needed. It may be worth offering the relationship to be reciprocal—you offering to be of support to your mentor, rather than your always asking for his or her help.
For example, every month, I have a one-hour co-mentoring session with a respected colleague. For the first half hour, he asks me about one or more issues he’s facing--professional or personal--and I raise questions or offer counsel. And in the second half hour, we reverse roles and I tell him about an issue or two I’m facing.
Michael and I have been doing that for five years now and we both get enough out of it that we’d never think of giving it up. In fact it’s worked so well that a year ago, I expanded the concept. I invited a half-dozen of the people I most respect to become a Board of Advisors that would meet once a month for one hour by teleconference during which anyone can raise an issue and get the others’ input. That too has proved an invaluable source of mentorship.
Long-Windedness: A Not-Obvious Career Killer
A perhaps not obvious key to success is avoiding being long-winded. Some academics can be long-winded. They explain things very completely, perhaps unaware that they’re boring their listener—whether a colleague, potential employer, or in their personal relationships. If you’ve been called long-winded, you might want to try what I call The Traffic Light Rule: During the first 30 seconds of an utterance, your light is green: you can speak with impunity. During the next 30 seconds, your light is yellow: the chance is increasing that your listener is waiting for you to shut up so he or she can respond. Your listener also may start to think you’re long-winded. After the one-minute mark, your light is red. Yes, occasionally you want to run a red light, for example, when telling an interesting anecdote or are explaining something that, even if edited to its important parts, takes longer than a minute. But usually, you’re wise to stop. If the person wants to know more, she can ask a question.
Good Career and Good Parenting, a Catch-22?
Another perhaps not-obvious key to career success is the ostensibly irresolvable conflict between parenting and professional life. Many people feel they should put their career on hold when they have children. It may not, in fact, be an irresolvable conflict. The literature and common sense suggest that a child may, net, be better off, when parents are working. It is good for your children to see the role model of a parent who also is a professional. Also, being a parent 24/7 is taxing—it can make one lose their temper too often. Also, well-educated people who choose to stay at home end up channeling all that intelligence and drive into their kids. That of course yields benefits but it also can yield side-effects: for example, the so-called helicopter parent who is so hovering it creates an entitled child, whose every need must be met and/or a child who becomes insecure and fearful because the parent is overprotective, denying the child opportunities to develop self-efficacy. Yes, kids fall and scrape their knees, even break a bone, but those heal. A child’s sensing the parent’s ongoing worry can yield insecurities that are more difficult to heal. Of course, arguments can be made in favor of a parent forgoing his or her career for some period of a child’s development but the message here is that, if you choose, you can be a full-time working parent and not only not shortchange your child but perhaps better your child. One more reason to keep your career alive when you have children is that many people say that having become a stay-at-home parent made their brain go to mush. Your PhD mind is a particularly terribly thing to waste.
A lesson from my father
There’s one more perhaps not-obvious key to career success, indeed to life success. And this one is perhaps best explained by a story. It’s the story of my dad. The year was 1939. The town was Sierpc, Poland. My father was a teenager living with his parents. One day there was a knock on the door and it was two Nazis in black boots. But unlike in the movies, they didn't yell. One was silent and the other whispered: "You will be out of your house with only what you can carry on your back by noon tomorrow or else." The next day, there were two trucks in the town square and 12 Nazis, but now they weren't whispering. "Rouse!" And they went into the Jewish households and threw the most able-bodied people on one truck and the others on another. My father never saw his parents again. At the end of the war, my father was dropped in the Bronx without a penny to his name, no English, no family, no education. Only the scars of the Holocaust tortures. What did he do? He took the only job he could get: sewing shirts in a factory in Harlem. And at night, what did he do? He went to Roosevelt High School's night school to learn English. And what did he do on the weekend? He went to the owner of the factory and asked, "Can I buy the shirts I sewed for you during the week and sell them out of a cardboard box on the street?" What did he do with the money? He used it to pay the first and last month's rent on the only storefront he could afford: 105 Moore St. in Brooklyn. On one side was a deli specializing in chicharones (deep-fried pork intestines) and that smell merged with the smell of stale blood from the live chicken market on the other side. My father's store was so small that he had to display most of the merchandise on folding tables in front of the store. But the neighborhood was terrible so, on the weekends, when the kids were out of school, they'd come by and grab clothing from the tables and run away. So when I was old enough, on Saturdays, I'd be the security guard. And I remember standing in front of the store one day and business was slow, so my father was standing there next to me. And I asked him, "Daddy, how come you so rarely talk about the Holocaust?" And he stiffened, which he rarely did, and he said, "Martin, the Nazis took five years from my life. I won't give them one minute more." He said, "Martin, never look back. Always take the next step forward."
Each of us has had bad things happen to us but I've had the privilege of having been career coach to some of our most successful, contributory people as well as to some real strugglers. And one of the differentiating factors is that most of the successful ones follow my father's advice: Never look back; always take the next step forward. I can leave you with no better advice.