October 5, 2022

Unitranche

Supportive Business Potential

How and why Ph.D.s can succeed in business (opinion)

It might have been the isolation of dissertating in the pandemic years that got me, or the fact that I finally felt at home again in my native California after years of moving around for academic work. It probably was a mix of things that spurred me to leave academe. But the most significant—and the most positive—was being recruited into the world of executive search and onto a team of thriving Ph.D.s.

The industry of executive search, a form of high-end recruiting that focuses on roles from manager up to CEO, has proven an excellent way to enter the business world. Its requirement of honed soft skills and only a few hard skills means that Ph.D.s can smoothly transition into the space and flourish. Moreover, with the knowledge I’ve gained since my transition, I’ve learned that executive search is by no means the only industry hiring for the skills Ph.D.s have in abundance, with consulting firms, corporations and start-ups chief among them.

When looking at alternatives to the academic market, Ph.D.s are too often bound by the idea that their skills aren’t transferable outside the higher education system. But insightful business leaders recognize that Ph.D.s comprise a large and undertapped pool of skilled and savvy communicators with the drive and dedication to be effective contributors and managers.

For example, while it is well-known that management consulting firms such as the Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey & Company hoover up more M.B.A.s than any other industry, a lesser-known phenomenon is their burgeoning interest in Ph.D.s. As part of a long-developing trend that Walter Kiechel III calls the “intellectualization of business” in his book The Lords of Strategy, these consulting firms and the companies they influence are increasingly seeking out talent in the musty buildings of humanities and social science departments to better deal with the changing demands of the workplace.

At my firm, for example, Ph.D. graduates can apply for three-month paid internship that might lead to full-time employment. Our project managers look at four core areas in a graduate student’s skill set when we are trying to fill positions at both managerial and executive levels, whether for internal or external hiring and promotion.

  • Rapid fluency with new subjects. Business leaders constantly switch gears between new clients, projects and problems, and they need to approach those issues with authority and decisiveness. Ph.D.s necessarily develop such skills in the classroom, in workshops and across countless interdisciplinary research areas. The ability to learn and quickly master new subjects gives Ph.D.s a strong advantage in business environments.
  • Communication and presentation skills. The core of the business world is communication and persuasion, both skills that Ph.D.s are abundantly equipped to employ. Whether in the seminar room, teaching undergrads or sitting on a conference panel, many Ph.D.s hone well-crafted presentations, communicate information effectively and react to audience questions and comments with tact and diplomacy.
  • Management and organization skills. Many Ph.D.s have the diligence, organization and leadership acumen to keep projects on track, work closely and effectively with teams, and stay focused on bigger-picture concerns while resolving everyday challenges. They embody such management skills through teaching, managing long-term projects, organizing departmental events and navigating institutional bureaucracies. Those skills make Ph.D.s well trained to enter a company at the management level.
  • Innovation and thought leadership skills. Ph.D.s’ ability to research, assess and critically examine information and trends enables them to analyze processes, systems, behaviors and company data to imagine new ways of operating. The ability to look from the outside in with a critical lens and then recommend actionable innovations is a skill employers can’t afford to overlook.

All this is not to say that transitioning to the business work is without challenge. In the end, one of the greatest difficulties of leaving academe may be the loss of identity and sense of distinct purpose that academic work can inspire. My transition into the business world was, without a doubt, somewhat emotional.

But it was also informative. During that period, I learned that the skills, goals and identities Ph.D.s have built during their time in higher education will not simply disappear or go to waste. Many employers look for the creativity, critical thinking and passion that Ph.D.s bring to their workplace, and good managers mentor their employees to direct it effectively.

At my firm, I’ve found this approach to talent has paid off immensely in terms of fostering employee fulfillment, creating a workplace culture of open collaboration and rewarding and advancing Ph.D.s who consistently outcompete their peers from other backgrounds. Such work is not for everyone, but it is out there for those who seek it.