A common question I often hear from colleagues who are nearing the completion of their software engineering PhDs and contemplating a transition to the industry is, “How can I leverage my PhD skills in the corporate world?”
The PhD journey is undoubtedly a challenging one, but the good news is that it equips you with a somewhat rare set of skills that can significantly enhance your career prospects in industry.
Tackling Complex Projects Independently. While the path to a PhD may be solitary, it teaches you the invaluable skill of breaking down complex and vaguely defined problems into manageable components. In industry, the demand for individuals who can navigate intricate projects with minimal hand-holding is ever-present.
Proficiency in Problem Generalization. PhDs possess a unique ability to generalize observations after just a few instances. This knack for working at higher levels of abstraction, honed through years of research, equips them to tackle the root causes of problems rather than merely addressing their symptoms —- an attribute highly sought after in the corporate world.
Effective Communication. Much of an engineer’s role involves describing and persuading others about their brilliant ideas. The quality of one’s writing plays a pivotal role in this regard. PhDs excel at articulating ideas objectively, supporting them with data, and presenting clear pros and cons. After all, the process of writing research papers and convincing peer reviewers revolves around these skills. Industry craves individuals who can efficiently delineate the advantages and disadvantages of various paths before them.
Staying Current with State-of-the-Art. Engineers typically rely on technical books and online courses for 99% of their day-to-day work. However, in that critical 1% of the time, knowledge of cutting-edge developments still confined to the academic realm can make a world of difference. Fresh PhD graduates are well-versed in the future trajectory of their field, even if these ideas have yet to permeate the industry. They are also adept at reading scientific papers productively, enabling them to stay abreast of the latest concepts.
I’m not suggesting that those without PhDs are devoid of these skills or incapable of acquiring them. Rather, a PhD program is perhaps the only societal offering that explicitly hones these abilities. You don’t get to practice them during your schooling, bachelor’s degree, bootcamp, or in-house training.
However, here’s the caveat: PhD programs immerse you deeply in a specific and narrow niche within your field. The intensity of the program, coupled with a laser focus on contributing to the state-of-the-art, leaves little room for learning the practical facets of software engineering.
This is arguably the PhD program’s most significant drawback compared to traditional engineers. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that it’s far easier to teach someone the current industry practices, principles, and tools than to instill the skills I’ve mentioned earlier. So, if you’re nearing the conclusion of your PhD journey and aspire to embark on an industry career, set aside some time to familiarize yourself with practical software engineering.
Wishing you the best of luck on your journey!
(Written by me, copy edited by ChatGPT)