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046: Do I need a PhD to advance in my industry job?

You’ve worked hard in your biopharma job, and you really love the position.  The team is passionate and dynamic, the product is starting to make an impact in the market, and you begin to imagine your long-term relationship with the company.

But there’s one problem: it seems like no one with a Bachelor’s Degree can move up in the organization.  PhDs from outside the company are hired into management positions, while you and your colleagues get passed over for promotions.

What’s going on? And do you really need a PhD to get ahead in your industry job?

PhDs come with other perks like fancy hats, fancy robes, and of course, the child labor to keep your garments from touching the ground.

Go Back to Get Ahead?

This week on the show, we field a question from a listener working at a biotech company who wonders whether she needs to go back to school to move forward at work.

Dear Dan and Josh,

I’m someone who is considering applying to grad school, and I am a big fan of your podcast. Your honesty and advice about the grad school experience have helped me greatly in considering this next big step.

I have been out of undergrad for two years working as a research associate at a biotech startup. I am surrounded by optimism for the future of our product and the growth of the company, and it is exciting to imagine a future without ever going back to school.

I am not alone here – more and more college grads are joining companies out of college and taking time off before getting degrees. What is new is that many people I encounter who have made this decision have a negative view of academia and do not want to go back to school. They are learning and solving scientific problems at a rapid pace on the job; why re-enter the “slog” of academia?

On the other hand, though, managers at my company tell me there is opportunity for those without PhDs to grow and have a significant role in the company (the managers often have PhDs), I have observed these companies continuing to preference PhDs in the hiring process.

My question is, is there opportunity for growth and achievement for the many of us who have chosen not to return to school? Or does the PhD still represent a unique skill set that cannot be achieved outside of academia?

The simple answer is: no, there’s not some magical transformation that occurs in graduate school.  You can have similar formative experiences in industry and elsewhere.

But the simple answer doesn’t explain the listener’s experience at work.  Despite the fact that employees can learn on the job, there is a cognitive bias in the working world that equates a doctorate with almost mythic abilities.

Like all biases, PhD-reverence is a mental shortcut that can have some unintended consequences.

For example, a hiring manager might overlook an extremely talented candidate with a Bachelor’s and years of experience and award the job to someone with a PhD fresh out of school.  The first candidate may have more training and sharper abilities, but that takes precious time to assess.  A PhD looks impressive with one glance at a CV.

At the end of the day, PhD-bias is a palpable force in the workplace, even if your research field is irrelevant to the current position!

You can certainly advance without the degree, but it will take persistence, strong networking skills, and a willingness to advocate for yourself with your managers.  If you can impress enough of your supervisors and are willing to ask to move up, you can make progress.

But if you decide to go back to school, make sure you choose a program and a lab that will support your career goals.  Look for universities with a strong Technology Transfer Office, and find a PI that understands your desire to work in industry.  Not all of them do, and you’ll need their support to finish the degree and get back to work.

It’s the trail mix of beer

can-hopnotchOur latest trek into the bitter wilds is the Hop Nosh IPA from Uinta Brewing.  The can features a compass rose around the top – perfect for finding your way out of the mountains after you’ve finished a six pack and can’t remember where you parked the car. 

Wait a second… I’m pretty sure aluminum cans aren’t magnetic…

I’m beginning to think I made a terrible mistake wandering into the woods with only these cans to guide me!

Maybe I need to drink a few more to fully understand the science behind it…

< A coyote howls in the distance… >

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