At August 20th’s SoNYC discussion, which this month is held in collaboration with the New York Academy of Sciences, we’re going to be focusing on science PhDs. Does the current PhD system need revamping to better equip researchers to continue in academia or to pursue other careers after graduating? In our latest series of guest posts on Soapbox Science, we’ll hear from a variety of contributors about how the current system works, where the gaps are, which additional skills they think PhD courses should incorporate and what their personal experiences have been. Follow and join in the conversations online using #PhDelta and share your thoughts in the comment threads on the blog posts too.
Jerry Nguyen is the Global Health and Science Program Manager at the consulting firm, Edge Business Innovations. He earned his Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Washington University in St. Louis and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. Since then, he has been a healthcare management consultant, stay-at-home dad, and a financial analyst. He is currently providing project and alliance management expertise to a global health non-profit.
There I was, standing in front of a packed room, the last words of my thesis presentation hanging in the air. I had just wrapped up five and a half years of intense research into an energetic forty-five minute talk. I was happy, ecstatic, and even a little bit triumphant.
I never thought that just over eight months later I would leave academic research for good.
When I first considered leaving academia, I anxiously wondered, “Who would want to hire a systems neuroscientist who specializes in 3-dimensional vision?” Seven years later, with a career that has spanned healthcare management consulting, window decorating at Pottery Barn, finance, and global health consulting, I think I have a pretty good answer.
To make the change from science to business consulting, I had to do some deep soul-searching about what I had learned over the last several years and who I wanted to be. In order to convince someone to hire me, I had to figure out what I could actually do. While recording from a single neuron for hours at a time is admirable in systems neuroscience, there’s little chance I’d use that skill in an office. I needed to understand how my research abilities generalized to the world of consulting and business.
Things I learned during my Ph.D. training:
- Project management – I originated an idea, formulated a project plan, adjusted the plan to unforeseen difficulties, and successfully completed the objectives of the plan resulting in publications in peer reviewed journals and a Ph.D. Who knew the whole time I was struggling to plan and carry out my experiments that this was also called project management? Few businesses cared about the specifics of my project (What electrophysiology recording equipment did you use?) – they only cared that I could carefully map out a path and finish the project with tangible results.
- Asking good questions – It is one thing to solve a problem, and another thing entirely to identify the problem. At its core, being a scientist for me means the ability to process information and figure out what questions need to be asked. Along the path to obtaining my Ph.D., I read journal articles, attended scientific meetings, and talked with colleagues, all to determine what core issues in my field were essential to explore. This is no different than what I do now. When I am interviewing clients, reading news articles, poring over Excel sheets, I am constantly trying to find the right question to ask. It’s only when I have the right questions that I can begin to look for the right answers.
- Professional learner – A corollary to being able to ask good questions is the ability to integrate new information. While I learned about neuroscience principles during my Ph.D. training, I also learned how to learn. Given enough review articles and conversation, I can absorb enough information about any field to craft a defensible opinion. This level of mental agility has served me well across my diverse career.
Of course, five and a half years spent investigating the visual system in academia prepared me primarily for a job in academia. In business consulting, it became quite clear that I was going to need to quickly learn a lot of new skills if I wanted to succeed.
Specific things that I wish I had learned:
- Working with short deadlines – The right answer in the business world is the best answer you have when you reach the deadline. It may not be the perfect answer, but, quite simply, you don’t have time to achieve an answer that is “fit for publication” – an answer that comes two hours after the deadline passes doesn’t serve your clients. Most deadlines I faced in academia would have, at least, months of lead time. These days, I have multiple deadlines that are measured in hours.
- The lingo – Science has its own language, measured out in specific cadences and vocabulary. Business is the same way. Words such as “strategy” or “operations” carry specific meanings and phrases like “out of the box” and “fire drill” are said unironically. The jargon and acronyms in the business world fly just as fast and furious as in science.
- Excel! – I’ll readily admit that I am a data analysis snob. I lived and breathed Matlab and C++ while I was in academia. Coding complex data analysis algorithms was both a challenge and a joy. When I left research, it was a giant surprise to me when I was told that I would need to do all of my analyses in Excel. It was an even a bigger surprise when I realized that I sucked at using Excel. Learning how to design and format your data in an Excel worksheet for slicing and dicing can take as much effort as learning how to make Matlab sing. One word to learn, folks: PivotTables!
The learning curve of these new skills was extremely steep and there were many times when I thought I wouldn’t make it. To this day, transitioning from academia to business was one of the most difficult things that I have done in my career. Looking back, I could have made things easier on myself. If my graduate student self would actually be willing to listen to my business self, I would have suggested taking an “Intro to Excel” course or even auditing a couple of MBA graduate classes. I doubt I’d have listened (I’ve always been a bit stubborn).
Despite the challenges, my career outside of academia has given me an opportunity to expand my world view by working with a wide range of clients and tackle interesting questions about managing hospital surgery suites, treating diseases in developing countries, caring for the mental health of soldiers, and a whole host of other subjects. Completing these day-to-day tasks I am happy, ecstatic, and even a little bit triumphant.