Interviewing people with a PhD: here’s what I sometimes don’t find

I have interviewed and hired many job candidates who have PhDs or PhD-level training and have liked most of what I have seen: strong intellects, curiosity, a liking for research, a drive to find answers.  But sometimes I miss things I need in my employees, and I tend not to hire people who lack them.  Here are those skills and traits that I need and sometimes don’t find.

Everybody needs to know how to work with a basic workplace productivity suite: e-mail, spreadsheet, presentation.  It can be Microsoft, Google, Apple, or something else.  And all new employees need to be able to switch from the one they know and like to the one widely used at their new job, without undue grousing (there is always some grousing).

A high-level understanding of statistics and data is very helpful.  You don’t have to be a statistician, or even take a course in it: you have to be comfortable around data and the questions it raises and able to engage in discussions of it.  For an excellent introduction to how these questions play out in many fields, I recommend Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise.

An understanding of how software code works is also very helpful.  I do not mean you need to learn to code!  But to understand how software will be relevant to your new job and your organization’s purposes, you need to understand what code does and how.  If this subject is new to you, chat with some of your friends who know or work in this area and ask them to help you understand at a high level what they do.  One of the many reasons I like hiring former academics is that they tend to be good at teaching themselves new material, and this is new material like any other.

Some academics are averse to having a manager, and dismissively refer to employment in non-academic workplaces as “having a boss,” as though one did not have a boss in academics.  I am here to tell you that faculty don’t assign themselves only the courses they want to teach or select their own service work; they most certainly have a boss.  There are many contrasts between academic and non-academic workplaces, but having a manager is not one of them.  Especially in your first non-academic jobs, working well with your manager is essential in acclimating yourself to your new workplace.  Here are three posts on having a good 1×1 with your boss.

In most cases, you will be working in teams more than you did as a graduate student or even as a postdoc in a lab team.  Sometimes former academics believe they won’t enjoy working in teams, as the loss of some independence looms large, but in my experience, if they are open to trying teamwork, they tend to enjoy it much more than they expected they would, as they learn that teams can accomplish more together than individuals separately.  Not working well in teams is a principal cause of failure in non-academic workplaces, not only for former academics but for employees of every background.  (By the way, if you believe you have not worked in teams and therefore cannot satisfy that job-description requirement, read this about job descriptions and what you have already done.)

I often need my employees to communicate more briefly than academics are accustomed to.  When I encourage PhD students to have a writing sample targeting non-academic audiences, some ask if they can send a chapter of their dissertations, an article, or a conference paper.  No, they may not, unless they are applying for specialized research jobs in their current fields.  You will be communicating more frequently and more briefly in most non-academic workplaces, and you need to be able to write 250-750 words that describe problems, analyze data, contextualize problems, and persuade audiences to adopt particular courses of action. Here’s detailed advice on sending in an appropriate writing sample.

The most significant change for many people leaving academics is to realize that many people, not just academics, do interesting, worthwhile, intellectually demanding work.  A corollary is that many audiences, not just academic ones, want to consume interesting, worthwhile, intellectually demanding information and ideas.  People with PhDs who enter non-academic workplaces with the attitude that their intellectual lives are over are doing a disservice to their new workplaces, their new colleagues, their new audiences, and themselves, and I do everything in my power to identify people with that attitude and not hire them.