Leveraging Your PhD: Why Employers Value Your Skills

Guest post by Heer Joisher (Griffin GSAS Candidate in Developmental Biology) for MCS.

Harvard’s Mignone Center for Career Success recently hosted an insightful discussion spotlighting the remarkable journeys of a select group of GSAS alumni who have masterfully leveraged their Ph.D. degrees to forge unique and gratifying career paths. Their experiences not only illuminate the expansive landscape of career possibilities for graduate students but also stand as beacons of inspiration for Ph.D. students and recent graduates navigating their own professional journeys.  Here are some reflections I’ve summarized from the panel discussion on exploring non-academic career paths: the motivations, the timing, and the process.

Why? – A Multitude of Motivations

Dean Emma Dench’s opening remarks for the panel, noting that approximately 50% of Harvard PhDs become intellectual leaders outside academia, set the stage for a discussion on the motivations driving individuals to explore non-academic career paths. These motivations are as diverse as the individuals themselves, ranging from financial considerations to differing interpretations of job satisfaction and expectations. 

Moreover, panelists emphasized the presence of abundant opportunities available beyond academia and the importance of gaining a comprehensive understanding of the broader professional landscape. Embracing this perspective involves stepping outside the traditional academic paradigms, challenging preconceptions about career paths dictated by one’s degree or department. Instead, it involves introspectively questioning what truly fosters personal fulfillment and utilizing one’s unique background and expertise to craft a career trajectory that aligns with individual aspirations.

When? – The Sooner, the Better

The panel collectively emphasized the importance of early exploration into non-academic career paths, highlighting the immense value in stepping beyond conventional trajectories and embracing diverse experiences. Their insight underscores that this journey isn’t solely about finding a different career path; it’s about broadening perspectives and building a vibrant professional community, irrespective of the ultimate career trajectory. 

 While transitioning out of academia may be smoother for some fields or labs compared to others, actively delving into learning about alternative career paths enables individuals to challenge norms and foster connections with mentors who can offer invaluable support along the way. The environment at Harvard, with its diverse peers and alumni network, facilitates this exploration and openness to new opportunities, acting as a catalyst for personal and professional growth.

How? – Navigating the Process

Drawing from their diverse career paths, the panelists offered valuable strategies and frameworks to guide individuals through the transition process. Each insight struck a chord with attendees, offering relatable anecdotes and invaluable guidance. Below is a compilation of key takeaways distilled from the discussion:

  1. Embrace Career Exploration and Experimentation:
  • Explore diverse opportunities and pathways even if they seem unconventional or outside your comfort zone
  • Recognize that your first job doesn’t have to be perfect, and that career progression often involves trying different roles and industries
  • Practical strategies to explore diverse career paths:
    • Utilize resources like alumni and LinkedIn to learn about different careers, and experiences
    • Identify the transferable skills gained during your academic journey and identify your strengths. Introspect on how your strengths align with roles outside academia, consider doubling down on skills you excel in and enjoy.
Human hand holding magnifying glass over diagram of a human brain on a yellowish background
  1. Cultivate Meaningful Professional Relationships:
  • Approach networking with a mindset of curiosity and growth, fostering genuine relationships that support your career development.
  • Articulate your accomplishments and expertise with confidence to bolster your credibility and draw opportunities towards you.
  • Practical strategies to develop a networking tool-kit that works for you:
    • Engage in informational interviews to gain valuable insights into various job responsibilities, organizational cultures, and career paths, allowing you to assess your fit within different professional contexts.
    • Take a proactive approach to relationship-building by categorizing connections based on shared interests and goals. Remember, networking is a two-way street; look for opportunities to offer support, share insights, and connect others within your network.
Multiracial hands fitting in pieces of a paper puzzle on brown wooden floor
  1. Invest in Your Professional Growth:
  • View informational interviews, hands-on learning opportunities and internships as pivotal investments in shaping your future career path.
  • Proactively seek out opportunities that foster continuous learning, cultivate enduring professional relationships, and steer your career in desired direction.
  • Practical strategies to maximize value capture through these opportunities:
    • Hone the art of articulation and effective communication to confidently convey your skills, experiences, and achievements, aligning them with the needs of different roles and organizations.
    • Conquer decision paralysis by taking action: apply for open positions and initiate conversations with new connections. Embrace the interview process as an opportunity for growth and learning, gaining valuable insights along the way.
Growing plants sitting atop stack of coins

Meet the Panelists:

Quotes from Attendees:

“As an upper-level PhD student, the seminar provided valuable information and insights on careers outside of academia. It was great to hear from a diversity of people with different perspectives and who followed various career paths.”

Stephan Foianini, G5, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University


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