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10 Business Terms Many PhDs Don’t Know But Need To Know To Get Hired

For many PhDs, science and business seem to be opposites.

Throughout grad school, we get fed the idea that good research is done in academia and that industry companies are villains that only care about the money and those that look for an industry career are sellouts.

This is not only a lie, it is a dangerous concept.

All research, even academic research, is done in a market setting and has to achieve results and be profitable. The reason why many academic labs struggle is because they are badly managed businesses.

Unfortunately, many PhDs buy into these myths and either decide to stay in academia, in spite of the bad career prospects, or start an industry job search with the wrong expectations.

If you want to get hired in a PhD-level position in industry, you need to understand how businesses work and how your knowledge and what you bring to the table integrate with all aspects of the company that will hire you.

I was recently talking to a PhD after their second transition, and this is what they had to say: 

You can do science for the greater good, but you also have to do science for a product. 

Once I wrapped my head around that concept, I was able to adopt that business sense and make a bigger impact. You need to understand the business side of things if you want to move things forward and get a product through the FDA so it can make a difference in the clinic and in our patient’s lives. 

As scientists, we tend to have this unique code of ethics. We feel that if we are selling something, we’re muddying the actual science. This is not true, you’re not muddying the science. You’re helping that science go where it needs to go, but to achieve that, you have to sell it.

PhDs Without Business Acumen Often Get Hired Into Bachelor’s or Master’s Level Positions

Industry hiring managers don’t want to hire PhDs because of their technical skills. In industry, most of the actions that rely on technical skills are performed by robots or people with bachelor’s degrees.

Industry hiring managers give PhD-level jobs and the salary associated with it to candidates who are capable of understanding the business side of things. Those who can make informed decisions based on their scientific expertise and their knowledge of business terms.

If you apply to industry jobs highlighting your technical skills, you will get hired in a bachelor’s-level position, and you’ll probably stay in that position for 5 to 8 years before you get a management position.

Whereas if you show your business skills, you can get hired into a management position right after grad school.

Think about your overall career trajectory. You’ve been in academia long enough. You cannot afford to get into an entry level role being paid a bachelor or master’s salary for another 5 to 8 years.

A Report by Dow Chemical showed that the top three gaps PhDs have when transitioning into industry are industry understanding, business terms and finance training, and project management.

So, if you work on those before applying to industry procession, you will start your job search with a significant advantage over other candidates.

10 Business Terms That Will Position Yourself As Management Material

If you want to get into a management position, you’ll have to show employers that you can do more than basic research. You can translate your research into a product or treatment that helps people and that there’s a market for your product. 

You probably already know more about this that you give yourself credit for, but you need to be able to portray that using industry language and you need to learn that language now because you will probably face business-oriented interview questions.

Here are ten business terms that every PhD should master, no matter their background or target position.

1. Corporate strategy

Corporate strategy defines the destination of a business. It shapes the decisions and strategies of the company by considering the competitive forces that affect an industry, also known as Porter’s five forces:

  1. Threats of substitute products
  2. Bargaining power of suppliers
  3. Rivalry among existing competitors
  4. Bargaining power of buyers
  5. Threats of new entrants

Questions related to corporate strategy are common during the interview process as a way to assess your knowledge of the company and your understanding of the five forces. 

When you start applying to industry positions, research the company so you can answer questions like What kind of threats do you think that we’re dealing with right now? Where do you think we’re headed in the future? And Do you know who our biggest competitors are?

2. Company culture

If corporate strategy dictates what a company wants to achieve in response to Porter’s five forces, company culture dictates how the company wants to achieve its goals and manage its day to day functions.

Most PhDs don’t know how expansive company culture is when they start planning their transition. They might think that refers to how people dress to go to work, but company culture includes the processes, the brand, the rituals, and the unspoken rules of a company.

Companies care deeply for their culture and they always look for candidates whose values align with company culture. How you fit into the culture of an organization might be even more important than how capable you are to do the job.

In industry, candidates with a good cultural fit who lack some of the key skills for the role get hired over those who have all the skills but don’t match the company culture because skills are easier to teach than culture.

3. Industry hierarchy

When you come from academia and are used to your lab, you might not care much about hierarchy. Your whole lab might be you, a couple of other grad students or postdocs, and your PI. 

But when you think of organizations with thousands of employees, hierarchy has a lot of layers. 

There are different people who might have different roles in different parts of the organization. Understanding how the entire group works and where you fit into the organization and who you should be connecting with is really important to know.

Keep in mind that each company will have its own hierarchy. Some will have many levels of organization, while others will be rather flat. 

The corporate ladder will also look different. In a given company, VPs can report to directors, while in another company it’s the other way around. You need to study and understand this before interviewing for a company.

4. Organizational behavior

Organizational behavior is a whole field of study that focuses on how organizations are structured and how people interact within those organizations.

Understanding organizational behavior is critical because it will dictate the best way to interact with others once you get hired.

You should ask questions related to organizational behavior during the interview to show that you understand how important it is and that you have business acumen.

Try asking questions like: How do different departments interact within the company? Or How am I expected to interact with a given group of people?

This will give you great insights and ensure that you start your onboarding process with the right feet in case you get hired.

5. Mergers and acquisitions

As a job candidate, understanding what mergers and acquisitions are, as well as being aware of any that are happening at your target company is essential.

Mergers refer to a situation where two similar sized companies join together and become one. It’s usually an amicable situation.

An acquisition is when one company buys another. This can be amicable but can also be hostile, meaning that the smaller company being purchased doesn’t really want to be bought out.

This might be surprising to you, but mergers and acquisitions are extremely common, especially in industries like biopharma and biotech. And these cause a lot of restructuring in a company. 

It’s possible that the position you are interviewing for is open as a consequence of a merger or acquisition. So, make sure to study this topic when preparing your interview.

6. Supply chains

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about supply chains and supply chain disruption.

This topic is extremely important for companies because without an optimized supply chain, products cannot reach the final customers and companies cannot be profitable.

In this case it is very important to speak the language of industry because these concepts are not so unfamiliar. The supply chain systems of industry are the methodologies and protocols of academia.

Questions about supply chain, or related topics like quality control (QC) and quality assurance (QA) will probably come up during your interview, so you need to shift the language and apply your knowledge to a new context to come out as a star.

7. Project management

You can’t speak the language of industry if you don’t understand the language of project management. And this is true, no matter what industry position you are targeting.

As a PhD, you already have some project management experience. You probably had to juggle several projects and make sure they stayed on track and within budget during your time in grad school. But project management in industry is much more structured.

Project management in industry has well defined phases and specific documentation associated with each phase. And you need to understand this no matter if you are the project manager or not.

At the same time, there are different project management methodologies like waterfall, agile, or six sigma. Different companies and different projects follow different methodologies. Understanding these concepts is very important if you want to transition into a management role.

8. Quantitative analysis

This is not the quantitative analysis that PhDs in chemistry and physics might be familiar with. This industry term refers to the use of statistics to analyze data at a business.

Companies generate an immense amount of data everyday and they need to analyze those to make informed decisions. 

Understanding what data means and being able to use that understanding to drive industry-related decision making is what many PhD-level positions like data scientists and user experience managers do on a daily basis.

As a PhD, you probably know how to collect and analyze data, but to get hired into a top position, you need to take this to the next level and show how you can use the results of your analysis to make actionable decisions.

9. Accounting

You are probably thinking that, since you don’t want to be an accountant, this doesn’t apply to you, but there are a lot of terms associated with accounting that you will find on a daily basis once you transition into industry.

Terms like cash flow, profit income statement, balance sheet, top/bottom line revenue, profit margin, gross vs net might come up during a job interview and you will look very unprofessional if you don’t know what they mean.

Being able to research the public accounting data of a company will tell you a lot about the company and what they’re interested in. So, when you go in for the interview, you have that general knowledge about their focus.

10. Unique selling proposition

The term Unique Selling Proposition or USP (sometimes referred to as a Value Proposition) comes from the world of advertising, marketing, and branding. 

A USP is a description of the factor or factors that differentiate a company’s product from its competitors. As a job candidate you are the product you are trying to sell, so you need to have your USP ready as soon as you start the interview process.

To achieve this, you first need to identify what makes you unique as a candidate. This will be some combination of your tranferable skills.

Then, you need to know how to pitch that proposition to employers to ensure they understand why you are a valuable candidate.

Concluding Remarks

Finding an industry job is not enough. You need to find a PhD-level job. If you take an entry level position, you will spend 5 to 8 years before you get promoted to a management position. This is on top of the years you have already spent in academia, which can be tragic for your overall career trajectory. You should aim for a top, management level position right out of academia. But, to achieve this, you need to show gatekeepers that you understand the language of industry and have business acumen. Here, we explore some basic business concepts that will help you show your value to employers.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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