8 Work Qualities PhDs Should Assess When Planning A Career Move

If you have a PhD, you’re among the 2% of the population who has committed to push a field of knowledge forward. 

That makes you one of the most innovative people in the world. This is something special.

As such, you deserve to work in a position where your tenacity and ability to solve problems are out of good use. Where you feel satisfied and are rewarded for your job.

That’s why I encourage all PhDs to look for an industry position, because academia is a dead end where dreams go to die.

However, you have to be strategic when it comes to your industry career. Not any move is the right move.

I’ve had many roles since my time in grad school: application scientist, consultant for fortune 500 companies, founder and CEO of my own company, and best-selling author, among others. 

This has been the right career path for me, I have worked hard to make it happen because I knew each next move would fulfill me personally and professionally and get me closer to where I wanted to be in my life. 

You can have a career that’s just as fulfilling. However, you can’t hit a target you don’t set. 

So, no matter if you’re in the middle of your PhD, have spent years as a postdoc, or are already working in industry, you need to know how to assess different positions and opportunities to determine which is the right one for you.

Determine Your Core Career Track Before Evaluating Individual Positions

There are 5 core career tracks available to candidates with an extensive technical background, such as PhDs: Information, aggregation, and patents; sales and marketing; research and development; clinical and medical affairs; and business, finance, and policy.

Each of these career tracks offers different opportunities to make an impact. None is better than the other, but depending on your desired lifestyle, one of them is better fitted for you.

You should decide which career path is right for you and then evaluate the individual positions within your desired career path based on the work qualities we will consider below.

You’re probably thinking that this is a lot of work just to decide your target position

That you’d be better off sending resumes to any position that looks like a remote match because you need a job yesterday.

I have helped thousands of PhDs transition into industry positions and I can tell you two things:

One, applying to hundreds of jobs online is a waste of time.

Two, when it comes to your industry job search, spending time planning to ensure you make the right move pays off in the long run.

Remember that you ultimately want a job where you can make a significant contribution and achieve personal and professional fulfillment. Not any job will achieve that. You’re aiming for one of the top 1% of industry jobs available. 

You won’t get that highly coveted job by winging it, you need to make an informed decision to figure out your next step and have a strategy in place to make it happen.

8 Work Qualities That Will Help You Determine Your Ideal Industry Position

Once you’ve determined your core career track, how do you determine the right individual position for you?

You need to consider the work qualities or characteristics of every individual position and contrast them to your desired professional lifestyle.

There are endless qualities that you could consider during this exercise, but in my experience, PhDs stick to 8 key qualities to determine the individual job title that is right for them.

I will discuss each of these work qualities below and I recommend that you rank them from the one that’s most important to the one that’s least important for you.

There are no right or wrong answers. The key is being honest with yourself. The more honest you are, the higher your chances of finding the right position.

Once you have your ranking in place, you can take a look at the work qualities of each individual position and contrast them to your ranking. The position with the best overlap will be your target position.

1. Salary

If you get a PhD-level industry job, your salary will be considerably higher than whatever you’re used to in grad school. That being said, some positions are compensated better than others.

If salary is a high priority for you, you should aim for positions that have salaries within the top 10%.

Keep in mind that these higher-paying positions usually come at a higher cost. They might require a lot of travel, as is the case for medical science liaison (MSL) positions.

They might require that you work extra hours – up to 16 or 18 hours a day when working on an important project – as is the case with management consultant positions.

Or they might require an extra degree or certification as is the case for IP lawyer positions.

2. Amount of travel required

The amount of travel required to excel at a position is a very important factor that you should consider when planning your transition as it’ll impact your lifestyle greatly.

If you’re a single person who doesn’t mind being on the road and adjusts well to unpredictable schedules, taking a position that requires you to travel over 50% of the time might be just what you need. 

Each trip will be an opportunity to expand your network and build relationships that might open doors in the future.

However, if you just started your family and have small children at home, taking a travel-intensive position might lead you to miss important moments with your family and create a conflict between your professional and personal goals.

So, it’s important that you figure out how much travel you’re willing to take before targeting a position.

Some, like capital equipment specialist, might require you to be on the road more than 70% of the time. 

Others, like R&D scientists, will require you to travel every once in a while, to present at a conference, for example.

Finally, some positions might require no travel at all.

3. Field positions

The third quality you should consider when determining your ideal position is whether or not you want to work in the field.

This means a position where you spend most of the time meeting with customers or key opinion leaders (KOLs), instead of working at an office or at home.

Deciding whether to take a field position is somewhat related to the amount of travel, but they’re not the same thing.

Those who work in field positions usually have territories and the amount of travel is related to the size of the territory.

If you’re an MSL working at a small company, you might have an extensive territory – think a couple of states if you’re in the U.S or Canada or a couple of countries if you’re in Europe.

In this case, you’d have to travel a lot to meet with KOLs.

However, if you’re a technical sales specialist working for a big biotech company and live in a big city like Boston or Berlin, your territory might be just that city, or even a part of the city.

In that case, you’ll spend most of your time on the field visiting customers, but will go back to your house at the end of the day, no travel required.

4. In-house vs remote positions

Many job candidates, especially in recent years, have started to seriously consider whether an in house or remote position is a better fit for them.

Some prefer the structure of working at an office and enjoy having the opportunity to interact with their co-workers in person and in real time.

Whereas others prefer the flexibility of working from home, or any location of their choosing. Having the opportunity to make their own schedules and not having to worry about commuting time.

As with all the categories in this blog, there is no right or wrong answer, but you should seriously consider which one is a better fit for you as it will greatly impact your lifestyle and work-life balance.

5. Innovation positions

All industry positions occupy a place on a spectrum of innovation and commercialization.

Considering where you want to work on that spectrum is very important as it directly relates to the professional impact you want to have.

If you opt for an innovation position, you’ll be working at the conception site of a product, treatment, or service. In other words, you’ll be working with ideas that haven’t become tangible products yet.

Positions like R&D scientist, user experience researcher, and patent examiner are innovative positions.

6. Commercial positions

At the other end of the spectrum, we have commercial positions. 

In these positions, you’ll be working with developing, manufacturing, and commercializing products after conception.

So, if you work with tangible products that are already in the market or ready to go to market, you work in a commercial position.

7. Data-intensive positions

Data analysis is one of the most relevant tranferable skills that PhDs, no matter their background, possess.

So, it comes at no surprise that many PhD-level industry positions require you to deal with data and extract insights from data.

Keep in mind that data can be quantitative and qualitative and you’ll find positions that work with both types.

Data scientists, quantitative analysts, and scientific consultants mainly work with quantitative data whereas user experience researchers and epidemiologists can work with qualitative data. All of these are data-intensive positions. 

If analyzing the results of your experiments, performing surveys, and/or running models to find answers to apparently impossible questions was your favorite part of grad school, a data-intensive position might be just right for you.

8. Writing-intensive positions

The final quality you need to consider is whether or not a writing-intensive position would be a good fit for you.

Many industry positions require that you write and edit different types of deliverables: blog posts, white articles, journal articles, grant proposals, clinical trial proposals, brochures, and educational materials, among others.

Every position that has “writer” or “editor” in its name will be writing-intensive, but positions like patents examiner, regulatory affairs associate, and science public policy advisor alro rely on strong written communication skills.

Writing-intensive positions might be a good fit if your favorite part of grad school was to write papers and grand proposals or design posters to present at conferences, or if you enjoyed participating in science outreach initiatives.

Now that we’ve covered the 8 top work qualities that PhDs consider when determining their target position, it’s time to rank them in terms of which matter the most to you. We’ll take a look at the individual positions and their work qualities in future blogs.

Concluding Remarks

To find the PhD-level industry position that better fits your desired lifestyle, you should first determine your target core career track. After that, you should rank the 8 work qualities I discussed in this blog from the most important to the least important to you and compare them to the individual positions within your core career track. The 8 qualities are salary, amount of travel required, field positions, in-house vs remote, innovation or commercialization position, and data- or writing-intensive. This will ensure that you only apply to positions where you can make a big impact and achieve professional fulfillment.

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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Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Isaiah Hankel, PhD Chief Executive Officer at Cheeky Scientist

Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 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 two bestselling books with Wiley and 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.

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