Accelerating Your PhD Career Transition
Market disruption is a powerful phenomenon…
But what happens to PhDs who embrace disruption at a personal level?
This Week On The Cheeky Scientist Radio Show, we are joined by Whitney Johnson: award-winning author, world-class keynote speaker, frequent lecturer for Harvard Business School’s Corporate Education, and a leading expert on personal disruption. She is the host of her own podcast, Disrupt Yourself.
Whitney will share her expertise on strategic adaptation for job seekers and how to use these insights to accelerate your career transition.
We’ll also be joined by Robert Hable, PhD: a graduate of Cheeky’s SMBA program who is currently involved with BASF’s PhD Leadership Development Program. Robert will share his industry transition experience and how other PhDs can move into similar roles.
Skip Ahead To:
00:06:45 PhD Advantage
00:09:35 Show Me The Data
00:33:30 Whitney Johnson
00:54:18 Robert Hable
About Our Guests
Whitney Johnson is the CEO of WLJ Advisors and one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world as named by Thinkers50. An expert on helping high-growth organizations develop high-growth individuals, Whitney is an award-winning author, world-class keynote speaker, executive coach, award-winning former Wall Street stock analyst, lecturer for Harvard Business School’s Corporate Learning, and popular contributor to the Harvard Business Review.
An innovation and disruption theorist, she is the author of the bestselling Build an “A” Team: Play To Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve, and the critically-acclaimed Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work. Whitney also hosts the weekly Disrupt Yourself podcast and publishes a popular weekly newsletter.
Robert Hable, PhD, has his BS and PhD in Chemical Engineering from Iowa State and the University of Kansas, respectively. His research interest and passion is renewable and sustainable fuels and chemicals, which he studied for 10 years in academia. “Robbie” joined the Association in the Fall of 2017 when his collaboration, graduation, and career plan were at their lowest points, and he had lost all hope in his dream of getting a PhD. With the help of the Cheeky Scientist tools and community, he was able to change his mindset, graduate, and use the skills he acquired to make the most of his PhD.
Upon graduating in December 2018, Robbie’s first transition was in April 2019 with the corn starch ethanol company POET Biorefinery. He was working as a Pilot Plant Engineer at their cellulosic ethanol pilot facility. Surrounded and managed by younger, BS-level engineers, Robbie enrolled in the SMBA and RDS groups of Cheeky Scientist. A few months later, he had his second transition to his current position, which is in the PhD Leadership Development Program (LDP) with the world’s largest chemical company, BASF.
- Disruption isn’t just about products – it’s about people too. And disruption is a crucial component of human happiness.
- Skill mastery occurs in a cycle: The “S Curve.” After mastering a skill, you have to start over again.
- SMBA shows PhDs how to adapt their mindset to industry and use the powerful tools they already have in order to secure industry jobs.
Accelerating Your PhD Career Transition: A Conversation With Whitney Johnson
Isaiah: I want to start by asking you about this: What is a “disruptor”?
Whitney: What is a disruptor? A disruptor is a silly little thing that ends up taking over the world; like the telephone did to the telegraph; like the automobile did to the horse and buggy. Or more recently, we’ve seen Toyota disrupt General Motors and Netflix disrupt Blockbuster Video. And now, Uber and Lyft are disrupting cabs. But this theory of disruption… It isn’t just about products; it’s about people. But in the case of personal disruption, you’re both Toyota and General Motors. You’re both Netflix and blockbuster. You’re the disruptor and the incumbent because you are disrupting yourself. So that’s my definition or the term of art of personal disruption.
Isaiah: And your identity is a powerful thing, right? So if you’re disrupting it, that can cause some waves. And one of the biggest areas–which you’re very familiar with–where this personal disruption happens is when you change paths. What would you say is a good way to harness this disruptive energy or see it as a good thing rather than a bad thing? Some people see disruption as a bad thing, but it’s actually a healthy thing for both an individual and an organization.
Whitney: Absolutely. If you’re familiar with the diffusion curve, the “S Curve” that was popularized by PM Rogers, I have re-imagined that in the work that I do. I see everybody as being on an S Curve, and at the bottom of that S curve, you know that growth will be slow–or it will feel slow. There’s this sense that everything’s new – it’s a jumble of pieces. You don’t know how they fit together, which can be somewhat discouraging, but then you move into the sweet spot of an S curve and you think about when you were writing your dissertation. During that time, you got to this point where you were like, Okay, I know what I’m doing. It’s exhilarating, and a lot happens in a short time. You’re starting to feel very competent and engaged. But then you get to the top of that S Curve and the growth starts to slow down.
You’re no longer engaged like you were because you’re not learning, and you’re not getting the dopamine that makes you happy. And so once you get to that top of that S curve, you have to jump to the bottom of a new S Curve because you need dopamine. And when you’re willing to do that, your sense of self will solidify in a positive way. Your happiness will improve. And as put forth by Clayton Christian, when you disrupt, your odds of success are 6 times higher and your revenue opportunity is 20 times greater. So there’s a practical, functional reason for being willing to be disruptive, but there’s also an emotional reason: It literally makes you happy to disrupt…
PhD Leadership Development Program Career Track: A Conversation With Robert Hable, PhD
Isaiah: Let’s just jump right in. Describe what your position is and what you do at BASF.
Robbie: The leadership development program is a rotational program, so it’s 2 years, and you do 3 separate 8-month rotations at different R&D sites within the company. You do it all across North America, but you also get an opportunity to travel internationally to their world headquarters in Germany. I’m on my first rotation right now, and that assignment has to do with quality control and quality assurance. So I’m at their pilot scale-up facility, and they’ve taken on a lot of small manufacturing jobs. But they don’t yet have an established quality-control lab. I’m kind of the project lead for questions like, How do we do quality control? And, How can we make it fit for this group? A big thing right now is digitalization, so they’ve got this new software that they’re training people on how to use: how to get the most out of that tool. That’s the current rotation, and then I’ll start my next one in May. So later on this year, I’ll have a brand-new position, and I’ll have to start all over in a new location.
Isaiah: What do you think are the transferable skills–or the way you communicated them–that allowed you to get into this leadership position? This is essentially a management track position we’re talking about.
Robbie: Definitely, I’d say the biggest one is being able to understand your customer and being able to ask a lot of questions. That was one of the big interview points: Give us a time that you had a customer and you had to meet customer needs. And that’s where the SMBA training really helped me to get this job. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of training in working with customers from my time spent in academia, but working in SMBA helped me to adapt my thinking to: Well, I’ve had to deal with students as a TA. There were a lot of student needs like, Hey, I need help with this homework or How do I do this problem? Same with research. I was doing alternative fuel research, and it was like, How do I meet demands so that the alternative fuel-making was the same as the current petroleum crude that we’re doing? What are those needs?
Before SMBA, I really hadn’t made that ideological connection between academia and industry. I was stuck in an academic mindset where the emphasis was completely on my technical skills, but SMBA helped me realize, Oh, a lot of my skills are transferable, and they can be adapted to a “businessman mindset.” So ultimately, I was able to answer those interview questions really accurately and impressively, and I could do it in ways I wouldn’t have thought of without the SMBA background…
** for the full interviews, check out the video above
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Isaiah believes--from personal experience--that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life, it’s a clear sign that you need to make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah is an internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant, CEO of Cheeky Scientist, and author of the straight-talk bestsellers Black Hole Focus and The Science of Intelligent Achievement.
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