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3 Top Business Career Options For PhDs Regardless Of Background

Written by: Aditya Sharma, Ph.D.

What is the first word that comes to mind when you hear “PhD”?




What about, “Business”? Business is probably not a word you associate with a PhD.

That’s exactly what I used to think, too.

To me, the business world was always reserved for people who had completed a business degree.

Reserved for people who had MBAs, not for people with PhDs.

As a part of my job search strategy, I set up an informational interview with a non-PhD business consultant, to learn more about the role.

During our informational interview, this person said to me, “I have all the business knowledge and skills that PhDs are lacking”.

This comment really annoyed me.

Yes, they may have an MBA, but I was an expert in my field.

I had all the first-hand knowledge that this person was only getting second-hand.

They were using second-hand information that was most likely a “dumbed-down” version of the research.

And yet, this person was the consultant going out and telling other people what to do.

In my speciality area.

How could their MBA be better than the expertise I gained from my PhD?

I asked a friend who had an MBA if he thought I needed to get an MBA if I wanted to be a consultant.

He reminded me of the skills I already had.

My PhD had already given me business knowledge.

An MBA might give me some additional skills, but my PhD had already equipped me with many of the transferable skills I needed to be a consultant.

I was qualified to be a consultant, and knew that I could do the job better than someone who was coming from an outside area.

In fact, there were more career options available to me than I had previously realized.

I, like many other PhDs, had to ditch my Imposter Syndrome and be confident in my ability to succeed outside of academia.

While it is still a work in progress, I am well on my way to succeeding in industry.

Why PhDs Are Well-Suited For Business Careers

The number of people graduating with PhDs continues to grow.

According to a report in The Conversation, the number of students enrolled in postgraduate degrees has risen by nearly 50% over the past two decades.

This means thousands and thousands more PhDs are being granted.

Meanwhile, the number of those PhDs obtaining a job within academia is continuing to decline.

It’s not all bad news, though. PhDs have many skills that are in high demand.

While MBAs have typically dominated in business, PhDs are quickly catching up.

Businesses are starting to see the value that PhDs have to offer above MBAs.

As highlighted in Nature, this is because PhDs have the transferable skills that are highly sought after in business.

Your experience as a PhD is more similar to the real world of business than an MBA program.

Indeed, PhDs have skills that make them better prepared for the business world than MBAs.

PhDs have valuable skills, like data analysis and interpretation of these results.

Perhaps more valuable, however, is that PhDs have learned resilience in the face of uncertainty and limited resources.

PhDs need to manage multiple projects simultaneously, supervise interns and undergraduates, and satisfy expectations from multiple bosses.

PhDs know how to create original information, not just consume and regurgitate data.

As a PhD, you are constantly improving your analytical skills, managing group collaborations, and communicating your work.

It is these qualities, and more, that make PhDs highly sought after in business.

Top 3 Business Career Options For PhDs

PhDs have all the skills they need in order to succeed in business.

These skills include: problem solving, teamwork, and being self-motivated.

With the development of a few additional business-oriented skills, PhDs are able to succeed in business.

Here are the top 3 business careers for PhDs…

1. Management Consulting.

Management consultants provide guidance to people in management in order to improve the performance of their organizations.

Most of the client organizations that management consultants deal with are businesses.

However, management consultants can also advise government agencies and nonprofit organizations.

For the most part, consultants spend a large proportion of their time in team meetings, client meetings, doing data analysis, and creating presentations.

An average workday consists of gathering information, synthesizing insights, and communicating solutions.

The best consulting firms hire people who can think well on their feet, solve problems, communicate in teams, and exhibit professionalism with clients.

Consultants must be able to communicate complex findings in a clear and effective manner to a non-scientific audience.

It is also important that PhDs wanting to get into management consulting can break down complex problems into manageable solutions.

Then, you need to be able to put the individual solutions together to reach a conclusion and find a solution to the overall problem.

PhDs match these qualities perfectly, making them ideal candidates for management consulting.

Consulting companies can include strategic, accounting, and IT firms.

Strategic consulting addresses important questions that can change the direction of the world’s biggest organizations.

As the name suggests, strategic consulting firms advise senior management across a broad range of industries on matters relating to major strategic questions.

These matters can include things such as the best ways companies should respond to new competitive threats, how they can increase profit margins, and how to increase market shares.

This may also include assessment of what manufacturing plants should be opened or closed, and how companies should go about launching new products.

Some of the major strategic management consulting firms include: McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company, the Boston Consulting Group, and Booz & Co.

Often, the interviews require candidates to work through a business problem, such as identifying how to increase the margin of a company whose sales have been flat.

Successful strategic consultants can earn huge salaries, upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Accounting consulting firms address questions and concerns such as what financial and reporting processes are inefficient.

They may also address how a company can improve its compliance rates and cash flow, by optimizing payment processes and policies.

Major audit firms such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC), KPMG, Ernst & Young, and Deloitte often provide consulting work to their clients.

IT consulting firms include companies such as Accenture, IBM, Hitachi Consulting, Computer Sciences Corp, and CGI Group.

These firms look at how to implement company-wide Enterprise Resource Planning software and Customer Relationship Management systems.

They may also consult companies on how they can ensure that important data is encrypted, backed up, accessible, and secure.

Large companies need to make informed decisions across all aspects of their businesses.

Management consultants are the experts business managers look to for advice, and the expertise of PhDs is just what they are after.

2. Business development consultant.

Business development consultants can work across a variety of companies, ranging from small to large companies.

These may include, but are not necessarily limited to, government centers, universities, and private institutions.

The daily activities of a business development executive range from strategy and market planning to direct customer contact.

Small companies and startups may offer PhDs more learning opportunities, as the work involved is often more diverse.

In smaller companies, business development can mean doing it all.

This can range from sales and marketing to scouting for new technologies, developing business opportunities, licensing, and deal-making.

This type of consulting can give PhDs a mix of experiences and a base from which they launch into larger roles.

It will also give you the opportunity to discover what part of business development you are most passionate about.

In larger companies, business development refers to teams of people looking for new products, new markets for existing technologies, and strategic partnerships.

In these positions, scientific knowledge is critical.

The expertise of PhDs allows them to decipher what new technology or new product has the most promise.

As such, there is a high demand for PhDs in business development firms.

3. Entrepreneurship.

For PhDs looking at getting into the business world, becoming an entrepreneur and starting your own business is one option.

This career pathway is ideal for PhDs who have a unique idea or an innovative product that addresses an unsaturated market.

PhDs have many of the skills required to be a successful entrepreneur.

You know what it’s like being your own boss and to manage a project from beginning to end, often with minimal supervision or guidance.

PhDs are typically self-motivated and driven, which are critical attributes to becoming a successful entrepreneur.

While it can be very rewarding to be your own boss, setting up your own business comes with its own set of unique stresses and challenges.

Some of these challenges include financial instability, the prospect of failure, and working alone.

When starting your own business, the buck always stops with you.

You are responsible for the success or the failure of your business.

However, PhDs face many of these same issues while completing their degree.

You were solely responsible for your project, for your thesis, and ultimately for your graduation.

Understanding this level of responsibility makes PhDs highly resilient and well-equipped to handle the challenges associated with entrepreneurship.

To build your own venture, a basic understanding of how organizations are structured, the challenges they face, and how to improve their performance, is a must.

You will build your own company culture and values.

Knowing how to manage employees and create a good working environment should be high on the entrepreneur’s priority list.

If going out on your own and creating your own business interests you, know that as a PhD, you have the skills to make it happen.

Many PhDs may not think that going into a business career is an option for them. However, there is an increasing demand for PhDs, and their expertise, within the business world. Not only do PhDs have the research and analytical skills needed for these positions, they are highly self-motivated. You could transition into a management consulting role, a business development role, or become an entrepreneur and start your own business. PhDs know how to be resilient in the face of uncertainties. These skills make PhDs extremely well-equipped to succeed in business.

To learn more about the Top 3 Business Career Options For PhDs, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Aditya Sharma, Ph.D.

Aditya Sharma, Ph.D.

Aditya has a PhD in Physics from the University of Toronto, Canada and a passion for Nanotechnology. His PhD project focused on 3D magnetic nanostructures and he is now combining this passion with his keen business acumen and works as a scientific consultant at a top Canadian consulting firm.
Aditya Sharma, Ph.D.
  • Kathy Azalea

    Wow! I can feel the enthusiasm and power of discovery in these words. I’ve never heard it said more clearly — PhDs can offer the business world even more value than an MBA. It’s because, by the time you finish your PhD, you’ve already done all these things under high pressure, with tight deadlines, demanding professors and advisers, short resources, and often untenable working conditions. You get good at scanning data and grappling with reality before you even start working in industry. You have to be able to evaluate and use your brain and recognize your own pre-conceived ideas when faced with data you’re not expecting. Thanks so much for this.

  • Julian Holst

    This is incredible. I was just thinking the same thing, but unfortunately from a much more negative perspective. This is really revealing a whole new way to realize that I’m worth what I’m asking; I’m not just being unreasonable or stubborn. I think this is just the boost I really needed right now.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    It’s true. The job hunting can get really dull if you don’t believe in yourself. And, how can you, when you’re constantly telling yourself you’re not good enough. If you’re doing a great job of presenting yourself and treating other people with respect and crossing all your t’s and dotting your eyes, then yes, you should expect results. If one opportunity doesn’t open up, another will. This article is just another reason why I love reading CS.

    • Shawn Lyons, PhD

      Ditto, Carlie.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    It’s very important to realize just how skilled you are after achieving your PhD. One of the most important skills you have is to stick with something difficult and finish. I doubt if most people realize just how important that is. First, you have to get started and make sure you’re not just dreaming of something. But once you get started, you have to persist. Great article.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    It’s true that most of us don’t become entrepreneurs, but it’s certainly doable, and I do know some innovative PhDs who have. When you have the drive and discipline to pull this off, it can be extremely profitable.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    I never thought about a scientific PhD becoming a business development consultant, but it just goes to show you how widespread the choices are. That’s why I like reading the CS articles – it’s almost like having your own mastermind group at your fingertips.

  • Sonja Luther

    Aditya, reading that article in The Conversation that you linked to made me realize just how widespread the problem is in trying to place PhD’s in academia. I realized that the number of PhD’s are growing over time relative to the population, but now I’m seeing that this problem isn’t just in the USA and UK. I know it’s great that so many people are getting a good education, but it’s truly baffling to see how academia’s struggling around to figure out what to do with all of them.

  • Sissy MacDougall

    This is certainly true. I think it’s one of the great tragedies when a person feels pigeonholed into a limited role based on preconceived restrictions. So many people are able to soar beyond what they thought they could do, and yet most people really never do take the chances to go after goals that are attainable, but hard.

  • Theo

    I like the idea of being an entrepreneur. Might be more of a headache, but once you’ve got the system rolling, it might provide more freedom. I’ll have to look into that.