The inaugural PhD Horizons conference at the University of Edinburgh was designed to ‘showcase the breadth of career opportunities open to PhD graduates’. As a PhD that has made the leap from academia to industry, I appreciated being given a chance to present.
As the first event of its type at the university, no-one could be sure how well attended it would be but I’d estimate almost 100 students attended the session I participated in. Not only was this a pleasant surprise, but it also gave an indication of the appetite that exists for information about the types of roles available to PhD graduates outside the academic community.
The conference took the form of a series of sessions, each with a panel of speakers who gave a 10-minute overview of the path their careers took following the completion of their PhD, before taking questions from the floor.
I was one of four ‘Business and IT’ panelists, each with very different backgrounds and experiences. Despite this, there were a couple of common themes that ran through all our presentations - luck and the broader skills you gain from doing a PhD.
In advance of the conference, panelists were asked to consider the role luck played in the path their careers took. Listening to the presentations, what stood out to me was that yes, there was luck involved, but the adage that you make your own luck - or perhaps the harder you work the luckier you get - has never been truer.
Whether it was a school careers adviser that sent a career down a certain path; a research contact that made a job available; or the flexibility afforded by academia to learn new skills, none of this would have been of any benefit without the foresight and ability each panelist had to take advantage of these lucky breaks.
A second point of agreement was that the skills a PhD teaches go far beyond those directly linked to the research undertaken. There was no commonality on how directly applicable the panellists’ PhD research had been to their subsequent careers. In some cases it was directly linked, while other contributors are now in a completely different industry, but the skills learnt in all cases had universal worth.
Perhaps the most obvious skill shared by the panel was problem-solving, the value of which cannot be underestimated, forming the basis of many PhDs. Perhaps less obvious are the communication skills that a PhD forces - often painfully - a student to learn. Whether it is the hours spent getting that paper under the word limit without removing any clarity or relevant information; the 15 minute presentation to give justice to a year’s work; or the ability to argue a point while listening to an alternative viewpoint; all teach communication skills that are invaluable in the workplace.
It may not seem like it at the time, but even those many hours spent explaining programming fundamentals to first year students who are only taking computing as a timetable filler, teaches the invaluable skill of explaining complicated ideas in a way that even management can understand.
A short Q&A session was followed by an informal networking session over coffee. Again, while the backgrounds of the students was varied, a common concern seemed to be the perceived difficulty of making the switch to industry. Many students asked how they could ‘catch up on lost time’, or get to a level comparable to someone who has spent their time in industry while they have been earning a PhD.
It seemed there was an assumption that employers would view the time spent earning a PhD as wasted, and I am sure there are some employers who may view it this way. I would argue, however, that this time isn’t wasted. It is merely spent differently. As previously mentioned, working on a PhD teaches a range of skills and provides opportunities that just aren’t typically available in industry at graduate level; not least leading a three or four-year project and producing (hopefully!) a significant deliverable at the end.
A second concern that was raised with me several times was more specifically related to PhD students interested in development roles. Many wondered how a PhD graduate with an undergraduate degree in Computing Science but limited development experience, would be viewed in comparison to a recent computing science graduate. The simple answer is that every case is different, but in my view a recent graduate and a PhD graduate are two very different individuals. The PhD has several more years of experience which, while not directly comparable to analogous experiences in industry, are valuable nonetheless. I certainly wouldn’t view the time spent working towards a PhD as somehow devaluing the earlier computing science degree, and this was something some were worried about.
Scott Logic and PhD Graduates
Scott Logic has always looked for candidates with a strong academic background, and having a PhD very much fit this profile. That said, we are a technology company so we need our candidates to be able to demonstrate good technical knowledge as well as the smarts that come with completing a PhD. We take pride in staffing our offices with smart individuals who like solving difficult problems for our clients. This is true regardless of background, so it is crucial that you keep up to date with your preferred technologies.
Keeping up with evolving trends is likely enough if you have worked on a PhD that required extensive coding - whether as the end product or a tool to support the research. If your PhD is less focused on development, you will need to maintain your skills in a different way. This could be by working on personal projects away from your research, or perhaps teaching software engineering courses.
An interesting extension to the conversations that arose was around making the transition to industry after some years as a post-doc researcher. Again, there was a general concern that those years spent in academia would be viewed as worthless in industry and, conversely, that making this move would be throwing away all the time spent in academia. To the latter point I’d say making any career change involves shelving some skills but I’d suggest the alternative - remaining in the same silo for the rest of your career - is less appealing. How years spent in academia are viewed in industry very much depends on how those years were spent. From Scott Logic’s perspective, working as a developer on a PhD research project raises the same questions as working as a developer in industry:
how strong is your coding ability
how good are your communication skills; and
how would you fit into one of our teams?
If you can give suitable answers to these questions then we would absolutely want to hear from you. If you think there are gaps in your skill set then you should seek to fill these as much as possible; as you would if you were coming to us from an industrial role.
The PhD Horizons conference at Edinburgh University was a fantastic opportunity for me to engage with a wide range of PhD students and give an indication of some of the opportunities we can offer at Scott Logic.Doing a PhD is a fantastic opportunity, not only to work on a piece of novel research, but also to learn new skills away from the research itself. When the opportunity arises - whether while completing the PhD or after some years in academic research - it should enable a relatively straightforward transition into industry; and Scott Logic would certainly be interested in hearing from you.