Beyond the Ivory Tower: Adjusting to Corporate Culture

by Susan Basalla May
Chronicle of Higher Education
September 24, 2008

It's easier for engineering Ph.D.'s to land that first nonacademic job than for humanists, but they face the same challenges in the workplace

You might expect to see few similarities between the career path of an engineering Ph.D. and that of a humanities Ph.D. as they transition out of academe. After all, engineers have it made, don't they? They can walk right into industry jobs that are exactly like the work they did in graduate school and never miss a step, right?

Not entirely. I interviewed an electrical-engineering Ph.D. who earned his degree from a large public university and now manages other Ph.D.'s at a defense contractor. He asked to use a pseudonym "Ty Webb" because he didn't want his comments to reflect on Ph.D.'s employed by his company or ones it might recruit.

Certainly, Webb says, Ph.D.'s in engineering have an easier time landing that first job outside of academe than their counterparts in, say, English. However, he says, former academics in all disciplines face similar challenges as they migrate into the nonacademic world.

As Webb describes it, graduate students in engineering often have a tendency to overanalyze, to seek perfect rather than "good enough" solutions, and to consider themselves smarter than everyone around them. Those same issues plague Ph.D.'s in other fields, too, as they learn their way around the nonacademic workplace.

In his job today, Webb says, the graduate-school skill he uses most is the same one that many former academics in all disciplines credit as the most valuable: the ability to assimilate information and analyze an argument quickly. Even one of his reasons he went to graduate school in the first place will sound familiar to most readers: encouragement from his undergraduate professors.

Notice how, in Webb's responses below, you could substitute the name of almost any discipline and his observations would still be true. Seeing how issues of culture and personality transcend academic discipline may give you a fresh perspective on how to chart your own course as you prepare to leave academe.

Question: Why did you decide to go to graduate school instead of directly into industry after college?

Webb: I really hadn't made up my mind as the end of my senior year approached. I applied both to graduate programs and to entry-level jobs and went to several interviews for both. The jobs I interviewed for didn't really excite me because they seemed so narrow i.e., "go design this widget."

I started leaning toward grad school, in part, because my undergraduate professors encouraged me, but I realize now that I was overly influenced by their opinions about what constituted a "good" school versus the best choice for me. I probably also felt some subtle family influence, as my father has his doctoral degree in chemistry.

Those reasons wouldn't have carried me through five years of school, though. Happily, my main reason was a much better one: I simply enjoy learning. I like going to lectures and reading technical books and solving problems. I've always wanted to teach math, science, or engineering and knew I needed an advanced degree to give me that option in the future.

Question: Why, then, did you decide to leave academe?

Webb: I thought from the beginning that I would probably go into industry after completing my doctorate, and my first year in graduate school reinforced that feeling. I discovered quickly that the research conducted by faculty members at my university was too theoretical for my tastes. I wanted to do something more practical and relevant.

I decided quickly that academe wasn't necessarily wrong for me but that my current graduate program definitely was. I decided to cut my losses early and focused on the course work that would allow me to graduate from that program with a master's. Then I moved to another university with a doctoral program that had a more practical, applied bent.

The lesson I learned from that experience is that, whatever field you're in, you have to find a graduate program that matches your goals and interests. You're really the only one who can make that call. While it can be hard to resist the pressure from your professors and your peers, it's your life and you have to decide for yourself.

Question: Do you think it's easier in emotional and psychological terms for engineers to leave academe than for humanists or social scientists?

Webb: Perhaps the only difference is that engineers go into graduate programs with a mind-set that a nonacademic career may (or will) be the outcome. Engineers may see more clearly from the beginning the alignment between their academic-skill development and industry needs. So it's all about expectation and perspective, I think. Although it wasn't painful for me personally because I had considered this move from the beginning and had seen other graduate students make the transition successfully before me, I'm sure there have been engineering graduates who found it difficult.

Question: What was your first job after graduate school? What did you have to learn about the business world?

Webb: I think the biggest surprise to me was how quickly you can be considered an expert outside academe. As in many fields in academe, graduate students in engineering are constantly reminded by their professors and peers that everyone else knows more than they do and that they will never, ever know enough. Colleagues and faculty members will use their decades of experience to attack you mercilessly during presentations just to make sure you never feel remotely secure.

But in my first job after grad school, I only had to work on a task for a few months to find that I had suddenly become the company's expert in the area. This was intimidating at first but also empowering and liberating. I still prepared and braced for the probing attacks, but I found people were more interested in sharing ideas and improving the result than in demonstrating their intellectual superiority.

Question: Of the skills you learned in graduate school, which have been most useful in your career?

Webb: I think the most helpful has been the ability to cut through the noise and get to the heart of the issue/argument and then conduct a critical analysis. The ability to quickly assimilate, and immediately apply, new information is also useful. Presentation skills are often required, an element of any successful thesis defense. The ability to understand and deconstruct complex technical issues so that they can be explained to a less-technical audience (i.e., the ability to teach) is another useful skill.

Question: Now that you're recruiting and managing other engineering Ph.D.'s, what do you enjoy most about your job? What are the biggest challenges?

Webb: I enjoy interacting and working with such an educated, analytical, and intelligent group of people. It is the work we do, and the people I interact with, that keep me satisfied at my company. I also have a good balance of theory versus real-world application in my work, which is essential to me.

My biggest challenge as a manager who recruits and hires Ph.D.'s is getting them to realize that the theoretically optimal solution is not always the best answer. There is a tendency to overanalyze. Academics are programmed to unambiguously find the right answer and then prove its correctness despite all challenges. The real world is more shades of gray than black-and-white, and "good enough" wins out over "unquestionably correct."

Ph.D.'s tend to be less likely to compromise, less able to move forward without a complete analysis. They can be labeled obstinate and hard to work with in a corporate environment. That limits their career, and they often have a hard time understanding why, since, from their perspective, they are just pursuing the "right" answer as they have been taught, and no one seems to appreciate their superior arguments.

Another frustration is the occasional ego problem. Some Ph.D.'s consider themselves above certain types of work and entitled to special treatment. A good dose of humility is always appreciated.

And finally, communication skills tend to be weak in engineers coming directly from academe. After years of working independently as graduate students, it can be hard for them to adjust to the team structure in the workplace.

Question: What kind of starting salary can engineering Ph.D.'s expect in their first nonacademic job?

Webb: In our industry it would be something on the order of $70k to $90k. That obviously varies a lot based on their specific qualifications and background and how well their technical knowledge matches our skill-set needs. This is also a function of geographical region.

Question: Do you ever miss academe? Would you ever return to it?

Webb: I do miss it but also know that the grass is always greener. I've managed to carve out roles for myself here that give me the opportunity to do some of the things I love most about academe: teaching in-house technical courses occasionally, attending conferences, etc. I would like to return to academe at some point in my career, maybe as a teaching professor at a smaller institution; not necessarily to begin a new career but to get back to education and the theoretical principles that are the foundation of the work I'm doing now in industry.

Question: What advice would you give current graduate students in engineering who are considering, or applying for, nonacademic jobs?

Webb: Blanket advice is tough to give in this situation. It really depends on their goals and what they are looking to achieve. It's important to know that there are very few pure research roles out there in industry. Corporations exist to make money. Period. Even in an R&D job you need to be able to articulate how your work is leading to an application down the line and make a business case for your activities. There is very little research for the sake of research. If you aren't at peace with that idea, then industry may not be the right path for you.

I also can't stress enough the need for interpersonal and communication skills. Many graduate students are most comfortable just locking themselves in their labs all day long and interacting with their adviser once a week. That just isn't going to cut it in industry. Communication with peers and superiors is critical to success.

Ultimately, when you work in industry, you are judged more on what you have delivered and produced than by what you know and how much research you have done. Go in with an open mind and willing attitude and you're more likely to be successful.

Susan Basalla May is an author, with Maggie Debelius, of "So What Are You Going to Do With That?": Finding Careers Outside Academia, recently released in a revised and updated edition by the University of Chicago Press. For an archive of previous Beyond the Ivory Tower columns, see