3 Things PhDs Leaving Academia Should Know About Business

Over the last little while, I’ve encouraged humanities PhDs to go into marketing, and I’ve suggested several things that grad students can do to prepare themselves for the possibility – in some fields, the probability – of going into a non-academic career once grad school is finished. (And this doesn’t just go for PhDs; a lot of this is applicable to holders of other terminal degrees, too.)

The thing is, though, the business world is much, much different from academia. It functions differently and it values different things. Although we – for the values of “we” who are likely to be reading this post – don’t live in a purely free-market society, we live in one based economically on the principles of capitalism, mixed more (Canada, Sweden, France, et al) or less (USA) with socialist ideals to create a big, messy, imperfect, but generally mostly functional economy in which businesses exist.

Keep in mind here also that I’m talking specifically about for-profit businesses here, though many non-profits function similarly – and many should do so, frankly, if they are concerned about making the best possible use of their grant or development funds. There are some businesses and organizations in which other values are prioritized over the fiscal health of the organization, but I’m not talking about those at this time.

So if you’re thinking of going into business, whether it’s starting your own or becoming an employee of someone else’s, here are 3 things you should keep in mind. They aren’t universally applicable, but they’re applicable enough of the time that you should be aware of them, and they’re different enough from the academic system that they may surprise you – if not in concept then in execution.

1. You’re only as good as the value you bring to the company. There’s a common complaint among people with graduate degrees who are seeking work outside of the academy: “no one cares that I have a PhD/MA/MFA/whatever!”

That’s right. No one cares.

OK, now that I’ve been harsh, let’s unpack that a bit. This is not to say that no one cares about you, or that your degree is worthless. Your degree is actually quite likely to be worth a fair bit… provided, of course, that the skills and abilities it has helped you to develop are of use and value to your employer and/or your clients.My PhD has proven invaluable to my work as a marketer, in part (but not wholly) because of the things the PhD process taught me to do: synthesize information, write well and cogently, teach and present effectively, and hold myself to high standards in the work I present to clients. And many employers, though not all, are impressed by the fact of an advanced degree if it’s accompanied by relevant skills.

But in and of themselves, those letters after your name mean nothing. Your value rests on what you can do to create value for your employer or your client, not your academic profile or the prestige of your degree.

It’s a simple concept, but it’s one that I actually find fairly freeing. It strips away the BS, frankly. It’s not personal in business: it’s just business. If you provide value, you’ll be sought-after, and if you don’t, you’re likely to be let go. And if you’re going to succeed in business, then this is probably the approach you’ll want to take, too.

2. No one owes you anything. Not a job, not an opportunity, nothing. This is the case inside the academy as well, and it’s getting to be more and more true by the year. But there’s a narrative thread through academia that goes like this: if you go to a good graduate school, if you teach enough classes, if you publish enough good papers, if you get a good book contract, then you’ll achieve success in academia. You’ll get a tenure-track job, or tenure, or whatever it is you’re chasing. You’ll have a Career, and you’ll be a Professor. And if you don’t get those things, well, then, you must have failed somewhere along the way. And because you are your academic work, in this mindset, it means you’re a failure.

The narrative thread in business is this: if you prove yourself valuable to a company or organization, they’ll keep you around. If you’re not valuable, they won’t. If you don’t succeed, it’s not because you’re a failure: it’s just because you didn’t provide value to the company to justify your compensation. You haven’t lost your opportunity to be what you want to be; you’ve gained an opportunity to try something else and see if you can succeed at that instead.

I mean, heck: there’s a whole sub-category of articles in magazines like the venerable Harvard Business Review that talk about the value of failure.

This, also, is freeing. If no one owes you anything, then what you achieve, you’ve earned. (Or you’ve gotten by unfair means, but that’s the way things go in business. Which brings me to…)

3. All’s fair in love and war… and business.

That is to say: business isn’t fair.

Academia isn’t fair, either, but it has a veneer of ostensible fairness. Like so many things in academia, this is an illusion – and it’s actually quite destructive because of the tautology that comes along with it. If something unfair happens, then it couldn’t be that unfair, because it’s the university, and the university is inherently elevated to fairness in a way that for-profit companies aren’t, right? Nope.

Business is just unfair in a more transparent way. Talent doesn’t always find its way to the top. Often, success comes as much or more from who you know and can impress than how purely good you are at whatever task people are hiring you to do. (This is why networking is so important.) People who have more social capital – whether it’s because they come from a wealthier/more connected background, they’re better at networking, or they’re friendlier and make a better impression – will have a much easier time in business, at least initially. It’s not fair, but it’s the way it is. (As an aside, this is why I love Ask A Manager so much. You’ll find that her constant refrain is “No, it’s not fair, and it sucks, but that’s the way it is. Now you have the information you need in order to make a decision.”)

But in some ways, business is actually more fair than academia is. If you aren’t good at what you’re setting out to do, fewer people will pay you to do it, and you aren’t likely to be successful in the long run. But conversely, if you’re talented in a way that provides value, then you’ll be indispensable and in demand, and you’ll find that success is likely – not guaranteed, but likely – to come.

What do you think? If you’ve left academia, do you find these things to be true for you? Why or why not?