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PhDs Ready-Made for the Business World

The PhD Plus Program is designed to assist graduate students in making effective career decisions in industry, consulting, government or academia.

Recently Dean Katsouleas and CEE PhD candidate Sarah Diringer wrote about the value of the program for Forbes.

Read the original version at Forbes, or see the text below.

PhDs Ready-Made For The Business World

By Tom Katsouleas and Sarah Diringer

Sarah Diringer, CEE PhD candidateIf you’re hiring in a science, technology or engineering industry, you’ve probably seen an increasing number of candidates with PhDs cross your desk. That’s not a fluke. In engineering, most PhDs now go into industry jobs, not academia like they used to.

Depending on the position you’re hiring for, you’re probably looking for someone with five to seven years of professional experience, not a nerdy PhD student who has learned too much about too little.

But as we can tell you—from the perspectives of both a dean and a current PhD student—working toward a PhD is great preparation to work in any results-driven organization. PhD students often have to satisfy expectations from multiple bosses, manage several projects simultaneously and supervise interns and undergraduates. They are constantly improving their analytical skills, working on group collaborations and communicating their work.

It’s just that when it comes to getting hired in industry, PhD students have a marketing problem.

That’s why an increasing number of universities, from Dartmouth to Purdue to University of California-Davis, are launching initiatives to make their engineering PhDs more prepared for the business world–and more attractive to industry employers.

Here at Duke, a motivated group of graduate students is working with administrators to change the perception of PhD students as ivory-tower residents with little practical experience. Together, we created the Duke PhD Plus Program to introduce engineering students to careers outside of academia and to prepare them for careers after graduation—through an internship requirement, professional development workshops and skill-enhancing coursework.

What makes PhD Plus unique among professional development programs is that it is run by PhD students—which helps students tailor the components to truly match their goals (and gives them even more practical experience to boot). Our students solicit and host speakers and seminars to expose themselves to career options and paths as a PhD graduate, on topics like management consulting from experts in top consulting firms to standing out in the biotech research world and advice for start-ups from CEOs.

Probably the most critical part of the program, though, is the internship—which isn’t a typical part of the usual PhD experience. With support from faculty mentors, students take time away from the lab to work at an organization and get first-hand experience on whether that organization is right for them. Internship opportunities include anything from work at a corporation or research organization to the Duke Summer Innovation Program that supports students as they work on their own startups.

One Duke PhD student, Andrew Stershic, in his third year of study in civil and environmental engineering, found that his internship allowed him to reveal his potential in ways he hadn’t had a chance to explore before. “Internships at the undergraduate level showcase career paths for bachelor’s degree holders,” he said. “This was my first chance to experience what I can do with a PhD.” His supervisor at Oak Ridge National Lab now serves on his dissertation committee and helps to guide the application of his doctoral work.

Following the internship, students reflect on their experience and enroll in a course outside their own department that will enhance their career objectives—whether it’s finance or materials science, geographic information systems or patent law. (Sarah: As one example, I recently completed a course in geospatial information systems (GIS) that immediately increased my technical skills and job prospects.)

Judy Winglee, another PhD student and the PhD Plus leadership chair, completed coursework on the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and initiated her own startup business. For her, PhD Plus has prepared her to leap ahead when she graduates. “Without the program, we fumble through these skills on our first job. Why not graduate with these skills down?” she said.

Next time you’re looking at a stack of candidates and see a PhD listed, dig deeper to see which are ready to join the business world. Thanks to programs like PhD Plus, some are ready to take their recent discoveries and research insights and turn them into successful products and services for the good of society and business.