So you've got a Ph.D. - Now what?

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A talk with a bunch of advice for planning a career after you've gotten the ph.d. Main focus is on moving from academia to a job in the private sector. Warning: Contains unfounded opinions and hearsay.

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Troels Damgaard handed in his Ph.D. on programming languages based on bigraphs in December 2008. Shortly after he started working at Edlund A/S – a private company that supplies systems for the administration of insurance portfolios (life, pension, unit linked, as well as non-life). He is still there. At Edlund he currently divides his time between managing the development process for a team of skilled developers as scrummaster, developing on a wide variety of core systems and tools, and arranging talks on various software development and computer science-related topics.

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  • Edlund: A private company that supplies systems for the administration of lots of the data for insurance comp. and pension funds.Scrum: An ”agile project management methodology”. Rather than characterizing scrum, I can tell you the artefacts we use: 3-weekly sprints, a whiteboard with a notepad for each task, daily re-estimation of remaining time for tasks, team/scm/po; tries to prevent, e.g., scope-drift for tasks.
  • So you've got a Ph.D. - Now what?

    1. 1. So you’ve got a Ph.D.<br />Troels Damgaard (troels.damgaard@edlund.dk)<br />Edlund A/S, DK<br />ITU, March 17th, 2011<br />1<br />Now what?(*)<br />(*) Title borrowed from presentation by Scott MacLachlan, Tufts University, 2008<br />
    2. 2. Who am I? – Career headlines<br />Ph.D. from PLS group, ITU (advisor Lars Birkedal), Dec. 2008<br />Dissertation: ”Developing Bigraphical Languages”<br />A meta-language for DSLs for mobile and distributed systems<br />Studied applications in cellular biology<br />Software Developer, Edlund A/S, March 2009<br />Started in ”Core” department working with<br />Core modules of Edlund’s application(s), e.g., custom Database layer, custom Session-layer, configuration-layer, …<br />Build tools, config- and database-setup tools, source control (Mercurial), custom bugtracker, custom semantic patcher, … (we like to roll our own)<br />Scrummaster, April 2010 (aka part-time enforcer and secretary)<br />Right now: Temporary department head (aka ”buried in paper and meetings”)<br />2<br />
    3. 3. What’s in this talk…And what’s not...<br />What I’m going to say is<br />mostly common sense<br />highly influenced by my own opinions and experience<br />I use my history and thoughts to exemplify my general statements<br />I have tried to hedge against being too one-sided, though…<br />focused on career-choices right after the Ph.D., and,<br />somewhat focused on going to the private sector<br />because that’s what I did, and,<br />because you’re surrounded by clever people who<br />know a lot about doing a career in academia, and,<br />have a tendency to become role models…<br />Also<br />No guidelines for formalities such as CV’s, dresscode, etc.<br />3<br />
    4. 4. About the structure of this talk<br />There isn’t any<br />Well…<br />As preparation for this talk, I did some crowdsourcing <br />I asked friends and acquaintances with PhDs some questions.<br />I decided to (loosely) structure the talk around these questions<br />Hence, interspersedacross this talk - my opinions as well as selected opinions and points resulting from this little informal survey<br />Also, I'll have some sections named FAQ here and there<br />Topics that I've found myself discussing frequently. <br />They aren't really questions, but FDT isn't as catchy<br />4<br />
    5. 5. What do you want do? (1)<br />Some questions to consider<br />What would you like to do?<br />Elaborate - which kind of tasks?<br />Start with what you have you experienced.<br />What do you want to avoid?<br />What do you find boring/tedious/trivial/...?<br />How do you feel about working abroad?<br />How does your family, if any, feel?<br />And for each Q consider both now and later?<br />How do you get from where you are now to your career goal in say five years?<br />If, e.g., you want to create your company, then a job at McKinsey may be an idea.<br />5<br />
    6. 6. What do you want to do? (2)<br />Another angle of attack<br />What motivates you?<br />As per McClelland may divide into need for<br />Achievement (personal)<br />Power (influence)<br />Affiliation (relationships, human interaction)<br />Match answers to Qs to different jobs<br />Requires investigation... (as we'll get back to)<br />6<br />
    7. 7. An example: What did I want?<br />I like to build stuff<br />I like to interact with other people<br />I like to have influence<br />about what I do, and,<br />about what others do<br />Personal achievement is important, <br />but team-achievement is almost as important<br />I put great value on fun and intelligent colleagues<br />I'm generally best at tasks that I find fun<br />I dislike repetitive tasks<br />I am willing to accept some, though<br />I dislike nepotism and favoritism, in general<br />(... which I find is endemic in some academic circles...)<br />7<br />
    8. 8. My career goals<br />Long: Keep the possibility of a management position open<br />Short: Balance love for developing with need for influence<br />On family<br />Fiancée with career and one small child<br />Of course, an influence on job options<br />McKinsey-like consultancy jobs were not an option<br />On going abroad<br />Later maybe, at the time no<br />Has never been a major priority for me<br /><ul><li>Also motivated by family-situation</li></ul>Job content, colleagues much more important for me<br />8<br />
    9. 9. Selected survey results (1)<br />Continued in academia<br />Felt like digging more into the research-topic<br />Wanted to go abroad<br />Felt it was easier to go from academia to private sector than the other way around<br />Was offered a post.doc. and accepted w.o. much thought<br />Liked the considerable freedom in choice of work<br />Didn't like the most obvious private sector options in the field <br />Didn't like the working climate in a "typical" private sector-job<br />9<br />
    10. 10. Selected survey results (2)<br />Continued in private sector<br />Wanted to go abroad<br />Long-term goal: Starting own company<br />Wanted to develop and build more<br />Wanted to work closer to real-life applications/users<br />Wanted to try out a private sector-job <br />Wasn't sure that (s)he could produce something really extraordinary as a researcher<br />Felt family obligations prevented going abroad (and felt that was necessary as post.doc.)<br />Got an R&D job in private sector offer based on research<br />Was turned off by academia because of<br />the growing need for time spent on paperwork (applications, ...)<br />the time-limited positions with fairly low wages<br />the stress around paper-deadlines<br />10<br />
    11. 11. On the major decision: “Academia or not?”<br />Common way of boiling down the choice is: “Research or not?”<br />(Although privately funded research is also a possibility.)<br />What is research, by the way?<br />Wikipedia to the rescue:<br />“... the search for knowledge, or as any systematic investigation, with an open mind, to establish novel facts, usually using a scientific method.”<br />... ok.<br />My opinion - suboptimal basis for making an informed decision about your career<br />What I (and others) did:<br />For each job X that you may want to go for, now or later, investigate<br />“How does a common day in the life of an X look?”<br />I’ll tell you about some about my days, later on<br />11<br />
    12. 12. Investigating options. When?<br />When to start?<br />Easy answer: As early as possible<br />For an academical career<br />Part of the PhD-study is about building the needed network for job options later on<br />Some collected advice for building an academic career, later<br />For a career outside academia<br />My opinion: One year before you're done isn't too early<br />However, career change<br />Hence, the need for early investigation maybe not as pronounced<br />Do remember that starting up your own company is also an option<br />12<br />
    13. 13. Investigating options. How?<br />Discuss with your advisor and colleagues<br />Get out there<br />Use your network<br />As PhD – part of a very exclusive network with members positioned in many different jobs<br />A day in the life of an X...<br />What tasks, problems, and events occur?<br />Get as detailed information as possible<br />I prefer examples over overviews and summarizing statements<br />Towards that end – some scenes from the life of me, later<br />Match results with your expectations of a good job<br />Investigate also:<br />Which capabilities and challenges are needed as an X?<br />And how does that match my capabilities?<br />Which career-options does job X provide me?<br />How do you do well in a career as an X?<br />13<br />
    14. 14. FAQ: What do private companies think about a PhD?<br />That depends…<br />Needs a combination with some other skills such as<br />good dev skills<br />good communication skills<br />management skills<br />innovation-skills oriented towards products<br />understanding of customer-orientation<br />hard working<br />team-player<br />Then a PhD is a definite plus at companies with characteristics such as<br />High-tech<br />Innovative<br />Non-standard<br />General high level of education of employees<br />14<br />
    15. 15. FAQ: What do private … (cont.)<br />May be obvious: <br />As a developer, you will need to prove that you can develop<br />Don't expect to be hired as an "architect"/"senior developer" based only on your PhD<br />You may advance quickly, though<br />Companies on the look-out for<br />Introvert nerdiness<br />Lack of ambition<br />Lack of ”finishing” skills<br />15<br />
    16. 16. FAQ: “But I can’t use what I did in my PhD..."<br />You're probably right<br />...<br />But do consider how narrowly you want to define "what you did"<br />Really want to focus on your topic? / Really value the freedom of choosing a topic?<br />Then you probably need to consider research<br />Happy with using a variety of general skills within your field<br />...and gained just by doing a PhD,<br />Then also consider a career in the private sector<br />Also, applied research does occur in the private sector<br />As a PhD you're well-positioned to take part in such projects<br />Not an everyday occurrence, though<br />Typically requires some level of maneuvering and social engineering<br />May be easier abroad<br />16<br />
    17. 17. How, what, and when did I investigate?<br />Considered academia vs. private sector through the entirety of my PhD studies<br />Compared my qualities and preferences with friends and colleagues<br />Went to seminars like this...<br />During last year - made the decision to go for a private sector job<br />Sought companies and positions where the use for a strong background in comp. science was apparent to me and the employer<br />Around half a year before <br />Visited friends and former colleagues at several companies for informal lunch- or coffee-talk<br />Valuable information just by sitting at a lunch-table listening to the chatter<br />Also investigated opportunities in biotech industry<br />Tried to use every connection I had to get around HR-departments <br />To get to talk to “real people” at the companies<br />(Some HR-departments also understand the importance of this)<br />17<br />
    18. 18. The interviews (1)<br />Sell yourself...<br />DO be frank, but it's fair game to be able to spin your weaknesses<br />(-) "I am easily bored."<br />(+) "I am at my most efficient when given complicated tasks."<br />As a highly educated individual you obviously have some qualities...<br />In the private sector - be prepared for<br />Quirky personality tests.<br />"Which animal would you be on the savannah?"<br />HR on the lookout for potential character problems that hampers ability to work in a team<br />Challenges to your decision to make a career change<br />Prejudices against PhDs<br />Have your elevator talk ready<br />Remember that you are also evaluating them<br />18<br />
    19. 19. The interviews (2)<br />Remember the summary of my Ph.D.?<br />“DSLs for mobile and distributed systems.” <br />“Studied applications in biology.”<br />If you squint that’s what I did.. However, it could also have said:<br />“Axiomatized the structural congruence relation for binding bigraphs”<br />“Developed an inductive characterization of matching for binding bigraphs”<br />...<br />You see the problem?<br />About the salary...<br />Mainly relevant for private sector, I guess<br />DO make an effort to find your market value<br />(You're devaluating the product of our little club each time you sell yourself short!)<br />19<br />
    20. 20. Where did I apply? And why?<br />I decided early on that my life was too short for classic consultancy work<br />Interviewed at most of the companies, I thought might be interesting in DK<br />Maconomy, Edlund, SimCorp, and Microsoft<br />I viewed the interviews as an another opportunity for me to evaluate those companies<br />Had a wide variety of interview processes<br />After a few interview rounds I had some job offers to choose from<br />Advice: Try to time your interviews to the same period<br />When you have an offer on hand, it's hard to push the decision<br />But don't just accept the first offer that you get...<br />20<br />
    21. 21. Building a career in academia - a collection of advice (1)<br />As a result of my survey, I also got a lot of input on building a good career in academia<br />Here’s some selected hints and opinions (including my own)<br />Create your own research profile<br />You need your own "angle" - also different than your advisor<br />Need to start this during your PhD studies<br />Show that you are good teaching a wide variety of subjects<br />Learn the game<br />Teaching and administrative tasks are part of the job<br />... but will not get you the permanent positions<br />Publications are key<br />Also understand the ranking of publication venues in your field<br />Understand how the funding-system works<br />Writing and/or participating in research applications is important<br />21<br />
    22. 22. Building a career in academia – a collection of advice (2)<br />Need family-backing<br />Doing a post.doc. is a career job (not 8-16) though not well-paid<br />Networking is very important<br />Basis for cooperation, getting papers published, etc.<br />Network and cooperate with people<br />at different institutions<br />across national borders<br />Working with people that are part of the "in" circles<br />helps getting funding<br />helps getting publications<br />Good guides online - lookup<br />Emigration course guides<br />Guides to new faculty<br />22<br />
    23. 23. FAQ: Going back to academia from the private sector...<br />Can be hard<br />Need to have a well-defined research profile<br />To show that you can start publishing fairly soon<br />With "only" a short (Danish) PhD may be hard to get back<br />Working with topics in extension to your PhD-topics is helpful<br />Is probably a worry that too many PhDs students have...<br />23<br />
    24. 24. As promised: Scenes from the life of Troels (1)<br />As a developer<br />Writing a small parser for our commitlog-wiki plugin<br />Fixing a bug, I introduced on the “New report”-page in our homebrewnbugtracker, when I made added a “Copy-report” button<br />Debugging a unittest-fixture for our CPUAffinity-module that has failing tests when runon our new 24-core machine<br />Extending our custom configuration- and databasesetup-layer to allow SQL Server compression to be used<br />Analyzing a possible race-condition in our SessionStore-module<br />24<br />
    25. 25. As promised: Scenes from the life of Troels (2)<br />As a scrummaster<br />Updating (and harassing) the others for estimates for remaining time on their tasks<br />Planning next sprints<br />Communicating with other groups about the deadline for a task<br />As temporary head of group<br />Discussing with our CPO about our progress (and lack of manpower)<br />Participating in writing documents about our new release-model to our customers<br />Making decisions about which tasks to delay<br />25<br />
    26. 26. More FAQs<br />"How do you use your background in your job?"<br />"Do your job give you something that you (think) you couldn't get in academia?"<br />"Do you use your title to get more interesting assignments? - perhaps with some kind of R&D-like content?"<br />"Does your work revolve more around R&D-like tasks than routine tasks?"<br />”How’s the division between ‘boring’ vs. ‘interesting’ tasks?<br />26<br />
    27. 27. Thank you for listening!<br />Douglas Adams: “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”<br />27<br />

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