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What do non-academic recruiters really think of PhDs?

Vivienne CWatson24 September 2015

When it comes to applying to non-academic organisations, the more you know about your target market the better placed you’ll be to tailor your approach to meet their needs. This includes understanding the concerns some recruiters have about candidates who’ve chosen to spend the last few years in academic research. Remember that many people simply don’t know what PhDs actually get up to, and that vacuum of understanding can quickly be filled with a variety of stereotypes.

If this is the situation, your job is to help them get a better understanding of what PhDs do – and more importantly, how your experience can specifically benefit their organisation.

Let’s have a look at three of these stereotypes and ways to counter them.

  1. PhDs are extremely smart, but unworldly, impractical and too narrowly focussed.

The stereotype of the dusty academic surrounded by nothing but test tubes persists. You’re likely to be thought of as highly intelligent – which is a great start! – but removed from the hustle and bustle of the ‘real world’. The recruiter will be wondering if you understand the practicalities of working for a modern commercial organisation. Do you have a realistic view of what you’re getting into? Will you be happy to “roll up your sleeves” and get on with jobs that might not always be terribly interesting?

The concern here is about cultural fit and adaptability. You can address it by proving that you understand the organisation’s culture and have already adapted accordingly. This means managing your image and language at interview – in other words, dress and talk in a way that fits in with the organisation you’re going for rather than the one you’re coming from. It also means being able to talk in depth about your reasons for leaving academia and applying for this job, and perhaps giving examples of other times when you’ve had to adapt to new situations.

  1. PhDs don’t understand business and have no commercial awareness.

This is a huge issue for recruiters and one that you’ll have to address head-on. Commercial awareness is basically understanding how a business works and how you can help it to be more successful. PhDs are often seen as way too far removed from the realities of the ‘bottom line’.

It’s extremely important that show you’ve got this skill, so it’s worth thinking about your non-academic work experience or even situations during your PhD when you’ve had to think commercially – finding funding, for example, or making decisions about a budget. Performing a SWOT analysis on the organisation you’re interviewing with will help you prepare for any strategic questions.

  1. PhDs spend a great deal of time alone and don’t know how to communicate or work in teams.

This goes back to the stereotype of the solitary “ivory tower” researcher. The recruiter will be wondering if you’ll be able to get along with those who aren’t as educated as you, build cross-functional relationships and put aside personal concerns for the good of the business.   The best way to counter this is by providing plenty of evidence of teamwork experience. If possible, draw on both academic and non-academic experiences (hobbies are great fodder for demonstrating softer skills), showing that you’re comfortable working with a variety of different people – and that, at the end of the day, PhDs are pretty much just like anyone else!

– Hilary Moor, Careers Consultant, Careers Group University of London

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