What a PhD Has and Hasn’t Taught Me

A (weird) year into industry

A year ago, I took a “leap of faith” to join a product engineering team instead of doing research right out of PhD (after figuring out that this is the hat that suits me best — see The HCI PhD’s Guide to Choosing a Hat). After such a weird year (thanks 2020), I am surprised by how many things are transferable out of PhD that I didn’t expect, and at the same time, how many skills that are lacking from the training. So here is my best attempt to provide some observations and comparisons between industry and academia (in particular, the PhD training). I am particularly incentivized to write this after coming across Syllabus for Eric's PhD students. Regardless of which side you are on, I hope you find the other side’s perspective interesting and useful.

First, on transferable skills — the fact that I am writing this on a Friday evening drinking wine and finding it actually really enjoyable is the result/proof of the most useful skill out of PhD — writing, fast and well, in that order. According to my advisor, I was a beautiful writer before the PhD program but I digressed too much. After I began to write paper with my advisor, however, the floral style gradually went away and I finally ended up writing most similarly to my advisor — and I suspect also my advisor’s advisor. There is a certain concise and logical style to it, although these days, I cut myself loose a bit. The secret to good writing, really, is quantity over quality. The fact that I am used to putting ideas down into words gives me a huge advantage in industry. This is especially true at a big organization such as Google, when people jokingly call themselves “doc”-engineer. You come up with ideas, great. Anyone in academia comes up with hundreds of ideas every day. It is only when you publish that you solidify these ideas under your authorship, your name, at the same time contributing the collective knowledge of science. Similarly, at big companies, writing is also a very scalable way of collaborating and leading.

Image may contain: 2 people, text that says 'The manuscript is very interesting, very well-written and well-argued. Recommendation: REJECT'

Via Facebook Group: Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped

So writing was the obvious one. There was another transferable skill that surprised — peer review, on both ends. Let me explain. Now being the performance review season at companies, people seem to overall hate and struggle with the process much. At its core, performance review is similar to a peer review publication process, where you have peer reviewers (other researchers or colleagues, anonymous or not), meta reviewers (your manager or above), and meetings where people discuss the cases (calibration meetings and promotion committee meetings at companies where ratings and promo cases are discussed, and program committee meetings at conferences where borderline papers and awards are discussed). As a PhD student, you get familiarized, quickly hurt (unless you are just a genius in which case my hat tip to you), and then somewhat jaded about the entire process. Along the way you probably produce some memes about it too and there is a certain degree of dry humor and randomness to the process. On the flip side, as a peer, you also need to write paper or peer reviews, which take a significant amount of time and learning to do well (I still find Dan Cosley’s How I review papers to be the most useful guide.) All this is to say, in the peer review process you learn that presenting oneself accurately isn’t easy; there is some randomness to the process; you learn to be part of the process that tries the best to evaluate your peers and hopefully become a useful and constructive reviewer and eventually one of the people running the show. There is no need to take it personal. But at the same time, there are tricks to do it well.

There are other similarities too. Small details such as knowing how to produce and present a solid graph (always have a title; label your axes; always cover your axes if presenting; give people time to read the graph, etc.). Bigger things like time management; how to be productive in solitude (which turns out to be a very useful skill during a pandemic); how to do literature/background review so that when you face a new problem, you know where to begin; how to give a good talk and handle Q&A; how to network (going to conferences, elevator pitch, cold emailing); how to synthesize smaller ideas into a coherent story (your paper v.s. research statement/dissertation); how to come up with ideas; risk management (think about that paper that had so many rejections); handling rejections (this is a big one) not personally; community building (mentoring others and serving on conference committee); perseverance; open-mindedness and curiosity; taste.

On the flip side, I recently noticed how inadequately I am trained for other useful, or even essential life skills. I am still working on coming up with a comprehensive list but here are some starter ideas:

  1. How to have difficult conversations.

  2. Negotiation.

  3. Conflict management.

  4. The art of loving (reading the book by Eric Fromm now.)

  5. Personal finances and investing.

So these are the things I am spending time reading about and thinking these days. Let me know if you have pointers or thoughts. As I am truly stunned about how little attention I paid to these aspects of the adult development compared to the intellectual pursuit during PhD years.

Thanks for reading my rambles. I hope you have a great weekend. And cheers.