PhD For Management Experience
January 19, 2012 6:36 AM   Subscribe

How Can I Spin My PhD As Management Experience?

I went straight into a social science Ph.D. program after undergrad. Over the course of working on my dissertation I got to know many people in a small industry related to my research. I received my Ph.D. in December and in a week I have an interview with a small company (less than 25 employees) in that industry. It is a great job and I know I would do well.

The problem? The job is as a "Project Manager, and I have no direct management experience. I'm a little terrified they are going to ask what management experience I have, for which I don't have an answer. In there any way I can spin my research experience (e.g. writing journal articles, writing a dissertation, being a research assistant) as management experience or at least providing me with managerial skills?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Certainly play up the organizational and planning components of your academic work, but there's no way I'd buy that you have experience managing people, if that's what your asking.

That said, my SO does what could be called "project management" but her job is more coordination than direct supervision--so it may not be a given that they're actually looking for you to be a supervisor.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:40 AM on January 19, 2012

I'm a non-academic researcher, so take what I say with a grain of salt. But it seems to me like writing a dissertation is a giant management task; not necessarily managing others, but successfully creating a workflow/process for getting the job done, and managing your resources (time, in particular) along the way.

I wouldn't assume that "management" necessarily means "managing people", in other words.
posted by downing street memo at 6:41 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I found that grad school counted fairly directly for "X years of experience" requirements, and I think that is fairly common. Look at the breakdown of actual skills/experiences required, like "team building" or "meet tight deadlines," and be able to speak to your matching skills/experiences, rather than making some grandiose claim about grad school. I'll bet that you can address all of the skillsets, except maybe supervising people, but even that you can talk about in terms of teaching undergrads, say, or of being the center of a long term and complex research project.

Good luck. One of the unfortunate parts of grad school is how unconfident many people are when they leave, which is weird because of how capable they are usually seen by others.
posted by Forktine at 6:43 AM on January 19, 2012

Did you ever teach an undergrad class? Because I could totally spin that into "management" experience. Getting twenty teenagers to much of anything, even those who signed up for it, is a real project. So I'd definitely put up teaching experience there.

Did you work with lab assistants or supervise more junior grad students? Because that'd be even more on point.

What was the topic of your thesis? If it's anything at all related to hierarchical social structures or group behavior dynamics, you could probably work that in somehow.

And just generally speaking, downing street memo is right. Getting a dissertation done is actually a pretty fair exercise in "project management". The way I understand it, you've got a dissertation advisor and a review panel, but none of them are going to do much to coordinate or organize your efforts. You need a proposal, you make progress reports, and you ultimately defend the thing. Each of those steps requires approval from "management," i.e your advisor and the department. The work of getting all the people from whom you need approval to sign off on each step of the damn thing can be a pretty massive project, depending on what it is that you're doing and how well your department was organized. This isn't direct supervisory experience, but "project management" isn't just about that. It's about shepherding a project from its inception to completion, and that necessarily involves a lot of bureaucratic and political maneuvering skills. The ability to procure buy-in from superiors is an intensely valuable skill.
posted by valkyryn at 6:44 AM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hasn't this company seen your resume? I'm assuming you didn't put any management experience on it, so they have no reason to think you have "people management" skills, unless, maybe, they're counting TAing.

But "Project Manager" doesn't always mean managing people so much as it means coordinating the work on specific projects. Remember that interviews are as much for you as they are for the company, even in this economy. You get to ask questions and find out what the job is really like--use the opportunity.
posted by asciident at 6:58 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with everyone above that 1) it could be more of coordination gig 2) writing a dissertation involves all kinds of relevant skills (chasing down data and people, managing and synthesing lots of information, regularly meeting deadlines, setting milestones, etc.) 3) if you've taught, that's project management. In fact, that's how I got my gig as a project manager. Project/program management means lots of things to lots of different people. Unless the job description specifically says that you're going to be in charge of people, I wouldn't take it as a given. Good luck!
posted by smirkette at 7:42 AM on January 19, 2012

Did you do anything not directly related to your studies that might qualify? Things like organize conferences, run grad student groups, arrange a grant report that included more than just yourself, act as liaison for an undergrad student group-- all of these might be relevant experience.
posted by nat at 7:51 AM on January 19, 2012

Depends on the job, but I wouldn't consider dissertation writing to be management experience. I've seen a lot of PhDs (working on one myself) who can't manage their ways out of a paper bag.for exactly the reason you state: no real world experience.

To manage, you have to understand that people don't do what they say they're going to do, and build it into your timeline. You have to understand tech solutions and speak enough tech to ask for what you want the first time. You have to hire support staff who actually know how to use excel, not people who know how to do a sum and rely on the help menu for everything else.

Having said that, people who hire PhDs to head up programs often assume that because you are demonstrably smart, you'll figure out the rest. You might!

But having content knowledge in an academic area is not the same as being able to manage projects involving other people.

It's going to come down to whether or not the people hiring you know that.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:10 AM on January 19, 2012

You might be interested in So What Are You Going to Do with That?, a short guidebook for academics seeking non-academic work. It's mostly pretty obvious, but it has some good answers to this question, with examples of what to say about your academic work to spin it in a direction the business world will understand and find impressive — and, maybe more importantly, what not to say.
posted by RogerB at 8:24 AM on January 19, 2012

I would find out exactly what the job description is. At my company, project managers don't manage people. They manage the projects -- i.e. they write proposals and reports, and keep everyone in the loop and coordinate different parts of the projects. They meet with potential clients and help to do all of the admin work associated with the project. It requires high level understanding of the topic of the project (you can't write reports and proposals or talk to the clients if you don't know anything), but you might not actually do any of the research. We hired a couple of Ph.D.'s who were strong writers (i.e. with experience in grant writing, etc) who were also reasonably educated in the field. So, it could work.
posted by bluefly at 8:29 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

As others have said, your whole PhD dissertation is very relevant for project management- a massive, multi-year project that (presumably) you coordinated. If you completed your PhD within your university's recommended time (e.g. 3-4 years in the UK), that should definitely be mentioned as proof that you can complete within deadlines. Examples of the internal deadlines that you put into place to accomplish the task would be relevant (e.g. how did you organise your time in order to make sure your PhD got done?), as well how you dealt with issues that messed up your plans (e.g. supervisors decided to take extended leave or data analysis programme turned out to be full of bugs) and how you adjusted to still meet your intended deadline.

If you specifically need to show that you can manage people not projects, you could talk about getting papers published - especially if you were first author/submitting author on any of them. Having to chase other authors up for missing citations/sections/corrections and getting everything ready for the publisher's deadline can be quite a challenge! Bonus points if you have an example of having to 'manage' people at different levels of the university hierarchy, such as fellow research assistants and professors, which could be a good way to show off your people skills.

Being a research assistant either gave you a chance to practice managing a project under closer supervision (if your supervisor was relatively hands-off) or gave you experience of being part of a project team and seeing what other project managers do to make projects be successful (e.g. 'The professor did a really good job of communicating with all of us research assistants through weekly meetings. She also answered emails within a day, which was really invaluable to helping the project stay on course. I would definitely consider implementing such strategies as a project manager myself.'). Good luck!
posted by brambory at 9:00 AM on January 19, 2012

It is a great job and I know I would do well.

Think about why you are so confident you'd do well, unpack that, and communicate that.

Assuming you have a good idea what the job entails, your confidence must be based on knowing that you can do those kinds of things well, presumably because you have done similar things well in the past. Those similar things don't even necessarily have to be academic.

Be wary of the mindset that you need to "spin". That will likely end up coming over to the person on the other side as you trying to BS yourself into a job that you're not qualified for.

The chances are the company knows full well what kind of skills new PhDs are and aren't likely to have, and already knows that as far as that goes you'll be a reasonable fit. What they might actually take more convincing about it is that the kind of person that wants to do research would actually enjoy doing a straight project management job.
posted by philipy at 10:20 AM on January 19, 2012

Actually, working long term on a complex project _IS_ management experience. You did not state if your are in the US. Unfortunately, in the US a PhD is considered a liability, not an asset if you want to work in industry.

Tell them that you worked on complex projects for several years, had to keep track of deadlines, results etc. And ask for a very low salary. Good luck.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 10:58 AM on January 19, 2012

My job involves a lot of project management. I manage details, not people. Writing my MA thesis was great preparation for keeping myself organized and on top of things. You don't need to spin anything. Remember, every job requires training and has a learning curve, even if you're the most educated and experienced person on the block. I remember calling my dad after my first day at my first big kid job and telling him I was in waaaay over my head. He laughed and told me about his first day as a project manager 25 years ago. He said all he knew about project management was that he had no idea what it meant. He has done very well for himself. You will too. Go get 'em!
posted by futureisunwritten at 4:41 PM on January 19, 2012

Exactly what bluefly said. I have a Ph.D. in the humanities and I now work for a small software company. "Project manager" is not my title, but a lot of what I do would be described as project management. As bluefly says, although I coordinate and support the efforts of other people in the company, I don't directly manage people. In my case, the "project management" work breaks down mainly into:
  • writing - I write tons of proposals, project documentation, user manuals, client communication (emails to clients), etc. Knowing how to communicate clearly in writing, with no major spelling/grammar issues, is essential to this kind of work. With your degree, you should be able to claim a strong background in writing. Anything you've published would be a bonus and should be mentioned, though you shouldn't overestimate the importance of the specifics. (E.g. people inside academia care about the fact that I've published an article and they want to know where it was published and what the topic/argument was. People outside academia care that I've published an article, but the rest doesn't matter as much.)
  • client relations - our clients are mostly academic, so coming from an academic background really helps me understand what they need from our services as well as their working culture more generally. Something similar will probably be true for you if the company you're applying to is in the industry related to your research.
  • coordination / support - basically, I try to make sure that everyone working on the project has what they need in order to keep moving forward, and the clients have what they need to stay happy. It doesn't take a Ph.D. to do this, but you can talk in the interview about how you kept your research moving forward, kept your committee and/or funders happy, etc. Attention to detail is important here, too, and if you managed a large or complex set of research data, you can talk about how you chose tools or processes to keep your data organized, accurate, and usable.
I would suggest that you avoid directly characterizing your research experience as "management experience," or your skills as "managerial skills," but I think you can definitely talk about your skills and experience as being valuable in project management.
posted by Orinda at 4:51 PM on January 19, 2012

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