What do employers look for in a PhD graduate?

Ross Woods, 2022 With thanks to Scοtt Αlεxαndεr, Lαrry Cαndεlα, Jοhn Κοlεn, Shαwn Μαnο, and Jοhn Τiεrnεy.

When a PhD graduate is interviewed for a research job outside academia, the main concern is whether they will be a successful researcher. I discuss their dissertation work, and perhaps their seminar projects. Here are things that we look for:

  1. Can you give a talk?
  2. Did you come up with a good idea, and a reasonable research plan? Did you execute that plan to develop interesting results?
  3. Can you move between details and the big picture?
  4. What is the value and knowledge you bring in?
  5. How well could you bring in innovative ideas and solve problems?
  6. How would you apply your knowledge to problem X that we’re struggling with? (Some are hopeless at answering this question.)
  7. Can you think more widely that just your thesis topic?
  8. Are you curious about future research or just about what you did in the past in your thesis topic?
  9. How did you come up with a thesis topic?

Some employers assume that they will have to train applicants in at least some aspects of those things, but they want to to see if the raw material is there. Some employers might also look at publications and grades, but many don’t.

Some PhD graduates are useless. Some people with perfect grades can’t answer basic questions about classes they had taken, and can’t see the point of doing any more than reciting the textbook. “One PhD had memorized huge amounts of information about the past. So I asked him, given what the market had done in recent days and some after market news that had come up, what did he think equities would do the next morning. He simply had no idea that anyone might think about tomorrow.”

So when are grades important?

Grades often matter only to the academic department when deciding whether to admit an applicant officially into the PhD program during qualifying exams. After that, it is only important that the student pass them. Grades don’t matter; nobody ever looks at them.

In fact, one can get overly obsessed with grades. The danger is that the student devotes too much time to coursework and not enough to research. After qualifying exams, it can be wise to decide ahead of time how many hours to spend on his coursework, and then no more. In grad school: “Grades don’t matter, papers do.” You do enough work in the class so you don’t have to take it again, and everything else goes into research.

I'll also add something that most PhD students don’t figure out until afterwards, that “No" is the magic word. Part of the purpose of a PhD program is for students to become independent researchers. Students must prioritize what needs to be done in order to graduate with a PhD. Advisors know this and actually wait for students to drive things. This might include heading off on wild goose chases because they had an insight in the shower that morning. The priority is to develop, execute, and report a line of research. When you recognize that you are on it and where it leads, it’s your responsibility to make sure it happens, not your advisor’s.