What Every New PhD Should Know

Be humble. Join a professional society. Get started on the right track.
01 October 2014
Louis Gritzo

Attracting, developing, and retaining new talent is among the top concerns of R&D management. The growing parade of baby-boomer retirements, paired with business growth and changing talent needs, will increase the importance of finding and keeping the right human capital in the coming years to the point that it will become a differentiator, both for the success of individual R&D managers and for their organizations.

Without the right people in the right place, companies will simply be unable to sustain leadership positions as value creators and innovators.

Although many companies prefer to grow their talent pool with experienced employees, in most disciplines, the supply of practiced employees will fall well short of demand, and the increasing complexity of technology and modern R&D problems mean many new hires will be newly minted PhDs. Indeed, the 2014 IRI R&D Trends Forecast projects a 20% overall increase in new-graduate hiring this year.

In my experience as an R&D manager, these new PhDs pose unique challenges. These employees have been in school for 20 years. Many come to their first post-PhD jobs with little practical experience in the workplace.

The experience of even those who have had internships will generally be limited to a narrow, well-defined work scope and a defined tenure. The transition from student to valuable researcher or technologist may not be smooth.

Although this transition occurs for every new graduate, at all levels, my experience has been that it is more difficult for PhDs. That’s largely because of the time they have spent in school, the very characteristics that drove them to acquire a terminal degree in the first place, and their recent experiences as grad students.

What many of these graduates need in entering the workforce is some quick, direct coaching on the facts of workplace life — how to get started on the right track, with the right attitude to move forward and assume greater responsibilities.

Based on my experience, I offer nine lessons on what every new PhD should know. These lessons can also be used as a tool for managers seeking to teach the new employees.


Be humble.

You should be proud of achieving the highest level of formal education, but don’t let arrogance get in the way of your success.

Don’t throw your title around in any but the most formal settings, and make sure you keep in mind that the degree doesn’t entitle you to anything more than to have the paper on which it is printed.


Be a learner.

Whether you stay in the field you studied in grad school or branch out (it really doesn’t matter), dig deeper into the technical parts of your job and learn how to apply them.

If you approach each part of your new role in the field with an open, inquisitive mind, you’re more likely to have the breakthroughs that are likely the reason you got a PhD in the first place. Don’t ever let your hunger to learn die.

It’s been over 20 years since I received my doctorate, and I learn something new every day, often from new grads like you.


Join a professional organization.

If you weren’t involved in a professional society as a student, get involved now. If you were, don’t stop.

And don’t just join. Volunteer to contribute and develop your involvement to the point where you lead key efforts.

You’ll learn to work within a completely new dynamic and establish a professional network (likely including the very top people in your field) that will make a huge difference when you need support or knowledge.

Engage in person. Social media helps, but it’s no substitute for personally knowing your colleagues. You may need them, or they you, for an opportunity in the future.


Be strategic about relationships.

As a grad student, you had a unique relationship with your adviser. You’ll be faced with many more relationships in the workplace that require careful consideration. You’ll surely have a boss who may be very different from your primary professor. Get used to it — you’ll have more.

Your work peers may now seem more like competitors; don’t let that distract you from being your best.

At first, you may have a formal or informal mentor from senior staff. That person can help you, but don’t let him or her become your crutch, or you their “spare hands.”

Your organization probably will have administrative and support staff (IT people, HR folks, and others). Treat them with respect, but don’t let them bully you.

If you find yourself getting frustrated, review item 1.


Avoid pedigree intimidation.

As you begin your post-doctoral career, you may find yourself working with colleagues from some from top-name private institutions and others from smaller state universities.

If you didn’t study under the world’s best adviser at a top-name school, don’t worry; these are not determining factors for success.

If you did graduate from one of the world’s best, congratulations. You have a head start. Now review item 1.


Bypass the early-career management trap.

Today’s generation is more mobile and ambitious than ever before. Make sure you don’t sell yourself short by not developing your full long-term potential.

Use the first 8-12 years of your career to develop technical experience and expertise.

If you choose to go into management, the experience and insight you will gain from that technical focus will help you make better decisions, even if the topic is outside your traditional field of study.


Accept the pecking order.

Odds are, at some point, you’ll find yourself working (either as an employee or customer) for people who have far less education but far more authority than you. This is often difficult for new PhDs who have invested time, money, and energy in years of higher education. But having the degree doesn’t necessarily make you smarter than them. They have generally been in the workplace longer and have more experience.

The two biggest things you can do are to demonstrate your value by explaining topics in your area of expertise in a way they understand and learn as much as you can from them.

And again, be careful to remember item 1.


Grow thick skin.

In grad school, you worked in an environment where there were clear right and wrong answers. That won’t be the case anymore. If you are fortunate, you will work with a diverse set of colleagues who see things very differently than you do. You will encounter conflicting perspectives from well-qualified people.

These differences are a positive feature of the workplace. Even though you may be sure your perspective is right or best, don’t let your pride get in the way of moving forward. Nobody is always right.

Don’t take it personally if things don’t go your way. Seek to understand and work toward the common good, even when it means that you change your perspective.

This will serve you much better than clinging to your own “right” answers. Often you’ll find that the exact course of action really didn’t matter in the end.


Don’t overcommit.

Now that you’ve heard all the things you should do, the most important thing to remember is not to overdo everything.

Your PhD experience, degree, and fresh entry into the professional arena will provide lots of opportunities. Monitor your workload and choose wisely when you volunteer to work on “one more thing.”

Understand that, if you do a good job, everything will take longer than you expect. As you gain experience, you’ll understand problems better and become more efficient. Other than item 1, this is the Achilles heel for energetic, smart, new PhDs.


I wish I had heard many of these things when I started out as a researcher. I was not new to the workforce; I had held some kind of part-time job since I was 12 years old. I worked for a full year as a grocery store manager before going to college, and I was fortunate to have a number of great internships while in school.

Despite these experiences, I was not truly ready for the challenges of my first professional position.

I recognize that every new employee, manager, and work environment is different, and perhaps only a few of these items will be relevant for you or the new PhD you just hired.

I hope, however, that this short list provides a catalyst for discussion and helps R&D managers show young workers how to avoid learning “the hard way.”

–Louis Gritzo is vice president of research at FM Global, a research- and engineering-based industrial and commercial property insurance company. He has previously served as manager of fire science and technology and as a member of the Advanced Concepts Group at Sandia National Lab (USA). He received his PhD in mechanical engineering from Texas Tech University.

This article, originally published in the July-August issue of Research-Technology Management, has been slightly edited and reprinted with permission from the Industrial Research Institute.

What they wish they knew …

photo of Allison Lami SawyerAllison Lami Sawyer, CEO and cofounder of Rebellion Photonics, has encouraging words for young women and girls considering an advanced degree and/or career in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) and a track record as a successful technology entrepreneur.

Her company was named the Wall Street Journal Startup of the Year in November 2013.

Even so, “I wish someone had told me that you don’t just have to work in a lab if you get a STEM degree,” Sawyer says. “If you get a STEM degree in college then the world is your oyster, so to speak.”

Walter Chen, CEO and cofounder of iDoneThis, also wishes someone had given him advice before starting his company.

“I wish I’d known that running a startup team is a lot like parenting,” Chen says in a recent issue of Business Insider.

Advice from SPIE Women in Optics

photo of Lynore AbbottRemember, don’t keep score.

The older I get, the more I regret the energy I wasted getting upset at “losses.”

Picture a sculler rowing on the water. If the sculler gets upset and throws a fit for every bad stroke, the sculler is going to go nowhere and may actually flip.

If the sculler just keeps taking stroke after stroke, the good with the bad, she will get to the end of the course, happy and upright.

Lynore Abbott, SPIE member, founder of Logical Marketing (USA)

“If you do not achieve the highest grade or do not win the first promotion, remain positive and believe in yourself even when there are obstacles.”

Emily Gallagher, senior member of the technical staff at IBM Microelectronics (USA)

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