In our last post, Senior Analyst Greg Ruchti discussed the professional leap he made from academia to the private sector. He received several follow-up questions, which also sparked discussion among Veracity staff. Here we post answers to the questions Greg received along with comments from staff about succeeding in work environments that might not seem to be a good fit at first glance.
Question: With your experience at Veracity would you say your Ph.D. is overkill for your current position, or do you see your academic experience as vital for making the switch?
Answer: Personally, I find having a Ph.D. very valuable for my current position at Veracity. My academic experience helped me to develop skills important for a senior-level position, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and productive collaboration. Computer programming skills are also ideal for data analysis and can be learned relatively easily. It can be different for other positions, such as an entry-level data scientist, where a higher degree may not be as important. But I would say to develop as an employee it could be useful to obtain a more advanced degree, in part to become highly proficient in critical thinking and problem solving.
Question: Any pointers on marketing yourself when you don’t have the traditional background? I have a math and biology background and was lucky to make the switch to being a developer a few years back. It wasn’t easy. Now I want to launch into something more specialized like Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning. But I don’t have the degree.
Answer: It can be a bit daunting to launch into a different specialization, especially when your degree is in something entirely different. When I applied for my position at Veracity, I had to focus on the skills and experience they were looking for. They were not interested in the fact that I was a stellar spectroscopist, specializing in observing and analyzing stars like our Sun. On the other hand, Veracity was interested in the skills and experience I had attained as part of that specialization. I have experience in programming and many data analysis techniques essential to the work done here. Further, through my research, I had gained significant experience in critically approaching and solving complex problems. That experience was a big selling point. So, the bottom line is that the subject of my degree was not its most important attribute. Relevant skills are far more important.
Another Veracity senior staff member, Mike Van Gheem, offers perspective gained from his first career as a naval officer. He quotes an esteemed Navy colleague who said, “Ambition and attitude are key, skills can be taught.” Mike points to the varied pedigrees of Navy pilots, who have technical degrees, political science degrees, biology, marine science, and business degrees. All of these candidates were taught the necessary flight skills after demonstrating their desire and perseverance.
Finally, Veracity’s Director of Communications, Sue Nelowet, has this to offer: “It’s entirely possible to be a liberal arts major and contribute seriously among hard-science Ph.Ds.” She recommends not apologizing for studying “soft” topics like literature, history, or the arts. These fields develop open-mindedness, critical thinking ability (that term again), and writing skills that help round out an organization. Excellent writing, editing, communication, and administrative skills are honed through experience and are needed in virtually every professional setting.
To sum up our views, then, on venturing towards the unknown: even if you assume you’re a fish out of water, you still have a fighting chance to land a great job if you have the right attitude, skills, and experience. Keep an open mind and see yourself as a huge package of potential.