Essays/ skill building

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Skill building in Academia or a Company

I think there is a somewhat common misconception that skills can be transmitted in a closed environment. Some think that by putting people in a classroom and teach them about management, everyone will become good at it.

The reality is that skills are developed through hours of practice. We can't expect a PhD to be a good manager if we never gave them the chance of managing someone. And the same happens in a company. The most important difference is whether there is a support context that empowers people to develop the skills they need to move forward in their careers.

Let's take the example of someone who wants to pursue a purely academic career.

They do a PhD, a postdoc in a different place, a second postdoc in yet another institution, and if they are lucky, they get a tenure track offer from a fourth place. Tenure track, normally, comes with managerial responsibilities. When did this person got trained as a manager? Perhaps they supervised a couple of PhD's for few months if the supervisor was generous.

whelmed more than a choice.

PhD's get to focus on few, very specific problems. In most cases they have creative freedom, and quite a lot of ownership on their projects. This context is extraordinary for someone who has just finished a masters degree. If you are lucky there may be a postdoc that can help you navigate through your process.

On the other hand, a new graduate who joins a company will be part of a team. There'll be a boss, and a boss of a boss. There'll be a manager following a specific organizational style: from scrum, to 360 reviews. There's a great deal of value in understanding what "good enough" means. After 4 or 5 years, there's a large chance the person will end up as the manager of one or more people.

The biggest path deviation between both people is where they place the sense of purpose and achievement.

The perceived higher status of basic science puts a toll on anyone transitioning out of academia.

Skills and practice

My experience at industrial R&D

I was fortunate enough to explore working at a large multinational before deciding to start a PhD. I joined the R&D department of Tenaris, a steelmaking factory with plants all over the world.

The team I joined was in charge of modeling reheat furnaces using Finite Element Methods. The sheer scale of the operation was something I had never seen.

Part of my job description was communicating with plant operators what we found out. Of course I was never alone in those meetings, but I learned a lot. Coming from a comfortable chair and air conditioning into a place where earplugs, eye protection, and flame retardant clothes were mandatory was lots of fun.

Something I saw and valued, is that no one was alone struggling with a problem. There was always a team, a larger purpose, and a clear impact for what we were doing.

There were also office politics. Terms like productivity gains, money, and performance were common, and they were the metrics on which our job was often judged, and our projects prioritized.

The skill development rat race

One challenge for people who move from a PhD into a company is that there's a skill mismatch. Someone who spent 4 years in the company will have a different set of tools at their disposal.

We may be tempted at offering workshops to PhD's to bridge the gap. Things like "Leadership training". But what is the purpose of a workshop without any context of use?

I can read as much as I want about management, but if I have no one to manage, there is no way I will learn. And that is a crucial difference between an academic and non academic career: the lack of context for many skills that are being taught.

"How to present", or "How to write well" are immensely more powerful and useful. There is a clear and daily practice for both. However, if you go to a scientific conference, chances of dinging a 50% of mediocre talks is very large (and especially from professors).

And this is without even discussing technical skills that fall beyond the expertise of the professor, such as data visualization, or software development. In many cases the "learn by doing" is not good enough to be professionally fluent in programming languages and best practices.

For postdocs it's even worse

Arguing that a PhD developed skills different from those of someone in a company is a valid point to find a job. Perhaps you are not aware how groups working on the same problem are managed, but you know how to overcome challenges.

Postdocs, on the other hand, are harder to justify. Many postdoctoral positions are too short and too isolated. Postdocs are hired for specific skills but there is normally not a single consideration

While someone with 5+ years of experience in a company is likely to be mentoring and managing a small group of people, a postdoc


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Aquiles Carattino
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