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For Ph.Ds and other technologists looking to enter the business world

I got my Ph.D. in a rather technical field (physical chemistry) from MIT and then quickly made a transition to the business world. First into management consulting, then entrepreneurship and finally VC. Given that background, I often get emails from graduate students, post-docs, alumni, researchers, and people working in technical fields on how they could also find their way into the business world. While I hope more of our scientists continue to stay in science (we desperately need them), I understand and realize there will be some who are perhaps interested in something with more immediate feedback and/or just looking for a change. Even though hindsight seems 20-20, how to go from being a scientist to a business guy is not an easy question for me to answer in abstract. But here I will share some thoughts I usually share with those who reach out to me. I apologize in advance if thoughts appear less sophisticated, rambling, or simply wrong.

  1. I wrote not to long ago that much like all MBA students, graduate students etc should also think and plan a little for their career path. Make a list of the options that are available by talking to people/alums who have had interesting careers and then evaluating what you might like to do.
  2. I feel it is hard to plan for more than 5 years at a time. So don’t worry about how and where would you like to retire. Focus on next few years and how to be at the top of your game during that time. David D’Alessandro of John Hancock has written a great book called “Career Warfare” that I recommend to people trying to figure out if time has come for them to change jobs or careers.
  3. If you have a strong technical background, my suggestion would be to use that in your favor (as a strength), instead of trying to deny its existence and pretending to compete on the same terms as people who have spent equal years as you focused on business education and training. Having a science/technology background is not a liability, it is an asset even in the business world but only if you can layer some other imp things on top of it: Skill sets that technical folk have that map well onto business/strategy roles include analytical thinking, rigorous frameworks, hypothesis driven approach to research, and quantitative skills.
  4. Every person will have interests, skill sets and personalities that would align better with certain careers than others. Get honest advice from people in those industries to learn what works. It probably sucks, but most industries have character/personality types that just make a better fit. Here are some generalizations:
    1. Investment banking –> if you are extremely social & can work endlessly on apparently minor details
    2. Quantitative research –> pretty hardcore math and modeling
    3. Management consulting –> type ‘A’ personality, outgoing, social, highly analytical
    4. Entrepreneurship –> not necessary to be the business guy in your first start-up. Be the technical co-founder as a first step. You can hire better business people than you and learn from them.
    5. Corporate role –> ability to learn in small increments. More focus on people/project management than anything else
    6. Investor –> unless you get hired as a technical consultant or subject matter expert (not an investor), hard to find a role there until you have done start-ups before
  5. A lot of students ask me if they should take economics, finance or other business courses during their education. My suggestion is to be very choosy about the time you spend taking business courses. You will likely not need to learn accounting/finance in school to get a management consulting job. They will teach you that on the job. But courses in leadership, teams, organization and general management maybe more useful. Learn the business lingo, but don’t abuse it, and get comfortable with softer, more people-focused ideas. Develop points of view (since they are worth an additional 1o IQ points at least) and learn how to triangulate and analyze hypotheses quickly. In my opinion, entrepreneurs are the best sources to go to for advice on books to read. They are drinking from the firehose, in MIT-speak, and know best how to learn lots very fast.
  6. Network A LOT. Scientists can never network enough since its not natural to most. But networking for networking sake gets boring, esp for people you will get to meet. So don’t shake hands and say hello just because you got an invite to a recruiting event. Use your technical background to strike interesting conversations and leave an impression on the other person(s). Your audience knows you are coming form a technical background, so show how you have thought beyond just technology in your own pace. A materials scientist making solar may spark my interest by telling me interesting things about that industry, competition, some new technologies in the space, or how investments are panning out in your view. Use your technical background as a starting point.
  7. When networking, scientists tend to think they must speak a lot and dump all this data they have about their awesomeness onto their listener. No. Networking hours are for socializing, to connect with people – and the truth is that people like to talk about themselves more than they would care to admit. Since you are trying to schmooze and connect, give them an opportunity to do that. Introduce yourself, say something interest to spark an interest in you (see above), and then depending on your audience ask something that would get the other person talking – even if it means asking him about his/her kids, alma-mater, sports etc. I consider it a good conversation when I get to speak less than 50% of the time. People will remember you if they had a conversation with you, not if they heard a speech from you.
  8. Just remember that all smart people know one thing: it is easier to train a technologist how to become more business savvy and strategic than train a business guy to learn science/engineering. Given that, don’t think your technical background is a liability you carry with you. Here’s how I thought about it when I went through consulting interviews: I did not think I made a mistake and wasted time by getting a Ph.D. I found what was positive about that experience and how it was going to positively affect my world view for the rest of my life. Most MBAs basically have the same story (worked at a bank or some marketing type job somewhere) whereas every single Ph.D. student has a unique story to tell. I did too – about changing the world, helping our environment, and doing good while doing well. Figure out how to tell your story interestingly: what 3-4 things to highlight. How to show you know that space well without going geek-central on your audience, and how to show your affiliation with heavy-hitters in your field that your audience might recognize or relate to (industry leaders, international organizations, Nobel laureates). Practice your pitch about yourself. I practice my intro pitch (and change it slightly depending on the audience) to this date.
  9. In terms of job interviews, here’s my advice. Practice for interviews and be persistent! Many of my friends showed up for job interviews not having a clue what to expect. That is their own fault, not of the company they are interviewing with. Be resourceful, find people who have worked there and gone through the same process, find and ask alums who work there…If possible, even go as far as trying to find out exactly who you would be meeting and what their backgrounds are. Remember that there are no black or white only data-driven interviews. People connect with people and at least at the entry-level point, they are trying to find smart people who they can also relate to.
  10. Last but not the least, realize that you must develop a personal brand. What is your brand, and how are you going about developing it and sharing it with others? Your dressing, personal interaction style, resume, research papers, extra-curricular activities, blog, twitter etc all convey a certain brand image for you in a collective fashion. So spend a bit of time evaluating how people you respect (ideally those who may have made the transition from technology backgrounds to business) have developed a brand and image in the public view. And then work on yourself.

Good luck! Technologists have made dramatic contributions to the business world. There are some great success stories, and I hope you will be among them.

You can read some more on my own career transitions here.

Comments

[...] a scientist-turned-entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist, has the skinny on what it takes for technologists to enter the business world. One of the most important keys? “Network A LOT,” he writes. “Scientists can [...]

[...] a scientist-turned-entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist, has the skinny on what it takes for technologists to enter the business world. One of the most important keys? “Network A LOT,” he writes. “Scientists can [...]

[...] a scientist-turned-entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist, has the skinny on what it takes for technologists to enter the business world. One of the most important keys? “Network A LOT,” he writes. “Scientists can [...]

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