5 Industry Skills I Never Thought I Would Use in my PhD

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5 Industry Skills I Never Thought I Would Use in my PhD

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Economics PhDs are aware of the transferable skills they should master to land a job in industry. But what about the reverse: is prior industry experience valuable for a PhD program?

Approaching an economics PhD similarly to a job helps students complete the journey in good shape. In business, people think in terms of products, projects, and stakeholders. To create a product, one needs an idea and a team. To implement the idea, one needs to arrange the process and set the deadlines. To get the product to consumers, one should market it properly. 

A PhD is similar. The thesis is one big project with chapters as products, and yourself, your supervisors, and the university as stakeholders. The difference is that you do the full round of tasks yourself: writing a research proposal (sales), implementing ideas (project management), and presenting the outcomes at conferences and in journals (public relations).

I worked for a private think tank before starting my doctorate in economics; these five skills from my job were instrumental in helping me handle my PhD.

Sales mindset

Attempting to submit a winning research proposal is not unlike trying to market a new product.

A successful venture solves someone’s problem and caters to someone’s needs. This someone then has high potential to become a customer. To facilitate this, a company creates brand awareness and reaches out to the target audience to gain clients. For big and expensive products, clever sales managers approach each client individually to ensure better conversion.

When applied to academia, a research proposal is a sales letter, and a research idea is a future product. Academic research is rarely done in a vacuum, and a PhD is not an exception. Output is usually big, long, and expensive, which is why knowing the potential consumers of your research is crucial. Just like with target ads, research proposals and papers should be tailored to organizations, journals and individuals who will be reading and evaluating them. Be aware of who will be reading your text and plan the output accordingly.

Project management

A PhD is one big project with a clear delivery term, and thesis chapters are the products.

In an industry job, project management lies at the core of product delivery.  A project manager evaluates the feasibility of the work that needs to be done, arranges teams and keeps track of the project’s progress. They are responsible for the delivery being on time and within budget.

In a PhD, you are your own project manager. Thesis chapters and papers are separate products. They need to be delivered to the stakeholders (including yourself) within the PhD track. Your supervisors, external co-authors, and fellow economics PhDs are your team. Due to the uncertainty accompanying the research output, project management may not work out perfectly. It is important to set clear and attainable goals. Deadlines and regular stand-up meetings with the team help one to not lose sight of the ultimate goal of submitting the manuscript.

Public relations

Visible research output contributes to one’s personal brand and improves one’s chances on the labor market.

Public outreach shapes the company’s image. The way the brand is perceived by (potential) clients impacts profits. Open and responsive companies are more successful on the market. Businesses invest in marketing to sell products, build brand awareness, and retain customers.

Research output, and the way it is distributed, shape the personal brand of its author. In an ideal world, academic research serves society. Thus, society should recognize the value that is being created within the university walls, that are often public institutions. One must ensure their research is readable and becomes visible to a broader audience. The skill to communicate and promote one’s work (and thus, one’s expertise) helps to stand out on the labor market.


Build your team, invest in connections and network from early stages.

In business, networks build up the market. A local network, or people you work with, can directly impact a project’s success. Great teams create great things, and friendly relations with colleagues boost productivity and keep motivation up. Meanwhile, external networking opens up opportunities for new sales and collaboration. Businesses profit from stronger market presence.

An economics PhD is mostly independent work. Yet, it is never done alone. A PhD is about the people who help make the thesis happen. Your supervisors are the default option for co-authors. They will also walk you to the labor market. Communication with fellow PhD candidates is a natural way to test new ideas and get critical feedback. 

At the same time, targeted networking outside the university helps to gain new stakeholders and make the research output visible. Conference connections often result in co-authorship, internship opportunities, and later in job offers.

Career focus

Stay focused on what comes after the degree and plan the career path accordingly.

In industry, the path up the career ladder is clear, or at least predictable. Performance in line with KPIs and growing experience in the role lead to a promotion and higher paycheck. Extra effort is awarded with bonuses.

During a PhD, the career ladder ceases to exist. It remains flat regardless of performance, which sometimes feels like a stagnation. Yet, a PhD has an end date. The accumulated effort starts to pay off after the defense.

Entering the job market may feel intimidating after this period of “flatness”. Knowing your future path – academic or non-academic – from early stages helps to reduce uncertainty with job placements. Supervisors are your best career advisors, as they help to calibrate the research output and market it in line with the chosen career path.

A PhD is difficult and does not suit everyone. Yet it is a unique period in life; when you are given all the time on Earth to satisfy intellectual curiosity, to learn and comprehend complex structures, and to dig deeper for the sake of getting the sacred truth. A little bit of patience and a business-like approach may help one get the most out of the experience.



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