Update: Life on the “Outside” (December 2014)

by Mike Steiner, PhD

It has been over three years since I completed my PhD in Philosophy, and almost three years since I shared my original advice. I wanted to provide an update to those who may have read my words, and also spend a little time reflecting on life ‘outside academia.’

First of all: the facts. I work for the same company as before. Over this time frame of about three years I’ve had four bosses, have been promoted once, and worked on two different major initiatives (lasting about a year each) plus many other smaller initiatives and ad hoc requests. I’ve received copious amounts of company-paid training, travelled to various cities in Canada and the US for conferences and meetings, presented numerous times to leaders, written project charters, and helped in general to get many things done. Along the way I’ve met extremely intelligent people from all sorts of disciplines, and feel like I’ve gained much insight into the energy industry and business in general.

Secondly, I’m happy to say that I don’t wish to recant anything in my original paper. I still believe that philosophers can not only find work, but can find meaningful work, outside of academia. Life is good on the outside, or at least it can be. That’s not to say that every day is pure joy, or every boss, or every role. You get a range of experiences, and interact with the full range of personalities society has to offer, just like in academia. Overall, though, it has been a good ride, and the rewards have been excellent.

Further, I feel more than ever that companies really do need philosophers – they just don’t know it. But I should be careful to clarify what I mean by this. It is not that companies need people who have PhDs in philosophy per se. What they need are people who:

• are intelligent
• are analytical
• are reflective
• able to communicate complex ideas in simple and various ways to different audiences
• can quickly grasp underlying concepts
• (perhaps most important of all) can understand and appreciate different viewpoints, objectively analyse these positions, use this information to draw sound conclusions, and then effectively influence others

I hope I’m not going out on a limb here by saying that philosophers can supply this particular suite of skills and attributes, even if not exclusively (I’m certainly not trying to put down other academic disciplines or people).

I’d like to explain why I think companies need people with these specific attributes. Although companies may be in the business of engineering, construction, technology, etc., they all have many challenges in common that have nothing to do with their actual lines of business. For example, for large organizations it is a perennial struggle to learn from past projects or events, retain or document knowledge that already exists within the organization, gather together existing knowledge or people in order to decide which changes are needed to stay competitive, and then implement those changes (a.k.a. change management). They also need to standardize and document processes and procedures to improve quality in every area of the business. All sorts of roles or job descriptions are needed for this: facilitators, researchers, coordinators, managers, analysts, planners – the list goes on and on. Here is where those skills that are transferrable from philosophy (listed above) pay off, and success can be had without being a subject matter expert in the company’s specific line of business.

Moreover, many of these jobs are in fact very cool – but someone reading the job description without understanding what the job actually involves might pass over them. This is why I’m advocating that academics just get in there and see. Obviously the initial job has to be interesting enough to warrant your attention, but really, worrying about your ultimate career path is not going to help you at first. As you gain experience and insight, you will find other cool jobs that you didn’t know exist, and you will naturally gravitate towards them. Likewise, I retain the belief that the specific industry doesn’t really matter. The problems, as well as the solutions are very similar across industries. This means that the jobs, and thus the skills sets required, are very similar. Your challenge is to show the employer that you have what they need for that initial job (to get your foot in the door), and this is done by highlighting your transferrable skills.
Thanks for reading – and good luck!