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“You will what?” was a very common reaction when I was announcing to my friends and colleagues that I was about to start an MBA in parallel to my PhD. Especially since I started my MBA towards the end of my graduate studies, right in the middle of writing my first-author publication and my final thesis.
How did this happen?
A few years ago, I decided that following a strictly academic career might not be the right fit for me. The stress supervisors go through, especially the news ones, was not something I was looking forward to. The lack of work-life balance combined with the scarcity of available tenure academic positions made me realise that I should look for something else than a post-doc after my PhD.
Searching for an alternative pathway – and finding out through self-reflection that I would like to move further from the bench – I took a few online courses related with management. As a neuroscientist, I developed a huge interest in the relationship between human psychology and motivation and the traits that make someone a great manager or leader. Starting an MBA is not cheap, but I was lucky since Université Laval offers a very affordable MBA program in English.
My supervisor was very supportive to the idea of doing a part-time MBA in parallel to my PhD that I officially started in January 2015. Between rushing to leave the lab to go to my courses and doing in situ hybridization experiments while listening to online data mining classes, the combination of my PhD and MBA changed the way I observe the environment around me.
Letting things go
The structure of the MBA program is completely different from what I was used to in STEM education and research. Most of courses are evaluated based on teamwork and group projects. Not being able to control every aspect of a project and having to trust someone else was very challenging at the beginning and a lot of group meetings ended up with arguments since a lot of strongly opinionated people had to agree on the final product.
Learning how to collaborate in teams and most importantly listening to others, led me develop the ability of seeing the same issue from different perspectives. Letting things go was been extremely liberating since I realised that choosing the battles you fight is more important than winning every single one of them. Now, I appreciate the importance of proper communication and information exchange; lessons that I tried to apply at my daily interactions with my lab colleagues.
Quality versus time
The second most striking difference between a PhD and industry expectations is the focus on quality versus time. As a PhD candidate I have realised that everything runs smoothly when I am following consistently protocols, conduct quality checks in every single step of the process and making sure that everything is fine-tuned and well organized. On the other hand, ‘’time is money’’ is the rule we follow when completing MBA tasks. It is quite often that MBA students must meet tight deadlines and deal with competing course duties. Prioritizing and multitasking are most of times the way to go. Setting deadlines, when it comes to my PhD experiments, was never my strong point but I learnt how important is to arrange and stick to a schedule and communicate your expectations with the rest of the team and your supervisor.
The MBA courses assisted me in so many substantial ways since I learnt how to self-manage, build my confidence and develop a clear strategy about how I can tackle any issues relevant to my PhD. I found Kotter’s approach, which describes what steps should be followed to effectively implement an organizational transformation, very useful in order to execute and adapt my personal plan to my current needs and find support from my supervisor, friends and family.
Finally, I had the chance to participate in coaching sessions with fellow MBA candidates giving me the opportunity to see my situation through the eyes of a third, unbiased perspective and manage to put my feet in someone else’s shoes. I learnt how important is to celebrate victories during the process and I implemented a small-wins strategy that helped me (and still does) staying motivated and on track.
On the other hand, my experience as a PhD candidate, helped me perform better during my MBA. Years of research and scientific writing have made me comfortable with finding resources and professionally create databases and reference lists, something that my MBA colleagues were struggling with. Moreover, my background in neuroscience and relevant courses about human behaviour, gave me a huge advantage and assisted me to better understand employees’ behaviour, and how proper incentives can boost motivation and productivity.
Employing this confidence and utilizing daily the soft skills I am learning through my MBA, in combination with the resilience and patience I developed as a PhD candidate, make me a better and more versatile scientist. Juggling between a PhD in Neuroscience and an MBA focusing on Global Business is not easy but following both is my recipe to fulfillness. To discover what would make me happy, I reached out to old colleagues and use social media like LinkedIn, to connect with individuals who managed to transition outside academia in a position that I found interesting and thought that could be a good fit for me.
Considering the increasing number of PhD graduates per year, the amount of available tenure positions and the competitiveness for funding, it is mathematically impossible that all of us will become professors one day. Looking for alternative pathways makes sense and luckily as PhDs, we are well equipped with many technical and transferable skills that are valuable for a plethora of industry-based positions. In my case, the combination of a PhD and an MBA degree was the right choice, but for other PhD candidates who are also considering leaving academia, an MBA is not the only way out. For those PhDs who see themselves outside academia; trust your skills, showcase your achievements, reach out for advice, and be bold with your choices since there is not a single suit that fits everyone!