PhD + change of heart? Don’t worry.

January 24, 2017

About jumping careers and applying old knowledge to new areas. To all of you thinking and dreaming about it.

As a service designer with a PhD appendix, I inevitably get the question from people “Do you ever feel that you have wasted your time doing a PhD? In medicine…”. My honest answer is always no. Usually I get involved in some half-baked explanation about how similar the design and research processes are, but that’s another story.

But why do I say no? Really.

First of all, doing my PhD was, well, simply great. Hard work sure, but I was surrounded with creative, ambitious and fun people, and together we discovered stuff that was (sometimes) unchartered land. But equally important for the aftertaste is that afterwards I have always felt that I acquired a lot of knowledge that I can apply elsewhere. Not perhaps always the knowledge itself (when is it better to use milk as a blocking agent vs BSA….not so much), but rather the principles behind the building of the knowledge. And of course, the possibilities of making new connections.

In your life, the more you know the more you are empowered to make connections that maybe no one else ever thought to do.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

When the question of wasting my time or not comes from people who are in academia and research, there is usually a twist to it. Either they ask the question with the assumption that I do feel that I have wasted my time (how could anyone leaving academia feel otherwise…), but even more often they ask How did you make the jump?


The switch from an academic career to the dark side (yes, that is what the academics called it ten years ago, half witty, half serious), is to my recollection an elusive one. Who cares about my little research field, and what qualities and skills can I extrapolate from looking down a microscope? Those were common concerns back then, and from what I can understand from meeting students now, still is.

Here is a list of the top reasons why a PhD is always a good thing, starting with

constantly learning.

This is a slightly over-used phrase in today's “everything moves so fast uhuh” - ”always learn” - ”life is a school” era. Nevertheless, within the research industry this business of constantly learning is nothing new. It’s nothing old. It’s just the way it is. It is how you operate. By reading and hearing about what other people have done, finding connections to your own work, trying out new techniques to discover whether your hypothesis is going somewhere, that is how your day goes on. You only ever repeat stuff three times (to get statistical significance), and then you move on to being

experimental, yet empirical.

Can you be both a dreamer and a doer? Can you be practical and hands-on, and simultaneously operate at a strategic level? Can you imagine something up, and instantly be ready to try it out and gather the data to discover if it’s true or not. Yes sir! There is one skill essential to this co-existing lofty colonizing-Mars-while-figuring-out-how-to-boil-water-at-extremely-cold-places mindset, and that is

juggling stuff.

Speaking at an international conference while preparing an experiment that requires a hundred zebra fishes to all be pregnant simultaneously (do they become pregnant…?) and at the same time applying for money to actually get a pay-check the coming six months? Bring it on. Although a lot of the current research suggests that we become stupid by juggling too much (yes, we knew that), in research there is a fine balance of juggling too little and too much. You have to get those data out, you have to speak at conferences, and you have to get your funding. So that you can do it all again. And you have to do it in parallel loops, because one of them is most definitely turning out to be….nothing.

Nevertheless, the juggling is strengthening another skill, having

macro & micro vision.

Being a researcher is much like having a brain zoom capacity that would make Nikon envious. It relates a lot to being experimental yet empirical, but I think it deserves a special mention. The macro & micro vision enables scientists to go down in to the nitty gritties of it all, and levelling up from there. What is the implication of these two proteins interacting, what will happen in the cell, what will happen in the organism, what kind of bearing could this have on other vital functions? Grass, ladybug, lawn, tree, sky and sun. Of course we’re not always spot on in our macro & micro department, causing blurry results, but that’s why we have

peer feedback.

Heard of feedback recently? How to handle it, how to give it? You know it. Although the bulk scientist will not be too experienced in managing team development, the concept of having your work scrutinized by others is nothing new. Scientists feed off peer feedback. You can’t really get a lot done, even less published, unless you and your team get input and feedback from others. When I wrote my first paper I saved all of the versions going back and forth between me and my professor, and later the editors. A neat 8-page story generated a 17 cm paper pile.

I hope you feel that the macro & micro vision of juggling stuff while being experimental yet empirical, getting peer feedback and constantly learning stuff will serve you in whatever line of work you wish to pursue. If you work in the service design industry, perhaps you can relate. A lot.

Regardless of what industry you find yourself in, either now or later, do remember this.

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Arthur C. Clarke

Best of luck.

*For more on the topic of making connections, I strongly recommend The Medici Effect, an excellent and mind-blowing book by Frans Johansson.

So how did I make the jump?

It took me several years, but while doing my PhD I pursued my other interests (design, entrepreneurship, innovation, product design), slowly piling up on motivation and yes-I-can-do-it attitude. Eventually I made the jump, and have never looked back to regret it. Try to find like-minded and support each other, and move in the direction of where you want to be. And feel comfortable that that particular destination itself will probably change.