PhD Problems: You Have a Compulsion About Getting Things Perfect
Business doesn’t have time for you to repeat the project until you’re satisfied.
Academia is far from perfect, but it is a place that attracts, and enables, a large number of perfectionists. In the academic world, real deadlines are rare and often come with a long lead time or significant flexibility. This makes sense; research is unpredictable, and the culture has had to adapt around unexpected delays and perturbations.
There’s a side effect, however: there’s often an attitude in academia that research results or other work can always be made more perfect with just a little more time investment. While this is true in some cases, it also leads to students and postdocs spending years on outputs that reached “good enough” status long before.
Academia is far too permissive to this attitude — so much so that it is easy to forget that most professions do not allow employees to languish for months on projects that seem to be going nowhere, let alone for years. Yet, that’s the reality of academic life. Given that most businesses survive on productivity instead of curiosity, “Let’s see what happens if we try again” is an attitude that isn’t tolerated for very long in for-profit life. What happens if you try again is that it costs more, and if you’ve already spent a bunch of money, spending more for marginal improvements is not usually favored.
In academia, the goal is to identify and answer questions. Students are evaluated on the completeness of their answers and rarely on the speed with which they got to less satisfying working conclusions. I personally had to spend a year — and enlist the help of a visiting scholar — just to convince my advisor that an experiment she wanted me to do was beyond the limits of current technologies, instead of merely beyond the limit of current graduate students.
In business, while the answers to questions are often useful, they are also often not useful. Instead, business pursuits focus on solutions to problems. If the tires that a company makes are going flat too often, and switching rubber suppliers fixes the problem, it may not be a huge priority to figure out why the old supplier’s stock failed. It won’t sell more tires, and there may be more compelling research needs. There are, of course, exceptions, but if the problem is solved, business usually moves on.
Since business operations cost money, there is usually limited time to find these solutions. A business is more likely to go with the first minimally acceptable solution they find rather than attempting to find a perfect way around the problem. The cliché is that “an 80% solution today is better than a 100% solution tomorrow.” Not everyone has the same standards for what “80%” means, though, and competitive business grades on a curve the same way that being chased by a bear does; you just have to be faster than the other person.
As someone who has pursued a doctorate, you are used to methodical approaches to answering fundamental questions in your field of research. For you, the standard for satisfactory solutions was set high throughout your career, and because the frontiers move forward always, the work you had to do to pass the bar got harder every time a new paper was published. Your reality is pursuit of an unattainable universal truth. For some reason, instead of running away, you’ve always wanted to catch the bear and understand what made it chase you.
Business does not share that reality. Businesses are not going to waste their money running after the platonic ideal of microwaveable frozen pizza. What you must do in making the jump between these worlds is adapt to this difference. You must take your skills from the pursuit of unattainable truths, and apply them to the everyday, pressing, and eminently attainable solutions that are needed by your business.
To do this, you’ll need top rely on something that is probably so second nature to you that you may have forgotten that you do it: Problem Solving. Whether it’s designing a good survey, fixing an experiment, or getting access to the rare manuscript that you need, every PhD has been learning and problem solving throughout their career. It’s just been secondary to the goal of answering some deep question in their research rather than being a goal in itself. Bringing that second-nature skill to the table is worth more to an employer than anything in your dissertation.
That ability to problem-solve will help you from day one, as you try to learn the standards of the company you have joined, and then again as you try to exceed them in order to stand out. You will need it when dealing with your coworkers as well as with your work. If you can crack the code of what “good” looks like, delivering it won’t be your biggest challenge. Remember that in most non-academic work, you are not pushing at the boundaries of human knowledge. Your work is doable. You don’t need to reinvent it all. You just need to solve the problems in front of you and then move on to the next thing.
Since the flow of problems to solve doesn’t stop, you can’t ever expect a total or perfect solution. You have to learn to predict the new problems that your imperfect solution will create down the line, and be ready for them.
Making those judgment calls efficiently is why experience matters as much as it does in the world of business. Management are people who have learned to control the chaos, and can watch out for people who are getting paralyzed by a desire for perfection. They can also anticipate the problems that your solutions may later create, and guide you through or around them.
The best managers are the ones who do this without you feeling like you’re causing additional problems. They still find a way to coach and mentor you through those problems, but they don’t turn it into a referendum on your value as a person.
On the other side of things, the best employees are the ones who have learned to anticipate the drawbacks of their own solutions, and can anticipate them for their teams. Being transparent and understanding that there is no perfect solution is not a weakness. People appreciate honesty, especially if it is delivered ahead of time. I’ve personally won friends by identifying an upcoming challenge to a planned timeline, and getting the work done earlier than planned before flagging that the timeline would need to accommodate this new challenge.
The faster you learn to make efficient decisions without calling your manager in every time, the happier that manager is going to be. As you transition from academia, learn to let go of perfect answers, and start priding yourself on effective solutions.
The “PhD Problems” articles are a series on making the jump from advanced academia into business. The rest are available in my Medium feed.
You can find more from me, John Skylar, at www.johnskylar.com/writing.