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What Can PhD Students Learn from Corporate Strategy?


Violeta Mookhoek

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki,

Laboratory of Computing, Medical Informatics and Biomedical-Imaging Technologies


In 2016, I received a Marie Curie fellowship to pursue a PhD in both an academic and an industry environment. At the end of my PhD, I was fortunate to land a traineeship in corporate strategy working on several digital health projects at Philips Healthcare. This experience was invaluable for my personal and professional growth. I believe that the majority of interdisciplinary PhD students may benefit from my lessons learnt.


Learn to Optimise: 80/20 rule

The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, is an aphorism which means that 80% of success results from 20% of effort. This principle has always been used by strategists, as they are daily burdened with complex problems that they need to solve in a very short time. As a PhD student, you tend to be very precise and perfectionistic, which may not be beneficial to you or to your stakeholder. Instead, you need to identify “those 20%” that are potentially the most productive and make them the priority. Everything else is just noise that you need to minimize.


Manage your PhD as a CEO

Recently, I watched an amazing Coursera lecture (Researcher Management Leadership Training: lecture by Greg in week 6) about how to manage your PhD mentor network. Basically, manage your PhD as the CEO of a company. Create a “written agreement” with your stakeholders, structured as a table with all stakeholders ranked according to share percentage (e.g., time investment). Start with yourself as CEO. Have explicit discussion with your shareholders (PhD supervisors, fellow PhD students, lab manager) about their investments, expectations of return on investment (e.g., thesis after 4 years) and whether investments and expectations were met (yes/no). This table will come in handy if you have a conflict of interest among your mentors, as it may provide you with a clear view of which mentor needs to be followed.


Develop communication strategies with various stakeholders

In strategy, communication is key. This manifests itself in many ways, that may not become apparent during your PhD journey. Some important lessons:

  • Treat your thesis as a story: consistent, flowing, impactful. Creation of your thesis starts from day one. It needs to be structured and rigorously tested. Test it by writing it on sticky notes and change their order, actively ask feedback, present it in parts and be open to feedback.

  • Involve “senior” stakeholders from an early stage. They will judge your work early on, meaning you will not be surprised at the end by them not accepting the content. The key is that the stakeholder becomes an owner of this work together with you, as she may direct the content towards her own interests, and you have still plenty of time to amend it.

  • Make it visually pleasing. In strategy, a lot of time was spent on making presentations beautiful. For example, to adapt your figures to your data type, select colours, align, put right amount of text. Always, and I mean ALWAYS, have Excel sheets with supporting material. It leaves no ambiguity to your reader, which wants to test your work. These sheets will contain back up data as well as all data sources, which can be displayed in a way that is easy to read.

"Do not put all eggs in one basket"

As a PhD student, you are proud of what you do and expect that it will result in a long-term career in academia. From my academic peers, only one so far has a flourishing academic career and became a research professor. If it does not work for you, this does not mean it is your fault. It is a very complex process dependent on many factors such your ability to “pump out” articles and obtain grants, your academic environment with people who are willing to collaborate and mentor you as well as the available resources, and most importantly your motivation and work ethic to make it happen. Love for the academic lifestyle and your research topic is not enough. The good news is, that if you are in an interdisciplinary environment, you have a chance to network with people from very different disciplines. So, take a chance and schedule a cup of coffee with everyone in your circle, just like strategists do. It will come handy in the late stages of your PhD!

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