Both. Neither. And here’s why.
In most professions, five-plus years of training will net you a low-to-mid-level management position. Medicine residents help coordinate teams of nurses, interns, and students to ensure quality patient care; mid-level attorneys supervise paralegals and junior associates; and new MBAs oversee recent college grads and other business professionals. This is typically not so for academics in the humanities and social sciences. In most cases, years of study, research, and teaching prepare you for more years of study, research, and teaching, without even the prospect of mentoring junior graduate students. This system may work for training new academics, but what does it mean for PhDs who are exploring jobs outside academia? As a newly minted PhD, are you qualified to lead, or will you have to apply for entry-level positions?
Where you land on the corporate org chart will depend on your skills and experience, the industries you’re exploring, and the culture of individual companies.
Your skills and experience. As we’ve noted elsewhere, your graduate training has probably given you the requisite leadership skills to be a low-to-mid-level manager, particularly if you have teaching experience. If you’ve made it all the way to the end of your program, then you know how to get things done, manage large projects, and stick to deadlines. Your time in the classroom, meanwhile, has taught you how to coach, motivate, and build up younger professionals. Combined, these skills will set you up to be a very effective manager. Of course, your ability to manage others effectively will also depend on the quality and quantity of experience you have performing the core functions of the job to which you’ve applied.
The industry. Although few if any fields outside academia consist of PhD-majority workforces, there are several in which employers tend to get excited about hiring PhDs. Education-focused organizations, for example, value employees who have deep content knowledge and teaching experience. So too do companies in the information sector—such as print and digital media publishers—since PhDs usually have solid writing, editing, and publishing experience. Policy centers, think tanks, and other research-based organizations also value PhDs, who typically serve as the keystones of these organizations’ human capital. While PhDs can be found in the highest ranks of every field (just look at Patrick Byrne) they tend to hold leadership positions in industries where the applicability of academic skill sets is more readily apparent.
Company culture. Whether or not a company will be more or less likely to consider applicants with PhDs also depends on its own internal culture. Has the company hired PhDs in the past? Has it hired PhDs to fill a variety of positions or strictly to fill positions that require content, teaching, or research expertise? The best way to predict a company’s enthusiasm for hiring PhDs is to find out how many of its current employees hold doctorates. Conducting a quick google search (keywords: “[company name]” and “PhD”), perusing the organization’s website, and browsing public LinkedIn profiles can often provide clues. In general, you’ll probably find that smaller organizations are more amenable to considering nontraditional candidates for a wider variety of positions, because they need applicants with diverse skill sets who can wear multiple professional hats. Conversely, larger organizations with robust human resources departments tend to be sticklers about requiring applicants’ credentials to exactly match desired job qualifications.
So where should you aim? You’ll be qualified for management roles in some companies and overqualified for purely administrative jobs everywhere, so you should generally set your sights somewhere in the middle. Look for non-managerial but substantive positions on teams that will value your technical, analytical, and decision-making skills and in which you can take on real responsibility. If you take the time to learn the business and demonstrate your ability to lead projects, it won’t be long before your supervisors ask you to lead other people.