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Big Names Like Facebook Are Recruiting Ph.D.s -- Here's How You Can, Too

There's a significant and largely untapped resource available that many competitors are overlooking: academia.
Big Names Like Facebook Are Recruiting Ph.D.s -- Here's How You Can, Too
Image credit: Liyao Xie | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Founder and CEO, Cheeky Scientist
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The number of job openings is surging, especially in STEM fields, but most startups are struggling to fill those positions with high-quality talent. According to a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 93 percent of CEOs polled said they recognized the need to change how they attract and retain talent, but 61 percent admitted not having taken the first step.

It seems like most business leaders don’t have a solid plan for acquiring the people they need and haven’t the faintest idea of where to start.

Some communities have gotten creative when it comes to attracting talent, however. For example, in North Carolina, job openings have increased by more than 20 percent from last year, according to the North Carolina Tech Association’s most recent IT Job Trends report. This is due, in part, to local startups gathering at events such as Big Top’s Startup Crawl, where they can talk up their brands and hunt for rare gems of available talent.

Many startup leaders, however, are realizing that there’s simply not enough talent out there to fill all their open positions -- especially when they have to compete with corporate giants such as Google and Amazon for superstar employees. For such startup leaders, though, there’s a significant and largely untapped resource available that many competitors are overlooking.

What's that? The world of academia.

Finding that competitive edge

Facebook has found a way to harness the brain power of robotics experts at Carnegie Mellon University by setting up an AI research lab in Pittsburgh where Ph.D.s can lead innovation efforts. The academic experts often work part-time, giving them the freedom to continue advising Ph.D. students at the university and fostering future talent.

In addition to their direct knowledge and expertise, academics are a perfect fit for any business that wants to grow and innovate, because these people are used to dealing with and overcoming failure. To earn a Ph.D., you have to push your field forward -- not just master it. That requires discovery at the highest level. In other words, it requires innovation.

Related: 9 Ways Your Company Can Encourage Innovation

The specific verticals utilizing academic talent the most these days are tech, biotech and pharma. In pharma, for example, more Ph.D.s are being hired for medical science liaison (MSL) jobs than ever before. This is largely driven by demand from practitioners who want easier access to more in-depth information that Ph.D.s hold the keys to. The MSL role, in general, has been growing at a fast rate, with 120,000 MSLs working in 2016, and estimates of another 16,000 new jobs developing by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The big companies are already hiring more Ph.Ds., but startups should be following suit if they want to attract the best talent. Here are three ways to foster an academic mindset throughout your workforce to build teams and create a stronger, more innovative company:

1. Learn a new mantra: Publish or perish.

"Publish or perish" is the academic version of “innovate or die.” In academics or entrepreneurship, success hinges on pushing the boundaries of discovery. If you fail to consistently publish new discoveries in your field in academia, your career will perish. Likewise, if you fail to innovate in any business sector, especially as a startup, your company will die. This unforgiving path can lead to many disappointments, but to Ph.D.s and entrepreneurs alike, problems are gifts.

Related: 10 Blessings That Come Hidden in Rejection, Losing and Failure

Before "Shark" Mark Cuban was worth $3.9 billion, he failed at a number of jobs, including ones as a carpenter, a short-order cook and a server. But he’s not known for any of this. Even if your success comes at the end of a long list of failures, the final triumph is what matters.

“It doesn’t matter how many times you almost get it right,” he's written. “No one is going to know or care about your failures, and neither should you.”

2. Emphasize speed of learning.

Experience in an industry is great, but industries are changing at breakneck speed. In fact, researchers at Oxford University found that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being automated within the next 20 years. In other words, the positions you’re looking to fill now might not even be around in the near future, so it’s more important to find someone who can learn quickly on the job and adapt to changes.

Ph.D.s might not have decades of hands-on experience in a certain industry, but they have spent their entire lives learning and learning how to learn. As a result, they pick up new tasks quickly, making them strong assets in any field. There’s also risk associated with hiring experienced candidates in today’s world of blazing-fast change. Significant time and resources often have to be spent helping these experienced hires unlearn the training they've received from their previous employers.

The benefits of academic and industry experts working together are clearly seen in the area of AI development. Academic experts explore possibilities simply to learn what is possible and to test theories, while industry developments are designed for specific uses based on customer needs or in the pursuit of revenue gains. When smart, creative individuals from both fields work together, they’re able to realize the full potential of both technological development and practical application. 

3. Strive for an autonomous culture.

A common mistake among business leaders is focusing heavily on teamwork and completely neglecting to build autonomy, personal responsibility and integrity in individual positions.

Organizations move faster if their team members are self-starters who can work by themselves and as part of a team. All Ph.D.s juggle multiple projects that they must personally manage, so they don’t need to be micromanaged -- which is an advantage, as most startup leaders don’t have time to micromanage their employees anyway. However, that doesn’t mean Ph.D.s can’t also collaborate; they often work with teams and complete cross-functional tasks in the academic world.

What it does mean is that Ph.D.s will thrive in both a team-based and autonomous setting, which is good news for startups. According to a study published in Health Promotion International, researchers polled more than 1,000 employees across 230 organizations and found that greater job autonomy was connected to improved work satisfaction and a lower intent to leave a company or job.

Related: 5 Ways to Integrate Employee Autonomy Into Your Culture

Getting the right talent for your team doesn’t always mean finding the "perfect" candidate with decades of hands-on work experience in his or her field. A sustainable strategy should also include finding people who are resilient, are tolerant to failure and can foster brilliant ideas to outsmart the competition and get your startup through those early, hypercompetitive years. What that adds up to is a ... Ph.D.

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