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From PhD to Life

Sales: A great career path for PhDs


This is a guest post by Raj Dhiman, PhD, who works as an inside sales manager (small business) at Rogers Communication.

Raj Dhiman.

Unemployment hurts. Plain and simple.

I experienced it when I left academia about five years ago. I was PhD in hand and applying for the “obvious” jobs: assistant professor, research scientist, postdoc.

No luck.

I ended up marking papers as a TA for not much money while figuring out what I was going to do. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to be a salesman. I proclaimed to myself that I was going to be the best one out there and someday be a well-known sales trainer and consultant, commanding HUGE fees and . . .

Hold on.

A PhD-trained chemist decides that he wants to be a salesman?


At that point, I felt that there was not much else that I could do. I had ideas of starting a seminar-based business and built up a small body of work on my own. I got paid for some of it; most of it I did for free. The debt I carried was holding me back and getting a job was critical. In other words, I was rapidly becoming poor, hungry, and desperate.

After much effort, I landed an entry level sales job at Rogers Communications. I made anywhere from 85 to 100 cold calls every day pitching small business owners on our products. I had an amazing sales manager who taught me the fundamentals of the sales game. I developed into one of the top sales reps in the business unit and was promoted twice over in the company, first to sales training manager, and after 18 months, to inside sales manager, leading my own team.

After much self-reflection on my career path, I arrived at the following conclusions:

  1. Sales has been tremendously rewarding for me. I have made a great income, and it gave me rapid career advancement and a universally applicable set of skills.
  2. I ended up in the profession because I felt like I didn’t have many options but it took almost two years of searching before landing full-time work.
  3. Not once was sales ever presented to me as a viable career path during my graduate studies.

Now, consider the following:
There are many newly-minted PhD graduates across Canada coming out of academia thinking “what next?” much like I did, without a clear answer. Or, they are frustrated trying to find a job along traditional paths.

Companies recognize (or should) that sales is the engine of the organization. At the same time, good sales talent is hard to find – I can personally attest to this fact.

The ivory tower is mostly ignorant when it comes to professional selling. This isn’t deliberate: why would there be an impetus for faculty to be informed about the topic? It’s thus rarely presented to students as a path worth considering.

So, I would like to offer some advice while encouraging readers to consider professional selling in their career planning.

Note that I am not advocating that PhD grads flood the malls and apply as retail sales associates to enter the world of selling. Grads should focus their efforts mainly on business to business (B2B) sales. As for initial steps, here are some things you can do:

  • Everything in the world involved a sales transaction; there is no limit to what can be sold. Make lists of products/industries that are related to your discipline. Find something that you can get behind and research relevant companies.
  • Conduct informational interviews with sales professionals you find on LinkedIn and at networking events you attend.
  • Read sales books to learn what comprises good sales fundamentals. I immersed myself in books, videos, and seminars to get as educated as possible. Two recommendations are To Sell is Human by Daniel H. Pink and The Art of the Sale by Philip Delves Broughton.
  • Do you have side hustle? Tutoring students, consulting work, editing services? Yes? There you go, instant sales experience. Work that side hustle as much as you can and list it on your resumé; see my LinkedIn profile as an example.

Several skills that I gained as a graduate student helped immensely in my work. My ability to find information in obscure journals, keep a detailed lab notebook, author publications, and my teaching experience have all contributed to my career success. Further, holding an advanced degree boosted my candidacy when opportunities for promotion became available and I progressed more rapidly than others who had more tenure.

Mind you, sales is not a career option suitable for everyone. Heavy outbound cold calling jobs have significant employee turnover because of the demands of the job. The work will bruise your ego because of the amount of rejection you get every day. Plus, being an over-educated rookie sales rep will make you think at times, “Is this worth it?” Sales is highly competitive and it drives people to bring out their absolute best. However, if you have the tenacity to see a PhD through to completion, you’ve got the mettle to potentially take on a sales job and do it well.

Finally, this post wouldn’t be complete if we did not touch on the negative connotation that is often associated with sales. Yes, stereotypical overly pushy, sleazy, and aggressive salesperson trying to take your money. I admit, they do exist for a variety of reasons and such people make my job more difficult than it needs to be. Here is what I have learned about sales: it is about improving the condition of the customer by solving their problems  – that is first and foremost. If your job allows you to make a positive, measurable difference in the lives of your customers, then your profession is indeed a noble one. And the by-product of your efforts? A healthy commission check – a win-win all around.

Raj Dhiman, earned a PhD in bio-organic chemistry. He works as an inside sales manager (small business) at Rogers Communications. Connect with him on LinkedIn. Read Raj’s April 2015 Transition Q & A here.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. Parveen / January 10, 2018 at 00:04

    Great article, as I’m in the process of applying for a PhD program, I stumbled upon your article. I to serve in the world of academia. My jobs throughout undergraduate and masters were in sales. I never thought to pursue as a career. However, the above eloquent words may trigger a different direction.

    Keep up the great work, hope to read more about your venture.

  2. D.E. Riuqer / January 20, 2018 at 16:35

    Wow UA. With the Rogers sales scandal continuing to unfold, this is perhaps the most tone-deaf thing you’ve published yet!

  3. D.E. Riuqer / August 28, 2018 at 07:21