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#28 Asa Burman Interview

With a background in both academia and business, Åsa Burman is passionate about bridging the gap between these two worlds. Listen to her inspiring story on how her years as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley paved the way for her career today.

Published onAug 04, 2017
#28 Asa Burman Interview

We are joined by Dr Åsa Burman who has a broad background and professional experience from business, academia, and social entrepreneurship. Amongst other things, Åsa is the Founder and CEO of Finish On Time – a company that helps graduate students, postdocs, and other academics to finish their academic work on time and to feel well during the process. So far, over 1000 PhD students, supervisors, professors and researchers have participated in conferences and seminars organised by Åsa and her colleagues Johanna Clausen Ekefjärd and Henrik Levinsson. Earlier this year, she also published her first book: Bli klar i tid och må bra på vägen: Handbok för doktorander (Natur & Kultur, 2017) which is to be translated into English during next year.

In addition, Åsa holds a PhD in Philosophy from Lund University and has also conducted research as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. After finishing her PhD, she started working as a Management Consultant at McKinsey & Company and then continued to work with social entrepreneurship. As of a few years ago, Åsa has returned to academia and is currently working as an Assistant Professor in Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University


Today, I’m joined by Åsa Burman, who has a broad background and professional experience from business, academia, and social entrepreneurship. Åsa holds a PhD in Philosophy from Lund University and is currently working as an Assistant Professor in Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University. She is also the Founder and CEO of Finish On Time - a company that helps graduate students, postdocs, and other academics to finish their academic work on time and feel well during the process. 

Maria: Hello Åsa, and welcome to the PhD Career Stories podcast!

Åsa: Thank you very much Maria! It's very nice to be here. 

Maria: And we are very happy to have you here!

I also want to highlight that we found each other on Twitter with the help from our followers and we are very happy that you decided to tell your story, to collaborate with us and we hope that this can inspire others to get in touch with us to tell their stories as well. 

Åsa, let’s start with you telling us a bit more about your career so far. After completing your PhD you became a management consultant. What does a management consultant do and how did you come to take this path?

Åsa: Yes, it’s a little bit different path maybe than other philosophers’. A lot of of my friends and colleagues ask me, 'How could a philosopher become a management consultant?' It was a strike of luck, I guess. One of my good friends, who was also a philosopher, she used to be a management consultant. At Berkeley, they had a very popular event called 'Management consulting for PhDs.' Their whole idea was that no matter what kind of topic you did your PhD in, you will have learned very useful general skills that can be applied to management consulting. 

Maria: Was that a course?

Åsa: No, it was actually a company trying to recruit PhD students to become management consultants. They would offer a fancy dinner, you would solve some problems and speak to other management consultants to see what their work was about. I thought it seemed really fun and intriguing. Actually it was quite common in the US for philosophers to become management consultants. I think it’s because philosophy is a lot about logic. You also use these skills in management consulting, thinking about what is the real problem, what are the possible solutions, what could I cut off quite early in the problem-solving process and think about the more likely solutions to this problem, and so on. To my surprise, I noted that structurally the thinking was very similar to philosophy.

Maria: Do you think this is something that you would have started doing if you had done your whole PhD in Sweden or was it more of a thing because you were in the States, with a different mindset and how they think about things?

Åsa: Yes, I think you’re right. I haven’t seen this kind of events, maybe we have it for the engineers and math people, but for the humanities, I haven’t seen these kind of events in Sweden. In the US and England, they put more emphasis on the generic skills you learn as a PhD, while maybe we in Scandinavia and Sweden put more emphasis on the specific knowledge you get from your field, more the content knowledge. I was really glad about having that opportunity coming to my mind at least, I don’t think I would have come up with it otherwise.

Maria: How long into you PhD was this?

Åsa: This was my third year into my PhD. So I started to think about it already at this point. After I had finished my PhD, I felt that I’d been in academia all my life, or quite a while, so I wanted to see if there was another career that might suit me even better. I felt a need to explore that after the PhD. I also felt that I needed a break from philosophy for a while, since I had been doing it for so long. This idea came back to me, what about management consulting? I should investigate a little bit more. I decided to speak to management consultants and understand what they were doing. Basically, what they do is to provide strategic advice to top management of different companies in the business world. So (I went) from academia to the business world.

Maria: What did you do? How did you get into the business so to speak?

Åsa: I worked quite hard to get a job. I took about two more months to read up on math again, I knew that I needed that. I also looked at case books, like what were the models for solving these cases, how do you prepare for the interviews and so on. I worked intensely for two months to prepare for the interviews and everything.

Maria: Did you contact different companies? How did you go about it?

Åsa: I knew which two companies I wanted to work for, so I applied to them. I put a lot of effort into making the application. I got very good help from Lund University on how to actually write your CV and cover letter when you’re an academic so that other people understand your skill set. I got a lot of help with adjusting my CV and cover letter to fit this business context.

Maria: How about these skills? The founder of this podcast, Tina Persson, she often talks about transferable skills, skills that  we achieve and acquire during our PhDs studies and that we can then use in other businesses, if we stay in academia or move on to work in the industry. How did you find your transferable skills?

Åsa: I think it’s a really good question and it’s something to really think about as a PhD. I do think we have so many skills that we aren’t aware of, because most other people we know also hold a PhD so we think it’s normal to know all the things we actually know. With the help of Lund University, I tried to figure out what my transferable skills were.

I think about three things. Teaching for instance. We have been to a lot of conferences, we are used to standing in front of people talking. I think the presentation skills were very strong, both in writing and making presentations. That helped me a lot during my work and also the case interviews. Another thing I think we’re also very strong at as PhDs is of course to look at a lot of information, get to the conclusions and finding out the relevant information - basically analysis and synthesis. This was used all the time in my work .The third thing is critical thinking, what is the real problem behind all the data you find, what is the core problem that you need to solve? I think we’re trained in that as PhDs and that’s also what you do a lot of in management consulting, solving the right problems so to speak.

Maria: When we are on that topic, can you provide us with some examples on how you specifically used your generic skills when you started working as a management consultant?

Åsa: One example that comes to my mind quite vividly is when my project manager in my first project, I was maybe six weeks into the job, asked me to present a particular part of our overall presentation to the board of this big company. I thought, sure, I’ll do that. I was a little nervous because it was a new context to me, but I practiced like you would for an academic conference and it all went well. When I heard from my colleagues afterwards, they said it was quite rare for someone being new on the job to actually present a part to the board. I was a bit surprised because if you’ve been at philosophy conferences, it’s much tougher. I still felt quite comfortable in that setting compared to all the things I’d done before: presenting at conferences and people come with objections if they don’t agree with you and you have to explain what you think, and so on. I think that was really due to me being used to being in the classroom and defending my views in a seminar or at a conference. 

Another nice example is with the same project manager, who was a very good project manager. He asked me, 'Åsa, can you please go to a café for a few hours?' I said 'Sure,' and thought 'what did I do now?' He asked me to bring the whole PowerPoint presentation with me and come back to him with all I thought was wrong with it, were there any logical gaps in their reasoning and did the conclusions follow (upon the reasoning), and so on. He asked me to look at everything as critically I could. I went to this café, I had my coffee, I sat down with the presentation and made some notes. I came back to him and we discussed the presentation. I thought it was a lot of fun because it’s what we do as academics. Do the conclusions follow from the theory and material you have, and so on. Later when we had a feedback session, he also told me it was quite rare to do that when you’re new on the job but both he and I said it was probably because I was used to this from my work as a PhD. I think for a lot of us this is exactly the work we do, but since everyone knows how to do it in academia, it doesn’t stand out. In other areas of work I think it can stand out.

Maria: I think it’s a great example of how you can really make use of these skills. I can sometimes feel that people think that I’m so negative all the time when I’m giving this criticism and finding the gaps, which I think is something good because then we can fix it. 

Åsa: You have to know in what context it’s good to find the gaps, when it’s necessary and when you don’t really have to and then sometimes maybe you shouldn’t say something. I think it’s nice to know that distinction, but it can be quite useful at times when you really want to improve work.

Maria: You’ve been working both in academia and business. What are the biggest differences, do you think?

Åsa: Good question! When colleagues ask me that, I think about content and also the transferable skills. Content wise, I mean, I did philosophy, so I  thought about things like justice, freedom, what is freedom, what is social power, and so on. These normative concepts. When I went into management consulting I thought about profit, strategy and quite other kinds of concepts. I didn’t have so much use for my content skills, in a sense. That was a big difference. From the normative concepts of justice, freedom and equality to profit.

Maria: Did you then also bring another perspective into the work that you did?

Åsa: Yes, I think they were very open to different kinds of ideas and they explicitly asked for different people with different backgrounds. Sometimes I sort of had the different perspective from the content perspective, but I think I mostly used the transferable skills. The biggest differences were that in academia I had my own individual project which was very long, four or five years. Here I was suddenly thrown into a team of four to five people with shorter projects, maybe four to eight weeks, and I actually loved working together with other people. That was one of the main benefits to me, working with other people, solving a problem together. You weren’t competitors but actually solved problems together. I really enjoyed that. Then, of course, in philosophy you get abstract results and here I got more tangible results. I thought that was also a nice thing, to get that feedback sense. 

Maria: Now you’re back in academia. How long did you work as a consultant?

Åsa: I (worked) two years as a management consultant. After that I was half time in academia also founding my own company during that time. I also worked with other things, like social entrepreneurship, for a number of years. I was away from philosophy for almost eight years.

Maria: Was it hard to get back into academia again or was it something that came easy?

Åsa: In one sense it is difficult, because other people have the track record of publications for these eight years. I think I have to be quite specific when I apply for jobs now. It’s been some time since I did my PhD but I haven’t been in academia this whole time. I think it’s a nice distinction to make between academic age, how long have I been in academia vs. when did I finish my PhD. So far it’s worked very well and I think that I bring a different set of experiences to my colleagues and also for teaching and doing research. 

Maria: I can really imagine that and that was one of the things I was wondering about. We were talking about the transferable skills going from academia into industry or business. Is it the same way now that you’re coming back to academia, can you use any of your experiences and skills from the business world in academia?

Åsa: Yes, definitely, and I think about it in different ways. One big difference between academia and the business world is mindset. As academics we’re used to problematizing things, we want to find problems and we want to find more problems sometimes. I think the biggest difference to me was the mindset. When you had a good idea in business, people would ask you, 'That’s a good idea, what’s the next step, how do we make it happen?' In academia, you know, sometimes (we say), 'This is a good idea, but what about x, y, z?' This call to action whenever you had a good idea I quite liked. I think I bring this with me a little bit, that it’s possible to do a lot of cool things. Instead of finding the problems, we need to do that as well, but also think towards the solutions, being solution oriented and thinking about what the next step is to make this cool thing happen. That’s one difference in having this vision, this solution-oriented perspective. I try to bring that back. Also, the team effort. I learned so much. It’s possible to do great things when you really work together with other people. When you find your team and you work together, it’s possible to do many more things than you could by yourself. I try to team up and have a lot of collaborations now, because that was the aspect I liked the most about business. 

Maria: Is that something that your colleagues in academia find challenging or are they welcoming it?

Åsa: You have to do it on the right balance, but I think they’re really welcoming. My ideas, suggestions and collaborations have been encouraged. I’m very happy about how it turned out.

Maria: I was thinking about your transition back to academia. Is there anything else you’re thinking about going back to academia from business? What more did you bring?

Åsa: Very tangible things would be presentation techniques. We practiced a lot of presentation techniques with experts in that. I think we do it the other way around in academia. In academia when I gave a lecture before, I usually started somewhere, told a story and came to the conclusions at the end of the lecture. Now it’s always turned around. In management consulting I learned to always have three things and I would put the conclusions first, so everyone would always know where we were going. I use that in my lectures on philosophy now. New students sometimes think this is a difficult topic, it’s very abstract. What I do is that I always bring the main conclusions first and then I backtrack from that, so they always know where I’m going. I think presentation skills are something that I learned from management consulting. Also, as I touched upon before, to work in teams and have a structure problem solving process, like how do you set up a project, how do you carry it out - project management skills.

Maria: Something that I also talked about when I introduced you is that you have been working with social entrepreneurship. Tell us more about that.

Åsa: That was actually a nice mix of both my philosophy and my business knowledge. Because in social entrepreneurship you want to solve our most pressing social problems with business methods. Here the two things come together. I could evaluate business ideas from an ethical perspective, having done a lot of moral philosophy, but I could also use my business knowledge in trying to improve their business plan, for instance. 

Maria: Is that something you did during your years as a management consultant?

Åsa: It was both for non-profit I worked, and also at the side of other jobs so to speak because I thought the field was interesting. 

Maria: Is it something you still do today?

Åsa: No, I have been writing a book for a while, so I have done a little bit less of that (social entrepreneurship) lately. 

Maria: Tell us more about that book which was released this year. You are the author of the book, in Swedish, “Bli klar i tid och må bra på vägen.” How did you come to write this book? What is this book about?

Åsa: Basically, it’s a book about helping PhD students finish their dissertation on time and it comes from lived experience. I was a PhD student at Lund University and I was working really hard the first two years, as every PhD student. But I didn't get the results I would imagine giving all the effort and time I put in so I was getting increasingly worried about my dissertation. Would I finish on time? Will it be good enough? Is it new research? Is it enough new so to speak? And then I was really lucky to end up at a workshop in Berkeley that was called practical strategies for writing a dissertation. Basically what that whole workshop was about was to make a shift from what, the content of our work, to how, or the work process. And walking out from the workshop I realised that I had not paid enough attention or maybe almost no attention at all to my own work process. When I had a good week, why was it a good week? When I had a week that wasn’t so good workwise, why wasn’t it? Like what work methods worked for me? And what didn’t work? So I started to actually work individually with the workshop leader, she had a lot of experience and I think she had helped over a 100 PhD students finish their dissertations and she never read a line in the work. She only helped out with the work method. I have now taken some of that knowledge back to Sweden. I also thought when I was in management consulting that I got really angry actually at some points because I thought that if I would have known the methods, if I had had that in the beginning as a PhD student, my journey would have been different, I’m quite sure of that. So I sort of try to make a mix of my Berkeley experience together with some techniques and tools from management consulting and adapting that to academia to also help other PhD students focus on the work process. 

Maria: I suppose this book is also something that has come out from your business, from the company that you have founded?

Åsa: Yes, so it actually started when I came home from Berkeley and did finish my dissertation on time. This was very rare in Philosophy at the time so people started to ask me ‘How did you do that?’. Then I started to give informal workshops sharing all the tools I had used and I noticed that more and more PhD students got interested so I gave the workshop to colleagues and all kinds of other people at Lund University. Then I started to think about it, maybe this could actually be something I can do? But then I started to interview PhD students and I realised that I was really wrong in one sense, because I had only focused on productivity, how do finish on time. But they told me all these stories about stress and anxiety and all of these other feelings that we cán all have. So I thought, well this is not my expertise at all, so I have to find someone who knows about this. So I found a psychologist at Lund University who had a lot of experience with PhD students. So she and I, we got this concept going called Finish on TIme where we sort of combined stress management tools with academic productivity tools. Then we tried it out on PhD students and got their feedback and evolved the concept over time. We have been doing it now for over seven years, meeting a lot of academics throughout Sweden and we thought that we should try to share the tools more broadly basically. So that’s how the book came about. 

Maria: So how many students do you think that you have met during the years?

Åsa: We have had workshops and conferences for over 1000 academics on all levels now, like PhD students, Postdocs, and so on. Then we have worked very intensely with 60 PhD students, that we follow over time, and happily they have better completion rates. 

Maria: That is brilliant!  I’m just curious, did you always know that you were going to do a PhD? When did you decide that you would go into academia to begin with?

Åsa:  I think actually I was just 12 or 13. I mean I knew I wanted to do something with philosophy but I don’t think I had the concept of a PhD student, I didn’t really know what that was at the time. But I got this book that I just loved as a Christmas gift from my pratens when I was 12 something. It’s called Sophie’s world. I remember that Christmas, I almost did not come down to eat anything, I just read the book and I just kept reading, reading and reading. I just got totally intrigued by it and I thought could people even ask these kind of questions? And are there these types of answers or at least possible answers? So I was really intrigued and I thought that I will either do sports or I will do something with philosophy. 

Maria: Many of you listening to us are thinking about making a shift from academia to industry or to doing something else. Do you have any final advice for PhD students thinking about making this shift?

Åsa: I think be brave enough to do it I would say. I think it’s so good to get experiences from different parts of society and it’s really useful for a lot of things you can do later. And I think for me and for also other people I’ve talked to that have done that shift, it’s really about figuring out all these things that we actually know. All these generic skills I have talked about, that you are really an expert. But once you are in academia, everyone is an expert, so to speak and can do similar things. Once you get out in business or the non-profit sector or something like that, you are really happy about all the education you got and you can really see everything you learn at the university. So I would just say, go for it!

Maria: Thank you, that’s really nice advice for everyone out there! Thank you so much Åsa for telling your story and we’ll hope to hear from you again soon!

Åsa: Ok, thank you very much!

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