Dr David Alich works at Capgemini Consulting as a Principal for Insight & Data. In this episode, we talk to David about his decision to leave academia, what he wished he had known before he started his PhD at the Max Planck Institute and how he landed his current position
When attending the third Max Planck Career Fair at Harnack-Haus in Berlin earlier this fall, we got the chance to talk to Dr David Alich who works at Capgemini Consulting as Principal for Insight & Data. We spoke with David about his decision to leave academia, what he wished he had known before he started his PhD at the Max Planck Institute and how he landed his current position at Capgemini.
I was always asking myself this question: Are you working to live or are you living to work?
– Dr David Alich, Principal Insight & Data at Capgemini Consulting, Hamburg
PhD Career Stories is interviewing David Alich, who works at Capgemini as a Principal for Insight & Data.
Tina: Very welcome, David.
David: Thank you very much, nice to be here.
Tina: How do you feel?
David: Very nice, it’s a nice atmosphere at this meeting. It’s nice to see all these young people that are inspired and ready to move in the direction of research or business. It’s also nice to see that the PhDNet work is evolving into such nice gatherings and career fairs.
Tina: I have some questions for you that are PhD-related. As you know, PhD Career Stories is a podcast made by PhDs for PhDs, particularly to help PhDs in their career transition from academia to industry. When did you finish your PhD?
David: I started my PhD in 2004 and I finished in 2009. I handed in my thesis in 2008 already; however, it took a long time until the defense was scheduled. It was almost nine months later.
Tina: Why did you start a PhD?
David: After my diploma thesis, which I wrote at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, I felt that I wasn’t really finished with my scientific experience. I felt that I had just had a brief touch of it during my thesis. There was this nice offering made to me to write my PhD thesis at a Max Planck Institute. Of course you think twice before you say no. I felt that it was a good idea to prolong my scientific work a bit and also to go deeper into the field in which I was working, which was family demography and data analytics.
Tina: What was it then that initiated your decision to leave academia?
David: It was a mixture of certain things. After the PhD, there’s always this feeling of exhaustion. After five years of deep digging into scientific topics, it’s always complicated and it feels like you’re a bit empty after this phase. That was one thing, but this problem wouldn’t be enough to really quit.
However, what was one of the main drivers was that the perspective in academia in Germany from my field was quite rare. It was clear that I would have to do a postdoc for two years, probably in a different city and a different country. This kind of moves I think would have had to go on for probably eight more years. Changing the topic, publishing, seeing other universities. I felt that the lack of security was puzzling me. I was always asking myself, “Are you working to live or are you living to work?” I felt that I would like to work for living! I would like to do other stuff than science and concentrate all my life around scientific decisions and work.
The third thing was that during that phase, I already recognized that companies were collecting data on a very large scale. I asked myself, “What do they do with the data? There must be a benefit of gathering all this stuff.” That’s where my background in analytics kicked in. I said to myself that it might be a nice thing to move to a company or to consulting to be able to dig out strategies and analytical approaches to deal with all the data and get benefits out of it.
Tina: Can you describe what your feelings were at the end of your PhD when you realized that you wanted to leave?
David: It’s always a mixture. It was that feeling of being close to the end and already feeling the relief of finishing your thesis. The relief afterwards was peaking on the horizon. I also felt a bit like I had spent enough time on one subject and really wanted to broaden my horizon. The feeling of relief and excitement of new perspectives, but also frustration from the lack of perspective or insecurity of perspective. The relief when you finish your thesis is of course big and worth a party!
Tina: What do you wish you had known before you started your PhD?
David: The common mistake that’s usually made when you start your PhD is that you think your PhD is all about knowledge and deep scientific work. I wish I had known that, from my perspective, at least 50% is psychological things. Like the power to motivate yourself and go through the valleys and highs of your PhD when you’re stuck with problems you can’t solve on your own. On the other hand, when you publish a paper you feel like the king of the earth and you’re close to being the next Einstein. These kinds of things. It would have helped quite a lot.
This lesson I learned is something I always tell young PhD students or master students who are thinking of doing a PhD. I tell them, “Please remember, science is just 50% of the story of finishing it. (Science) might be necessary to fill the whole thing with content, but really, to finish it might be a completely different story sometimes.”
Tina: What would you say is the most important skill that you learned doing your PhD?
David: I think it’s the way of thinking. Actually, I think it’s three things. You’re working in a very structured way, you learn how to structure yourself to solve problems. You usually learn that on your own, so you’re not afraid to enter new topics, read and understand them in the end.
The other thing is self-motivation, which is an important thing. Usually you’re a bit specialized on your field, not to say alone, so there is a need for an ability to sometimes dig yourself out of motivational holes.
Tina: What do you think now, having worked at Capgemini for a while, that the industry needs from PhDs?
David: I think it’s the structured way of thinking. The analytical way of assessing things is what that the industry always needs from PhDs.
Tina: Looking at you now, David, what soft skills have you improved (while) in industry?
David: You’re much more in front of customers, especially in consulting, so you need to understand all the little signals, the surroundings. The personal and professional situations where a person is in it, where the pressure comes from. You also have to have a very deep understanding of the problems that a business might have. It’s not science in terms of rocket science, this is rather about something else, it’s about understanding people.
Tina: Why did you get the job at Capgemini?
David: I think you always have to look for a cultural and personal fit within the company. The skill set helps a lot to actually come to an interview and show your ability to cope with industry questions, questions that touch certain skill sets. But you have to communicate and that’s always as important as the hard skills. Everything is worthless without the presentation and the presentation is worthless without content. That’s the big thing.
Tina: We’re closing up now, but what would you like to share with new PhDs listening about what you have learned from doing your transition? We have PhDs listening from all over the world. What tips and tricks would you like to share with them who might be sitting and thinking, “Wow, I would like to work at Capgemini, a consulting company. How could I do that?”
David: My advice is to broaden your senses, even if you’re doing a deep dive into your project. Be open to the big economic developments, read newspapers. Be open to discussions, especially around all the digitalization happening right now. These kinds of things. Be open to experiences outside of your PhD. These can be little things, or maybe not always, but organizing events like here at PhDNet. Working with friends on a start-up idea. If you have two, three or four weeks off and would like to know a company from the inside, take apprenticeships. It doesn’t always have to be devoted to a certain career path. I actually don’t like streamlined paths. I think streamlined paths leave people a bit streamlined in their personal development. In early ages, that’s okay, but as you get older, it gets complicated.
Tina: What I’m hearing is that socializing and taking part in networks are important things and can improve and help PhDs to get a job at Capgemini or other consulting companies.
David: Exactly. Then, of course, for consulting, try out a couple of business cases that are floating around the internet. Try to see how the mindset in consulting is working.
Tina: Is there anything you would like to add as a personal tip and trick?
David: Don’t be afraid to speak out or get in touch with somebody you might even think isn’t interested in you because you think you don’t know anything. I think the biggest problem in science is that you might be so deep into the subject that you are only focusing on things you don’t know. But you are special in so many ways and good at so many things already, that these things are worth to consider. Especially in business, these things count.
Tina: That was David Alich. Thank you very much, David. We’re so glad to have had you here live from Berlin, the Harnack-Haus and Max Planck Career Fair. Thank you very much for sharing!
David: Thank you very much for the interview!