Why I love working with PhDs

by | Oct 26, 2018

Recently, after I finished a call with a client I was jubilant, as I realized how much I had learnt from the call. It got me thinking about how blessed I am to have my job. I train innovators how to develop and convey their work to stakeholders and partners inside and outside their organisations so I get to hear about all sorts of cool things they are doing. I thought about what I like about my role and the clients I’ve worked with over the years. My clients are mostly scientists, engineers, and technical managers. It dawned on me that a high portion of my clients have PhDs and it is from them I’ve learnt the most.

Before I started this job, the only people I knew that had doctoral degrees were my professors at university (which was a fair bit of time ago) and my medical doctors (who I avoided as much as possible). In the decade I’ve been doing this job, it has become so normal for me to be in a room full of PhDs that it is really worth acknowledging what a privilege it is and how I’ve benefited from it.

Broader Knowledge

I get exposed to a variety of topics from chemical engineering to computer modeling and simulation. This has broadened my perspective enormously. “High voltage switchgear” and “surfactant” became part of my vocabulary. My knowledge is constantly expanding. The other day I learnt that MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technique can be used outside medical procedures–e.g. to check if a piece of rock contains oil.

Humility and Openness

My PhDs clients are recruited by their companies because they are considered some of the most brilliant minds in their fields, yet they are so humble. They believe and act like they know little, hence they are always learning–reading research reports, patent applications, and journals. And they are welcoming of questions. My formal science education stopped at GCSE level (10th grade in the US) so you can imagine how basic my questions at times must seem to my clients, but they take pleasure in answering them. The constant trial and error of their profession–unsuccessful experiments, and hypotheses proven wrong–make them accept and embrace their fallibility. As one PhD client once said: “a proper scientist has to be open to being wrong because there is so much we don’t know.” According to another PhD, author and professor, Marcus du Sautoy in his book What We Cannot Know: Explorations at the Edge of Knowledge, “The known unknowns outstrip the known knowns. And it is those unknowns that drive science. For example, the stuff that makes up the physical universe we interact with seems to account for only 4.9% of the total matter content of our universe. So what is the other 95.1% of so-called dark matter and dark energy made up of?”

Striving for Better

The awareness of the vast unknown is what drives my PhD clients to constantly search for new discoveries even in known areas. Take soap for instance. It is has been around since 2800 BC in Babylon and became widely used as a cleaning agent in 100 AD. So soap has existed for a very long time. I was astonished to discover that some of my clients have dedicated their entire careers–decades–to studying soap. They tell me there is still so much to figure out due to continual change in supply and composition of raw materials and development of new machinery and methods. Add the challenge of making it for millions, even billions of people globally, thus soap manufacturing is a process that still needs to be improved.


My clients can specialize in just one aspect of making soap such as spray drying method or surfactant. How can they spend years and years dedicated to just one aspect of it? One client replied: “to leave the world a little better than I found it”. Another client said: his desire “was to make products that improve the lives of many”. I’m glad and inspired by the fact that they are people who are motivated to work on surfactants, something that the vast majority of people don’t know of or think about but touches our lives every day in the form of shampoo, detergent, toothpaste and many other products.

Working with this calibre of clients makes me up my game and strive to do my job better. Seeing how they work often reminds me of what it takes to create and achieve something of real value. You have to have clear vision, faith, the discipline to do the work, acceptance of failure along the way and the determination to succeed.

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