Leveraging your PhD to Become the CEO of an Organization

While PhD programs offer a chance to expand your expertise and confidence in a particular field, on a larger scale, they also amplify your opportunities for success. To outline certain individuals who have become leaders in their given areas and beyond, we will be looking at PhDs who have become famous CEOs. Additionally, we will be outlining what life is like as a CEO as well as ways you can engage with self-care while in a CEO position, as this work is very time-consuming. It is important to note that by “famous” we are discussing innovative individuals who hold an influential role in a large community. 

This post was written by Isabel Inoa, BA (freelance writer) and Dr. Stephanie Bosco-Ruggiero (instructor, consultant) on behalf of Dr. Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and researchers by providing an authentic look into PhD and academic life and how to be a successful researcher. For over four years the project has been offering advice, community, and encouragement to students and researchers around the world.

What is a CEO? 

Before actually discussing famous CEOs that have also received PhDs, it will prove useful to discuss what a CEO is responsible for, and overall what a CEO is. CEO stands for Chief Executive Officer and is a position of high stature. CEOs execute crucial corporate decisions and serve as a public face for their respective companies. Overall, they are responsible for overseeing an entire company’s operations. This work can include but is not limited to keeping track of agendas, expanding profitability, and managing a company’s organizational framework. Some PhDs end up starting their own business ventures and tech startups. 

Not only do businesses and corporations have CEOs, non-profit, human service, and government  organizations do as well. Nonprofit CEOs have similar tasks but instead of profitability (unless it’s a for profit social venture) they often have responsibility for raising funds via events, contacts with wealthy individuals, and large funding proposals. Those who become CEOs of nonprofit or human service organizations may have a PhD in business, or their PhD may be in social work, urban development, public policy, nonprofit administration, public administration, public health, or a host of other advanced social science degrees. 

Accomplished CEOs with PhDs 

Here are some well known business and nonprofit CEOs with PhDs: 

  • William C. Bell is president and chief executive officer of Casey Family Programs, a  foundation focused on foster care and child welfare. Prior to joining Casey Family Programs, he was commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services and has a PhD in social welfare from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. 
  • Rashmi Sinha received a PhD in Cognitive Neuropsychology from Brown University in 1998 and later became a co-founder and CEO of SlideShare, a company that helps people share, create, and present compelling slideshow presentations. 
  • Ivan Klimek received a PhD in Computer Science and Telematics at the Computer Networks Laboratory, Technical University Kosice. He later became the CEO of Excalibur, which is described as an enterprise identity platform. 
  • Guido Sacchi received a PhD in Engineering from the Polytechnic University of Milan. He later became the CEO of Global Payments, a technology, and software company.
  • Long N. Phan received a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from MIT. He later became the CEO and CTO (Chief Technology Officer) at Top Flight Technologies.
  • Miuccia Prada received a PhD in political science from the University of Milan in 1973. She later became the co-CEO of Prada, a luggage company that was founded by her grandfather in 1913. It has since transformed into a luxury leather-goods company that primarily sells handbags, clothing, and footwear. 
  • Ashwin Vasan, MD, PhD, is the former President and CEO of Fountain House, a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing opportunity, reducing social and economic isolation, and improving the health of people with serious mental illness. Dr. Vasan is now the Commissioner of Health for the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He earned his PhD in public health from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London.

By looking at several different CEOs with PhDs we can see the variety of paths a PhD can lead to. Whether you’re creating a slideshow presentation platform, the head of a high-end fashion company, or the head of a nonprofit organization or government agency, a doctoral degree can effectively prepare you for life as a CEO. 

The benefits of being a CEO

Being a CEO may provide a high, sustainable income for an individual. CEO positions are great to consider, especially if you’re someone who has accrued considerable financial debt from graduate school or a PhD program. Being a CEO can also expand your opportunities in terms of the kinds of companies you can work for. The more you establish good partnerships and an overall effective and organized work environment, the more offers from various organizations you will receive. 

Check out Dave’s video on Management and Success: Can You Learn To Become A More Successful Manager? 

Things to keep in mind when considering becoming a CEO 

Being a CEO can be stressful. It requires immaculate time management skills, excellent attention to detail, and overall the ability to handle a lot of responsibility. Since you would be in charge of a wide range of colleagues, you will have to claim full responsibility for any setbacks or failures that occur. In other words, if everyone is essentially reporting to you as CEO for agenda items and confirmation on their work, you are responsible for all outcomes of that work, positive or negative. You will also have to be innovative and highly adaptable as a CEO, because unexpected challenges may arise. 

Being a CEO of a company can also mean that you don’t have full agency over all of the organization’s community values. This can translate to, at times, compromising some of your personal values for the financial well-being of the company at which you’re working. As a CEO, you will also most likely serve as the public face of your company, and will have to constantly be mindful of this fact so as to not jeopardize the future of the company. Overall, as a CEO, you should be someone who people want to work with. Showing up with a smile on your face will surely do wonders for your public image from the point of view of potential colleagues as well as those with whom you already work. 

Similar to PhD programs, becoming a CEO requires great networking skills. If you are seriously thinking of being a CEO, then it would be helpful to consider setting up a LinkedIn page or something similar to ensure that you’re making good connections with others in your particular field and beyond. It is also extremely important to make use of all of the conferences you will most likely attend during a PhD program. Whether you’re attending in-person or virtually, you should make an effort to share your contact information and foster connections with fellow academics. 

How completing a PhD program can help you as a CEO

In order to become a CEO, you must display excellent communication, decision-making, leadership, problem-solving, and time-management skills. Fortunately, if you complete a PhD program before seriously considering becoming a CEO, you will have had a considerable amount of experience with the aforementioned skill areas. 

In addition, completing a PhD is a great opportunity to network with other professionals in your academic field. Although during a PhD program a lot of the work you do will be a product of your own resilience and efforts, creating a network can expand future job opportunities. Due to the fact that many PhD students attend conferences, and also work closely with an advisor, enrolling in a doctoral program provides effective avenues for networking. 

According to a study conducted on PhDs and firm performance, 10 percent of CEOs have earned a PhD. In addition, the results from this particular study suggest that CEOs with PhDs increased firm performance by 3.03% and CEOs with PhDs from top-ranked universities increased firm performance by 4.65%So, earning a PhD might prove beneficial to your overall performance as CEO. Check out this R3ciprocity blog on the Average Wealth of PhDs: PhDs, Income, and Wealth.

Self-care as a PhD and a CEO

Life as a PhD and a CEO is extremely demanding, so it is always important to practice self-care to sustain your quality of work and time management skills. Self-care practice can look like many different things, but one critical thing to keep in mind is that making time for activities that ground you in your daily routine can be essential to avoiding burnout and maintaining good mental health. Some healthy, grounding practices can include journaling, a yoga practice, reading, talking with a loved one, meditation, a walk, jogging, or exercise in general. Implementing grounding techniques into your daily routine is a way to enjoy the mundane while also curbing anxiety and stress.  Check out Dave’s video on the Mundanity of Life: Much Of Life Is Mundane: Living The Dream 

Having an early morning routine may help you get into doing self-care activities daily and it is important to note that being an early riser will also mean establishing a healthy and consistent sleep schedule. You may set up a night routine for yourself so may effectively wind down from the day, and are able to fall asleep. It is important to place boundaries with smartphones, and other electronics especially, to ensure a healthy sleeping routine. Self-care can also look like taking time off for vacation, acknowledging days where you don’t feel as productive, and taking extra steps to learn to effectively deal with that inevitable reality.

There is a high likelihood that during a PhD program or while working as a CEO, that you will have days where you don’t feel competent or you feel like your days last forever. Accepting this as a likelihood is a productive step in becoming a successful leader and scholar. Because being in a PhD program and being a CEO are incredibly time-consuming endeavors, it is most likely very easy and very possible that you will become completely absorbed in your work and forget to acknowledge the things in life that make you truly happy. 

Something important to consider is that, because CEO positions are so financially rewarding, if you are in need of a hiatus, that is a realistic option. Sometimes, the best way to practice self-care is to acknowledge when you need to stop pressuring yourself to become a perfectly productive person. Sometimes breaks are necessary to reevaluate the next course of action, and sometimes they can serve as a way to gain clarity on your desires and passions moving forward. 

Overall, life as a CEO requires an excellent work-life balance to avoid burnout, as well as to do your job to your highest potential. You may also find it useful to consider therapy alongside working as a CEO, as it would serve as an effective tool to organize and express your thoughts and feelings, especially during stressful moments or periods of time. 

Another important aspect of self-care as a PhD or CEO is to ensure that your basic financial needs are being met. Check out this blog on budgeting during graduate school: How to Survive Financially as a Graduate or Doctoral Student. While CEOs tend to be in a more financially secure place than those enrolled in a PhD program, it is still always advisable to establish healthy budgeting strategies for yourself. 

The bottom line

By reviewing examples of famous CEOs with PhDs, we can see the wide range of opportunities and fields there are for PhDs in leadership roles. While being a CEO can be a highly stressful job, it can also be financially and personally rewarding. Additionally, completing a PhD program in your respective field will not only help you gain expertise in a specific academic area, but will also equip you with the necessary tools to become an effective leader, and possibly a CEO. 

Whatever path you choose, it is always important to evaluate your options and decide if a CEO position is right for you. It is also crucial to practice self-care as a CEO to encourage overall health and consistently good work performance. Similar to the ways that CEOs adapt and change with their companies to ensure success, R3ciprocity has been through a process of project management and execution and has formed an innovative way to engage with a variety of topics and to encourage folks to improve their writing skills in academic contexts and beyond. Check out this blog on the Creation and growth of the R3ciprocity writing platform: What Have I Learnt Creating A Writing & Editing Platform For 5 Years As A Professor of Innovation And Entrepreneurship? 

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