In recent years there has been much talk of difficulties in the academic job market, and of many PhDs transitioning out of academia into the private sector. From what I've observed, it seems that those PhDs that did get private jobs experienced pay and hours much better than what they would have gotten as academic post-docs. Of course, academic freedom, and opportunity to publish or teach are often not as good, but those are somewhat subjective factors.
However most PhD programs aren't really suited to this sort of thing. They are designed (sometimes explicitly) for producing future professors. There is emphasis on teaching, academic research (ie. stuff that you can publish and bring in the cites), writing grants (to agencies like the NSF), and all sorts of academic-y things. These skills don't really seem like they would sound very attractive to a private sector employer, who I assume have, contrary to academia, some regard for making money and less for things I've listed.
Of course there are two main things the PhD has that a company concerned with profit rather than publications would want:
- Specialized domain knowledge
- General reasoning and analytical skills
Everything else you could get from non-PhDs cheaper. These, luckily, are things that PhD is designed to teach anyhow. However, there are often many soft skills I see in job ads, which seem relevant, like:
- Computer skills
- Proficiency with programming languages
- Experience with frameworks and libraries of commercial use (.NET, phone apps, web administration, ecommerce)
- "Works well with others"
- "Good communicator"
- "Can assume leadership role"
- "Can supervise team of junior workers on project"
These are things that, if you want to learn while doing a PhD, sometimes you need to go out of your way to do so. And even if you acquire a skill, how do you convince the employer that you actually have it, as opposed to just saying you do?
So suppose you were a PhD student, but your goal upon graduation was not to start at a postdoc and aim for a college professorship, but do get a job in the private sector. This can be an industrial R&D job very similar to your PhD research, or it can be a supervisory role in an area related to your expertise (eg. fish biologist works at fishery), or it can be unrelated except for using the same skills (eg. physicist working in finance). What would you do differently during your PhD from your faculty-bound peers?
Does it make sense to sort of "flavor" your PhD work with things relevant to the private sector, so you can go into your job search having developed these tangential skills more than the average PhD would? Or is it better to just focus on research, and hope that employers will appreciate your academic success, and see your potential if you applied yourself to their business instead?
Someone will inevitably ask for what field, let's say biomedical -> biotech, software development, finance or healthcare. However, I encourage you to answer in a general way, that would apply to many disciplines; I think such an answer would be more useful.
In general, the optimal thing for a PhD student aiming for the private sector is to quit the PhD as soon as he or she can get a relevant job. There are exceptions if the private sector job involves actual research, and some private sector jobs require the specialized knowledge of an MS or MA degree.
Beyond the basics and the necessary theoretical knowledge, the soft skills and the relevant technical skills are much more easily picked up while working in industry, since you get daily practice in the specifically relevant skills. In addition, one generally gets paid much better in the private sector than as a PhD student.