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Recruiting PhDs for C-level/top management positions

Dernière mise à jour : 2 mars 2022

Can the skills of PhDs be an advantage in decision-making positions?


What is a C-level position?

C-level positions are the most senior or top-level positions in a company, in other words, the executives of a company. The "C" stands for chief and a such C-level positions include CEO (Chief Executive Officer), CFO (Chief Financial Officer), CTO (Chief Technology Officer), CSO (Chief STrategy Officer), CBO (Chief Business Officer), and many others.


In today's knowledge-based economy, the job market is constantly changing and the work activities of managers require more creativity, initiative and adaptability than ever before. On the other hand, it is necessary for organizations of all sizes and sectors to have leaders that understand the impacts of this evolution, while having the skills to lead a team in a changing context. Our studies as well as our experience in recruitment show us that PhDs have acquired a unique set of technical, cross-disciplinary and human skills during their doctoral program, which are likely to make them more than suitable talents for this type of position. They are particularly found in innovative and cutting-edge technology sectors, where, roughly speaking, understanding science and research processes in order to direct strategy is all the more important.

How core competencies are an advantage in management positions

During their doctoral training, PhDs develop skills that are not limited to R&D activities. Throughout their doctoral program, Ph.D. students develop, among other things, analytical and critical thinking, complex problem-solving skills, learning strategies, creativity, but also originality, resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility, to name but a few. These acquired skills, which are particularly useful for decision-making positions, are not exclusive to Ph.D. holders. Still, their likelihood to occur within the same individual makes them skills that characterize Ph.D. holders in France, Canada, and probably elsewhere.

Where do PhDs stand on C-level positions?

There is currently no study focusing specifically on PhDs' careers and career paths into C-Level positions. However, the 2012 CAREER study does help us determine that 2.35% of PhDs hold management positions in France. A similar finding can be made in Canada, with 2.22% of PhDs holding executive positions in the country (PhDetectives, 2019). An analysis of profiles and job offers on LinkedIn shows that approximately 3.2% of C-level job offers require a Ph.D., whereas it is only required for 1.3% of all job offers. Furthermore, 2.7% of LinkedIn users who have a C-level job mention that they hold a Ph.D., even though PhDs represent about 0.9% of France's active population. Doctors are therefore somewhat well represented in these positions. But what is their added value in these positions? Here are two case studies drawn from our recruitment consulting experience, which show some of the key contributions that PhDs can make.

Why PhDs in C-level positions?

For 13 years now, Adoc Talent Management has been helping a variety of organizations surround themselves with the skills of PhDs, notably in C-level positions. These projects allow us to learn a certain number of lessons about the added value that PhDs can bring to executive teams.

The first example of mission accomplished is a start-up in the digital sector, whose products are based on AI, which we helped to recruit a PhD in computer science. The founding team was well-equipped with business skills and adequately covered marketing, business development and finance. But to go further, the startup needed strong technical expertise to foster innovation. We recruited a CTO (Chief Technology Officer), who also gradually joined the company's capital as a partner.

Among his contributions to the company, he built and led a scientific and technical team, while directing the company's strategy towards the most advanced technologies. His perspective enabled him to translate business issues into an R&D roadmap for the scientific team. With an entrepreneurial spirit and a good grasp of customer needs, while being able to translate them into R&D projects, he enabled the development of a Saas (Software as a service) solution, which was brought to market in 15 months, giving the company a significant edge in its market.

It is often imagined that PhDs are only found in scientific or technical departments. However, our experience shows us that in innovative companies, they are valuable on more business-oriented functions.

In conclusion, PhDs can skillfully bridge science, technology and strategy to innovate at all levels of the value chain, optimize internal processes, work organization, technology components, user experience, and so on. PhDs bring skills that allow them to question and rethink what already exists, bring new ideas, go beyond boundaries and distinguish themselves in C-level positions.

Whether you are a PhD in a top management position or looking to reach these positions or a recruiter interested in the skills of PhD holders in a top management context, do not hesitate to comment here or send us a message.

For more information on the subject :

Watch the conference entitled "What place for doctors in top management positions", hosted by Dr. Amandine Bugnicourt, CEO of Adoc Talent Management, and Yamina Cauvin, Head of Recruitment and Training consultant, held online on November 20, 2020. (French Only).

  • See also our CAREER study on the competencies of PhDs in France.

  • Read PhDetectives, our study on the skills and careers of PhD holders in Canada.

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