Companies need PhDs - from core competence to mastering a big picture

Doctoral studies pave the way for self-development and research geared toward solving practical problems. What companies get out of PhDs are multidisciplinary experts who are not afraid to tackle major challenges.
Promootiohatut pöydällä

The business world is hungry for prospects holding a Master’s or a Master of Science (Technology) degree. It also seeks those who have completed their doctoral studies, as they possess even greater competence and a broader view of the world. Three business sector influencers and Aalto University alumni describe their passion for doctoral research and why companies should hire talent with PhDs.

Now or never

At the turn of the 21st century, social media was still in its embryonic stage deep in the bowels of Silicon Valley. Enthusiasm for websites and the fact that companies could maintain digital services online had only just entered the conversation.

Heli Rantavuo seisoo puutarhassa.
Heli Rantavuo, D.A., Senior Insights Manager, Data science and user research, Growth Mission at Spotify

‘That's when the technological revolution began. My doctoral dissertation at MediaLab at the School of Art and Design discussed visual communication with mobile phones,’ explains Heli Rantavuo (D.A.), Senior Insights Manager, Data science and user research, Growth Mission at Spotify.

Rantavuo’s enthusiasm for research was sparked during her Master's studies in media and film research, which she completed at the University of Amsterdam. A large part of her doctoral dissertation was also done abroad, first as a visiting researcher at the University of Waseda in Tokyo and then at London School of Economics.

‘International work fundamentally shaped my thinking and perspectives on research. I felt it was part of my qualification as a researcher and the professional skills of a researcher.’ 

In 2009, she earned her doctoral degree. It was time to take the next step. ‘I was drawn to the world of consumer technology. I thought that it’s now or never - let's see what the business world has to offer.’

Research and product development at Nokia inspired her passion for user-centred design: ‘As a brand-new PhD, I was able to bring my international experience to a large company. I worked on interesting projects on a global scale.’

After Nokia, Rantavuo joined Alice Labs, serving as a consultant for international companies. From there, she moved on to eBay, where she was responsible for developing the new business and services of the e-commerce giant. Her current position is with Spotify's Growth Mission. ‘I help solve problems on the global growth market. My doctoral studies have contributed to developing the ability to perceive changes in the market and people's needs as well as in the company's operations.’

Best time of my life

‘Working on my dissertation was the best time of my life. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I got to really put my intelligence to the test and become the real me,’ says Ville Hallavo (D.Sc (Econ.)), Manager, Development Projects at Fiskars Group, who defended his doctoral dissertation in 2014.

Ville Hallavo purjeveneessä
Ville Hallavo, D.Sc (Econ.), Manager, Development Projects at Fiskars Group

According to Hallavo, doctoral studies are an excellent alternative right at the beginning of a career. ‘The best way to keep your skills sharp is to start your doctoral studies right after finishing your Master's studies. If you have a passion for research, by all means stick with it.’

Hallavo's doctoral dissertation in logistics dealt with best company practices and supply chain strategies. He finished the dissertation in three years. After that, the young PhD joined Accenture as a management consultant, followed by a position with Fazer.

‘In consulting work, my PhD provided me with a good image, credibility and a way stand out from consultants with a Master’s degree. As Fazer's Lean Development Manager, I introduced the processes and management practices that I dealt with in my doctoral dissertation to the factory.’

In his current work as Project Manager on the Fiskars Group Strategy & PMO Team, Hallavo heads strategic development projects.

Teaching has always been Hallavo's passion. Done alongside his dissertation work, teaching provided him with a bit of variety to the intensive research he was conducting. ‘With the course reform, I built the Basics of Operations Management course for 300 students from scratch. Even though it meant lots of long nights, I wanted to give it everything I had.’ The course was very well received by students. Hallavo was selected as Teacher of the Year for two consecutive years. ‘The fact that I am an award-winning teacher has given me a great deal of incentive for my career.’

The thing that Hallavo appreciates about Aalto University is that research plays a big role in teaching. ‘It was wonderful to be at a world-class university, where teaching doesn’t just focus on theory in course books, but teachers take an immersive approach to research.’

Hallavo encourages companies to hire young PhDs. ‘Earning a doctorate isn’t easy. It requires an intensive, long-term effort and the ability to perceive complex entities and break them down into smaller parts.’ At the same time, we have to get rid of the old stereotypes of how PhDs are stodgy academics who are all theory and no action. ‘Doctoral students are young, sharp and engaging. The results speak for themselves.’

Responsible water resources management

The dam projects on the upper reaches of the Mekong River in Southeast Asia affect the lives of millions of people and the entire social structure at the lower reaches of the river. In her doctoral dissertation, Ulla Heinonen wanted to examine how sustainable and responsible decisions can be made on water resources management.

Tekniikan tohtori Ulla Heinonen nojaa rennosti seinään
Ulla Heinonen, D.Sc. (Tech.), Managing Director of Gaia Consulting Oy

‘I examined how different perspectives and stakeholders can be involved in decision-making, from ministries to the residents of slums. Even though there is a need for dam projects, people living downstream cannot be treated as nothing more than bystanders,’ says Heinonen (D.Sc. (Tech.)), Managing Director of Gaia Consulting Oy.
Heinonen did field work for her dissertation in Cambodia, where she conducted research in local villages and shared in people's everyday lives. ‘We used participatory methods to work with people who weren’t necessarily literate. Such encounters can only be had through research.’
Heinonen's doctoral dissertation was inspired by her passion for solving diverse problems and influencing things. Working in the Water and Development research group, which is headed by Professor Olli Varis, Heinonen was able to do pioneering work on global water issues.

As an M.Sc. (Tech.) in Water Technology, Heinonen selected Urban Studies and Planning as her major in doctoral studies in order to better understand how society functions. ‘Cross-disciplinary studies get you thinking about things from new perspectives.’

Heinonen's entire career has been focused around sustainable development and responsibility. In addition to working on her doctoral dissertation (which was completed in 2009) she also held various project management positions at the Helsinki University of Technology. She went on to become the head of consulting operations and director of corporate responsibility at CGI Finland. As Managing Director of Gaia Consulting, she now manages a global consulting company for sustainable business.

Text: Marjukka Puolakka

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