Transitioning from Academia to Industry: Tips and tricks

Co-authored with Neha Bora; Edited by Dr. Karoline Pershell.

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(Image source: It’s Time We Bury The Idea Of A “Good Career Trajectory” (think-boundless.com))

This post is a collection of takeaways from a webinar on ‘ Normalizing Unconventional Careers’ by Dr. Karoline Pershell. Karoline holds a PhD in mathematics with expertise in theoretical systems, statistical modelling, and data analytics. She is presently the Chief Operating Officer at Service Robotics and Technologies (SRT).

With years of experience traversing academia, government, and commercial enterprises, Karoline enjoys sharing her story, insights and struggles to help students and professionals make their career transitions easier. In her own words:

We are raised and trained by our PhD or master’s advisors who are in a certain type of career position and unknowingly groom us to reach similar positions. This inherited value system of what matters in math had unjustifiably narrowed my perceived career paths and distorted my own measures of success. The result was that I consistently undervalued my worth and abilities outside of research mathematics early in my career. My own unconventional career emphasizes that careers don’t have to be trajectories, that there is no single “right” starting place, and that one can be a mathematician across academia, government, business, industry and the nonprofit sector.

A timeline of Karoline’s professional career trajectory (top) and the skills she gathered along the way (bottom)

Karoline’s webinar was attended by graduate students in various disciplines and from across the world. As two of the attendees, we attempt here to compile some of the main insights, tips and wisdom we gained out of it. The webinar was focused on anyone looking to change careers, but especially on those currently in the academic environment looking for their way out. The main take-aways from her talk are summarized below.

Part 1: Moving out of academia

Getting through the PhD

  • It is common in academia to feel pressure, especially during grad school, to make your research/subject your complete focus and give up other parts of your identity. But acknowledging and nurturing other facets of your identity is important so that when you have failure in one realm (like your research), it is not your whole self that is failing. More components to your identity means that you can better contextualize and compartmentalize setbacks.
  • Finishing your PhD doesn’t say much about your smartness, but it does speak about the fact that you were ultra-committed, and that builds credibility.

Re-evaluating your value and reward systems

  • Grad students often inherit a limited value system imposed on them by academia, where their worth is judged primarily based on skills of research, publication and (sometimes) teaching. But it’s important for them to look beyond this and figure out their own value system : “What do I want from my job/life?” rather than — “what was the golden standard during my training”?
    In her words: Many academics are bad at being mentors, but good at “here is how you can be me”. Grad students need to keep this in mind to avoid taking the judgement/evaluation of their academic mentors as the complete picture, and need to figure out their own values and non-academic strengths.
  • When there is an alignment between your preferred reward system and the reward system of your job, there is a better sense of accomplishment and progress. For instance, Karoline realized that she was someone who “liked getting gold stars”, but in her time in academia, the reward system felt solely focused on research and not on the other aspects of her job that she enjoyed (like student organizing, program development, etc.), which led to the unsolvable situation: (1) she liked getting acknowledged for the work she did, (2) she enjoyed doing doing X (and not Y), but (3) gets rewarded for doing Y (and not X). Once this misalignment was identified, she realized she couldn’t fully be happy in this situation.

Transitioning from an ‘academic’ mindset to a ‘industry’-mindset

  • In academia, there is a clearly defined structure where any given task is allocated to an ‘expert’ in the task/field. The ‘real world’ doesn’t work like that — industry needs people who can ‘ figure things out’ rather than ‘experts’.
    Realizing this opens up a chance to explore your strengths and skills different from those strictly related to your expertise, which many grad students are unable to acknowledge, recognize and practice during their time in academia. This is also good to keep in mind while approaching a job interview for a position that you might not be an expert at.
  • Many grad students develop a low opinion of themselves after having interacted with ‘brilliant’ academics or grad students in their circles. However, holding a PhD degree is highly valued outside academia — most non-academic people consider PhDs to be smart and capable of working on difficult things.
  • The academic image has negative aspects too: academics are perceived as unable to fit in well with the rest of the world and solve tangible practical problems. Keeping in mind that your background is often highly valued outside academia, you still need to make sure people can take you out of the ‘academic box’.
    Given Karoline’s background in mathematics, she tried to do this by moving away from the technical details of her research and towards her process and the mathematical tools she used that could be applicable to the job at hand. In her words, ‘Academia — out, process — in’.

Part 2: The job application process

How do I explore career options that I am interested in but know nothing about?

  • Visit job boards (websites which have listings of open positions) — e.g. LinkedIn, Indeed, Glassdoor, Zip-recruiter etc. and sign up to be notified when new positions are put up.
  • Mark the positions that attract your interest. Ask yourself questions like:
    - What do you like about it?
    - Do you already have the required skill set/qualifications for it?
    - Is it an entry level position or does it require experience?
  • Do this multiple times to find patterns in your interests, and also note required skills that you lack at the moment.
  • Check for mentoring programs, internships, etc. being offered in the companies/fields of your interest.
  • Cold call people in the field/people associated with the job postings that you like for informational interviews.
  • If there are senior posts advertised that interest you, contact the person hiring for the position and ask them if any associated junior positions are available. Also ask for other available opportunities, mentoring programs, or informational programs, and if you can be added to a list to be notified when new opportunities open up.

Should I apply for jobs straight away, or is it more valuable to go through internships/fellowship programmes first?

Transition to a new career can be made much easier by joining an internship or fellowship. The biggest advantages of these are:

  • You figure out if you like the job.
  • The company/organization figures out if they like you.
  • You get a chance to find a mentor who is based in a different kind of working space than your academic supervisor.
  • You start to build a ‘reputation’ — some reference for people who will consider hiring you later.

Do academic recommendation letters matter when looking for a job?

“When you are not a child anymore, no one cares about your parents.”
Outside of academia, recommendation letters from your advisor don’t hold much value. In fact, it could be the case that your academic advisors/mentors might not be familiar with the vocabulary needed for a particular job. In such cases, it is helpful to write to them asking if they could write a supportive letter for a certain position and suggest ‘talking points’ for them on specific skill sets based on the job description. But give them reasonable things to say!

I’ve been applying to a few jobs, but haven’t gotten any positive responses.

  • You need to apply a lot. For applications through job boards, you can expect to get a call back for 20/100 applications, get through to a few interviews (5/20), and land a job on one of them. So there is a 1% chance of getting a job for every application you make through a job board.
  • It is normal to have a much longer ‘anti-resume’ (applications that didn’t work out) than a resume. If your anti-resume isn’t longer than your resume, it means you aren’t applying enough.
  • However, the application process usually tends to have positive spirals : the first job is always the hardest to find, but once someone has trusted you enough to hire you, it becomes easier for subsequent employers to trust that you can handle the job too.

Part 3: More advice on career transitions:

I get that a career is not a trajectory but can I still plan anyway?

  • Plan to have the ability to move jobs until you find the one that matches your value and reward system. For many people, the basic requirement is to first cushion yourself with financial stability so that you can take risks and quit a job that you don’t like.
  • Always be listening for jobs, even if you are not actively looking or need a job. This way, you will not be in a desperate situation when you actually need to apply for a new job.

Know when to quit

A very negative narrative exists around quitting, due to which people often stick around in jobs that they no longer find enjoyable or meaningful. It is important to regularly reflect on your goals for and expectations from your career and if they still align with your current job.

How can I judge if an opportunity is right for me?

Karoline’s personal litmus test to move from one job to another is by answering these questions

  • Can I add value at this position?
  • Do I have the skillset to perform required tasks at position X?
  • Does it look interesting? Do I want to do it?
  • Can I learn something by being at this position?

She also emphasized that your criteria to judge opportunities is dynamic: in the beginning of the career, people generally value the type of work more than work environment and people, but later work environments may become equally/more important factors.

Other helpful resources:

Getting What You Came For by Peters, Robert

Quitting (previously published as Mastering the Art of Quitting): Why We Fear It — and Why We Shouldn’t — in Life, Love, and Work by Streep, Peg, Bernstein, Alan

We hope our summary was useful for you!

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