How to transition from academia to industry is a question that bedevils many successful, high-level academics. Given their depth of knowledge and experience, entering private industry might not seem like such a daunting task for such a capable cohort of people. However, that is not necessarily the case. It can seem like a whole new world.
But take heart: transitioning from academia to industry is similar to answering how to find a job in academia or how to find a job after grad school; it takes some of the same skills you used to become a successful academic, like building a graduate school resume, networking with trusted colleagues who have already made the leap, and acquiring new knowledge that could help you find a placement faster. This article will detail all those steps and more to help you get into the private sector.
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Differences Between Academia and Industry
Academia and industry are the two areas where highly skilled graduates can apply their knowledge and understanding, but the goals, structure, and environment of each are distinct. For some academics, making the leap to private industry may be easier than for others, but every change or transition comes with its own attendant difficulties.
A career in industry does have inherent challenges and differences that a career in academia does not, but there is a lot of overlap as well. In both – academia and industry – you must still remain committed to your principles as a researcher (scientific method, keeping up to date with new innovations) and use all the knowledge and skills you have acquired to excel in your field, even if your goals are different. And your goals, ends, or whatever you want to call them, are what ultimately set a career in industry apart from a career in academia. Entering the industry means you are entering a business-oriented environment that sees profit and growth as markers of success and motivating factors. These goals and motivations are vastly different from the goals of academics, such as advancing research in their field, proving concepts, and publishing.
Commercial businesses want you and your skillset as a researcher, scientist, and academic, but don’t assume your knowledge alone will get you noticed. Hundreds of other academics have similar knowledge bases, in varying fields and disciplines, so businesses are also interested in qualities like leadership or interpersonal skills and whether you are able to work productively in a team.
Of course, you know how to prepare for thesis defense and how to publish as a graduate student, but companies also want to see how you’ve prepared for the change into the private sector. Have you learned any non-academic skills in your career? Are there skills you want to learn in the private sector that you were not able to learn during university? If so, you should structure your search around the new skills you’ve gained or find employers who are searching for candidates with a skillset similar to yours.
Having spent years working in academia as a tutor, researcher, teaching assistant, and graduate school advisor, you are well aware of the relative freedom and flexibility you have in these roles to make your own hours, determine your workload, and decide who you work with. But these freedoms do not extend into the private sector with its highly structured management hierarchy and delineated roles.
When you enter the private sector and work for a specific company, you must adapt to the organization’s existing structures, rather than having them adapt to you. Depending on the role and company, you may be able to choose your own hours and have other flexible arrangements, but you must go through the appropriate channels and follow protocols set forth by management.
3. Your Contribution(s)
Academia relies heavily on a spirit of collaboration, wherein all team members are recognized and sometimes lauded for their work, but the opportunities to be singled out and recognized in the private sector are few. An organization’s goals orbit around specific performance goals and benchmarks that are more important than recognizing individual achievements.
Being rewarded and recognized in industry does happen, but it would come in the form of collective recognition and not solely for the contribution of one person. Still, being subsumed by the goals of industry is liberating in a sense, since your achievements and failures are not your burden alone to carry but shared with everyone on your team.
4. Intellectual Ownership
Academics and scholars working at the graduate and post-graduate level have an enormous amount of autonomy to determine their research interests, team members, and research direction. All their work – discoveries, research, data – belong to them and their respective team members, along with any processes, technical innovations, and findings they have discovered along the way, but ownership rules also vary among universities, research institutions and collaborators.
Some universities appoint the lead researcher or investigator as the custodian of the data, but that does not give them ownership. For example, Yale University is one institution that owns all the data generated by research, but all members of the research team and university employees play active roles in disseminating, storing, and maintaining the data. Ownership rules could be further complicated by the participation of outside interests – public and private – that have had some role in initiating the project.
A role in an organization removes ownership over your work because you are completing or carrying out company objectives, not supporting or defending a particular hypothesis you presented or some other research interest you are pursuing. However, the removal of ownership is not always a negative. When you are working for a private company, you have access to state-of-the-art equipment and more resources and do not have to worry about securing funding if you need more. You are given all the tools required to complete your work, even though the direction, scope, and objectives of the project are the company’s, not yours.
5. Daily Requirements
The workday of an academic is markedly different to someone’s workday in private industry. Academics are proudly independent, versatile, and self-sufficient, so they spend a lot of time supporting their research by filling out grant applications, writing effective statements of intent, and fulfilling teaching requirements.
These responsibilities are non-existent in the private sector. Your funding and support come from the organization you work for, and even though you may have to fill out progress and expense reports from time to time, you are more often preoccupied with research and writing than having to solicit funds from donors and other charitable foundations.
The type of company you work for and the industry you choose to enter also determine what your day-to-day responsibilities are, given that each sector has unique demands. However, in academia, the day-to-day responsibilities are the same, regardless of your program or specialization.
6. Workplace Demands
Academia and industry are different in terms of the ways each of them structures priorities and how those priorities determine workplace culture. In academia, your focus is first on determining your research direction, answering research questions, or investigating unexplored avenues of research. You may spend a lot of time discussing and figuring out your objectives, structuring experiments, and trying to get published.
But the pressures of working for a company are different. The direction of your work is already determined, so you do not have to waste time figuring out what your objectives are, but there are other demands you must contend with, such as meeting deadlines, reaching performance indicators, and managing several projects at a time.
Being successful in industry requires more advanced communication and organizational skills because you must report to superiors and other departments to integrate various solutions into your work. You must also be able to deal with the quicker pace of working at a for-profit company, which is distinct from the ponderous approach of university academics.
A major factor, albeit not the only one, that pushes academics toward industry is income potential: salaries in the private sector are much higher than the typical salaries of academics – even those who have tenure and have been published many times. Universities take in an enormous amount of money from tuition fees and other revenue streams, but no university can compete with the earning power of a multinational pharmaceutical company or global food conglomerate.
Academics are well aware of the disparities in compensation between working in academia and industry, and many of them choose to go into private work because of it. After all, becoming a talented, well-respected academic is not cheap. Many graduates, despite their success, are saddled with debt after completing their studies and feel they should be compensated for the time, money, and effort they put into obtaining their degrees.
Tips on How to Transition from Academia to Industry
1. Know Where You Are Wanted
Whatever field you are in, before making the jump to industry, you should understand what companies are looking for from someone with your expertise. Because STEM graduates have a wide range of applicable skills and knowledge, STEM fields are often the easiest to transition into in the private sector.
However, if your specialization is unrelated to a STEM subject, you should find a company that requires your specific breadth of knowledge, whether it be in languages, international relations, economics, or history, and for what purpose, specifically. When you know what companies want from someone with your specialization, you have a better chance of meeting those requirements.
Fortunately for you, many academics have already made the switch to the private sector; they are the ones best suited to help you find your place in industry. You can reach out to former colleagues who have entered the private sector as well as professional references like the people you asked for grad school letters of recommendation.
Not only can these references help you find an opportunity, but they can also provide tips on how to present yourself to companies professionally. They can tell you what your resume should look like in the business world and explain how it differs from a research resume.
3. Change Your Mentality
When you were in academia, you worried about different things and had the mindset of a scholar pondering serious questions and devising research approaches. However, to transition from academia to industry, you need to realign your thinking to match the mentality of the profession you are entering.
Your mindset should become more business oriented. You need to start think collectively of how best to serve the interests of the company and not what is best for your field, in general. This doesn’t mean you must abandon your own interests, but academics are not motivated by profit margins, innovation, and competitiveness in the same way as people who have always worked for a for-profit company. If you cannot accept and internalize that you are the extension of the business goals of a board of shareholders, then entering the private sector could be problematic. Entering a private company also means having to give up a certain amount of autonomy and freedom, which is something most academics may struggle with, initially.
4. Learn New Skills
Your academic prowess and skillset are no doubt impressive, and you should be proud of them. But companies have a different set of criteria upon which you will be judged and scrutinized. Of course, they are impressed by your numerous academic achievements and degrees, but do you have experience in project management, resource allocation, and multitasking?
The skills you need to break into industry are different from the ones that propelled your success in academia, although some are interchangeable. For example, having to fill out grant applications and write a statement of purpose for graduate school should have prepared you to write progress reports, performance assessments, and research protocols.
Furthermore, there are non-technical academic skills that are crucial to raising your profile, like understanding basic business principles or motivating team members to push through a tight deadline. How you learn these skills is up to you, but you can always find new venues like volunteer or paid work in a field unrelated to your academic work to grow your capacities. These are the efforts that make recruiters stand up and take notice.
5. Practice Your Interview Skills
Having had to answer common and difficult graduate school interview questions throughout your high-level academic career, putting more preparation into mastering interviews may seem misplaced. But the goals and intentions behind a job interview differ from the goals and intentions of being asked postdoc interview questions.
You should brush up on your interview skills before going in for a professional placement, especially if you’ve learned new skills, or gained more relevant experience. A lot of PhD graduates are uncomfortable with the idea of having to “sell” themselves but knowing how to be personable and authentic in an interview with a for-profit company is a selling point in itself.
6. Know Who You Want to Work For
Maybe the biggest question scholars have to answer before transitioning from academia to industry is who exactly they want to work for. The type, size, and scope of an organization are what you should research first if you are looking to move into the private sector. You know your own strengths, interests, and ambitions, so you should try to match your profile with a likeminded organization.
7. Be Humble and Stay Motivated
Academics who have excelled for years in their respective studies and fields might have a hard time adjusting to a new, unfamiliar role in an industry job. Moving into an industry role is not a step down, though, and graduates who make the transition to industry should embrace the newness and challenge of the endeavor.
After all, a passion for learning is engrained in the DNA of all serious academics, so applying that passion to a professional role in a large corporation, start-up, or non-profit should not be a daunting task. If you have already made it through the arduous journey of completing a Master’s or a PhD, adjusting to your new job should seem easy by comparison.
There is no one way for how to transition from academia to industry, and every academic making the transition to private industry should know that. Some academics could be recruited directly by companies looking for experienced, knowledgeable graduates, while others need to apply themselves to the search by following the tips outlined in this article.
A graduate school admissions consultant can better explain the options that recent graduates have to enter the private sector, when they do graduate. The experience of getting a graduate degree should prepare you in some ways to enter the workforce, but there are things specifically about making the switch to industry that you should know before you do.
1. Is there a difference between academia and industry?
There are multiple differences between working in academia and industry, including salary expectations, roles and responsibilities, management style, and access to resources.
2. What do I need to enter industry from academia?
You need to understand your best-selling points for an industry job based on your degree and specialization. You may also need to learn new skills based on the sector you want to join or change your mentality to a more business-oriented mindset.
3. What should I know about the job market?
Before entering the job market, look for where your specialization, knowledge, and background are most wanted or desired. If your particular skills are not in demand, you should work on learning new skills to make yourself more marketable.
4. Do I have to have been published to get a job?
Not necessarily. Most academics will have published a paper or more, but private employers are interested in other qualities that will make you a valuable contribution to the workplace, like interpersonal and leadership skills.
5. Should I talk to a recruiter to help me get a job?
You can reach out to specific recruiters who are looking for candidates like you, but graduate school recruiting strategies are different from workplace recruiting strategies, so make sure you know the difference before talking to recruiters.
6. Should I network with other academics and professionals?
Yes, you should use your network, perhaps an alumni network, to help you answer how to transition from academia to industry. People who have already made the jump to industry can help you adjust your resume and prepare you for an interview.
7. Are job interviews different from academic interviews?
There are slight differences between a job interview and an academic interview, including the nature of the questions and the focus on your non-academic skills and attributes.
8. Is it easy to transition from academia to industry?
Making the transition to industry from academia is not hard, but you should expect to adjust your skillset, mentality, and approach to getting an industry job so that you are not frustrated by the process.
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