#beyondAcademia: Advice and mistakes

Our respondents engaged in a perspective-taking exercise that we hope will be valuable to you as you’re thinking about your next career stage. We asked them to imagine when they were still in academia, and to give advice to someone in the same position.

First, respondents offered some thoughts on morale, which may be low right now. “If academia doesn’t feel right to you,” Anita Bowles advised, “don’t be afraid to explore other options. There is life after academia, and it’s pretty good.”

Respondents know you may be facing what you believe to be the loss of a noble profession. Many of them initially pursued academia because it seemed to be noble or pure. Brock Ferguson explained: “I, like many people, was attracted to academia at least in part because of its purity: the pursuit of knowledge without considering politics, money, or social pressures.”

Leaving academia might feel you’re like selling out, especially if others reaffirm that belief. Stefania Mereu warned: “don’t let your academic peers and supervisor discourage you from pursuing opportunities outside of academia, such as internships and contracting opportunities. I’ve witnessed behaviors that could be considered borderline bullying. Don’t let them convince you that those jobs are less interesting or less noble. Stop thinking that you are “selling your soul”. There are plenty of companies with very noble and impactful careers out there.”

Second, respondents prescribed some soul searching to identify what aspects of academia you most enjoyed. Once you’ve identified those factors, use them to guide your career search (and for more thorough advice on choosing a new career, read the post on factors to consider when choosing a new career. “Understand that there is no single ‘type’ of non-academic job,” Katie Rotella explained, “consulting is very different from working in R&D, which is very different from a policy job. Understand what kinds of things you most value in a job, which skills you most enjoy using, and then tailor your search to that.” Keep an open mind, and consider every opportunity, Katherine Livins advised, because “psychology can lead to everything from data science, to algorithm development, to education, to user experience and human factors.”

Another piece of advice was to not be afraid to start conversations with people working in fields you’re interested in. Maria D’Angelo suggested to “do informational interviews to get a sense of what jobs are out there, and make sure to ask what a typical day is like in the position.” Nick Gaylord agreed: “get to know people in industry, and talk to them. Just those conversations on their own will teach you a lot. This will put you more at ease in future interviews.”

Finally, respondents cautioned patience. It will probably take a lot longer than you expect to find a job. Mike Winograd offered the following rule of thumb: “if you decide to travel or wait to apply [after a PhD], start looking for jobs at least 4 months before you want to start working.” Don’t get discouraged, because the process took a long time for others, too.  

Avoiding big mistakes

Hindsight is always 20/20. We asked respondents about the biggest mistakes people make when transitioning out of academia so that you can spot them and avoid them.

There was agreement that your attitude can be your biggest ally or your biggest enemy during the transition. At one end of the bad ‘tude spectrum is feeling like you’re owed a good job simply because you have a PhD. “Be cognizant of your attitude,” Livins suggested, and “keep in mind that most companies (especially the big ones with the jobs that everyone wants) have thousands (literally thousands) of applicants – many of whom have PhDs from prestigious universities.”

Preconceptions might get in the way. “It’s not necessarily ‘easy’ to get an industry job (an attitude I’ve heard from some academics in the past),” Livins continued, “be confident, but make sure to communicate that you know it’s a big opportunity,” when applying for a job.

“Don’t expect to start anywhere but the bottom,” Ferguson cautioned. “If you’ve just finished your PhD, you’re likely a very smart, hard-working person, and it feels like you should be instantly rewarded for that by coming in as a Senior X or X Level 5. But in many jobs, a person with an undergraduate degree and a year or two of experience is probably much more effective than you at getting stuff done. Bosses know this, and they are unlikely to offer you a great title right out of the gates. This may seem like a slap in the face given all your hard work in the PhD, but I actually think most people come to appreciate the relative lack of pressure/expectations for starting a job in the real world. You’ll be able to move up the ladder quickly if you’re good, so it’s really just a short-term annoyance.”

On the other side of the bad ‘tude spectrum is the belief that your skillset is too narrow to be of any use. Nick Gaylord explained: “the biggest mistake by far that I see is that people sell themselves short. There’s a persistent myth inside academia that you are separated from industry by some huge gulf and that your skills don’t transfer. While your specific expertise likely won’t, you actually have gained a ton of skills during your time in grad school that are massively valuable to companies – you can work on complicated stuff with minimal supervision, you collaborate well, you can get yourself up to speed on projects quickly, etc. It’s up to you to sell yourself as a unique opportunity to a new employer, but that is far from impossible to do.”

Along with broadening your view on skills, try to broaden your view on what makes an interesting problem. Rotella pointed out that “something that is inherently scientifically interesting may not be a great idea in business—whether because it isn’t practical to implement, or the knowledge is too hard to translate into something tangible (or is too incremental to effect meaningful change in something tangible).  As scientists, we can be very focused on the minutiae, but in industry that can mean missing the forest for the trees.”

In sum, a damaging attitude, either one of entitlement or one that’s narrow-minded, will limit you. But if you see yourself as someone who has valuable skills and an interest in using those skills to help others, that positive attitude will come through to potential employers.

Dealing with life changes

What can you do to stay strong while making a transition out of academia? Our respondents had some advice to make this period smoother.

“Leaving academia can be really hard,” Stefania Mereu admitted, “once you realize that the career you had envisioned is not as attractive in practice as it was in your dreams, you may experience feelings of betrayal, anger and rejection or even envy toward colleagues that were “luckier” that you and landed what you would have considered your “dream job”. These feelings are normal (although I believe that encouraging the right attitude and offering a more realistic picture of the job market could save a lot of pain), and they’ll eventually go away. Focusing on the positive (I know, easier said than done) such as attractive salaries and location can help. Getting to know people who have those jobs also helps.”

Others agreed that building a new community outside of academia can be incredibly helpful. Rotella said what helped her stay strong during the transition period was “hearing from other people who had gone before. They all seemed so happy!” It’s especially lucky if you have friends in a similar situation. For Ferguson, “being able to make the jump out of academia with friends from my program was a big help, as we were able to support one another and talk about our decisions together.”

Before you start on your new path, you might experience uncertainty about your decision. Anita Bowles shared that “the scariest part of leaving academia, for me, was the idea that “you can’t go back again.” However, I knew academia wasn’t the right fit and so this thought was not as scary as it would have been if a tenure-track position were my dream job.”  In case you’re not quite sure, you could do as one of our respondents, Livins, did and pursue both possibilities until you decide. She explained: “I started early, and I started applying to industry offers before I was certain I was going to walk away from academia. I kept both doors open until I was sure which one I wanted to walk through. This approach helped me to be more confident in my ultimate decision, and gave me the time to get comfortable with it.”

In order to keep up morale, Carly Kontra reminded herself “that I chose this (vs. feeling like a failure)! Carving my own path was a good thing. Everyone’s experience is a little different, but you’re definitely not alone.” Likewise, for Rotella, what helped was “realizing that for the first time since before grad school I had this tremendous ability to shape what my life would be like.” The new-found feeling of agency helped people stay strong.

Since finding a job will take some time, you might find yourself with more free time than you’d typically have. Try to take advantage of it. “In retrospect, I wish I had relaxed a bit and enjoyed the time between grad school and starting a new full-time job,” Kontra shared, “the situation was not nearly as dramatic as it felt at the time.” Eric Taylor agreed. What helped him was “faith that having a PhD makes you stand out in some way or another, and that most people do end up finding a job.” It’s just a matter of time.

Finally, you may experience “a real identity crisis with the transition,” as Nick Gaylord pointed out. It may help to re-frame the transition. “One of my favorite things I’ve read recently on that is a book called Changing Hats by Daria Gritsenko, where she has a chapter looking at the notion of “career” as a cultural construct, and how career and identity have become coextensive for so many of us. I think it’s really valuable to think about leaving academia less as an identity crisis, and more as a career change, which is a pretty normal and not-weird thing to do these days.”

Now that we’ve wrapped up advice on the transition out of academia itself, in tomorrow’s post we’ll focus on what you can do to prepare for the possibility of a non-academic career if you’re still in graduate school.


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