Academia to industry: making the switch

I am a former academic who crossed over to industry as of four and a half months ago. Actually, “crossed over” is not completely accurate, since I am not yet done my PhD. Nevertheless, I have joined The Hyve as a software developer / data scientist, and am finishing my PhD on the side (I’m almost done, I swear!).

I am learning A LOT and thinking of side projects that I’d like to tackle once I am less busy with my PhD. There are a lot of software and data science topics that I’d like to start/continue to learn about, including cloud computing, IoT, machine learning and web/app development. I am also interested in discovering ways to both automate daily tasks and be more environmentally conscious. With all of these things in mind, I thought it would be worthwhile to make a website/blog where I can share my knowledge and experiences, both past and present. Since there is no time like the present, I’ll now tackle my first topic: switching from academia to industry.

Goodbye academia, hello industry

Most academics making this switch will probably agree that it can be a challenge in many ways. One of the first steps is making the decision: academia or industry. For some people this is easy, they just know which path is right for them. For others, this is a tough choice.

On the one hand, research can be fun! On the other, academia can be a difficult environment. I most certainly got a taste of both during my PhD. Challenges are to be expected while doing a PhD, but my experience wasn’t easy for all of the wrong reasons. The politics in academia can get ugly. I will spare you the details for now. But it suffices to say that this was a huge factor in deciding to leave. Fortunately, near the end of my PhD I had the chance to get some direct supervision from a really great researcher. With her guidance, I discovered how awesome research can be. But alas, even though I would love to continue some of my research, I realised that at this point in my life I will be happier in a non-academic job.

Once an academic decides which career path they wish to pursue, the next big question is how they can make this a reality. For those wanting to stay in academia, one of the most difficult parts is finding funding. Without that, you can kiss your academic aspirations goodbye. For those going to industry, the challenge is often how to market your current skill set. In my case, I already had some industry experience as a software developer. During my PhD I got a lot of experience in data analysis. Where this left me was with a skill set somewhere in between software engineering and data science. So, I found myself unsure of which jobs to aim for: data science, software development, or something completely different. In some ways I also felt insecure about my qualifications. Were my industry-specific software development skills too rusty? Was my data analysis experience enough to cut it in a “real” data science position? Will my time in academia be valued by large companies? In the end, I found a great job where both my industry and academic experience is valued. Woohoo!

If you are a present or former academic with your own “making the switch” or “deciding to stay” story, please feel free to drop me a comment below.

6 thoughts on “Academia to industry: making the switch”

  1. Nice piece!

    Although I haven’t made the switch yet (still doing my PhD), I already decided I will go to industry. I was offered a post doc, but I couldn’t see myself doing it: the lonely days of doing research on your own, working in an office where people have no clue what exactly you’re working on, motivating yourself day in day out to write something good this time. I’d say for me, that’s the bad side of academia. Second, indeed, the grant writing is a must when you want a career in academia, and even if you are good at it, it is not a guarantee that you’ll make it.

    In total, I’m looking forward to making the switch :). Industry, here I come!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Wyke. You are totally right. Making it in academia is difficult. For the people that make it, congratulations. But even great candidates have the odds against them. Very discouraging.

      Best of luck in the job search! 😀

  2. Congratulations on making the decision, Carolyn! I made the same choice to go into industry over 20 years ago, and I still think it was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. Industry has it’s own challenges, as you pointed out, but I find marketing my skills to be a very engaging challenge. I feel it’s much more up to me, and less about the politics of academia. I’m still constantly learning better ways to sell myself, and I find that very exciting.

      1. Absolutely! The first advice I’d give is that you have to approach your job search very differently than when looking for a job in academia. Academia is about qualifications and accomplishments, and in graduate school we tend to develop a habit of thinking along these terms. We wonder if we’ve taken the right classes or if we have enough publications in the right journals to get the job we want.

        Getting hired in industry is a very different game. Most hiring managers in the private sector care a lot less about your list of qualifications, and a lot more about whether you can solve the problems they are dealing with right now. I’m a big fan of developing stories about your past accomplishments, and putting teasers for these stories in your resume. The right stories can really bring your skills and attributes to life. They can help the hiring manager see you as the valuable resource they need, rather than as an academic who may not have the practical focus they need.

        Unfortunately there is a stereotype in the private sector that people who get a PhD are more interested in pursuing esoteric research projects than being pragmatic and action oriented problem solvers. If your stories focus on those things that really matter in industry, such as meeting schedules, solving problems quickly, and working well with others, you can show that you are not the stereotypical PhD.

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