Transitioning from Academia to Industry

Career Transition Checklist

Below are some recommendations for thinking about a career in industry; many came from the book Designing your Life.

  • Reflect on what makes life meaningful. Look back on your life and think about your talents, interests, and passions. While it's rare to be the best at something, you possess a unique combination of talents, interests, and passions that will make some jobs particularly rewarding. Strive to find work you feel that "you are seeded for" or that " you are meant to do" [See Mastery, by Robert Greene]. Over time, your talents and interests evolve, and that may lead to a change in your career path. Therefore, having a yearly habit of reflection is helpful. Some questions to consider during your reflection are:

    • What makes work meaningful?

    • What were the most rewarding experiences in your life? And what common theme is there in what made those experiences rewarding?

    • What do you like doing and what do you dislike doing?

    • Do you prefer deep technical work, or more practical work? Solving problems directly, or developing tools to solve problems? Working alone, or in teams?

    • How important is salary? How important is doing work that helps the world?

  • Prototype. Find small ways to start exploring the areas you're interested in.

    • Try a Google Search for bootcamps or hackathons.

    • Look for summer internships.

    • Start an independent project and publish it on GitHub. This can be a great resource to share with prospective employers.

  • Network. Reach out to people - start with your contacts and LinkedIn.

    • Even if you're an introvert or don't know what to say, most people love being helpful. Just think, if someone on the street is lost and asks you for directions, won't you usually try to help them? And doesn't it feel good when you do? Most people are happy to try and be helpful and if they don't have time, they'll tell you.

    • 1-1 conversations are much more important and valuable than applying to jobs through career websites. Often the job description on career websites were molded considerably by HR and don't reflect the true requirements for the position. Also, it may be that your ideal job isn't on the career website, but the person you talk to may be help you understand better how you might find (or even create) that ideal job.

    • Ask detailed questions of people who work in the career you are exploring. It may be that what you imagine this job to entail does not reflect reality. Questions you might ask are: What a typical day is like? And, what are the most and least fun parts of your job?

  • Communicate well. When you describe your research, focus first on the question you answered, why you wanted to answer that question, and how finding this answer could be helpful to others. Only after the audience really understands the question and answer at a high level should you then ask if they’d like more detail about the methods you used. Even though the methods were likely the bulk of your dissertation, it’s the question and solution that will usually be the best way to connect with those who you are meeting for the first time. We've created a Presentation Checklist to help you follow this approach.

  • Get support. When making a big life change, it can be very helpful to get support from a coach or mentor on all the above. It's hard to think of everything yourself! Personally, I have benefited from coaching from Carole Kammen and Andrijana Radivojevic. Other coaching resources include your university career center and individual therapy, which your health insurance might cover.

Mindsets that lead to success

  • Curiosity: Remember the curiosity, openness, and joy of learning that you felt as a child and that motivated you to begin your PhD. I've created an Effective Learning guide to help structure the learning process outside the academic environment. Look for ways to stay curious in your life, not only scientifically, but also with regards to your own personal development and in your understanding of the perspectives that other people have. Be willing to make mistakes and use them as opportunities to learn for the future. Seek feedback whenever you can. And remember that we often perceive only the thinnest slice of the reality in which we live [See Powers of 10 or The Blind Men and the Elephant]

  • Collaboration: Everyone (including you) has a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses that makes them extremely talented at solving a some problems, and extremely deficient at solving others. A great way to excel is to work with others to combine talents, find new solutions, and fill blindspots [See The Difference, by Scott Page]. Working with a coach or mentor is also a great way to look at problems from different perspectives.

  • Bias to action: Jump in, try out new ideas, and see what happens. Use an Agile Development approach where you quickly test whether your idea can work, and get feedback from both yourself and others to see how you're doing. Identifying areas of unmet need that you are passionate about can help you do your most impactful work.

  • Mindfulness and Equanimity: School provides students with a relatively clear path to follow, with interim milestones and the specific and concrete goal of earning a degree, which will then help you to qualify for what comes next. Success means getting some good grades, writing publications and earning a degree. Once you leave school, it's suddenly left to you to decide on your next definition of success. In academia, most choose the goal of becoming a tenured professor, but in industry, there are infinite paths and choosing your path can be challenging. The world is more unpredictable outside of school. While you have may have helpful managers, they will usually not be as invested in you as your PhD advisors, and there is no guarantee they will stay your manager for any duration of time. Developing a habit of mindfulness and equanimity can help you in persevering through the challenging times when they arise. It can help you to step back, appreciate the situation you're in from a calmer footing, and then choose the right action.

  • Perseverance: Developing the above mindsets is a life-long process and it's important to practice regularly. Finding a community that shares your values can help. I've personally grown a lot in working with The Pathways Institute.