From academia to industry: seven tips for scientists making the leap

An engineer fitting sensors in a robotics facility, closeup photograph

Industry offers many opportunities for lab scientists looking to escape academia.Credit: Cultura/SPL

On 1 April 2016, I defended my PhD dissertation — on marine, estuarine and environmental science from the University of Maryland, College Park — and passed. I was lucky to already have an offer for a position lined up in the private sector as a consultant for the engineering firm AECOM. I became the climate adaptation and resilience lead for the US southeast, Latin America and the Caribbean, spearheading the identification of business opportunities related to climate resilience.

Many graduate students pursuing doctorates are so focused on writing their dissertations and finally completing their PhDs that they graduate without any clear options for their next step. Today, many PhD-holders feel that their only obvious next step is to do years of postdocs — at very low wages — and they often struggle to market their skills to sectors outside academia.

In the face of these challenges, doctoral candidates should focus on finding ways to diversify their experiences. This is a crucial step for securing unconventional employment opportunities.

Here are some tips from my own career path to help you diversify your CV as a doctoral candidate, and, I hope, make you more attractive to employers outside government and academia.

Take inventory of, learn and exercise your soft skills. Academia, like many sectors, has its own culture. In my experience, this environment teaches skills for working collaboratively with diverse and sometimes opinionated people. Learn to relate to colleagues in academia, and take an interest in what they do aside from research. Read about topics that are not related to anything that you research, and find ways to share what you learn with others.

Learn project management. Drafting agendas, taking minutes and chairing meetings and conference calls are good skills that you can acquire during a PhD and that can get your career in the private sector off to a good start.

Spend less time thinking and more time doing. During my matriculation, I often spent as much time thinking — reading or talking to others about my ideas — as actually doing the work, in the form of writing or other outputs. In academia, success is measured by the impact of your research, the reach of the audience and the extent of funding. In the private sector, however, success is measured by your ability to sell services and increase revenue while achieving a favourable profit margin. In the private sector, time is often limited; those who can produce high-quality products in the shortest time are often most valued. So, to achieve success in the private sector, you need to spend more time doing.

Network within and outside your discipline like your life depends on it. Your dissertation chair and research lead have probably worked only in academia; therefore, their ability to help you navigate a transition into the private sector might be limited. To skirt this limitation, take the initiative to build your own network and professional relationships.

Learn technologies that have cross-applicability. There are a few coding tools that are pervasive in academia — anything from SAS and STATA to R or Mathlab. So, if you do code in your studies and use one or more of these technologies, identify which ones carry the highest value externally in industry. In my experience, R and Python, for example, have much more crossover appeal than do SAS or STATA. Keep a pulse on what software knowledge the current job postings call for — it’s a good way to stay up to date on the latest skills that will improve your chances of landing a role.

Simplify your science. Understand that the esoteric nature of your research is gibberish to the rest of the world. Find the simplest words to define what you have done and can do. Yes, it is daunting to think that the rest of the world does not know what you mean by a P value, or that you used mixed-methods analysis. It is up to you to translate that into laypeople’s terms that fit the job you are pursuing.

Advertise and market yourself. This is the one thing that has always made me cringe and is still a challenge today. It is best to get very comfortable with self-promotion. Many companies use social-media platforms to find and track potential new employees — especially for niche and highly visible roles. Do not be afraid to post your publications, create a website, write contributions for non-research publications and just in general put your commentary out in cyberspace.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-00692-y

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.


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