4 Myths that Trap AcademicsMay 09, 2023
PhDs, postdocs, and academics who want to venture into industry may be wondering what it's like to move beyond academia. During this process, they might encounter various “myths” about working in industry which can make it challenging to transition successfully. In this article, I'll debunk four common myths that PhDs and academics have about working in industry. Using real-world examples and insights, I'll provide actionable steps to help you tackle these misconceptions and plan your career effectively.
Whether you're contemplating a move to industry or simply interested in the differences between academia and industry, this article will offer valuable perspectives and help you prepare for what to expect.
Myth #1: Industry jobs require sacrificing scientific integrity
[My Verdict: False]
In the last 7 years, I have had the privilege to work at Siemens Healthcare (Medical Device/MedTech), AstraZeneca (Biopharmaceutical), and currently at Medable (Decentralized Clinical Trial/Health Tech). Through my experiences, I have noticed that these industries places a strong emphasis on science. One of the foundational elements for MedTech, Pharma & HealthTech companies is to produce high-quality scientific research and data that meet regulatory standards as their products and services deal with human health. This results in exceptionally high standards and rigorous scientific processes. Additionally, I have observed that technology companies highly value presentations at industry conferences and are quite scientifically rigorous as well.
For instance, AstraZeneca's total publications tracked by Nature Index provide an example of the scientific publication record of a pharmaceutical company.
Figure 1: Counts of all research outputs for AstraZeneca plc published between 1 December 2021 - 30 November 2022 as tracked by the Nature Index. Source: Nature.com 1
All in all, I’ve found the myth that “science” only happens in academia to be totally false and there are many great science-led companies in industry. In fact, I’ve come to experience that maintaining scientific integrity is crucial for business success in many industries.
Myth #2: Industry values different skillset than academics and vice versa.
[My Verdict: Partially true]
After interacting with hundreds of industry professionals and speaking with dozens of academics, I have learned that while each discipline requires a specific set of skill sets in order to be successful, there are also many transferable skills that are beneficial in both.
Figure 2. A table of unique skillsets required for success in academia & industry along with common skill sets valued across both.
According to the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Survey of Doctoral Recipients, done by Council of Graduate Schools, the following chart presents data on attributes/skills considered more important for those working in colleges and universities (highlighted in blue), those working outside of the academy (highlighted in orange) as well as attributes/skills that had no statistical difference by employer sector (not highlighted).
Figure 3: Differences in importance of attributes/skills between those employed by colleges and universities and those working outside of the academy (i.e. Industry by various fields). Source. Council of Graduate Schools: PhD Career Pathways April 19 Edition. 2
Overall, the conclusions were similar: while a few specific skill sets are more relevant for academia and a few others for industry, many (common) skill sets are valued across academia and industry. It is crucial for academics who want to move into industry to highlight those (common) skill sets they most likely already possess while also learning any specific industry skill sets which they may not yet have mastered yet.
Myth #3: Leaving academia for industry is a failure.
[My Vedict: False]
The myth that leaving academia is a failure is not only blatantly false but also harmful stereotype that can discourage people from pursuing their dreams. If academic life is not for you, there is no shame in quitting. When leaving academia, there is no correct or wrong explanation. Similarly, there are no right or wrong reasons to leave industry for academia, either.
In any case, if you are unhappy with current situation, it is important to take steps to change it. People who are ready to consider their options have access to a wide range of opportunities. It can be challenging to decide to make a change, but it's crucial to understand that doing so does not mean you failed.
Myth #4: PhDs job seekers are perceived as overqualified
[My Verdict: Misguided]
The myth that PhDs are overqualified for industry often focuses solely on their degree qualifications. However, the real issue behind this myth is a lack of industry experience. Many PhDs spend significant time in academic environments, but have little or no experience in industry, creating challenges for both employers and job seekers.
From an employer's perspective, their primary concern is whether the job seeker can do the job. Lack of industry experience (or minimal experience) may raise concerns, especially for mid-career or leadership roles, resulting in instances where PhD job seekers find it difficult to navigate interviews or obtain job offers. To address this issue, candidates should focus on demonstrating that their lack of industry experience will not be a problem for the role they are applying for. Moreover, candidates should avoid relying solely on their academic qualifications, which could overshadow other skills, knowledge, or experiences that the hiring manager is seeking.
From the perspective of a PhD job seeker, this can also be a challenging situation. Let's assume that someone completes their PhD in their thirties, by which time their college friends may already be in mid- to senior-level roles in their careers. Despite having a terminal degree, it may not feel great for PhDs to start at entry-level positions. In this situation, I would advise PhDs who are looking to transition to industry to first focus on getting their foot in the door in industry and not worry about external perceptions. Later, they can accelerate their careers by demonstrating the various skill sets they have acquired while pursuing their PhDs. In many cases, PhDs still need to start as early-career professionals, although there are instances where they can go directly into mid/leadership roles, particularly in subject matter expert (SME) positions that match their expertise.
Here are some tips for PhDs looking to pivot to industry who may be plagued by this myth that PhDs are overqualified:
Focus on your transferable skills. Even though you may not have direct experience in the industry you're applying to, you still have valuable skills that can be transferred. For example, you may have strong research and analytical skills, or you may be able to communicate complex information clearly and concisely.
Be prepared to start at an entry level role. Even if you have a PhD, you may still need to start at an entry level role in industry. This is because you don't have the same level of experience as someone who has been working in the industry for several years. However, if you're able to prove yourself, you'll be able to move up quickly.
Be willing to learn new things. The industry is constantly changing, so it's important to be willing to learn new things. This will help you stay ahead of the curve and make you more valuable to your employer.
A study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that PhDs were more likely to be hired than other job seekers with the same qualifications. 3 Another study found that PhDs were more likely to be offered higher salaries. 4
Overall, PhDs who are plagued by this myth of over-qualification should be aware of the root cause of this myth could be their potential lack of experience and willingness to start in entry level roles. In either case, it’s important to be aware that despite needing to start with early career roles, there is evidence that they would start at higher salaries and have a potential for accelerated growth.
There are many myths regarding the move from academia to industry, making it an intimidating prospect. It's crucial to keep in mind that many of these presumptions are not always true. I hope this article provides a useful perspective on what to anticipate when transitioning from academia to industry by busting some of these popular misconceptions. A successful transition to industry is possible with the proper attitude, preparation, and willingness to learn and adapt; a fulfilling career is waiting.
P.S. I’m offering 1:1 coaching/resume review sessions. If you’re interested you can book here: https://calendly.com/phdtoindustry/connections
Credit: Google Bard for helping me find the following research article
National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). (2019). NACE 2019 Salary Survey Report. Bethlehem, PA: National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). (2018). SHRM 2018 Employee Benefits Survey. Alexandria, VA: Society for Human Resource Management.
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