7 Lessons to Practice if You Want to Successfully Transition from Academia to Industry

Two weeks ago, I had a chance to spend some time with Masters and PhDs students at the University of Kansas.

I was there to share my wisdom and insights about how to make the leap from Academia to Industry. The road hasn’t been easy, but who said that easy is what will make it successful?

Related: The Path to a Successful Technology Commercialization

Helping to pave the way for the next generation is an important legacy for me. Others have paved the way for me, so this was like paying it forward.

If I could pick my motto, it would be: “Don’t bask in the glory of your wins for too long, because you would be running the risk of becoming mediocre”.

So, here are the 7 lessons that I would like to share:

1) Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

As graduate students, you are used to the same space and people for about 4 years. It’s easy to ask those people for stuff. You already know them.

You are used to ordering your own PCR primers and plates. You carry a project from beginning to end and you are probably not used to asking for help.

In Industry, you will need to start asking people for stuff. If you try to do everything yourself, well, you won’t be able to.

If you work for a mid or large sized company, you will need to start putting in purchase orders for your primers and plates and your purchasing department will ask for quotes. Start trusting people to do their part.

In an earlier post, I talked about why I think everyone should go on an exchange of some type.

Related: Why You Should Go On An Exchange

So, if your school allows you to have exchanges where you are a visiting student for a year or so, that’s a way for you to develop those different skillsets of working with different institutions and getting out of your comfort zone.

Getting out of your comfort zone allows you to deal with changes. Companies get bought and sold, people get hired and fired, projects change.

When you realize that the only constant thing in life is change, you will no longer resist it. You will embrace it.

2) Become a Problem Solver

Academics acquire a lot of knowledge over time. So, they tend to believe that it is what makes the difference in the world.

This is how I see people with a solely academic background approaching interviews: “I have a lot of knowledge”.

Great. My question then becomes “What are you doing with that?”

Companies don’t really pay you for your knowledge. They will pay you to solve their problems. Use your knowledge to find solutions to their business pain and Become a Problem Solver.

There are a lot of problems to solve and understand that you can’t solve them all.

Identify your internal customer. If you are in Sales & Marketing, you will try to solve the end-customer’s problem.

Based on your customer’s feedback and the problems that they have, you will be interacting and giving feedback to Product Development, who might work in or for Research & Development.

But, what if you don’t work for Sales & Marketing?

Just because you don’t work in Sales & Marketing, doesn’t exonerate you from becoming a problem solver.

Ask the question, who will my internal customer be?

3) Embrace Diversity

As Masters and PhD holders, you will be interacting with people who will be different from you. People with or without advanced degrees.

You might be tempted to think that you are smarter, but be careful with that mindset. If you go in a room thinking that you are the smartest person, you are essentially saying that you have nothing to learn.

You will also inevitably be challenged solely on the fact that you have an advanced degree. The reason is not important. Who knows what their deal is.

Either way, help those that seem to be struggling with the topic at hand and remember that an advanced degree confers you the ability to think outside the box. Transfer your learning skillset appropriately.

Embracing diversity allows you to learn to speak other people’s language.

Your boss might have a finance background and might not care too much about your experiments.

If you want a new sequencer, you will have to learn to explain to him or her how much more efficient and productive your team will be.

Maybe with the new sequencer you can run 8 more plates and generate 4X more revenue at 3X reduced cost because you won’t need to hire two technicians and buy the expensive reagents from the other vendor.

See how that’s different? You have now spoken the language of the finance guy. He wants numbers.

If you work for a multinational company that has subsidiaries, you will be interacting with people from different cultures and with different languages. You may or may not like them, but people are people.

By learning to interact with different people and different settings, talking and listening to them, you will start developing your senses about how to engage with them.

And don’t be fooled by this statement to think that you will like everyone and that everyone will like you.

You will always have your favorite people, but learn to see the different personalities out there, what motivates them and what doesn’t.

And don’t dwell on whether people like you or not. It’s their issue, not yours.

Take a personality test. There are a number of personality tests that you can take. The most popular is the Myers-Briggs.

There are no good or bad personality types. Learn what kind of personality is your default. Take your foot off the gas pedal with certain personality types.

It is important to know how to interact and be effective in many situations, which takes me to my next lesson.

4) Learn to take feedback, but weigh it properly

So far, most of your feedback has been from your principal investigator or from journal reviewers.

In industry, you will start getting performance reviews. You will sit with your manager once a year (hopefully more) and he or she will spend some time with you going through that.

Sometimes, you will see your boss struggling on how to properly give you feedback. Your boss might be a new manager.

And don’t confuse the number of direct reports with how well they develop their people. I have seen people with lots of direct reports and very little to show for in terms of developing their people.

I have also seen people with no or few direct reports and outstanding track record of developing others.

So…weigh the feedback properly.

The feedback that I get from someone that I consider a mentor and that has developed a lot of people over his or her lifetime will be heavily weighed…

….compared to someone who has had a very poor track record of developing people.

Sometimes, you will have to listen to someone give you feedback on something that he or she doesn’t know anything about.

So, you may just have to sit there and look like you are taking the advice to heart. It helps to be a little deaf at times. Pick your battles.

That doesn’t mean that you have to agree with everything. If you can make a case for yourself. Do it. Learn to articulate your position.

5) Learn to Pass the Baton

Learn to pass it. Don’t throw it over the wall.

In my first industry job, there were no Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) – not the company’s fault. Just not a practice that existed in the company at the time.

If you got the job after the last person left, then you had to spend a year learning about everything and calling people here and there to figure out what was going on and what projects the company was participating in.

So, before I left, I wrote a full report which included SOPs for various tasks. The next person after me had a much better idea of what was going on and could hit the ground running.

It took me a long time to write it and I wrote it even though I knew that I was leaving. So, you write the report, because it’s the right thing to do.

Companies change. People get hired and fired. Positions change. So, when you learn to pass the baton, so that you can move on to other challenges, everybody wins.

6) Start Developing Your Senses for Good and Bad Companies

My analogy for picking a company is like choosing a boyfriend or a girlfriend. When you are young, you are not very picky. You are not sure what qualities a good partner is supposed to have.

So, you probably won’t really know what is a good or a bad company, at first. You will just have to see what’s out there.

Sometimes we find a good company and a good manager in our first try. Great. A Home run. So, be careful not to get caught up on the grass is always greener on the other side.

You may leave a company for more money, but it won’t necessarily be the best option in the long run.

No company or manager is perfect. Maybe you didn’t get a glowing review. Before, you call up the recruiter, seek to understand where the feedback is coming from and weigh it properly.

Select your company based on your manager. He or she will have the biggest impact on your development.

You met the CEO? He is a nice guy? Great. Will he be your manager? No? Then, whether he is a nice guy or not shouldn't matter. You need to get a feel for your direct manager.

Are people dropping like flies under your new manager? Bad sign…huge red flags.

You read the job description, went for an interview and they don’t really know who the manager will be, because they are still interviewing for that position? You need to weigh your decision very carefully.

Sometimes you find companies that don’t pay very well, but you have an awesome manager and you love your co-workers. You are learning lots and the culture is great.

If you do have to leave, then make sure you have passed the baton the best way you could, which then takes me to my next lesson.

7) Don’t be Afraid to Walk Away

There will come a time when it’s time to say goodbye. You’ve had a great run.

When it’s time to end a relationship, you will know. Trust your gut. And when that time comes, one thing is for sure. Don’t be afraid to walk away.

There will be other opportunities. It’s always hard to leave your first job, because it’s your first. It’s hard to break up with your first boyfriend or girlfriend.

You are not walking away because you received an unfair review or you didn’t get the promotion that you wanted.

You are walking away, because it’s time for you to develop other skills that you won’t be able to develop at your current job, at the current situation.

You have grown apart and it’s time to have a clean break up. So, don’t burn bridges. Be available to help if you can and then walk away.

There are many different companies out there. Gone are the days where you stay with the same company for 20 plus years in pretty much the same position.

That’s great for those people that can do that. Not great for you or your development.

You are a generation where your parents have worked at the same place for 20-30 years. That’s great. For them.

You are your own person, so if you feel that moving on will make you a better person and a better professional, then move on.

If you are not working in an environment where you feel challenged, rewarded and well compensated for the great job that you are doing, then you should look for another opportunity.

I know. You like your co-workers. You have a great time. Sometimes we stay at our job longer, because of them.

But, don’t worry. You can still stay connected with them.

So, my advice to the new crop of AgBio Talent is:

Start building and Practicing with a Different Mindset.

About the Author Elisa Marques

An advocate for lifelong learning. A self-admitted textbook collector. I have been traveling around the globe since the tender age of 16 and have lived in 3 different countries. Some say that the 90's cartoon character "Carmen SanDiego" was loosely based on me, but who knows. I am a nerd at heart with a huge passion for science, marketing and teaching.

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