Transitioning from academia to industry — using your academic skills for business

Hi, my name is Dennis.

In 2011 I got my PhD in marine microbiology, then I quit science. I co-founded a science communication agency (mediomix) with my friend Wolfgang. What I’d like to share with you here are the answers to three key questions:

👉 If you want to go from academia into industry, which skills can you leverage?

👉 What’s the biggest difference between working in industry vs. academia?

👉 Do I need additional qualifications?

What skills can you leverage?

If you decide to quit science and start a new career in industry, you’ll ask yourself the question: Do I have the right skills?!

Common reaction of people if you tell them that you’ll quit science to work in industry

Being trained as a scientist you’ll fear that this is the only area you can work in — but that’s wrong! You do not need a business degree or an MBA to be successful in industry because you already have at hand most of the skills you’ll need.

The right mindset

Research is tough and means a lot of set-backs. During your PhD you will have learned not to back away from uncertainty and you will have learned to accept the challenge of giving your all to learning to work in a new field of your choice.

Limited resources

You are used to working with limited resources and make the most of what you have at hand. In industry, you’ll face similar difficulties while working on a new product. Time and money are limited and/or controlled in a tight manner. But you’ll keep cool.

Data mining

As a researcher you have the skill to look at data and your brain will try to make sense of it — almost like a reflex. You can collect, correlate and present data with very high efficiency under high pressure. Perfect for industry.

Project management

Getting through your PhD means not only coordinating and scheduling your own time, but also that of project and people. Sometimes locally at your institute or world wide with different team members. Keeping all aspects in mind and staying focused on the main goals — that’s a key skill for industry.

Writing and English

Independent of the country in which you do your PhD, you’ll be speaking and writing in English. Being able to write up complex methodologies and communicate in English are crucial skills for customer interaction in industry.

What is the biggest difference between working in industry vs. academia?

In industry, time means money and the success of the company is more or less linked to the speed by which you manage to bring a product to market and build a large customer base faster than your competitors. This means that, for example, in R&D (Research & Development), your individual project can be dropped very fast meaning you’ll have to quickly re-focus on a new angle. That’s a huge difference compared to your PhD, where you pursued your own project, even when (perhaps most of the time) you were actually stuck. This definitely requires a change in your mindset! But the upside is that you’ll also get rewarded more often and your work will most probably be more highly valued compared to your PhD work.

Additional qualifications

If you leave academia after your PhD and apply for a job in industry, you’ll compete on average with up to 118 other people per open position ( cheeky scientist). All of these candidates will be PhD’s with excellent CV’s and no job experience, so how do you stand out? With additional skills. Ask yourself, what are you good at — then invest time and build this skill up. Do you like to use social media? Build a platform for yourself and show your new employer that you can reach people over the internet and get them interested in what you write (major communication skill boost). Do you enjoy graphic design? Use free YouTube tutorials to learn the Adobe software and show off your cool infographics and data visualisations (perfect for business presentations and corporate identity). Did you always want to learn how to code? Create a WordPress page and learn HTML or another programming language.

There are a lot of additional skills that you can learn — the downside is, you have to do it in your free time while staying focused on finishing your PhD. But you’ll manage, as who needs sleep anyway? I wish you all the best for your career and end with my personal advice: Do what you like, anything else is a waste of time.