Overcoming Imposter Syndrome as an Academic Breaking into Tech
It does not matter how far into your academic career you may be, you’re never too experienced, too intelligent, or too qualified to fall victim to imposter syndrome. The feeling of inadequacy perpetuates across all stages of academic training, despite evidence of success in your journey.
Imposter syndrome is not a feeling exclusive to academia.
It is experienced (and therefore a heavy topic of discussion) in the product management community. This stems naturally from the environments both these vocations are thrusted into: generalists in a world of specialists.
It feels a bit different though because academics typically aim to continuously specialize in a world saturated with experts in those specialized fields. I found that this paradigm affects academics in two major ways: the need to become even more specialized in order to find a niche to call their own and carve out their legacy in academic research, or leave academia to work in ‘industry’. I’d like to discuss the latter because I ended my academic career early to pursue one in tech. These feelings of inadequacy hit home, not only during my time in academia, but during my transition and entry into tech. However, I am not here to pour my heart onto the interface you’re reading this on (that would take much more time, and even more bourbon) but I am here to tell you that despite the insecurities of leaving academia or perceived lack of transferable skills, you are qualified to make that jump — it just might take a bit longer.
In a previous post we illustrated how academic researchers can make amazing product managers. That piece did focus more on the soft skills that we develop in our time in research, but this post will focus on more on the hard, technical skills you learn and develop that can make the transition into tech (especially product management) a realistic one. Each category warrants their own article altogether — and I’ll get around to it eventually — but let this serve as a resource that highlights the skills we can leverage as academics if you’re looking to break into tech.
Take a read through any job posting from a technology company. As somebody transitioning across industries, this might be a daunting activity and one that triggers a lot of insecurities. Before you get discouraged about the lack of technical or coding skills you may possess, you’ll notice a trend in these postings (a trend that us nerds definitely appreciate). A lot of top tier companies are looking for candidates that are comfortable in making data informed decisions. This should ring a bell because that is a majority of what we do as academic researchers, we let the data tell the story and we narrate that story in the form of results and practical conclusions. Not only that, but we are comfortable dealing with data; measuring specific data points, formatting data, and creating visualizations that appropriately summarize our findings. This is a huge advantage that researchers can leverage when breaking into tech, as we can easily transfer these skills to instead measure usability metrics, cohort analyses, etc.
Whether you’re conducting A/B tests or monitoring a select list of KPI’s for your product/feature, familiarity with setting up experiments is critical for data cleanliness and avoiding potential bias. Through experiences in academia, we know the fundamentals of building and designing robust experiments: the importance of control data, choosing the right metrics to accurately characterize your data, making conclusions on your results, and — often overlooked — ethics for experimentation. All of these concepts are ingrained into the everyday operations of an academic researcher, and provide yet another suite of skills that transfer well in tech.
Collaboration and Team Management
Working with a team to strive towards a common goal is essentially what academics experience working in a lab. Regardless of age, experience, or degrees, the team is purpose driven; setting emotions or ranking aside to work together in a cohesive and cross functional manner. For a practical understanding, your lab mates are synonymous with the members of the product team — each member possesses a unique set of skills (i.e. UX designers, engineers, project managers) that contribute to the completion of a common goal. Despite the fact that (for the most part) both academics and product managers are introverts, they still know how to motivate a team and leverage each other’s unique set of skills to build amazing things.
I’d love to hear your thoughts or own story on transitioning into tech from various industries. Just think of that person who may come across this who is struggling with finding meaning or clarity in their career who doesn’t know it yet — but has the full arsenal of skills for making that transition successfully. Also, open to any suggestions if you’re finding these articles helpful in any way and want more insight into my own transition into tech and product.