Why Academic Researchers Make Great Product Managers

In part, my motivation to write these pieces stem from the void of uncertainty that most recent graduate students experience in their professional development. Especially for those thinking of pursuing a career dedicated to research.

Three months into my masters degree in exercise physiology I started to see that the industry I was in — the one I anticipated would be a lifelong career — was looking rather bleak. Not to mention the alarming rates of depression and career dissatisfaction were perks I was not particularly looking for in a career.

Little did I know, I was actually a product nerd inside the body of an ambitious and naive human physiology researcher. There are so many areas I want to explore and share, but I think it’s appropriate to begin with what I think are three attributes that make academic researchers great product managers.

Polymathic

The need to learn quickly and expand your body of knowledge to solve problems is imperative to being a researcher and product manager. Over the course of my 6 years as a researcher I learned basic plumbing principles to build a homemade sub pump, I learned to code so I could configure a data collection interface for experiments, and I summoned the refrigeration repair gods to fix a cooling device in the laboratory. The reason these skills transfer so well to product management is often times there is so much we don’t know about the problem we are facing. As Melissa Perri puts it in her book, Escaping the Build Trap:

As product managers, our capacity to solve complex problems depends on our ability to learn quickly and expand our knowledge base appropriately.

Resilient

Working with humans (or rats, or cells, etc…) is hard. For me, experimenting the limits of human performance is just as difficult as solving why users are not signing up for our software service.

The only guarantee in both these domains is things will always go wrong.

For researchers that might be doing a 5 hour experiment only to notice that you never started the data collection software (based on true events, unfortunately) whereas for a PM that might be releasing something that completely blocks users from interacting with your product. Our response to those setbacks is what makes us great at what we do. Early on in research you learn to build resiliency out of necessity because you have finite amount of time to finish your job and graduate. You continuously develop emotional intelligence to appropriately respond to change, and you must by hyper-focused on the overall goal and strategy of your thesis.

I can keep going, but I hope you’ve started to notice that this is exactly what we must do as product managers. Our ability to remain resilient despite setbacks is imperative to succeed in product management.

Humility

This one is tough for some people. There is nothing more eye opening than standing in front of world leaders in human physiology getting grilled and exposed for your lack of knowledge on a project that you’ve spent years working on, for 3 straight hours. Looking back, it’s those experiences that taught me humility and to use these situations as opportunities for growth rather than a personal attack. The faster you deviate from the mindset of identifying yourself as a reflection of the product you’re building, the faster you will learn not to take offence when those ideas are challenged. Instead, welcome critical feedback because at the end of the day, it makes you and your product better.

I am hoping to continue this series. I will go into much more detail on the parallels between academic research and product management, and sprinkle in some of my experiences in both roles. I also hope this will be veiled as a potential opportunity to my fellow academics alike who are stuck and wondering if devoting their lives to 6–8+ years of post graduate training is really worth it.

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