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On Leaving Academia and How To Navigate a Career That Lasts a Lifetime

I recently participated in the Industry Speakers section of the Computing and Information Systems Doctoral Colloquium at the University of Melbourne. The idea of this segment of the day, is to give final year doctoral students the opportunity to hear from a few people who were in their shoes some time ago and chose to move away from academia into other fields of endeavour. Hopefully we would bring some complementary career path perspectives to those of the mid-career professionals they are most familiar with — their faculty advisors and other professors.

For me that pivotal moment of stepping outside the comforting familiarity of the academic system into the wide and rather intimidating world is now 12 years ago and I’ve survived and even thrived, albeit with some bumps along the way. Speaking with students after the talk, they told me that what I had shared was helpful so I wanted to offer the key points I covered to a broader audience here.

Widen your horizons

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When you finish your doctoral work, it can take a conscious effort to remind yourself that the world you have just been inhabiting for three, or six, or more(!) years is teeny tiny. There is a whole world of people out there who have never heard of, and will never care about your thesis — or indeed your entire sub speciality. And that world of ‘never heard of it’ contains heaps of interesting, important and relevant people. I remember finding it hard to believe that I could find relevant and meaningful work that I was qualified to do, outside of atomic physics. Sounds grandiose and self centred I know but I don’t think anyone is quite in their right mind just after they hand in their doctoral thesis.

If you are heading on into post-doc and professorship, no problem, you don’t need to shake your head, clear your vision and look around. The path is clear, well trodden and, importantly, more or less singular. However if you know that’s not for you, it pays to have a really hard think about all the options available. Take a really hard look at yourself and what you want to be — now that you’re all grown up.

Have a plan

I technically left academia after a post-doc, not straight from graduate school, but I did this as a deliberate transition based on my specific circumstances, after taking advice from some good friends and colleagues. So my ‘exit’ was in process right after graduation, or more realistically from some months before that.

Taking a real break to think would have been awesome and I would actually strongly recommend it but I was a foreign national in the US and visa regulations didn’t allow.

My ‘post-doc plan’ allowed me to stay in familiar surroundings throughout my second pregnancy and strike out into paths less well trodden when at least all my children were no longer needing mummy as a refuelling station.

Hard problems, long time frames may not be realistic

One thing that does take a little adjusting to is that once outside academia, working on very hard problems over a long time frame may not be realistic, at least for the first five years or so. Please note that I’m talking here about working in the commercial world — not swapping academia research for ‘industrial research’ which I don’t personally have any experience of.

This one hasn’t been a particular problem for me — I like the rapid movement / cut and thrust approach of working to an aggressive delivery schedule. Although, I have noticed a personal preference for ‘big project’ delivery which is perhaps my sub conscious searching for a middle ground.

Whatever your level of tolerance for chopping and changing might be, this is an aspect of the shift from academia to the commercial world that will require some thought on your part. Better to be ‘eyes open’ than to harbour a grudge that you can’t articulate about rampant short term-ism.

Figure out your transferable skills

As you examine your options, you’re going to get a lot more done and reach a more robust conclusion if you figure out your transferable skills. For me this was a real sticking point as at first I genuinely couldn’t identify any. The work I had been immersed in for more than a decade just seemed so removed from any of the roles I found interesting outside of a research based organisation.

What I overlooked was:

  • being completely self directed and able to work independently on hard problems without a ‘map’ drawn up by someone else
  • having the tenacity to attack very amorphous problems and make incremental forward progress without giving up
  • having highly developed writing skills including the ability to write lucidly about convoluted processes in an unambiguous way (a great skill for a business analyst!)
  • learning new concepts quickly and being able to generalise answers to related problems — hell yeah, I was experienced at uncovering and understanding ‘prior art’ (be it previous research in the field or an open source framework to create date picker popups) and Googling for things I didn’t know (be it Perl scripting to run a dilution fridge or Restful APIs)!
  • dealing with difficult people and conflicting priorities (shared experiment time; teaching responsibilities; yes I really would like to graduate rather than continue to provide extremely cheap skilled labour in this lab, maps surprisingly well on to release management and regression testing)
  • speaking in public forums to senior stakeholders (from tenured professors and Nobel laureates at conferences to general managers and heads of marketing)
  • the list went on!

I’m guessing you are overlooking things too. What can really help is to get someone else to give you a run down of the skills they see you demonstrate. You might be really surprised what they come up with!

Identify objections and nullify them

In my experience (from both sides of the hiring table) every time you interview for a new role, the person on the other side of the conversation will have their concerns and reservations about you as a candidate. Hiring new people, particularly into permanent roles, is time consuming and risky and lots of new hiring managers are thrown into the hiring process with no training and inadequate support.

If you are interviewing with a shiny new PhD in hand, here are some of the specific concerns that might be in the mind of the interviewer:

  • Does this person know how to work in a business setting?
  • Will they get bored? I don’t want to hire someone who moves on in six months — that’s a big sunk cost for me.
  • Will they be able to communicate with my business stakeholders? Or will I have to babysit them?
  • Do they understand that we work on many things and pivot often? We don’t have committed projects for years.
  • Will they be comfortable with `good enough is good enough’? Or will they be unable to call anything ‘done’ because it just isn’t perfect yet?

My advice (and most of this I’ve learned from candidates who have really impressed me as they have skilfully allayed my concerns!) is to identify what you think their top worries are likely to be — based on your specific experience and their specific role requirements — and

  • work answers into your CV by way of illustrative examples of you demonstrating the skill they think you might lack
  • actively demonstrate examples of your ability to do what they think you might not be able to do into your answers (and questions!) during the interview

And no, I’m not suggesting that you say — ‘you’re probably worried that I can’t do X so let me explain to you that I actually can do X very well’. Be subtle!

‘Reverse’ communicate (aka lead with the punchline) and learn the style of your audience

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One thing we are all taught in ‘school’ is to present in what I’ll call the ‘timeline style’

  • This is what I set out to do
  • This is the ‘prior art’ in the area (particularly if it comes from someone famous, someone at your university or your professor)
  • This is the method I followed
  • This is the data I collected
  • These are the conclusions I reached

Please stop doing this when you enter the commercial world. There are two possible outcomes if you carry on with the ‘timeline style’, neither of them good.

  • In a small minority of cases, your key stakeholder will also like to communicate this way, they will ask one question and — there goes your conclusion slide. As a colleague said to me recently — if you’ve got ten minutes, don’t count on the 11th minute. If the conclusion / call to action is at the end of your spiel (formal or informal) and someone blows out the timing, your conclusion doesn’t get any air time. And they don’t call it the ‘money slide’ for nothing you know!
  • In the majority of cases, your key stakeholder will find this communication style maddening. If you’re lucky they’ll let you know there’s a problem —something along the lines of ‘give me the answer first, I pay you to do the thinking so I don’t have to wallow in it’. If you’re unlucky, you’ll just be left wondering why your ideas don’t get adopted.

If you possibly can, learn about the communication preferences of your audience — direct boss, influential co-workers, key stakeholders and tailor your communication to the way they take in information best. Why? Because you want to be effective more than you want to dash off quick and easy presentations in the same old reliable style. Right?!

If you have to take a punt (due to lack of time or a large meeting with more than one key stakeholder), go with something more like

  1. This is what we set out to figure out
  2. This is what we’re going to recommend
  3. This is what we need from you
  4. This is how we did it / these are all the assumptions we made

Don’t be surprised if, once colleagues trust your expertise, they aren’t too interested in how you got there and you don’t get to bullet point 4. This isn’t an indication of stupidity or disinterest, it’s an indication that your audience is both time poor and outcomes focussed!

Also, do yourself a big favour and learn how to ‘pre-wire’ important meetings. Communicating to lots of people, with lots of information processing preferences is hard and you can use any help you can get to make things go your way.

Identify and embrace other intelligences

Now don’t get shirty with me but some new PhD graduates entering the big wide world really struggle with no longer being surrounded exclusively by very academically able and academically inclined people. It’s easy to overlook all the other ways in which people demonstrate intelligence and understanding when you have been steeped in a single culture of ‘smart’. For instance, in the Physics Department at MIT, everyone is very good at math and logic. Intently picking holes in someone’s research proposal is an accepted and respectful way to show that you care (friends don’t let friends do bad research). Applying the same ideas in conversation with your talented new colleagues in change management or sales isn’t going to work out so well.

The ability to understand people’s emotions, mindsets and motivations is an aspect of intelligence that isn’t strongly correlated with what, up until now, you may have thought of as ‘intelligence’ in it’s entirety. I have learned an enormous amount from colleagues with high emotional intelligence and, as I firmly believe in a growth mindset, increased my own along the way.

A decade in medium and large for-profit organisations has definitely opened my eyes to how much gets done because people like you, and can see how your proposal will also support an objective they have. To be clear, I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. In most interesting problems outside of the lab, it’s exceptionally hard to be provably right. If your colleagues are going to invest their limited time, effort and yes, political capital, in assisting you to progress something that might work but might not, it is more than reasonable that they see a way to share in the reward as well as the risk.

Learning once is not enough

A couple of years back, on a beautiful summer’s day, I chaperoned my ten year old twins and some assorted friends to a local park to play D&D (don’t judge them) and promptly lost myself in the pages of a book that really did change my perspective on life. “The 100-Year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity” by Gratton and Scott is a stunning book and you owe it to yourself (and your kids if you have some or plan to have some) to go out and read it right now. Here I just want to pick out one concept — if the average person is going to live for 100 years, the ‘old model’ of learn a skill; practice that skill; retire; die; is just not going to cut it anymore. If your working life is going to span 70 years you are definitely going to want some variety!

As you stand, PhD in hand, you can certainly congratulate yourself with having invested in your education significantly to date. But it isn’t going to be enough. I currently work in a field that DID NOT EXIST when I graduated. And I love that. But it’s never been truer to say that the skills you have now are just not going to be enough to sustain a full career. With that in mind …

Put aside time to remain current … but be realistic

I work in a field (ML / AI / DS — it has many names) that moves incredibly quickly. But even in more established fields, if you want to stay at the top of your game, you will need to continue to learn. This probably comes naturally to you so rather than belabour the point, I’ll just point out that I don’t think this has to be something you pursue uniformly.

Since leaving academia, I’ve moved countries five times and houses eight times. I’ve cajoled three kids from nappies to high school and worked with six companies. Sometimes I’ve been far too busy / excited / tired / depressed to do any kind of structured learning outside of the office and I used to beat myself up about this. With the benefit of hindsight, I’ve realised that for me the drive to learn new things is cyclical. Now I create space and put aside money to do it, but I’m happy to ride the ebbs and flows. Sometimes I want to master causal statistics or PyTorch, sometimes I want to garden and read sci-fi and that’s OK.

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Nothing you learn is ever wasted

Face it, you are going to be bored sometimes and you’re going to need to perform some truly tedious tasks. (I would imagine this is true if you stay in academia too.) But I suggest you adopt the belief that nothing you learn is ever wasted — because give it some time and an open minded attitude and I am sure you will see this play out in your own life. Just as it has in mine. I actually get a kick out of realising that I can do X which is now actually super useful in accomplishing Y, this goal I’m really excited about — even though X was stupefyingly boring at the time I was mastering it!

Managerial accounting, corporate politics, SQL, Powerpoint, dependency management and emacs all fall into the camp of ‘things I wasn’t enamoured with when I was first required to do them’. And they’ve all proven remarkably useful in getting *$^%@ done.

Please note that believing that nothing you learn is ever wasted is not the same as staying in a dead end job you hate.

If you’re not learning anything — not even building your patience and resilience muscles any more — then it’s time to move on…

Moving builds resilience

I’ve moved around a fair bit over the last 12 years. Quite a few moves have been driven by country relocations unrelated to work. But a fair bit has been driven by curiosity as well. One big upside of having moved a lot is that, although I started out a bit of a shrinking violet, I’m now very comfortable about my own essential employability.

Given the overwhelming likelihood that the future of work will be more uncertain than the past, I think embracing and even orchestrating a move or two will be to your advantage — career-wise and ‘life enriching-wise’ . No, it isn’t easy — I’m good at it now and I still don’t actually like doing it! But my advice is to feel uncomfortable and do it anyway.

Yes, one downside is the repeated periods of working at less than full efficiency because you need to learn the ropes of a new organisation over and over. But for me the upsides win.

Congratulations Dr! And happy travels.