A collection of advice on going from academia to industry

Following up on PhD Skill Arbitrage, here’s some things I read while thinking about that post.

From academia to industry: a short guide at the NatureJobs blog

Transferable skills: Helping PhDs and postdocs find careers also at the NatureJobs blog

Transferable skills: Keys for standing out from the crowd again, at NatureJobs

(Gee, you’d think Nature was in the business of telling PhDs how to escape.)

Transferring Your Skills to a Non-Academic Setting at the Chronicle of Higher Education

What does industry want? (Interview with Greg Sheehan) at the LatTrobe RED Alert blog

Arbitrage for Rare and Valuable PhD Skills

In a recent post about career capital at the Thesis Whisperer, Inger was writing about the idea of taking a craftsperson-like approach to growing “rare and valuable” skills. It’s good advice.

What I am beginning to see in all the people who are genuinely excited about the uncertainty of their PhD future is a commitment to their academic craft – whatever that might be. They talk about writing papers to learn the tricks of academic publishing. They seek out opportunities to teach. They go to conferences and watch other people speak, so they can learn how to be good at presenting. They talk about just loving a technique, or approach to research – after working hard for years and years to master it. The attitude is ‘work the skills, the rest will follow’.

But I did notice that the skills in the post, writing, teaching, presenting, are simultaneously rare and valuable and often completely taken for granted in academia. That is, they’re more like high value commodities. Valuable but not especially rare. And as commodities, if they can be sourced cheaper, they often will be.

If you have a commodity that you’re trying to sell and the price is too low where you are, one option is to travel to where the price for the commodity is higher. This is a sort of arbitrage.

arbitrage (n): the simultaneous buying and selling of securities, currency, or commodities in different markets or in derivative forms in order to take advantage of differing prices for the same asset

That is, commodity skills in academia are often far more rare outside of academia. A commenter on the career skills post, Cristie, makes a similar point.

For example, as a lecturer I was expected to be able to plan 13 weeks of content and activity for 80 students and five or six tutors. I was then expected to be able to stand and deliver the content, manage the students and tutors and all the paperwork and processes associated with them. In academia it is taken for granted that you can do this. Some people are better at it than others but everyone can, more or less, manage.

Those same skills, outside the academy, are truly rare and quite valuable. Outside the academy, there are far fewer people with the skills to do 2-4 hours of public speaking every couple of days for four months. Not many people can break a complex idea into pieces and present them coherently. There are very few people who can get 10-20 people they have just met to follow their instructions for ten minutes let alone two hours.

Even outside your area of subject matter expertise, PhDs and academics have skills that are quite unusual, well developed and, above all, useful outside the academy.

Sometimes skills that are taken for granted in one domain are truly rare and valuable if you engage in a little arbitrage.

I was an academic for 10 years. Here’s how I escaped.

This is not a “how to”. I’m an over-privileged white guy lucky enough to have researched and taught in an area that translates fairly well to industry practices. Nonetheless, this is my story. Maybe it can help you think through your own.

I never intended to be an academic.

I studied computer science as an undergrad in Brisbane. It was the late years of last century. I learned to program in Smalltalk (which no-one uses), Ada (which the US Military uses) and C (which everyone uses). Towards the end of my degree I got interested in human-computer interaction (HCI), artificial intelligence and multi-dimensional databases (together these are the design and engineering roots of any “uber-for-X” startup). My honours supervisor said to me that I was “good at this stuff” and should stick around for a PhD. I declined because I wanted to go and earn lots of money being an IT consultant.

After graduating I got a job at a Very Large Consulting Firm. It was 2001 and the dot-com bubble was bursting. There was no work. I spent ten months “on the bench”. Eventually I learned a little ABAP so I could do something. The firm, in their wisdom, decided I would best be used as a programming problem solver for consultants who were actually working on projects. I quit instead.

I ended up in Canberra and for something to do I enrolled in a PhD. (It was now the post-bubble crash so there was no work. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship for my PhD and to be newly married. My wife was working her way up the federal public service ladder so between my scholarship and her salary I was very fortunate to be able to afford to treat my PhD as a 9-5 job. I imagined I would be doing a traditional design-build-test computer science/HCI PhD. My primary supervisor was a speech recognition engineer so I made that my application focus.

As I dug into how people talk to computers it became clearer that I needed more people than engineering in my research and I picked up a sociologist as a co-supervisor. She was a Latourian, more or less, and insisted that I teach sociology of science with her so that I could understand everything that Latour, Callon, Akrich, Suchman and the rest were on about. I learned to talk to end-users of products and software and to analyse it with reference to theory and in a “grounded” way. My PhD thesis ended up being more sociology than computer science or even HCI.

Eventually it was time to get a post-PhD job and we were a bit over the cold of Canberra. A job as a research fellow came up at a university in Brisbane in a design school. The ad used synonyms for what I thought I did, so I applied. I imagine I was up against people with actual design backgrounds but I was the successful applicant.

And suddenly I was an academic. Specifically, I was a research fellow, working with industrial design researchers. I used to say to people that I had all the privileges of being a lecturer without having to actually lecture.

With a background in understanding how people talk to computers, it was natural that the first research I did in my academic job was to try to find out how to determine expertise, or the lack of it, in nurses banding people’s legs. (That’s a joke. It took me about six months of floundering about to trust that this was my job and my professor wanted me to do it my way, rather than my interpretation of her way.)

That project led to others. I was always on someone else’s “soft money” so the projects were varied. I was very fortunate that the contracts were long. My colleagues and I tried to figure out how doctors would use stethoscopes over video conference and what those stethoscopes should be like. My professor and a bunch of others won a huge grant about airports so I followed people around airports for four years and helped five other people get their PhDs in following people around airports, too.

Somewhere in there the soft money ran out. I was still on a contract so the Dean at the time decided I needed to teach to be able to pay my way. I’m organised (through sheer force of will — I’m actually an inveterate procrastinator) so I was able to cope with the management side of teaching. And I’d been tutoring since 1999 so I was fairly accustomed to being in front of a class. It was not as difficult a transition as it could have been.

After teaching for while, and still researching, I applied for what was basically my current job but in a permanent capacity. I didn’t get it (neither did anyone else who applied). When I asked why I was told I was both over experienced and under performing. And so I went full shields down.

I still had a contract. I still had undergrad teaching commitments. I still had PhD students. And I started looking to get into industry.

I had maintained contact with a bunch of people who I had tutored with during my PhD. They had become fairly senior in the user experience (UX) industry in Australia. Some of them had started a conference, UX Australia, that had become highly respected. Because I like to hang out with them, I’d presented at it a few times. Because I’d been on-stage, a lot of industry people knew me, or at least knew of me. That made it vastly easier to start looking for jobs because I could see what it was they did and find parallels in my experience so I could explain it to them.

After near enough to ten years in basically the same job my resume looked a little thin compared to industry people who switch jobs every 1-3 years. But, if I presented my experience in a skills-based way, suddenly I had people paying attention. I was getting interviews at least. I could have moved to Sydney or Melbourne and got work but my wife and I, and our kids, wanted to stay in Brisbane.

In 2015 when I was presenting at UX Australia I took some almost-finished PhD students along and was shopping them around to people I knew. I found myself waiting for a session to finish, making small talk with someone from a UX consulting firm that was fairly established in Sydney and Melbourne and had just opened a Brisbane office. I asked if they’d take me on. Remarkably, they didn’t immediately say that was ridiculous.

Eighteen months of coffee meetings and a Skype interview later, I was in my head of school’s office saying that I’d had an offer and I wanted to quit.

Universities tend to be reluctant to let lecturers go too quickly. In my case there were 80 undergrads, five tutors and a couple of research students I was responsible for. Technically I was required to give four months notice. The firm wanted me to start in two weeks. I negotiated two weeks left full time and then six weeks of part-time at both the university and the firm.

And that’s how I escaped.