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

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.

On Academic Burnout

Having left academia with no significant table-flipping, people ask me why I left. I said, and still believe, that I was mostly looking for a change after 10 years in the same job.

But some of this piece on burnout by Jonathan Malesic in The Chronicle of Higher Education resonated with me. Here’s three things that I highlighted.

Burnout is the workplace, not the person

“The factors that Maslach and Leiter say cause burnout — an overloaded schedule, lack of control, insufficient reward, breakdown of community, absence of fairness, and conflicting values — are characteristics of workplaces, not individuals.”

I’d say all of those were pretty accurate. The overloaded schedule and lack of control particularly. When I started as a research fellow, my week was basically my own. As I took on more teaching responsibilities and service roles, I could have weeks completely that were completely booked out.

Burnout is dislocation

“A key dislocation for academics: We train as researchers but spend our days managing the emotions of late adolescents, haggling over budgets, and figuring out how to use Moodle’s gradebook.”

The lack of direct connection, at times, between what I was being paid to do and what I was employed to do was pretty stark.

Burnout is being a shock absorber

“Academic culture fosters burnout when it encourages overwork, promotes a model of professors as isolated entrepreneurs, and offers little recognition for good teaching or mentoring. The persistent financial stress on colleges and universities only exacerbates the problem, because, as Maslach and Leiter put it, “individual employees become the ‘shock absorbers’ for organizational strains,” including financial ones.”

This is the one that really got me. At my busiest I was acting as a stop-gap for the organisation. For example, when stepping in to a service role when someone was on leave, the person on leave would have workload allocation but I didn’t, or I didn’t get the full allocation for the acting role. This meant that my “normal” activities would take a back seat so I could act in someone’s place — working on the weekend or in the evenings to make up the time.

Burnout is too many contrasting rhythms

Someone asked me the other day what was most different about working in the commercial world. I said that the main difference so far is that the work has a more consistent rhythm.

The pace of academia is a little slower than the commercial world — though not by much! But in academia I found that each project had a completely different rhythm. Research runs to a 12 month to three year rhythm. Post grad supervision has three movements per student. Undergrad teaching runs to a semester with a coda of marking. Committee work comes around even two or three weeks. Some service roles are weekly.

If you’re practiced in the different rhythms, you’re probably going to be better at it than someone who isn’t. This might be where the advice to recycle your teaching materials comes from — it saves you from re-building that road each time you drive down it.

Just keeping track of all the different projects and their different rhythms was time consuming. Of course, no academic workload model will ever include time for articulation work so that work gets done out of hours.

Looking back, it’s the contrasting rhythms that did me in.

I’m leaving: This is not a quit lit piece

I’m leaving academia. I’ve been employed as an academic since 2006 and I’ve been “in” academia since I started my PhD in 2002. I’ve got a job with a consulting firm. I’ll start in two weeks, part-time until the end of semester so I can finish my undergrad teaching commitments

I’m leaving because I didn’t want to be institutionalised.

I’m leaving a lot of great colleagues and friends.

I’m leaving as primary supervisor to a great Masters student and a great PhD student and as associate to another great PhD student. I’ll stay as an external supervisor for my “primary” students. I made them both the promise that you make as a supervisor: I’ll get you finished.

I’m leaving a largely, but not entirely, secure position. I’m not tenured, as that is defined in Australia, but I’ve always had long-term contracts. My average contract length has been 2.4 years. Shortest: 1; longest: 3.

I’m leaving to try something new.

(photo by Michael Ramey at Unsplash)