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How To Answer “Why Are You Leaving Academia?” (& 4 Scientific Ways To Convince Employers To Hire You) 

“‘Why do you want to work here more than anywhere else?

And why are you leaving academia?’

Those are the questions I got stuck on, Isaiah. 

I told them why I liked their company, mainly because it was aligned with my values, but I also wanted to be fair and ethical so I told them that I was considering other companies.

Then I explained that academia was no longer a good fit because I wanted to do more than write grants all day.” 

“Okay, I replied, anything else? What did you say after that?”

“I asked them a few clarifying questions about the role and told them it was important to me to be able to advance quickly and to be able to get some project management experience.” 

“Why did you say that?” I asked. 

“Well, the job posting did mention project management so I wanted to be sure I could do the things that I wanted to do.” 

“How did it end?” I asked? 

“Not well. They asked me if I had a certain skill and I didn’t, so I said ‘no’ and that was it.” 

Facepalm. 

This was a conversation I had recently with a PhD who didn’t get called back after a second interview (big surprise). 

This PhD had been racking their head trying to figure out why they didn’t get called back. 

If you’re like them (or like me back when I was job searching), you may not be able to tell why they didn’t get called back either based on their answers to the above interview questions.

But I assure you, their answers were a train wreck. 

Why? 

Well, from the employers perspective, this PhD failed to convince them why they wanted that job, what they loved about that company (no, saying “you’re aligned with my values” doesn’t suffice), nor did they convince the employer that they had a positive, longterm reason for leaving academia or that they were ready to do what the job posting required. 

Instead, they focused on themselves only, acting as though they wanted the employer to convince them that the job was going to be perfect for them. 

When interviewing for a job, especially as a PhD, you must be prepared to tell employers why you want the job, which means explaining both why you’re leaving academia or whatever current position you’re in, and why you want to move into the new position they’re offering. 

Let’s start with why you’re leaving your old position…

Answering The “Why Are You Leaving Academia?” Question 

A PhD leaving academia after years and years (and possibly decades) in the ivory tower is very concerning to employers who themselves are not longtime academics. 

They don’t understand why you would spend your life in academia only to leave. Why would you reach the top of the period to get your PhD, or to even go beyond that to do a postdoc, or to TA, or to become a faculty member? 

Yes, you are at the top of the academic pyramid. Even if you have a Masters degree you’re in the top 8-10% of the first world population in terms of education. If you have a doctorate, you’re in the top 2%. 

So, why are you leaving the top of your pyramid for the middle of the corporate pyramid? That’s what employers want to know before they hire you. It’s also why you’ll be labeled as overqualified and not get the job if you don’t answer one simple question very well: Why are you leaving academia? 

The best way to start your answer here is to highlight that you’re not leaving academia so much as embracing a new chapter where your academic achievements lay the foundation for industry success. 

From there, you want to keep the focus of your answer on your desire to have an impact. 

Explain how the industry role offers an opportunity to apply your expertise on a broader scale, contribute to innovative solutions, or directly influence industry practices. This shows that your transition is motivated by positive aspirations rather than dissatisfaction with academia. 

Next, discuss your attraction to new challenges. Industry presents a different set of challenges and learning opportunities compared to academic settings. Express your enthusiasm for tackling these new challenges and your eagerness to grow in a different environment. Discussing your willingness to step out of your comfort zone demonstrates adaptability and a proactive attitude—qualities highly valued in industry. 

Third, connect your academic skills to industry needs. Transitioning from academia to industry doesn’t mean leaving all you’ve learned behind. Instead, it’s about applying your skills in new ways. When explaining why you’re leaving academia, take the opportunity to bridge your academic experience with the needs of industry. 

Finally, emphasize your commitment to innovation and lifelong learning. A hallmark of both academia and industry is a commitment to continuous learning and improvement. Stress your dedication to lifelong learning and how transitioning to a corporate career represents the next step in your professional development journey. 

This underscores not just a desire for personal growth but also a commitment to contributing meaningfully to your new role. 

Once you provide your interview with strong, positive rationale for why you’re leaving academia, you need to convince them that you really want the job you’re applying for, and this requires certainty. 

Why & How To Give Employers Certainty That You Want The Job

One of the most critical errors a candidate can make is not showing enough confidence or failing to give the employer certainty that they can handle the job. 

Confidence, or again–giving the employer certainty that you can do the job–is key in interviews; it’s what convinces an employer that you believe in your abilities and can tackle the challenges of the role. It’s crucial to practice speaking about your experiences and skills confidently and to prepare for the interview in a way that boosts your self-assurance. 

Another significant error is not showing enough enthusiasm for the job, out of fear of appearing desperate. 

This mistake is particularly egregious because it sends the message that you’re not particularly interested in the role at hand, but rather just looking for any job. Employers want to hire candidates who are passionate about the position and the company, as these employees are more likely to be engaged, motivated, and loyal. 

It’s essential to express genuine enthusiasm for the role, discuss what excites you about the opportunity, and convey how you can contribute to the company’s success. 

Finally, discussing other jobs you’re applying to or expressing a desire to use the role as a stepping stone to other opportunities can severely damage your chances. 

Such statements make it appear that you’re not committed to the role for the long haul, leading employers to question your loyalty and how much you’re willing to invest in the job. 

Instead, focus on why you’re interested in this specific position and how you see yourself growing with the company. It’s important to show that you’re looking for a place to make a significant contribution, rather than just a temporary stop on your career path. 

4 Ways To Give Employers Certainty That You Can Do The Job

By expressing certainty in your skills, experiences, and fit for the role, you’re more likely to persuade interviewers of your capability and readiness for the job. 

The way we present our beliefs and opinions, especially in job interviews, significantly influences our perceived certainty. 

Studies published in the Harvard Business Review, have shown that people are more convinced by opinions that account for both pros and cons, as this presentation style enhances the legitimacy of the argument. 

When discussing your qualifications, acknowledge challenges and how you’ve overcome them. This balanced approach not only makes your case more credible but also demonstrates a well-rounded understanding of your own experiences and the role you’re applying for. 

Beyond this, there are 4 keys to giving an employer certainty: building consensus, embracing repetition, making your argument easy to understand, and defending yourself vigorously but professionally…

1. Demonstrate consensus in your interview answers.

Humans are naturally inclined to follow the crowd. 

In an interview context, showcasing that your views or approaches are aligned with industry standards or have been successful in past roles can increase your perceived certainty. 

Share examples where your work or decision-making process aligned with best practices or led to widely recognized success outcomes. 

This strategy can subtly imply a consensus around your competence and suitability for the role. 

2. Embrace repetition when answering questions. 

Reiterating your key strengths and achievements throughout the interview can reinforce your certainty in those areas. 

Each repetition is an opportunity to solidify in the interviewer’s mind your confidence in your skills and your fit for the job. However, it’s crucial to balance this with responsiveness to the interviewer’s cues to avoid sounding repetitive or scripted. 

3. Make your argument easy to understand. 

The ease with which you discuss your professional experiences and qualifications can significantly impact how certain you appear. 

Complex jargon or convoluted explanations may undermine your perceived certainty. 

Instead, aim for clarity and simplicity in your responses to convey confidence and ensure your key messages are easily understood. 

4. Be ready to defend yourself vigorously but professionally. 

You’re expected to defend yourself against an interviewer questioning your ability to do the job. 

Just as beliefs become stronger when they’re successfully defended, your confidence in your professional abilities can be showcased when you’re prepared to address challenges or skepticism from interviewers. 

Anticipate potential concerns about your qualifications or fit for the role and prepare clear, confident responses. This readiness not only demonstrates your certainty but also your problem-solving skills and resilience. 

In sum, transitioning from academia to the industry is a significant step that requires a clear and positive articulation of your motivations and capabilities. This article has outlined effective strategies to confidently answer why you’re leaving academia and how to convincingly demonstrate your enthusiasm and suitability for the new role. By focusing on the desire for broader impact, embracing new challenges, linking academic skills with industry needs, and committing to innovation and lifelong learning, you can present a compelling case to potential employers. Additionally, ensuring that you communicate with certainty, demonstrate a consensus with industry practices, repeat key points for emphasis, simplify your arguments for clarity, and defend your qualifications vigorously yet professionally, you significantly increase your chances of success. Overall, the goal is to reassure employers of your commitment and ability to contribute meaningfully to their organization, thereby transforming any perceived risk in hiring someone from an academic background into a valuable asset.

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ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD

CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS

Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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