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My Career Took Off When I Finally Ditched My Limited Academic Mindset

Written by: Aditya Sharma, Ph.D.

“You are a PhD student, you are supposed to suffer.”

Some form of those words have been said to nearly every single PhD student, myself included.

And, those words are damaging.

During my PhD, I loved the research I was doing.

It was fun to design experiments, ask questions, and solve problems.

But, when the project was not going as well as we hoped, when I was not producing enough results, I was punished.

It was my fault that things weren’t working.

I was told that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t working hard enough, and that my experiments were a waste.

At one point, near the end of my PhD, my advisor told me, “You are a terrible scientist.”

I left the office and shortly after, I was in tears.

I thought my advisor was right — I was a terrible scientist.

I was a fraud.

I didn’t deserve to get a PhD and I was certain that no one would ever want to hire me.

That mindset followed me after I graduated.

I felt unqualified for all the jobs I saw advertised online, and couldn’t bring myself to apply for any positions.

So, I did an unpaid internship.

I volunteered.

Eventually, I landed a job (out of necessity), but it wasn’t a job I really wanted.

But, I figured it was the only place that would hire me.

Needless to say, I didn’t negotiate my salary — I was impressed they were even willing to pay me.

This limited, negative mindset stuck with me for way too long.

But then one day, I realized that the opinion of one person had impacted my life way, way more than it should have.

I started trying to change the way I thought and the way I viewed myself and my work.

It was difficult and it took some time.

And, if I am honest, I’m still working on it.

But, I have shifted my thinking, I have left academia behind, and I have adopted a more business-oriented mindset.

How Your Academic Mindset Will Hold You Back

The environment in many academic institutions is toxic.

Nature reported that up to 42% of academics have experienced some form of bullying in academia.

But, the actual prevalence and extent of bullying in academia is largely unknown, as students and postdocs are often too scared to come forward.

The recent bullying allegations against a star scientist at the Max Planck Institute has made international news.

And, the conversation about academic bullying is being brought into the light more and more.

But, the bullying is still happening.

Everyday, PhD students and postdocs are suffering from the abuse of their advisors.

This type of negativity is hard to overcome and impacts the mindset of those who have been bullied.

Many, many PhDs experience Imposter Syndrome as a result of the academic environment.

But, when PhDs transition out of academia, this Imposter Syndrome and academic mindset follow them.

A study in the Frontiers In Psychology found that people who suffer from Imposter Syndrome are less satisfied with their jobs, have a negative impact on the company they work for, and earn a lower salary than those people without Imposter Syndrome.

To succeed outside academia, you must change your mindset.

The Imposter Syndrome and mindset you learned in academia will not serve you in industry.

But, you can make a conscious shift in the way you think so that you can become an asset for the company you chose to work for.

7 Mindset Shifts For PhDs To Stop Thinking Like An Academic And Start Thinking Like A Professional

As a PhD, you have probably spent a huge portion of your adult life in academia.

And, this experience has influenced the way you think — negatively.

You will have to actively shed your academic mindset because it will hold you back as you try to succeed in industry.

Getting rid of your academic mindset and starting to think like an industry professional is an essential part of your transition into industry.

Here are 7 ways you can shed your academic mindset and adopt a business mindset to set yourself up for success in industry…

1. Realize that, for a company, making money is very, very important.

What’s the most important thing in academia?

Publishing, right?

But, it’s more than that — it’s publishing for prestige. Publishing to prove that you are the best.

That is not how things work in industry.

In industry, how prestigious you look does not matter. What matters is that the company makes money.

Otherwise, there will be no company.

Every decision a company makes is decided through this lens of profitability.

The problems a company decides to solve, the science it investigates, the collaborations made, and even the hiring decisions they make are all decided with profitability in mind.

In order to succeed in industry, you need to realize that this is how it works.

You need to learn how to make and understand decisions through this context of profit and loss.

In academia, most labs maintain their grant funding by publishing in prestigious journals.

But, in industry, companies maintain their profits by making decisions based on money — not prestige.

2. Stop feeling like there is not enough to go around.

A scarcity mindset thrives in academia.

There is not enough grant funding, not enough professor positions, not enough resources… the list goes on.

By living in the broken academic system, this mindset can consume you.

It will invade the other areas of your life and you will start to see “not enough” all around you.

But, to get out of academia, you need to get rid of this negative viewpoint.

Stop acting like there are not enough jobs.

There are lots of jobs, and if a company really likes you, they will make a position for you.

Seriously, this happens.

Stop seeing barriers and start identifying possibilities.

Not only are there more resources and more money in industry, but most companies value creating a positive workplace culture.

They want their employees to feel valued — they want you to succeed.

The more success you have, the more success the company will have.

3. Understand that results are all that matter.

In industry, it doesn’t matter how hard you worked or how cool the science is, all that matters are the results.

In academia, you are rewarded for spending long hours in the lab.

The longer you are there, the more you are respected.

But, are you actually achieving more results?

Because, results are all that matter in industry.

Deliverables.

Products.

Profits.

Projects are quickly cut if it’s clear they aren’t going to produce the desired result.

In academia, you may have worked on a project that you *knew* was going to be a dead-end for 5-6 years because that’s what the grant funding was for, or because you love the science.

This will not happen in industry.

Instead, resources will be put towards projects and ideas that produce results.

In industry, you may be asked to switch projects quickly and frequently.

You need to be able to adapt to this and realize that it is because the company wants to achieve the best result.

4. Think beyond publications and move towards wanting large-scale influence.

In academia, you are defined by your publication record.

Your worth is equivalent to the number of high-impact papers you have.

It is how you decide if someone is a good scientist, or not.

But, in industry, these papers do not matter.

Publishing data in a high quality journal is not the end game.

In industry, the goal is much bigger — the goal is to make the world better.

The goal is to make better medicines, better products, and better services that result in a better experience and life for society.

You need to step outside the limited academic bubble.

See the bigger picture.

Stop dwelling on whether or not you have enough papers, and start thinking bigger.

Start thinking about what you could be doing to have a direct, tangible, positive impact on society.

5. Stop treating your co-workers like they’re enemies.

Often, in academia, the members of a lab are pitted against one another.

Each vying for the first author position on a paper, or hoping to be the one who is chosen for the tenure track position.

This creates an often unhealthy level of competition.

Resulting in sabotage, fights, and just a really awful place to have to go to every day.

Academics report experiencing depression and anxiety at higher levels than the average population.

It’s not a good time.

But, this experience can taint the way you treat your co-workers when you transition out of academia.

You may be tempted to treat them as your enemies, to not help them, and to be defensive about your mistakes.

Because, in academia, this was the only way to succeed.

But, in industry, this is not going to work.

In industry, companies value their workplace culture and will value those employees who are able to achieve results while maintaining a positive attitude.

Company culture is very important.

Realize that you are a part of a team, a division, and a company.

You will benefit from the successes of the whole company — this is especially true if you have stock options.

Shed the negative competition of academia — it is not going to serve you well in industry.

6. Replace the academic status quo with a love for change.

Academia is notoriously slow to change.

Archaic systems set up in the 1950s still dominate how university research works.

Your advisor has probably been working on the same problem for decades.

Industry moves much, much faster that this.

And, to thrive in industry, you need to be ready for this shift and the speed of change.

You need to be prepared for the focus of your research to shift in the middle of a project, or for you company to merge with another one.

Constant change.

How well you are able to adapt to this changing environment will determine your success.

Do you dive right into the new project, the new problem, and start figuring it out?

Or, do you dwell on what could have been and lament having to switch gears?

Notice how you respond to change and start preparing yourself to be adaptable, and learn to love new changes and new challenges.

7. Don’t fear risk, instead evaluate risks and take the ones that are worth it.

Few academic labs are willing to take risks.

They will continue on the path well-traveled because that is how they know they can get funding and publish papers.

Stepping outside these norms is scary.

Your project might fail.

You have probably grown to fear risks and avoid them as much as possible.

But, avoiding risks isn’t the best way to innovate new products.

To make something new, you must take risks.

So, there is a fair amount of risk involved in industry research and development.

Companies don’t want to take on huge risks either — they don’t want to lose money.

But, because a company has to be thinking about how they will survive in the future, they have to innovate and taking risks becomes essential.

They just have to decide what risks are worth taking.

Get comfortable with risks and with evaluating the pros and cons of particular risks.

This is a valuable skill in industry.

To thrive in your industry career, you cannot think like an academic. It just won’t work. Instead, you must adopt a business mindset and change the way you think. For example, you need to realize that, for a company, making money is very, very important, stop feeling like there is not enough to go around, understand that results are all that matter, think beyond publications and move toward wanting large-scale influence, stop treating your coworkers like they are enemies, replace the academic status quo with a love for change, and stop fearing risk, instead evaluate risks and take the ones that are worth it.

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Aditya Sharma, Ph.D.

Aditya Sharma, Ph.D.

Aditya has a PhD in Physics from the University of Toronto, Canada and a passion for Nanotechnology. His PhD project focused on 3D magnetic nanostructures and he is now combining this passion with his keen business acumen and works as a scientific consultant at a top Canadian consulting firm.
Aditya Sharma, Ph.D.