PhD Jobs: How To Transition From Academia Into Business
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
I sent resumes to over 200 companies during my last year of graduate school and heard back from exactly zero of them. It was embarrassing. And confusing. I guess I just assumed that big corporations would fall all over themselves trying to hire me once I had a PhD. Not so much.
Getting my PhD turned out to the beginning of a whole new challenge: getting a job. This is something I didn’t have any training for. I’d never taken any classes in economics, finance, management, marketing, or organizational behavior. I’d never had a business lunch or made any real business connection whatsoever.
And, to make matters worse, none of my mentors or thesis committee members knew anyone in business. I was on my own.
Are There Any PhD Jobs Out There?
For me personally, staying in academia wasn’t a good fit. Sure, I knew that tenure positions are disappearing. I knew the academic landscape was changing dramatically. But that’s not why I wanted to go into business. I went into business because I wanted to create something and sell it. That’s it. If you don’t have a desire to create, connect, or sell, then you shouldn’t go into business.
The truth is that even if you work in a company’s R&D Department, you’re goal is going to be to create new products that sell or to produce data that backs up the products you sell. The end. This might seem obvious but a lot of academics fail to understand that every business is driven by the bottom line, or by profit. No profit, no company. Knowing and accepting this fact is the first step to successfully transitioning from academia into business.
Applications; A Gateway Position
The first job that I got out of graduate school was working as an application scientist. I got the job by staying after an industry seminar and talking to the presenter who was also an application scientist. Later, I took a job in sales with a different company. Then, I moved into a global marketing position. If someone would’ve told me in graduate school that I would have been able to move into a sales or marketing position in just a few years after getting my PhD, I would’ve laughed at them. After all, I had no business experience whatsoever. How is it possible to get a job with no experience?
The first step of transitioning out of academia is deciding if you want to stay in research or if you want out. If you want to stay in research, then you’ll seek and apply for R&D or other bench positions. But, if you want to move into sales, marketing, or upper management, your best course of action is to move into an applications-based position. The main job of an application scientist is to teach a company’s customers how to use their products. This often involves teaching customers about the broader fields of science related to the product.
15 Tips For Transitioning From Academia To Business
At most companies, application scientists play a role in sales, marketing, R&D, and customer service. This allows them to learn a lot about many different parts of the business, which is very valuable, especially in terms of future transitions.
No matter what position you’re trying to transition into, there are some key things to keep in mind. The following 15 tips will help you successfully transition from academia into business.
1. Meet people face-to-face.
Yes, you need a resume and an online presence, even if it’s just your LinkedIn profile. But these things aren’t going to get you a good job. No one trusts a resume. No one trusts your LinkedIn profile.
Real trust can only be established by meeting people face-to-face. You can either reach out to people online and hope for the best or you can go meet people in person and make something happen for yourself.
A lot of people like to say that going to job fairs, networking events, and conferences doesn’t work anymore. These people are wrong. If you’re memorable – if you know how to make an impression – then going to live events is the best and fastest way for you to transition into business (see #9)
2. Your PhD means everything.
A lot of academics want to get into business because they’re afraid that they don’t have a future in academia. And this fear makes them start to second-guess the value of their PhD, which makes them lose their confidence (see #8).
Less than 2% of the population has a PhD and, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, by 2018 there won’t be enough data scientists in the world. IBM defines data scientists simply as people who use all available and relevant data to effectively tell a story that can be easily understood. This sounds a lot like being any kind of academic scientist. Which means that PhDs, especially science PhDs, are some of the most valuable people entering the work force right now.
3. Your PhD means nothing.
People who rest on their laurels get fired. Your PhD might increase your starting salary by 10%. But that’s the last financial benefit you will receive for having a PhD. The rest of your future raises, promotions, and commissions will rely on what you’ve done since getting your PhD.
4. Value innovation.
Three of the four companies I ended up interviewing with during my last year of graduate school asked me why I wanted to leave academia. I bombed the first time I was asked by saying that I wanted to make more money. But the second and third time I dug deeper and nailed it by telling the interviewers that I wanted to see my knowledge translated into a tangible product that I could sell that would also make people’s lives better. That’s what business is about. At least good business. Make sure that you understand this before you try transitioning out of academia.
5. Value money.
Money might be a dirty word in academia but it is the root of all good in business. Before money was invented, weapons and humans were traded as currency. That’s evil. This might sound a bit dramatic but the point is important: no business can survive without money.
In business, publications don’t matter. Profits matter. Of course, you don’t want to sacrifice things like integrity to profits. But, you do need to make sacrifices to make a profit. Start seeing money as a means to create something amazing, not as the root of all evil or as the only reason why you want to get into business.
6. Every product is special.
Not all products are created equal. Some companies make better products than their competitors. Don’t take a job with someone who you know makes inferior products. You’ll regret it.
Every company has a favorite product and every company has ugly stepchild products that they hate. Don’t take a job working with a product that the company doesn’t support.
Every product is different. Just because you know a lot about one product doesn’t mean you know everything about all products.
7. Every product is just a widget.
At the same time, all products are merely widgets and are bought and sold according to supply and demand and countless other laws of economics. It doesn’t matter if you’re launching a new line of T-shirts or a new line of computers, things like the law of diminishing returns will apply to both.
Take time to learn some of these laws. Read a couple of business books. But, don’t overdo it. Real business experience will teach you more than any number of books you read.
The fastest way to learn is to get a job and then dig into it. Try to understand what makes the business run and compare it to how other businesses are running by talking with other people in the industry.
8. Be confident and decisive.
Confidence is currency in the business world. This includes the ability to stand up for yourself and the ability to take responsibility for your own mistakes. In academia, people deliberately remove individual responsibility from situations and statements using phrases like, “the data suggests” “it seems as though” and “we think that one possible conclusion might be.”
Sure, you’ll see this in some large organizations too but eventually, the buck has to stop with someone. You will do better in business if you volunteer to make the buck stop with you. By taking responsibility you will be given more of it.
Learn to value decisiveness and a can-do mindset over patience and pontificating.
9. Promote yourself.
In business, everyone is on a team but everyone is also out for themselves. This is a good thing. It means that you’re responsible for your own success. Many academics are taught to sit back and wait for things like praise and promotion to be bestowed upon them. Don’t do this. Instead, learn to promote yourself, without being annoying.
The best way to do this is to send a bi-monthly email with an update on your progress to the highest manager in your division. Make it short. Say thanks. And don’t expect a reply. But keep sending updates.
10. Leverage your abilities.
I spent a lot of time in graduate school feeling like there was something wrong with me. Why did other people seem to know so much more than me? Why did other people’s projects seem to progress so much faster than mine? Why was everyone else so much more successful?
In academia, it’s easy to admire everyone else’s strengths but your own. This is because most academics are trained to be ruthless perfectionists. As a result, they feel like impostors. Perfectionism is a valuable trait when it comes to reviewing data and drawing scientific conclusions, but not when it comes to positioning yourself for business success.
Break free from perfectionism and impostor syndrome. Stop focusing on your weaknesses and start leveraging your strengths. One of the most important things you can do to transition successfully into a business is to spend your time doing the things you’re naturally gifted at. If you’re good at presenting – do that. If you’re good at writing – do that. If you’re good at selling – do that. And so forth.
11. Improve your interpersonal skills.
Numerous surveys and studies show that interpersonal skills matter more than technical skills in business. Soft skills trump hard skills. It’s very important that you start learning how to be personable if you want to get into business.
No one wants to hire a genius that pisses everyone off. Seriously. Even if that genius is making the company millions or billions of dollars. Even Apple fired Steve Jobs when he was being a jerk.
The good news is that it’s easy to be personable. Just be present, ask more questions, and work to improve your understanding of other people as well as your ability to help them understand you. It comes down to communication, poise, and patience. Master these three things and everyone will want to work with you.
12. Find the right transition point.
In my experience, getting into an applications-based position is the best transition point for anyone trying to move from academia into a pure business position like sales and marketing.
The key to moving forward is to continually find opportunities to learn new skills. If there are no opportunities, make them (see #13). When I was an application scientist, I decided that I wanted to get into sales. So, I started acting like a salesman. I started nurturing leads and working more closely with customers to get them to buy more products and to sign bigger contracts. I was then able to leverage this experience to get my first sales job. I did the same thing to get into marketing.
Don’t wait for someone to give you a chance to gain experience, create your own experience.
13. Become an opportunist.
Learning to ruthlessly seize opportunities is a critical part of transitioning into business. You can’t sit back and wait for someone to give you a chance. No one is coming to pat you on the back or hold your hand.
If an opportunity opens up, like if a friend tells you they know about a job opening, don’t say “cool” and ask them to send you the details. No. It’s not their job to seize your opportunity. It’s your job. You need to follow up with them, over and over again, until they get you the details. Then you need to follow up with the hiring manager, by email, phone, or in person if possible, until you get the job.
When an opportunity presents itself, jump on it and ride it until you get what you want. Don’t wait for things to be given to you. Take them.
14. Teach yourself.
Most academics applying for their first job in business will not have any business experience. This can be a real sticking point for most PhD students. But the fix is simple: create your own experience (see #12).
Do you need speaking experience? Join a Toastmasters Club or organize one of your own speaking events on campus. Do you need product development experience? Create an online product or service. Do you need sales and marketing experience? Start selling and marketing your product online. Alternatively, you can volunteer just a couple of hours a week for local businesses or nonprofits to get this experience.
15. Connect with everyone.
Connections crush qualifications. Your experience, job title, resume, and skill sets are nothing compared to someone else’s strong connections.
A study published by the Academy of Management Journal concluded that successful business managers spend 70% more time networking than their less successful counterparts. Other studies have shown that networking in business is positively associated with salary growth, number of promotions, perceived career success, and job satisfaction. And almost half of all job hires at top tier companies are referrals.
Networking is a skill you should start sharpening now. But don’t just aim to collect business cards and shake hands. Aim to build strong business relationships that will last for the rest of your career.
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