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5 Unexpected Challenges I Faced After Getting Hired

Written by: Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.

When I landed a job as a scientific editor, I was elated.

The excitement of transitioning into industry and leaving academia (and all it’s stresses) behind me felt amazing.

I was eager to learn this new position and contribute to the company.

But as I started the job, it was not smooth sailing.

I had entered a world that was so different from academia and I was struggling to learn the ropes.

Now, don’t get me wrong.

It was still a wonderful experience and working in industry was a welcome change from the negativity of academia.

But it was different and I had to learn new sets of rules.

I wanted to do more than just get by, I wanted to be awesome at my job.

And to do that I had to work my way through many challenges and learning experiences.

My experience isn’t unique either.

Many PhDs who make the transition into industry face unexpected challenges as they learn to navigate the world outside of academia.

It is a learning experience and something that we all will experience.

But it helps to know what’s coming.

We’ve put together a list of the top challenges PhDs face after transitioning into industry based on a poll of Cheeky Scientist PhDs who have made the transition.

When you enter industry you encounter new challenges and new ways to grow both personally and professionally.

Here are the top 5 challenges that PhDs face after transitioning into industry…

1. Onboarding and learning new company rules and systems.

38% of surveyed PhDs reported onboarding as their biggest challenge since transitioning into industry.

Industry runs in a completely different way than academia.

The pace is faster, there are set working hours, you will have lots of meetings… etc.

As a PhD who likely had an extreme amount of autonomy in academia it may be an adjustment learning to work within the company’s systems and rules.

“The major thing for me, having had very flexible working hours in academia previously, was making sure everything was done by 5-5.30pm. I had to work on time management and scheduling, especially with an increased load of meetings and other appointments I have to fit my lab work around.” – Industry Ph.D.

You also might feel the creep of imposter syndrome as you navigate this new territory.

Remember, you are the person they wanted to hire for this job, you have the skills they want.

You just need to be focused, determined and dedicated to find your way in this new environment.

Like any change there are bumps in the road when doing something new.

“The main challenge was to get used to a new system and learning new work processes.” – Industry Ph.D.

But just like your job search, once you get the hang of how things work in your company you will thrive.

2. Getting promoted or asking for a raise.

21% of surveyed PhDs reported getting promoted or getting a raise as their biggest challenge since transitioning into industry.

The position where you enter industry is not where you will stay.

This is just the entry point.

You need should be aware of the next steps you want to take in your career – including getting promoted or getting a raise.

Unlike academia where postdocs stay postdocs for many, many years, in industry you will not stay in the same position or pay grade for more than a year usually.

Too many PhDs are used to just accepting what they are given and not asking for what they deserve.

Many companies have a built in promotion/raise system, so learn how this works.

Communicate openly with your manager to fully understand what is expected of you in order to earn a raise or promotion.

“The biggest challenges I faced have been 1) to keep myself updated about the company news 2) to manage research work in between the non research work like meetings, emails and a lot of other stuff 3) to continue networking.” – Industry Ph.D.

Don’t be afraid of this conversation, because it shows your commitment and dedication to the company.

If you know that you have been doing an excellent job the natural progression is promotion and/or a raise.

3. Learning how to manage a team and be a good leader.

18% of surveyed PhDs reported developing managerial skills as their biggest challenge since transitioning into industry.

Academia is often very solitary.

You have your own project that you are responsible for and that’s it.

Maybe you had to train a graduate students or an undergrad from time to time, but you were probably not expected to manage them on a day to day basis.

In industry, as you move up the corporate ladder you will be expected to take on management roles.

You will do less and less of the actual physical work and your job will become managing a team or teams of people.

“Management responsibility is something I’m starting to get given now, it’s come on very quickly so poses quite a sudden challenge, but I have a great support network for advice within the company.” – Industry Ph.D.

This is a whole new set of skills for you to master.

But don’t be afraid of this new role.

As a PhD, you have the skills to thrive in a management role where you can see the big picture while supporting others to achieve their best.

Seek help when you need it and just keep moving forward.

4. Working cross-functionally.

13% of surveyed PhDs reported working within a cross-functional team as their biggest challenge since transitioning into industry.

Working as a PhD student or postdoc in academia you are surrounded by other people like you.

Other scientists or researchers who have a similar background to you, who understand the research you are doing at a high level, and who are highly educated.

In industry the people you work with will not all be like this.

You will have to learn to work cross-functionally with people from different teams and departments who may not really know what you do.

This could mean working with the marketing team, finance team, people from C-suite leadership positions all the way to entry level positions.

My biggest challenge has been to focus on my role alone and work towards getting better at it. It’s so easy to get distracted by what’s happening in the business side, R&D, regulatory affairs or marketing.” – Industry Ph.D.

You will need to learn how to communicate your position and requirements clearly to the others in the cross-functional team that you work on.

It can be fun to learn about all the other aspects of a company as well.

And perhaps you might discover a passion for a different part of the company that you want to explore.

5. Finding a mentor and/or a sponsor.

11% of surveyed PhDs reported finding a workplace sponsor as their biggest challenge since transitioning into industry.

Having both a mentor and a sponsor is essential to achieving success in your industry career.

Your mentor is someone who will support you on a day to day basis, such as a supportive manager. while a sponsor is someone higher up in the company who believes in you and will be an advocate for you when you are not in the room.

A sponsor will put you up for promotions and help you reach your fullest potential.

“My biggest issue has been to find a mentor/sponsor because I’m not quite sure how to navigate this path.” – Industry Ph.D.

As academic PhDs, we look only to our advisor as a mentor and it can be confusing to try and find the equivalent in industry.

The book, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-track Your Career by Sylvia Ann Hewlett is a great resource to learn more about how to secure a sponsor who is invested in your success.

As a PhD, you have the skillset to eventually move high up on the corporate ladder, but you will need mentors and sponsors who help you get there.

Making the transition into industry is an exciting time for PhDs. You have finally found a place that respects your work life balance, values your input and allows you to do meaningful work, who wouldn’t be excited! But this doesn’t mean there are no challenges. The most common challenges PhDs face, as they learn to grow in industry, are onboarding and learning new company rules and systems, getting promoted or asking for a raise, learning how to manage a team and be a good leader, working cross-functionally, and finding a mentor and/or a sponsor. As you make your way through your industry transition, realize that these challenges are normal and that you will overcome them. Just use that focus and determination you developed as a PhD.

To learn more about how you can transition into an industry career, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and is COO of the Cheeky Scientist Association. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry positions. She is Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology. She has also been selected to take part in Homeward Bound 2018, an all-female voyage to Antarctica aimed to heighten the influence of women in leadership positions and bring awareness to climate change.
Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.


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