Transitioning out from a PhD to “industry” – It’s all about YOU!

A little while ago I wrote some articles on risk management in PhD’s, and on the importance of broad mentorship of early-career health and medical research scientists. The feedback I got on both articles (especially the former) was really heart-warming, knowing that they’d echoed the sentiments of a lot of PhD graduates and early-career scientists. However, as I approach the end of my PhD, I too, have been forced to tackle the very issues I’d been telling everyone to think about. It’s not been easy, but exposure to my ecosystem and mentorship over the last 4 years has helped me make the tough career decisions that needed to be made.

I’ll be honest, I’ve been very lucky. I fell into a unique PhD that gave me exposure to many things that most PhD students don’t get to see or experience. I knew that at some point, I had to make a decision about whether to stay in academia, or pursue something “on the other side of the fence”. Ironically, the exposure to the options outside the “ivory tower” made my career decisions even harder, as I feared that selecting one option would mean that I’d be missing out other amazing opportunities. I wanted to have all the cakes and eat them as well. But for every option, there were also downsides, making each cake seem tainted.

From the outset, I knew I wasn’t destined for the life of a career scientist. The PhD had taught me that I wasn’t cut out for the job insecurity, and having considered my own research skill-set, I knew I wouldn’t survive that cut-throat environment. I came to the conclusion that there were better scientists out there, that were going to do better work than me, and be willing to put up with the roller-coaster ride of grant-writing, etc. It was clear I was destined for something outside of the academic system.

But what? And where? Management consulting in a Tier 1/2 firm? I’d been told I’d needed more business experience when I’d tried to apply for some innovation programs, so was that a good option? But did I want to turn myself into a corporate-type for 2-3 years? Was that a good way to gain more “business” experience? Or did I want to find a role in a large-cap medtech? I’d been told that they didn’t do much innovation, but it would be good exposure? But would I just be “carrying the bag” and doing “territory management”, because I was based in Australia, and they only had sales and support roles? Did I want to climb yet *another* sales ladder? And then what about other local engineering firms? Some were beginning to start their own innovation consulting services, but would I be experienced enough to jump in at that level?

There was just too much noise. The plus-side of 4 years of extensive networking was that I could see where many paths led, but the downside was that I didn’t know which one to pick – I was just spoilt for choice.

I couldn’t think clearly, because I was so worried about getting the “right” job. This anxiety stemmed from my fear that if I didn’t get this career decision “right” at this inflection of of my career, I’d be doomed to a life of direction-less “jobs”. People were asking me “So, what’s next after the PhD? Which lab are you going to do your post-doc in? Are you going to sell out to industry?” It was infuriating, and I found myself lying to people just to get them off my back. It was easy for them to be armchair commentators, as they had made so many naive assumptions about my predicament. It got to the point where I was losing sleep, and I was getting distracted from other important things. So I started reaching out to my mentors to try and get some clarity. In short, the essence of their questions boiled down to “So what do YOU want to do?”.

At first, I wanted to reply straight away. Then I realised that the magnitude of the question deserved a more thoughtful response.

I incubated for 2 months, and didn’t reply to anyone’s e-mails on the matter. Then it finally dawned on me. At the point of confusion, I realised that I’d been looking at all my options from an ideas-driven perspective – asking myself “What about this option, or that option?”. The hindsight felt like a slap in the face, but the mentors had really helped me gain clarity and unlike when I started my PhD, I’d have more people to talk to this time round. With this in mind, I felt ready to respond to my mentors’ question, because I needed to discover my own “needs” as an individual.

I went back to grass roots, and asked myself the following questions:

  1. What am I good at?
  2. What am I interested in, and passionate about?
  3. What roles do I see myself in over the short and long term?
  4. What is my “driver”?

For  Questions 1-3, I generated a list of between 4 and 10 items. Not just in context of my career; I gave consideration to my own personal needs,wants and desire, and added them to the list. The items for Questions 1-3 were relatively straightforward – they were a function of my own education, exposure to my ecosystem and the things that happened to me (both negative and positive) over the course of my life. At first, Question 4 seemed daunting, but then one morning, I woke up and found I was able to articulate it precisely – “To deliver better value to the patient”.

The weight lifted off my shoulders enormously. I had always known that no job would ever be “perfect”, but now I had a path to an alternative. That alternative would take the form of a series of career “episodes” that allowed me to meet this guiding principle that would give me the career satisfaction I sought.

I then fed back the career-related items to some of my mentors. With that list in mind, they got better insight to me, and I was able to get better value from them in terms of the options I had, based on their experiences. The next challenge was marrying the items from Question 1-3, to my response to Question 4 – my driver. It was clear that I wouldn’t be able to achieve harmony across my talents, passions, future roles and drivers in Australia – the ecosystem was simply too small, too immature. I would need to leave Australia to go to bigger ecosystems where careers that encompassed all the things important to me could be possible. Oddly enough, I somewhat already knew this reality, but did not have a fully articulated reason as to why, until now. I decided to “sandbox” that as an option for 2 years down the track, as I realised I’d need time to establish a more global network of contacts to facilitate my “presence” elsewhere.

Having broken down my career plan into long- and short-term, I decided to focus on the short-term issues. In order for me to leave, I needed to solve the personal cash-flow problem I would encounter when my scholarship ended. I focussed my subsequent networking on “stepping stone” opportunities closer to home, and struck gold, on multiple fronts. Although both opportunities have their strengths and weaknesses, both fit a number of items from Questions 1-3, and have an impact on my response to Question 4. A big win, considering the limited Australian ecosystem.

Before I conclude, I should mention some subtle, but important points one should consider before embarking on the thought/self-examination processes for career planning as I described above:

  1. I wasn’t able to do this without mentors. I’ve always stressed the importance of having a network of good mentors, that have your interest at heart. Simply having “outside” contacts isn’t enough as they may be in contact with you for reasons other than mentoring, and having lots of mentors in your area of research simply narrows your view. Setting up a mentor network takes time, so the earlier you start, the better.
  2. I was more (but not fully) aware of my career options, as I’d been exposed to my career ecosystem for 4 years, and met hundreds of industry professionals during that time. Again, networking is a skill and takes time, so start now! You can’t consider the pros and cons of something, if you don’t know what that “something” is.
  3. The further into a research career you are and the longer you’ve been there, the harder it is to transition out. I have heard many people talk about the sometimes insurmountable challenges (both professional and personal) of transitioning out from a career in research. My contention is that the later you leave it, the harder it is. Giving consideration to what it is you want to do in life is a very broad personal question, and has impact on what you want to achieve, both for yourself, and for those that are dependant on you (i.e. family). The earlier you give serious consideration to this, the better positioned you are to make these challenging career-transition decisions earlier. I see many PhD graduates “miss” their career inflection point, as they don’t consider their own personal drivers, or are doing a PhD to procrastinate these important considerations. They begin their early career in research, and eventually leave within a few years, with no network or ecosystem to fall back on. It’s fraught with risk, so avoiding it makes a lot of sense! This is not to say that I don’t support PhD and post-docs pursuing a career in research, I do, as long as they are happy to contend with the unique challenges of being a scientist today.

So I do hope you find this post useful, and as always, if you have any thoughts, please feel free to comment or tweet me @ayftan.


5 thoughts on “Transitioning out from a PhD to “industry” – It’s all about YOU!

  1. I was talking to other PhD student about this, and 5 mins after that I found your post!
    I’m actually in that position at the moment, choosing whether to wait for more postdoc opportunities or going into already offered industrial position. I have gone through the same phase as you do, having problem with sleeping, and worry of choosing the wrong thing. I’m glad to know that there is someone out there facing the same thing. Thanks for sharing. I still can’t make a decision though.

  2. Some wonderful advice given to me a number of years ago …..

    In deciding how your life will evolve :

    • What you do ….. Your Life Purpose (inc. your career) is where your Joys/Values/Motivations and your Gifts/Talents/Skills meet the “Needs of The World”.
    • How you chose to do it ….. The more regularly the people out there in the world (your customers) tell you how much they love what you’re doing for them, or the people they care for, the happier you’ll be.

    I live by that now. It anchors me even when times are tough.


  3. Pingback: Transitioning out from a PhD to “industry” – Riding the rollercoaster | Technical Philosophy

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