Working in Industry vs. Academia: 4 Insider Tips STEM PhDs Should Know

(Watch the full career interview below)

How do you make the transition from academia to industry?

As you might imagine, different graduate students and PhDs in STEM have very different perspectives on the advantages of working in industry.

Some STEM PhDs know from the outset that academia is not the career path for them. They attend networking events early in their graduate studies with an eye towards the business/industry job market.

Other STEM PhDs are born and raised in academic circles. They dream of a tenure-track job. The prospect of leaving academia and working in industry full-time can be intimidating, to say the least.

Without a doubt, working in industry vs. academia can be quite a culture shock for some of us!

But regardless of which category you fall in, there are several key things every STEM PhD should know before launching an industry career.

This article offers 4 crucial pieces of advice drawn from real PhDs who successfully made the leap from academia to working in industry.

We’ll start with how to explore your industry options and break into your field of choice. Then we’ll discuss some choice strategies to help STEM PhDs maintain momentum and stay motivated in industry careers.

1. How to Explore Options for Working in Industry

If you’re a PhD student interested in leaving academia and working in industry, it’s never too early to start networking.

There are many ways for STEM PhDs to do this before graduating. You might:

  • Join clubs: Some campuses have ‘consulting clubs’ working on various consulting projects. This is a great way to ‘test the waters’ and see if you’d be a good fit for the business world.
  • Volunteer: No matter where you are, there are local nonprofits doing great work. If you have the time, volunteering is a fantastic way to acquire some basic non-academic skills like managing budgets, coordinating teams, etc.
  • Work part-time: For example, you might become a ‘brand ambassador’ (hand out flyers) for your lab. It sounds silly, but you’ll gain some rudimentary sales experience.

Even if you don’t know what job you’d like to have, some concrete experience outside the lab, wholly apart from your academic research, will be indispensable in making your career transition into industry positions.

You’ll meet like-minded people, expand your network, and gain valuable skills and experiences that will beef up your post-academic resume.

Also, don’t ignore startups! Lots of STEM PhDs are working for small companies and startups these days.

While startups can’t match the salary ranges of big businesses, they’re also much easier to network with. If you know people in startups, reach out!

If nothing else, just talking to your friends, family, and colleagues can generate a huge boost in your self-confidence. You’ll get a feel for what kinds of industry roles STEM PhDs get and where you might fit in.

2. How to Break Into Industry (Even If You Have Zero Experience)

First, establish an online professional portfolio!

If you do coding in your spare time, platforms like Github let you upload a public source code repository. Your code repository will serve as your professional portfolio for software engineering and data science roles.

To take another example, online communities like Kaggle host problem-solving competitions. 

And, of course, don’t neglect LinkedIn.

Use these platforms to show how you solve problems effectively.

As anyone who’d done an industry interview knows, (1) doing something and (2) explaining how you do something are completely different skills. By building an online portfolio, you’ll learn how to explain your reasoning process to a technical interviewer.

Second, emphasize your soft skills wherever possible!

As many academics and PhDs in industry have told us, many employers prioritize problem-solving skills, project management skills, and passion for the work above and beyond specific technical abilities.

If they sense that you’re a ‘cultural fit’ for the company and have the soft skills to work effectively in a fast-paced environment, they’ll be more than happy to train you in whatever technical expertise you need.

The key to breaking into industry is to build your portfolio and demonstrate your soft skills and cultural fit.

It can take time for academics and STEM PhDs to figure out how to do all this correctly; all the more reason to start early.

3. Common Misconceptions About Working in Industry vs. Academia

Misconception #1: You’ll have no freedom!

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

If you’re working at a startup with a diverse portfolio and variety of projects, you’ll have quite a bit of freedom in choosing projects and responsibilities.

Employers will value your creative input and suggestions for how to solve problems. Remember, those soft skills are a big part of why they hired you in the first place.

Misconception #2: There’s no work/life balance!

This is an odd one. Some people will warn you that working in industry will consume your entire life, overlooking how many academics and PhDs struggle with work/life balance in grad school.

In fact, many companies and businesses leave plenty of room for social interaction and work/life balance.

While things can get hectic during the regular work week, there’s also a clear separation between working and non-working hours. You’re generally not expected to work on weekends! (Unless there’s a deadline, of course.)

Imagine it! An entire weekend to pursue your hobbies, hang out with friends and family, or work on your passion project.

This kind of work/life balance is utterly lacking in graduate school.

Misconception #3: You’ll be bored!

Many academics and PhDs in STEM fear becoming a ‘cog in the machine’ of industry.

It’s a reasonable concern. Even the best jobs have aspects that make you groan and roll your eyes: boring meetings, repetitive tasks, seemingly pointless box-ticking rituals, etc.

Here’s the thing though: if you’re a PhD graduate in a STEM field, the company didn’t hire you to be a cog. They hired you precisely because of your problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

You were hired because you can handle complex problems and tasks. The business trusts you to make reasonable progress on your own terms, without constant supervision or guidance.

Trust us, you won’t be bored.

4. How to Stay Motivated in Your Industry Career

Companies can be both for-profit and mission-driven. It’s not an oxymoron.

Many businesses strive to make the world a better place. Many people working in industry want their jobs to have a broader meaning beyond just making money.

This should be perfectly obvious. After all, most of us know the “homo economicus” of classical economic theory is a myth.

Humans aren’t money-making automatons. Even if we have different ideas, values, and priorities, we all want to make the world better in our own small ways.

Some companies make life-saving medications and devices more accessible. Others promote STEM education. Most (not all, of course, but most) businesses strive to make products that meet the real needs of real people.

(If you’re curious about this, be sure to talk about the company’s “value proposition” when you start doing interviews.)

This circles back to the issue of cultural fit. If you really are a good fit for the company, you’ll be working with interesting, like-minded individuals who share your idea of what a positive contribution to society looks like.

That’s motivation enough for anybody.

Conclusion

Let’s conclude by briefly discussing how the academic career path differs from the paths that lead people to working in industry.

Academics tend to follow linear career trajectories. They know from the outset that they want to be tenured professors. They do everything in their power to make it happen.

Does it always work out that way? No. But in theory, an academic’s career trajectory is set from the moment they begin graduate school.

The rest of the professional world does not work that way. Not at all.

Most people don’t have their careers laid out before them. They follow a random walk from one position to another.

Most people don’t know what they’ll be doing for the rest of their lives. They just know what they’re doing now, and what they’d like to do next

Interests change. Personal situations change. The key to career success is to locally optimize, to make the best of your current situation.

We promise, the advantages of working in industry, at a job that’s a good fit for you, are undeniable.

You’ll be intellectually challenged, work with interesting and ambitious people, and contribute to a mission that matters to you personally.

What more does a person need?

Looking for more advice on working in industry vs. academia? Please check out our other articles on the post-academic job search.

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