Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Academia to Industry Transition: Some Basic Advice

In the comments on my post about getting your first industry job, Dr. Confused asked for some advice for people who have landed the job, and are now facing the transition from an academic workplace to one in industry. I don't have a great deal of advice, and of course different types of jobs in industry will have different requirements. But I think I do have a few things that are generally applicable.

1. Get a non-work email address
A lot of academics seem to use their work address for personal email, too. This is not done nearly so often in industry. Very few companies forbid it outright, but it isn't seen as a professional thing to do. Also, you have no expectation of privacy in your work email. Yes, your boss can legally read your email. So keep the personal stuff out of it.

2. Get your own computer
A lot of companies provide their employees with laptops, and some people then treat those laptops as their own. They are not. They belong to the company. Again, you have no expectation of privacy. You may also have signed something that implies that any work you do on that laptop belongs to your employer. I've heard differing opinions about whether or not that would actually hold, but... why try? Get your own computer for your non-work use.

3. Expect a lot more meetings
A lot of grad students and postdocs are used to working on their own project in near isolation. They might have a lab meeting to attend, but no need for weekly meetings to organize project work, since the vast majority of the work is going to be done by one person. Most industry projects involve collaborating with multiple people, and that leads to meetings. If you're coming in at a PhD level, you may find that people expect you to actually run the meeting, too. Learn how to do that effectively. It isn't too hard- the key things are to have an agenda and to write down decisions and email them out after the meeting. As you get more experienced, you'll probably learn how to steer conversation and cut off time-wasting dead ends. But maybe not. I am continually surprised by the number of people who don't know how to run a meeting. If you learn how to run a meeting, you will stand out and people will be impressed. Really.

4. Expect more attention to timelines
This is not a universal thing, but it should be! Start up companies have a limited runway. They need their projects to follow timelines, because if they run out of money before the project finishes, they fail. Bigger companies are often trying to push a drug into the clinic before some deadline- again, projects need to follow timelines. This can be a really, really hard transition for academic scientists, who are often under the erroneous impression that you can't have firm timelines for research projects. You can- you just manage towards decision points rather than end points. The fact that this is such an issue sort of puzzles me, since grants have limited duration and specific aims, but I have watched many, many scientists come in and stumble on this point, so I think it is worth mentioning.

5. Respect other people's time
Show up to meetings on time. If you say you'll do something by a certain date, do it, or at least tell people ahead of time if you discover that you cannot. Since projects are collaborative, other people are organizing their work around you. Don't be a jerk and screw up their plans. This will get you a bad reputation and make it harder to find the next industry job. And yes, this may mean that you'll need to get better at estimating how long it will take you to do something. This is a skill that improves with practice, but you can also try finding someone who does similar work and is good at making estimates and asking how they do it.

6. Assume Everyone Knows Everyone
I don't know about other industries, but biotech is a small, small world. Since companies go through boom/bust cycles, people move around a lot, and meet lots of people. Even if you think there is no way that Jill Chemist would know Joe Biologist, it is an extremely bad idea to say anything negative about Joe unless you want to put your reputation behind that assessment.

Those are the big things that come to mind. If I think of anything else, I'll come add it. Readers with industry experience- what would you add?


  1. Dr. Confused1:18 AM

    Thanks! That was really nice of you to respond to my request.

    It sounds from this like I'm perhaps more prepared than many making this transition.

    1. Already do that! In fact, when contacting my new employer, I made sure to use a non-work address, partially as a message to them that I know not to use my work address for non-work things - that is, I'm not using my current company's resources for a job search. Who knows if they even noticed, but it was something I thought about.

    2. A bit of a pricey suggestion I would say - but one I probably don't have to think about for a couple years. I will likely be able to keep my current work laptop when I move on (might have to pay a nominal fee to the university to buy it at a depreciated cost). Even when working at the university I was wary about, say, downloading films illegally on a work-owned laptop, and I imagine if I get a laptop at my new job I'll have to worry even more - e.g. make sure I have the proper licenses for every piece of software I have installed.

    3. I'm moving not from a grad student or postdoc job, but from an assistant-professor job. So meetings have been a big part of my life for the last 4 years. I only run very small meetings (e.g. myself and a postdoc and a student) usually, but those tend to be quite efficient. And I am going into a group of about half PhD holders, so I will likely not be expected to run big meetings right away. But this is not an area I expect to have a problem in either way.

    4. This is likely going to be my biggest downfall. I have ADHD and I am a procrastinator, a poor time manager, and a poor estimator of how long it takes me to do things. I'm reading The Now Habit right now and will read Getting Things Done next. I'm going to use the new job as an opportunity to really put in place better habits. It will likely work for a year and then I will find it challenging again.

    5. I do show up to meetings on time (thank you calendar programs with audible reminders!) but as per the previous points, I need to work on my reliability in terms of keeping my commitments in a timely manner and knowing how long it takes me to do things.

    6. I even found this in my interview! I had included a publication list on my cv. My interviewer (soon to be my direct supervisor) pointed to one of my journal papers on which I had collaborated with a different company, and said "oh, I used to work with those two guys when I worked at that company." During the interview I was asked about a specific project, and when I mentioned the tests I used to validate my simulation, one interviewer looked at the other and said "Oh yeah, person X (clearly a fellow employee) attended those tests for us." My industry is bigger than biotech I think, but especially as you get into specialized research areas the community can be quite small, and you don't want to piss anyone off.

    Again, thank you so much for this, and I'll be back to see what others have to say!

    1. More on the computer thing: you can get a low end PC for under $1k. And you could probably find something used for a few hundred dollars.

      In many companies, you will not have administrator access on your computer, and so will not be able to install things yourself. If you do have admin access, there will probably be a policy against installing anything without IT approval and proof of license. Unlicensed software can get a company audited and cost a lot of money (and hassle).

      Never, ever, ever do anything illegal on a work computer. That can quite literally get you fired.

      Some companies will also have policies against commenting on blogs, etc from a work machine. I think those are silly, but when I find myself in such a company, I follow the policy. IT CAN tell. They are unlikely to go looking, but you don't want to give anyone an excuse to make trouble for you.

      Policy or no, though, never do anything on a work computer you wouldn't be happy to have the entire company know about. As I said in the post, you have no expectation of privacy, and IT can usually see all network traffic (it depends on the firewall they use).

      For the estimating and getting things done on time: practice really is the best way to get better at estimating. And I find to do lists help keep me on track. When I'm unmotivated or otherwise inclined to get distracted, I end up with multiple lists, displayed prominently!

      Good luck. It sounds like you'll do great.

  2. I'm not in your industry but having watched academics transition I'll add:

    7. Getting along with people is as important as being smart
    Academics somewhat (but not totally) logically seem to believe in meritocracies - whoever has the best idea or the most logical argument or the most detailed spreadsheet will quite naturally be deemed right and be appreciated. In fact, in my industry anyway, while good ideas actually are valued quite a lot, equally of value is the person who can get them done because s/he has built up a work network and has prepared people in advance, taken personalities into account, doesn't tear others down, doesn't blather on extending meetings forever and so on. On that note -

    8. Don't make your boss look bad
    Just don't.

    and 9. Ask questions
    You don't have to have all the answers and spending time finding your own when your colleague might know, is not valued. Product over process.

  3. I don't have anything to add, but I would LOVE to hear more about how to run better, more efficient meetings!

    1. I know it sounds like a cheap comment, but seriously, circulate an agenda a good day or two beforehand - phrased in a way that steers towards outcomes i.e. 'decide what to do about slow progress on the antibody project' rather than 'discuss the antibody project' and try to stick to it as closely as possible. Record all meetings and then minute in detail, circulate the minutes and get everyone to agree. Then there's a clear record of who is to do what.

  4. Also, from my perspective as an ex-bench chemist:
    -dont steal stuff from other people, we're all in this together now, there is more budget and we share stuff now
    -clean up equipment after you use this, see above!
    -dont be rude and condescending to the Research Associates, they are probably more experienced than you, they are also your key to getting stuff done, and to learning how the place runs
    -remember you are part of a team now, not on your own, try to work as a team rather than trying to one-up your coworkers or make them look bad

    I often found that people from academia could be extremely condescending, they often ferreted equipment away in their drawers, and they just all round needed 'breaking in' to how things work in industry. Also, in all walks of life, it pays to be nice to absolutely everyone, smile and say 'hello'. What is it that google say 'don't be evil'?!

    1. Anonymous1:24 PM

      Note that these are people from academia who didn't stay in academia! Some of them may not have left of their own volition and not being professional might have contributed to that. Being condescending to staff and coworkers makes life difficult for folks within the academy too.

  5. Great post, and honestly, useful for *anyone* in their first industry job.

    I think @Jennywenny touched on this, but at least in my large tech company, no one gives a rat's ass about your fancypants PhD or your publications or your credentials. Bummer, but the truth. It's very egalitarian around here, so the just-out-of-college developer gets the same respect/attention as the former PhD researcher/prof dude. And if prof dude is seen as not all that good at getting his hands dirty with the actual work, and just good at blathering on about how awesome he is, then he'll get even less respect than that smart new college grad developer guy.

    Not sure if this is different in biotech, though. But here a developer is a developer and basically all previous experience goes out the window when you show up.

  6. This will really be helpful for a startup company. Aside from worrying about getting enough office space and the equipment needed to make things work, it's also important that every one knows every one (probably my favorite pointer) and that time will become more crucial once things start winding down in the office.


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