Quo Vadis? — On the exodus from academia to industry

20 Oct, 2020

This is a guest post by Dr. Natalia Bielczyk. She helps early career researchers find new careers in industry. 



Capitalism hits academia

PhD candidates are a good investment for departments and research institutes, because they are a cheap and productive labor force. Therefore it isn’t surprising that the number of PhD graduates in STEM sciences has been growing at a much faster rate than the number of faculty positions.

This capitalistic dynamic created the major imbalance between the number of PhD graduates who are willing to stay in academia and the number of positions that academia can offer. Unfortunately, the academic system still didn’t work out a functional mechanism that would assist PhDs in finding new career paths beyond the ivory tower. And this is necessary because the contrast between the expectations and reality after graduating from a PhD can be painful. Many employers are hesitant to take PhDs onboard. PhDs are often perceived as too specialized, not enough experienced, and too individualistic. . Also, for most of their adulthood, PhDs intended to become a full-time researcher. Finding a new passion and a new source of life satisfaction can be a long process. Altogether, transitioning beyond academia is not an easy endeavor.



Coping strategies developed by the education system, and why this won’t work

In recent years, there is a trend to invest more funds and attention into helping early career researcher re-qualify and adapt to industry jobs. Research institutes create new career centers, organize courses, and hire career coaches to guide PhD graduates in the job market. These career services are free for PhDs. However, where is the incentive for the universities to deliver the best quality career services? The office workers working at the university career centers have not transitioned beyond academia. And positions created around universities — especially the positions beyond the academic career track — will get supplied by the taxpayers’ money regardless of their level of novelty or productivity. Therefore, these career services will only get you so far.



One solution: Developing better self-navigation skills in 4 steps

Your career is your own responsibility, regardless of where you work. And the University is an employer like any other. They will not take responsibility for your future career, or represent your best interests. In fact, nobody could do this better than you!

So, it’s good to assume early on that your career is in your own hands. The necessity to steer yourself is the case while you are still in academia — but it will also be the case once you move to industry. The sooner you will take care of this aspect of your life and the more systematic you’ll be, the better results you will see. And, people who take charge of their own career, get the furthest.. So to help you, here are four steps that you can take on your own.

  • Dig into yourself to discover your core values, qualities, and core competencies,
  • Network to find or create new opportunities for yourself,
  • Find good training materials and courses if you feel lost,
  • Set personal goals, create a personal development plan, and use some good heuristics for that — not for the next few months but for many years to come.




I often get the comment that, “it’s unfair that most of the time, the best-connected person gets the job, and not necessarily the best candidate.” Is this really unfair, though? Almost no one is born well connected. Networking is one of the activities which — similarly to exercising, brushing your teeth, or socializing with your family — Dwight Eisenhower would refer to as “important, but not urgent” — you need to schedule them, or otherwise, they will always lose competition against more urgent tasks. When you set your mind to the networking mode, your impact will slowly grow with time.

Networking is nothing else than investing your time, and building and maintaining connections with other people, and they do not need to be professional connections. For instance, you can consider to:

➣Reach out to other tribes in your neighborhood. In the job market, people still live in tribes that follow their own, specific tribal customs. Corporate tribes, startup tribes, and academic tribes live and function according to different rules, so academics tend to befriend other academics. . When you think about making a transition to industry, you need to get out of your comfort zone anddiscover where you fit best ! Visit a local business club. Find a local Hackerspace. Visit a meet up for marketers and salespeople. Go to an event organized by the local startup accelerator. You might find new inspiration and discover people who think like you in all these circles!

  • Reach out to recruiters through LinkedIn. Cold emailing is so much easier in times of social media! Many online platforms such as LinkedIn give you a wonderful opportunity to reach out to the right people — you just need to use the browser. Don’t be intimidated to introduce yourself and ask about opportunities! Many jobs are not announced online, and the only chance to get them is to find yourself in the right place at the right time.
  • Ask friends from undergraduate studies where they are now. They might tell you a lot of interesting things about their industry careers, and connect you with the right people. And some of them might potentially become your employers!
  • Talk to your neighbors, housemates, and other people whom you know about their professional careers. People are always happy to tell their stories, and you will learn a lot from other people’s mistakes even if they have built careers in a very different discipline than you.

It’s good to treat networking as an investment that will pay off in the long-term perspective. Opportunities create new opportunities, and in times of social media, networking is easier than ever before.

Good luck on your way!



Next time

PhD & Covid19



The Author

Dr. Natalia Bielczyk is an entrepreneur, researcher, author, and philanthropist.

She graduated from the College of Inter-Faculty Individual Studies in Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Warsaw, Poland, with a triple MS title in Physics, Mathematics, and Psychology. Thereafter, she obtained a PhD in Computational Neuroscience at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behavior in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

In 2018, she launched a public foundation, Stichting Solaris Onderzoek en Ontwikkeling, aiming to help early career researchers find new careers in industry. She also owns Welcome Solutions, a company developing new tools and practices to help professionals in navigating on the job market, and in finding/creating their dream jobs. She also authored a book entitled “What Is out There For Me? The Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks”. In free time, she blogs at her personal blog, www.nataliabielczyk.com.



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