‘To academia or to industry’: … is that the question?

‘PhD students ask each other “are you staying in academia or going into industry?” The problem with that question is not just that your options aren’t limited to these two areas… it’s that they aren’t discreet entities, anyway!’

 Kira, our special PhD grad guest for the week

Does anyone else love a game of ‘would you rather?’

If you aren’t familiar, it’s a game that pretty much involves taking turns to ask another person/ people to choose between two equally absurd hypothetical situations.

  • Would you rather have hands for feet, or feet for hands? (hands for feet, every time)
  • Would you rather be able to fly, or be able to make yourself invisible? (Fly! See you later, 5pm rush hour…)
  • Would you rather go into academia, or industry?

No, wait…….. (!)

Ok, the third question didn’t feature in my childhood games, but it’s one that I hear postgraduate researchers ask themselves, and each other, on a daily basis.

On the surface, it’s an important consideration, involving weighing up what type of professional set-up is right for you. For many, it’s also a starting point for working out alternative plans if an academic job hunt doesn’t go to plan.

However, thinking about your post-PhD career options as a dichotomy of ‘academia or industry’ can be reductive for multiple reasons:

a) It implies that your options are limited to these two entities, however you choose to define them

b) It implies that the two are mutually exclusive

c) It implies that all things that aren’t traditional academic research and teaching can be subsumed under an umbrella term of ‘industry,’ which in turn obscures the different cultures, goals, and other nuances that distinguish different industries (and indeed sub-industries) from each other

As our intro quote from PhD grad Kira nicely alludes… none of these things are true. Observe……

  1. A person with a Biomedical Engineering PhD goes to work in the area of technology transfer. Such ‘Research & Knowledge Transfer’ jobs are roles based in universities, that often look for PhD graduates, yet they aren’t postdocs. This person supports academics to use their research for commercial and industrial applications, and to set up ‘spin-out’ companies based on their research area. Is that academia or industry..?!
  2. A person with a literature PhD becomes a lecturer for a cultural organisation that attracts a large number of tourists. They give talks to members of the public, and do research that feeds into the centre’s exhibitions. Is that academia or industry…?!
  3. A person with a Political Science PhD joins the UK Civil Service to work on advising on policy for international trade. They work for government… does that count as ‘industry…?! Is the public sector an “industry”…?’

I think you see where this is going. The ‘academia or industry’ dichotomy not only obfuscates some types of work that don’t intuitively spring to mind when we say ‘industry’…. It also fails to appreciate just how much work there is out there that operates at the intersection of where academia and ‘industry’ – whatever that might be – overlap.

To find out more about what we can do to break out of this reductive thinking around post-PhD careers, I spoke to Kira: a life sciences PhD graduate who I worked with on interview coaching when she was coming towards the end of her PhD. Kira now works in a management role in the public sector. As this isn’t a line of work that many people within academia tend to be aware of, Kira is enthusiastic about encouraging people with PhDs to think outside the box about their next steps. She started out by telling me that:

‘Finding meaningful work is easily one of the most important things that has ever happened me. Even more so than getting a PhD.’

So, I was keen to understand more about how she thought through her options, and decided to go into the line of work she’s in now. Here’s what she said:

‘I think initially I thought in those binary terms of “academia or industry” because that was always what was presented to me by peers and academic staff from the moment I stepped in a University. Then you get in to maybe the 3rd year of your PhD, people have more awareness of the job market and the question refines to “academia, pharma, writing, lab-based, or non-lab-based work?” Which is still quite reductive. I think its symptomatic of how during our PhDs, most of the “chat” we hear about our career options comes from our peers, many of whom only have a vague idea themselves of what they can actually go on to do. For instance, what I do now – management roles in the public sector – was never something that came up in these conversations!’

I thought Kira’s point was really interesting here: that the ‘academia vs. industry’ or the ‘these options vs. those options’ dichotomy gets perpetuated within the echo chambers of our own PhD communities, offices, labs and other spaces: actual or virtual. I was keen to know how Kira felt that this affected her first career explorations, and how she’d acted in response to it.

‘Initially, I thought medical writing might be an option for me. Before I got my current job though, I did do some medical research comms in another role and I didn’t enjoy it! Some people I know love it, and it’s right for them; equally, the management work I do isn’t for everyone as it’s competitive and it requires a lot of people management. But personally, when it came to medical writing, I found it difficult to muster up the enthusiasm for research that wasn’t my own. Plus, I didn’t know that so much of the job actually involved writing research papers, which is not something I’d ever really enjoyed. I clearly misunderstood the role (which is my fault, to be fair).’

It sounds as if initially, for Kira, subsuming medical writing under the umbrella term of ‘industry’ meant that she hadn’t looked in detail about what was involved in such roles, or how the work and conditions in this industry might differ from others. It turns out, though, that it wasn’t just medical communications that Kira had misunderstood. It took this experience for her to also appreciate where her values and motivations actually lay, and what bits of herself she really wanted to be using in her work.

‘I realised I didn’t actually “like” writing as such, I just didn’t like being at a bench… and medical communications was just one option I knew of that avoided that! Reflecting on myself now though, personally, politically and philosophically, I feel more at home in the public sector. I am happy to give a lot of my life to benefit society in quite tangible ways. As a disabled person, I also like the security of public sector roles. I’m on a permanent contract, and I feel cared about.

Based on her experience of finding a job she loves, via a job she didn’t, I was keen to know Kira’s advice for PhD researchers and postdocs who feel confused or trapped by the ‘academia or industry’ conundrum. She had some great nuggets to share on this:

‘Now that I’m a few years into working in a more business-type environment, reflectively I think a lot of people choose their career paths based on what they enjoyed and what they were technically good at in their PhD, which can be sort of situational and narrow.

My advice therefore would be to think more broadly about the person that you are and the personality that you have, too. I listened a lot to family and friends about their views on my own character; coming to understand how I am perceived by others gave me a lot of clarity on what I could be good at. It was then that I cast my net into management. So… pick things you enjoy, but also think strategically and realistically about yourself, and do what you can to gain an insight into different types of roles and industries before deciding. For example, if you’re someone who finds it hard to speak out or be involved in difficult discussions day in and day out, then perhaps management isn’t for you!

What I heard from Kira’s advice was that when researching next steps, it’s crucial not only to focus on the activities involved in a particular type of job, but also on your own personal ‘style.’ How do you prefer to communicate and interact with people? How often do you like to do that? From what type of situations do you bring your energy? Then, let these themes lead your career research and the questions that you ask people that you connect with for job research chats.

Kira concluded with this:

‘I initially made the mistake of seeing myself as “industry or academia”, “Pharma or writing” etc… and those categories are SO narrow. Think about who you are and how you connect with others.

Don’t just think about what you like, but think about how these things cross over with who you are. For example, you might like writing, so you’re interested about medical writing. But, are you extroverted and convincing? Maybe you’re right in thinking comms is your thing, but perhaps something like marketing could be a better fit, that involves a lot of interaction with people, rather than writing roles that involve more independent work. Plus, really knowing your strengths and weaknesses – understanding your “best bits” and how they correspond to the job – makes the interview and the “sell” a lot easier, too!’

I feel like I learned loads talking to Kira about this. And if we’re going to turn her advice in some practical steps to take forward? Here are the main messages I heard:

  • Think about where your current information about available career options is coming from. Is it coming from impartial, informed sources… or is it coming from a small sample of people who themselves are poorly informed? Is it largely anecdotal, and coloured by individual experiences? If so, widen your information pool by talking to impartial sources like members of career guidance staff, or people beyond academia with real-life experience of different ‘industries’
  • Do what you can to understand ‘industry’ roles and the differences between them: talk to people in different roles to understand the nuances between them. For example, if someone works in a consumer insights role for an engineering firm, how does that role differ from other customer-involved roles like marketing and new product development? It’s people on the ‘inside’ who tend to have this tacit knowledge of ‘industry,’ so sometimes we can only really learn these nuances once we ‘get in’
  • Check in with yourself to see if your career ideas are derived from what you don’t want to do, or want to avoid, rather than your ‘active’ preferences (e.g. Kira’s initial focus on options that could help her ‘get away’ from lab-based work). Instead, try to identify what you DO want, as well as what you DON’T want
  • It can be difficult to look inwards at yourself and personality or strengths, especially when you’ve been part of a culture like academia which often doesn’t actively encourage such self-reflective thought. If you find this kind of introspective work hard to do alone, take Kira’s cue of taking to supportive colleagues, friends and family who know you well to get their views on your strengths and character. Others are often better ‘cheerleaders’ for us then we are for ourselves!
  • Basing carer choices on what you have been good at in the past might restrict you to things you’ve done before. Looking more at your personality tendencies and preferences can open up wider options that you haven’t experienced before, like Kira’s example of working in public sector management

So, next time someone asks you ‘are you planning to go into academia, or industry?’ stop, check… and point them here for advice on how to widen the debate.

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