What industries really value… and how to leverage this in your post-PhD job hunt

In academia, you might publish a paper and then say to an industry employer ‘hey, look, I have this thing!’ And the industry employer will respond ‘Ah, ok great…… what is that??’

– Eric James Stephens

There’s a line in the Barenaked Ladies song ‘One Week’ (or as we called it at school, ‘The Chinese chicken song’) where they say they’re like Leann Rimes, because they’re all about value. 23 years later, I’m still none the wiser what that meant… but this week’s PostGradual musings are, really, all about value.

Heavy 1990’s references aside, I recently had the privilege of catching up with Eric James Stephens. I’d heard Eric speak at the Unleash your PhD summit back in October, and one of his statements stuck with me above all else:

Academia and industry have two totally different value systems.

Go back and read that again.

It’s so simple, but true. And, I soon realised, absolutely central to one of the common ‘disconnects’ that I see when I work with researchers preparing to make the transition from academia into a different industry. The best way I can describe this disconnect goes something like this:

Let’s say there’s a bunch of people you want to impress who are desperately in need of hats. Their heads are cold, their hair just isn’t doing the trick, so hats are the BIG THING they need and value right now. But… instead of going in front of these people telling them how you’d be a really great hat, you instead say ‘hey, I know you could do with a hat right now, but look… I’m a shoe! What a great shoe I am, with laces and a sole! You don’t fancy a shoe, instead of a hat??’

They look at you blankly… and move right on to the next person who shows them all their previous head-covering experience that will make a darn good hat.

Now, if you substitute ‘you’ for the researcher, the hat lovers for industry hiring managers, and shoes for academic ‘outputs’ like papers and articles… hopefully you get the picture. The mistake I see researchers make is that they approach an industry job hunt and interview process by presenting themselves according to the value system of academia (‘here are my publications, conference papers, classes I’ve taught, etc.’) rather than the value system of industry (‘here’s how I can help you and your organisation achieve your goals’). Having heard Eric’s comments about the mismatch between academic and industrial value systems, I had just had to talk to him to see where he felt this disconnect originated, and what advice he had on how to avoid it when jumping from academia into a different sector.

Just in case you haven’t come across Eric before, amongst (many) other things, he’s done a LOT of work around highlighting the value of higher education workers as they migrate to working in industry, government, and non-profits. His most recent venture is setting up a software company. Being made redundant from an academic position in 2020, he was driven by a strong ethical motive towards encouraging those in work to share their networks and social capital with those left jobless during the pandemic.

I followed up with Eric on this idea of academic vs. industrial ‘value’ systems and asked him: what’s the problem? Why is it that there’s such a disconnect between the things to which academic researchers tend to attach value, and the things that industry really values?

Eric starts by explaining: an academic CV is really just a giant list, of publications, papers, grants, teaching etc… And that’s fine, because an academic audience understand those outputs and what they mean. But an industry audience often don’t!

But, Eric went on to argue, this ‘disconnect’ runs much deeper than industry employers not knowing what goes into creating those academic ‘end products,’ and how that maps across to their hiring needs. Ultimately, Eric continued, academics are trained to devalue what is valuable.Wowzers. That was a bit of a eureka moment. I asked Eric to explain that comment further.

Well, he continued… an academic CV might say throwaway things like ‘designed and delivered undergraduate classes’… but do you KNOW how much work went into that?! How many hours of planning, grading… the volume of classes, the variety of topics covered, the admin…!!  That’s the labour… the stuff that in academia, you’re often just expected to do for free. Academia takes these things for granted, so researchers often take them for granted too when talking about their experience.

Eric had hit on a huge lightbulb moment here. In academia, so much is expected of us above and beyond our contracted duties and hours. The research needed to get up to speed to teach a literature class completely outside of our specialist period? It’s just expected. Burning the midnight oil to respond to those reviewers’ comments on your article before that super-tight submission deadline? Again, expected. Through these expectations, these efforts and displays of initiative, flexibility, adaptability, research and writing skills… they all become such second nature to us that they become almost unconscious. We don’t even notice we are doing them.

And THAT’S the issue. Academia values the output (the paper, the article, etc.). Industry values the skills you showed through what you put into creating that output (the research, the stakeholder management, the time management, the juggling competing priorities). But if academia doesn’t reward you (monetarily or otherwise) for those efforts, then it’s no wonder that when it comes to talking about your skills and experience to audiences beyond academia, you place little value on them!

So… how can we remedy this? I asked Eric for some tips.

When you’re going for jobs, you need to create an evidence-driven thesis statement which should answer the question: why should they hire you? Now, usually, when you start to answer this with ‘you should hire me because….,’ the reasons you would give are usually abstract. But you also need to provide evidence that is CONCRETE. So, think about your non-academic CV as document in which each bullet point that you include within in it provides a concrete piece of evidence that supports your thesis statement ‘you should hire me because…’ And if those bullet points could be true of 5000 other people, then it’s not memorable. Be memorable.

Eric then goes one step further, saying that it’s not just the bullet points in your CV that should provide tangible evidence as to why the employer should hire you. Eric is also big on endorsing the fact that you can create this evidence yourself, just as he did in his creation of #HireHigherEd. What are academics if not content creators? Eric comments. It’s about adapting what you already have into pieces of tangible evidence for your skills, for example, that you can write for a range of audiences. So, if you have a paper that isn’t being published… take it and do something with it! Make some ‘evidence’ out of it by turning it into a series of LinkedIn posts.

My conversation with Eric threw out exactly what I was hoping it would: fresh perspectives on how this disconnect between academia and industry occurs, and how it manifests when PhD graduates and early career researchers start to reach out for opportunities beyond the academy. So, what practical takeaways can we leverage from Eric’s insights?

  1. Reassess what is ‘valuable.’ Just because academia didn’t pay you to do something doesn’t mean it doesn’t count, or that it would be any less valuable to an employer beyond academia. Talk about the extra miles you went to, the initiative you showed, and the sheer volume of work that you put into get that module planned, get that paper written… to get the job done.
  2. Unpack the ‘value’ in the things you take for granted. Sometimes, the things we do to accomplish our research become so engrained in our day-to-day lives that they fly completely under the radar. For example, I’ve talked to a number of humanities PhDs who say things like ‘But I haven’t really shown any skills in my research, I’ve just read a lot of books.’ Ok, perhaps you have read a lot of books… but what went into that reading? What was the process? If you were going to write instructions for someone who had never done that type of research before… what would you include? Quickly, you go from ‘I read a lot of books’ to:
  • I identified relevant literature in the field using targeted search terms
  • I analysed relevant literature to identify trends in the representation of X
  • I synthesised this information and drew conclusions about how the representation of X changed over time
  • I used these conclusions to construct a novel answer to my research question

…all great skills highly values by employers beyond academia.

3. You can’t talk an employer into valuing what academia values. Remember, although a job application and interview might seem to be all about you… you need to approach them from the perspective as if it’s all about them (them = the employer). This might mean that the things you’re used to saying about yourself to make an academic audience listen may not be the things that will make non-academic employers listen. Don’t put yourself across as a shoe if what they really need is a hat.

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