How to Navigate the Switch from Academia to Industry

01/06/2023
By Georgina Salazar, PhD

Professionals who begin their careers in the academy pursuing scientific research often wind up turning to industry, transitioning to a wide variety of work opportunities in STEM outside of universities. Academia can, of course, be a wonderful, exciting place that supports innovative research and the growth of intellectual curiosity. Still, individuals initially working at academic institutions may consider a new career path for any number of reasons.

Side hustles or consulting gigs are certainly available options for many academics who want to work outside of academia on just a part-time basis. Many mid-career faculty members seek experiences that will help them earn a promotion and take their career to the chair or dean level. Some researchers who are in earlier stages of their career may also pursue these part-time opportunities, hoping the nonacademic STEM roles will help them shine in the tenure review process. Still other scientists eventually discover that a complete switch to work outside of academia is best for their professional or personal goals.

The number of academics who consider this switch may surprise you: for instance, according to statistics published by the American Institute of Physics, 63% of those who earned a PhD in physics in 2019 and 2020 transitioned to potentially permanent employment in other fields, including engineering, business or finance, and medical services.

If you find yourself contemplating a career change to industry and need more help than your institution or local community can provide, keep the following four considerations in mind:

1) Do you know what specific path you want to pursue, and might you benefit from professional help in figuring this out?

Since academic research is very specialized, switching from it means a significant departure from what you’ve done in the past. A career development professional can help you consider a broad array of options. They may be aware of opportunities based on their experience assisting other people with a background similar to yours. A key indication that you may benefit from this assistance is if you have been submitting applications for jobs in your preferred industry but have not yet landed any interviews. A professional reviewer can help you update your résumé for the current market in your target employment field. Pursuing such services can also benefit your professional development journey at later stages of your career. However, although you should be open to this type of guidance, you should not feel pressure to pay for services beyond what you can afford or are willing to pay (see additional guidance about selecting a career development professional later in this article).

2) Are you pursuing career connections through social media?

Using social media networks, you can find groups to provide guidance and share tips, such as Facebook’s The Professor is Out, a group for academics who are moving on from their university roles. Such communities provide mutually supportive environments for professionals who are exploring nonacademic options. They may even provide a specific connection to an employment opportunity. A personal example: I used LinkedIn to reach out to a technical writer at a target company, and she helped me get an interview. Although I didn’t get an offer then, we stayed in touch, and a year later she let me know about another open role. I’ve learned a lot from being a member of her team for the past nine months!

3) Have you considered participating in a professional community like AWIS?

Joining professional communities provides many advantages for those of us making career transitions. Some organizations are specific to particular fields or locations, for example, the American Medical Writers Association and the San Diego Scientific Writers Association. Other organizations focus on needs particular to a demographic group, such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. Participating in alumni group activities and networking with colleagues and classmates are other ways to engage in the benefits of professional communities.

AWIS, an organization that supports women in STEM, provides many professional benefits, including access to such career development resources as webinars, newsletters, articles, member recognition opportunities, local and national events, and membership directories. Participating in professional communities like AWIS can help you overcome feelings of vulnerability and can help you reduce any hesitancy you may have about tackling career development challenges. These communities allow you to connect with people who share common interests, and they offer you collaborative ways to address larger goals, such as promoting diversity and inclusion and driving systemic change. Additionally, they provide opportunities to volunteer to help others— another great way to overcome barriers, to build social bonds, and to increase feelings of self-worth. Wherever career growth takes you, the benefits of participating in a professional community like AWIS will help you make the transition.

4) Are you allowing emotional issues to cloud your thinking?

Under certain circumstances, consulting a mental health therapist may be an important component of your professional development strategy. Perhaps you experience intrusive thoughts, nightmares, emotional numbness, jumpiness, or agitation. Or you may be concerned about your ability to come up with an accurate assessment of your current skills and responsibilities. You might have a persistently low mood, a feeling of helplessness about changing your situation, a feeling of hopelessness about things getting any better, or a disturbance in your eating or sleeping patterns. If these experiences are so intense and distracting that they interfere with your basic ability to function in your personal or professional life, seek out a therapist who can help you address your challenges. Attending to your emotional and mental health will greatly enhance your career development. We all need help maintaining and improving our mental health sometimes; attending to these needs is nothing more than another step to achieving the best for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Choosing the Coach Who Is Right for You

Now that you have started to shape your plan for making a switch to industry, you may need additional guidance in how to select the career educator, consultant, counselor, or coach who is right for you. I have communicated with several such professionals: Gertrude Nonterah, also known as The Bold PhD; Alaina Levine of Create Your Unicorn Career; Jennifer Polk of From PhD to Life; and Cátia Moutinho and Ossama Khalaf of Advice For Life Scientists Academy (AFLS). Here are some lessons they shared with me about the benefits of a coach, what to look for in a coach, and how to pay for these services.

Benefits of a Coach

The coaching programs I have explored include both small classes and individual consultations, different models that can be tailored to a job seeker’s individual goals, strengths, and needs. Commenting on what they often observe when working with new clients, AFLS representatives said, “We (scientists) often learn how to be meticulous when we are conducting experiments, analyzing the results, and publishing our work. Yet, we spend no time at all promoting our skills and marketing them properly.” So, they often help clients work to emphasize their skills so that they stand out in an application, and they also help clients learn how to interview confidently for an industry position. Alaina Levine, author of a series of articles in Science Magazine called “Your Unicorn Career,” said, “It’s part of my mission to make sure people understand the extent of their value and the extent of the power and choice that they have in terms of career development, so that they don’t have to be fleeing from something negative. They can be looking toward something positive.”

What to Look for

The International Coaching Federation—the leading organization advancing life coaching as a profession— does award credentials. However, in my research, I could not find any accreditation process for organizations providing services to support the switch from academia to industry. So, you need to be careful in personally assessing the caliber of a potential career coach. I advise following these three steps when looking for a career coach to help you to navigate the transition from a university job to an industry role:

1) Make some preliminary decisions about your ultimate goal and the tasks you believe are necessary to achieve that goal. The goal and the tasks may change as you explore potential coaching resources. However, making these preliminary decisions will give you an initial framework for assessing how well a particular coach might help you.

2) Begin your assessment process by interacting with a career coach’s free content. For example, The Bold PhD YouTube channel features dozens of videos, including a playlist of interviews of people who have successfully made the switch from academia to industry. Jennifer Polk of From PhD to Life said, “We [career coaches] all put out free resources and content on various platforms. I’m on Twitter and have a presence on LinkedIn. Other folks might be big on Instagram, newsletters, or they might speak in person.” Reading a coach’s free articles or watching their free videos is a good way to get a better idea of the coach’s personality. It will also help you understand what is included and excluded from the coach’s services. You might even find that the help provided in the free content is enough guidance for you to achieve your goals.

3) Further evaluate a potential coach with an introductory session. For those cautious about making a big commitment, take advantage of the free or low-cost introductory sessions or 30-day trial that some coaches provide. For instance, Alaina Levine offers a free 15-minute introductory consultation. This will provide a better idea of how well you might work together with a potential coach.

Other points to consider:

  • Once you have a better sense of the coach’s personality, goals for sessions, and services, do you believe that they are likely to work well with you?
  • Is the coach focused on a particular outcome, or is their work more focused on the holistic growth of clients?
  • What are some examples that demonstrate the coach’s track record of success?
  • How is this coaching a better fit than other coaching you are considering?
  • How well does the coach appear to understand your unique situation as they describe their services and how they can add value to your career development?
  • Does the coach have training, certifications, experience, or background in your field? Does their specific skill set seem well suited to meeting your unique needs?
  • If you and the coach decide that you’re not a good match, can they refer you to another coach who might be a better fit?

How to Fund Career Coaching

Since this field is unregulated, prices for services offered by different coaches vary widely. Sometimes discounts may be offered to students or researchers who may benefit from services but for whom the full cost of these services is prohibitive. There are also opportunities for trainees or faculty members to get financial support for career coaching through their universities or other organizations. AFLS representatives said that a few of their clients have managed to access continuing-education funds through their institutions. They added, “We do offer coaching programs for entire labs, where a PI (principal investigator) asks for our help coaching their team, and it is covered by the lab or institution.” Coaches’ websites may even feature information for organizations seeking to fund support for their members, for example, the following link on the From PhD to Life site: “For Institutions and Organizations.” The Beyond the Professoriate site has a similar page describing their platforms and resources.

Ready, Set, Go

The broader point is that many resources are available to people ready to make the switch to industry. Keep all of these considerations in mind, and work to develop a step-by-step plan that fits your specific goals. Regardless of your plan, don’t hesitate to take the plunge, now that you have decided to explore a new career path, and don’t be reluctant to reach out for the help that awaits.

 

Headshot of Dr. Georgina To'a SalazarGeorgina To’a Salazar, PhD, works to create innovative solutions in science communication, research, and policy. With a BS in chemical engineering from Stanford University and a PhD in biomedical engineering from the University of California, Irvine, Dr. Salazar has fulfilled her dream of exploring the world, having taken research positions in Singapore and Japan before returning to the United States to focus on science communication at Takara Bio USA, Inc.