There is a place for you outside of academia - insight from four industrial internships

We were fortunate to get the opportunity to put our PhDs on hold and try out industry-oriented research in a new scientific field. Here is a reflection on some of the valuable experiences we would like to share with other temporarily employed researchers. 

Higher education is becoming more common, and the number of people pursuing a PhD is increasing in many countries. For example, in the past fifteen years, the amount of people obtaining a PhD has doubled in Norway, where we work[i]. However, despite this increase, it is estimated that only 10-20% can continue their academic career[ii].

For us, it hasn't been evident what our higher education can offer to the industry. We have all experienced the imposter syndrome and struggled to identify what our niche knowledge can provide to the industry. What skills do I have? What can my expertise be used for? 

 

You are adaptable and learn quick

Our most valuable experience was the confidence boost we got from adapting to a new environment and quickly translating our skills to an unfamiliar setting. For example, Nils went from tuberculosis treatment to scripting shape recognition software for MycoTeam, Franziska from MR-image processing to drug development at AstraZeneca, Gabriela from microbiology to fish-feed development at BioMar and Madeleine from microbial ecology to hydrogel bead development at ClexBio. We all changed our niche fields – but quickly familiarised ourselves with the new research questions and practices. 

Before our internships, we were insecure and wondering whether we, in only three months, could learn and prosper in our new scientific field. But we worried for nothing, as we have picked up how to learn fast and effectively during our PhDs. We all quickly absorbed new knowledge and applied it in a new and unfamiliar context. We used skills we didn't know we mastered, like swiftly scanning literature, planning experiments, and getting an overview. This feeling of quick learning and confirmation of our adaptability gave us an enormous confidence boost.

 

Communication is key – a necessary cliché  

During our internships, it became apparent how vital effective and clear communication is. For example, Franziska experienced how important it was to learn a fields' lingo. By investing some time into understanding her new fields phrases and terms, suddenly, her skills in physics were easily transferrable to AI-driven development of molecules - even though chemistry hadn't been on her mind since high school. 

Finding this common tongue is crucial to be able to communicate transdisciplinary. We experienced that we shouldn't rely only on scientific terms as the person in front of us might understand them in a different context. Sketching out our ideas and using everyday language is an important skill to practice. 

 

Research in the industry is similar to academia - but the goal is clearer

Academia can at times feel individual and lonely. We had heard rumors that the industry was more result-oriented, dynamic, and involved more group work. But was this the case?

Compared to academia, Madeleine experienced that her stay with the start-up company involved more group work and joint goal setting. But the approach of researching was very familiar and similar to academic – except that experiments were logged more efficiently for easy access for all company members.  

Nils also experienced this efficiency mindset. For him, the main difference was that everyone focused on process optimizing and increasing daily productivity instead of the wholesome investigations in academia aimed at knowledge for knowledge. Gabriela also found this goal-focus refreshing. Instead of limitless research deep dives, keeping the task narrow helped her productivity and focus. She even experienced that decisions were easier to make when the cost-benefit ratio was a factor. 

All of us got to experience first-hand that good practices learned in academia, such as the focus on research integrity, data quality, and detailed reporting were of high priority in the companies we worked for. But we found our work more effective and productive when we had a clear goal in mind. This goal-setting is definitely something we will bring into our own research. 

 

Get out there - be proactive and brand yourself!

Another big difference between research in academia and the industry was that one needs to be prepared to fill more roles in the industry. For example, where Madeleine worked, her colleagues rapidly changed from cell-biologists to photography for public outreach, managing finances, HR, reaching out to suppliers, and contacting customers. It became clear to her that if you want to thrive in a small life-science company, you need to become a skilled potato, mastering both the research and all other tasks thrown at you. 

Gabriela experienced that going out of her comfort zone and working in the industry was essential to judge if academia was for her. What suits her better became much clearer for her. 

We saw that self-branding was common in the industry and that active use of sites such as LinkedIn and ResearchGate were common to everyday life. This experience has made us realize that we need to be proactive regarding our careers. 

If you are unsure about your post PhD career, indecisive about staying in academia or doing something else, take action. Contact local career counselors, update your CV, seek information and advice, and take the chances you are offered. Brand yourself!

We want to thank Digital Life Norway for allowing us to experience a boost in our self-worth. And for sure, we now know that there is a place for us outside of academia.

 

References:

[i] https://www.forskningsradet.no/indikatorrapporten/indikatorrapporten-dokument/menneskelige-ressurser/rekruttering-til-forskning/

[ii] Larson, R. C., Ghaffarzadegan, N., and Xue, Y. (2014), Too Many PhD Graduates or Too Few Academic Job Openings: The Basic Reproductive Number R0 in Academia, Syst. Res., 31; pages 745– 750, DOI: 10.1002/sres.2210

By Madeleine Gundersen (NTNU), Franziska Knuth (NTNU), Gabriela Paz Carril Leiva (NMBU), Nils-Jørgen Knudsen Dal (UiO)
Published Mar. 8, 2022 9:44 AM - Last modified Mar. 8, 2022 9:44 AM