If I Leave Academia – Should I Retrain and What Matters to Industry?

Naturally, when you consider changing jobs you get a little nervous. You begin to ask yourself a range of reasonable, and unreasonable questions. Second guessing your knowledge and expertise. Wondering if are making the right decision to look for alternative work and wondering if the place you’ll end up will be a good (better) fit than your current work. So here, I’ve listed some questions that you might have – and my response. But if you have others let me know, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Q1. Should I retrain?

  1. No, and I think this is a big temptation for many. Academia values qualifications. We’re mostly at universities, and as such we want recognition for our training. But in the wider world, there’s less emphasis on formal qualifications. And beyond bachelors training, additional training is not highly regarded. Certainly not when compared to experience. So, unless you want to go into a vocation that requires retraining – e.g., become an accountant, teach high school students, or become a builder – I’d say you’re better off focusing that time, effort, and money on gaining experience. So, save your money, and look for work or volunteer at places that will build or demonstrate your transferable skills.

Q2. Do publications matter in non-academic roles?

  1. Not in the way they matter in academia. Few people or places will care what you’ve published or where. But what does matter is that you have published. And that you are able to explain what the publication process involved. It demonstrates the ability to start and finish a project. A project that often spans many months or years. That you can plan it out and see it through to the end. Through various revision processes. Through feedback, and criticism. Through unexpected results.

Q3. How do I know if I should stay or leave?

  1. Like I said in response to “Should I finish my PhD”, you need to establish what might be driving your discontent. It could be the project, research in general, your supervisors or the other people you work with the funding situation. And, like any research experiment, trying to eliminate each will be a useful way to determine what the problem is, and if you should try something different inside or outside academia.

Q4. What if I make the wrong decision?

  1. There is no wrong decision to make. Maybe you’ll regret things. Or you’ll find out that the grass isn’t greener on the other side. Or that staying in academia makes you even more unhappy with life. But I would not call any of that the “wrong” decision. Life, unlike research and experiments, does not have a “control” condition. You cannot have a scenario where you both have and have not made a particular life choice. So, rather than view a career decision as good or bad, or right or wrong. Think about it in terms of likes and dislikes. That a particular career (or more likely a specific job in a place, company or country) was not suited to you.

Q5. What if I cannot find work?

  1. This is a real problem people face. Finding work. And there are two answers. The first is to wait until you get work before you leave. That is safe. It means you’ll be employed all the while. But it can also be tricky. It can make you less determined to find work. It can make you lazy looking for work. It could mean staying in a toxic environment for too long. The second option is to leave and look for work at the same time. To do that probably means you have some kind support. That could be a partner or spouse (I had that). It could be a friend or family member. It could be money in the bank (that was also the case for me). But it could also be a willingness to accept any work (this was my lifeboat). Not as your career. But as a way to make ends meet should the need arise. That could be doing delivery driving. Or stacking shelves. Or flipping burgers. Or washing cars.

Q6. How do I know/find out what industry want?

  1. Do some research. The easiest thing is to do a web search. Understand the sector or companies that you are interested in working in. What are some key issues papers written in the last five years? What factors influence success or failure in those roles, industries or sectors? Has a look at the jobs being advertised – what are common factors across different organisations within the same sector? Have a look on LinkedIn to see who has recently changed jobs into a role you might like or left a role you might like. What skills and experiences do they have? What is their network like? If you feel up to it, connect with them, and ask for a chat.

Q7. How should I structure my resume given it’s short/all academic?

  1. Don’t worry that it is short. In fact, resumes are intended to be short documents. Most recruiters want them to be two pages or less! Now that you’re over that – write it with the reader in mind. And I am not talking about “a” reader. I am talking about “the” reader. The individual you will send that version of your resume to. That job. Make it specific. Highlight keywords in the job ad. Are those keywords in your resume? Why? Why not? Focus on experience rather than education or academic achievements. So, including your PhD in the work experience section is okay. If your resume is currently longer than two pages, question the value of each section to the reader and the role. Is winning a grant important for the role? Can you convey your grant success in one line (e.g. Awarded over 5 competitive peer reviewed grants valued at more than $1M)? Same goes for publications. Is each individual publication relevant? Or could a one line summary cover it? If not, what is it about each publication you list that is of value to the reader or the role? Are your research techniques needed? Is a list of programming languages or software packages valuable? Finally, have you covered your work experience well enough? Think in terms of duties – what I had to do. And achievements – the goals I reached in the role. If you must list grants, publications or awards, think about putting them into various roles, rather than a stand-alone section. 

And like I said at the start. There are but a few questions – if you have more, I’d love to know what they are and help you answer them.

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers, and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email ([email protected]) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).