From academia to industry: seven tips for academics making the switch

5 July 2019

Moving from academia to industry (corporate executive, consulting or independent think-tank position) can sometimes be daunting, especially if the move was more serendipitous than premeditated. I found myself in this position over seven years ago, moving from a faculty position in the United Kingdom, to an industry-research (independent research consulting) position in Nigeria. Let me set out by stating, for the record, that I hold both the academia and industry in very high esteem, and the essence of this piece isn’t to place one above the other, but simply to share my thoughts and reflections on my move from core academia to industry. I have always been a firm believer that there should be more collaboration between ‘town’ and ‘gown’ for society to fully reap the benefits of the knowledge economy. Reflecting on my experience, I have encapsulated seven tips that helped consolidate my own move, from core academia to private sector opinion research consulting. It is my hope that this piece serves as a useful guide for academics seeking to take the leap into industry; particularly early career academics who aren’t too sure of options that exist outside core academia and what’s needed to make the move.

From my observation, academic research and industry research often operate from two ends of the same thread. Prior to making my own switch my academic life revolved around teaching, research and community service – the three cardinal pillars of academia. As a faculty member my research focused strictly on my personal areas of research interest: strategy, entrepreneurship, small business development and knowledge management. To that end, most of my research projects dealt with much smaller data samples and it was only natural to multi-task, handling roles like principal investigator, theoretician, research designer, questionnaire designer, enumerator, moderator, data analyst, report writer, result illustrator and disseminator amongst others. Essentially, research-life played out mainly as a one-man show. I was sort of a jack-of-all-trades researcher, except in cases where I had to collaborate with few colleagues to jointly publish academic papers for the purpose of ‘contributing to knowledge’ (tongue in cheek – seeking to publish and not perish).

On the other hand, since crossing over to industry research, I’ve had to work on more applied research projects focusing more on ToRs from clients and partners rather than my own personal research interests. I’ve also had to manage projects with much larger data samples, cutting across various sectors, subjects and themes. I could be researching the state of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Maiduguri in one week, and by the next week be off investigating the motivations for irregular migration amongst young people in Benin City. Consequently, I have learnt to work in teams and manage research projects like production lines, where output from one stage serves as input for the next. My roles have are now more clearly defined, because I have to work with other professionals like enumerators, moderators, field supervisors, software scripters, data managers, data entry assistants, statisticians, qualitative data analysts, data illustrators, infographers and so on. By implication, I now have to recognize and respect other team members as professionals in their own right, who individually represent important parts to put together a jigsaw puzzle. Here are seven tips I believe academics switching into industry ought to consider.

  1. Understand the landscapes are different – In every sector, certain ways of life hold sway. The culture in academia is different from the culture in industry; and academics seeking to make the switch need to spend time studying how things are done in the industry they are considering switching into. Don’t assume your PhD grants you the ability to adapt into any culture; else you may be in for a rude shock.
  2. Define your space – there’s often the fallacy of thinking that a PhD confers an academic all the knowledge within a particular field of study. Not so, Doc! In actual fact, a PhD makes you more of a specialist, and less of a generalist. However, what a PhD does do is equip you with advanced skills to be able to investigate or inquire into domains within a discipline and beyond. After all, the word ‘re-search’ simply means ‘search again’. In other words, you learn how to deepen the search, and extend the boundaries of knowledge from where others left off. Therefore, if you’re thinking of taking a plunge from academia to industry, you must clearly define your space, know where your boundaries lie, understand the core strengths and skills you’re bringing to industry, understand other domains of knowledge that you can extend into, given your skillset and experience. And understand areas that are simply no-go areas. Never claim you know everything. There are areas that are simply not your forte and may require further training outside your PhD knowledge.
  3. Simplify your science – Given the academic rigour that PhD students have to go through to graduate, there’s often the tendency for academics, especially fresh PhDs, to become what I have termed ‘methodological purists’; wanting to follow every strict scientific process and rule in the book. From experience, some of those processes may not always apply in the industry world. I have realized that science works wonders when simplified and made easy to understand. More so, simplifying your science makes life easier for you and your industry audience. What’s the use of conducting some high-sounding statistical analysis like Kolmogorov Smirnov, Cronbach’s Alpha and Kruskal Wallis tests, when all your client is looking for are frequencies and percentages? As we say in the Nigerian parlance, na who e epp? Meaning: who does it benefit? Simply follow the instructions of your client. The industry seeks ways to simplify, not compound. This is why visual aids like charts and infographics are becoming increasingly popular these days as industry practitioners seek to make data more accessible to larger audiences; and not only to fellow academics or peer reviewers of academic journals.
  4. Develop your team spirit – Teamwork is an art, not science; and academics transiting into industry must understand that no man is an island. They must learn how to work well with others, how to build effective teams, and how to recruit people; especially in areas they’re not so competent. Put away the days of the solo academic, where you can write your conceptual papers, conduct your research, attend conferences and publish articles all by yourself. Here you must learn how to synergize, and collaborate with other professionals to make up for your technical deficiencies. For instance, if you’re used to conducting data analysis on Microsoft Excel and can collaborate with a colleague with strong competence in SPSS or STATA packages, that should constitute a formidable analytical team. Imagine completing a great research report and there aren’t good illustrators to bring it alive in a publishable format or communication experts to help with dissemination on different media platforms: that report may never go far. Industry thrives on the ability to pull together resources and competencies of different people to achieve desired results; and being a team player is one of the critical skills needed to succeed here.
  5. Learn how to network – For an academic who may have spent three or more years studying for a PhD, knowing how to network may not necessarily be one of your core strengths. I consider this one of the most vital lessons I’ve learnt since switching to industry. I have discovered that my ability to secure new consulting assignments, research grants and repeat business rest more on my ability to network, meet new people and nurture relationships than in my educational qualifications or skills as a PhD-trained researcher. As often expressed within the non-profit sector, “fundraising is friend-making”. So networking is key: learn how to ‘walk the room’ at events, how to make eye contact and smile, how to strike a conversation and listen actively and exchange business cards and email within 48 hours of exchanging cards. My advice is that academics should consider attending trainings on how to network, be it a seminar or YouTube videos. And seek opportunities to practice, practice, practice!
  6. Acquire project management skills – Whereas a PhD equips you for academic life, you must understand that life in the industry needs more to thrive. Academics should endeavour to acquire project management skills: leadership, planning, budgeting, scheduling, negotiation and emotional intelligence, amongst others. Soft skills such as drafting meeting agendas, taking minutes, moderating events and knowing how to manage difficult colleagues would also come in handy. Not forgetting that academic writing differs considerably from industry writing, switching academics need to learn how to communicate effectively to the industry’s audience.
  7. Advertise and market yourself – As an academic, the University is your hub; and you may not necessarily need to market yourself. Simply introducing yourself as lecturer at XYZ University, should typically confer you the respect ascribed to that university. This is one of the reasons why many academics who have transited to industry still prefer to maintain ties with universities, by holding visiting or adjunct faculty positions. However, once you’ve decided to switch over, the responsibility of letting the world know about you, your organization, and your work, lies squarely on your shoulders.

Finally, academics seeking to switch into industry should learn to spend less time thinking and more time doing. This isn’t to undermine the role of thinking, but to emphasize the importance of results to industry. In my academic life, there was often a protracted gestation period between the time I spent thinking, conceptualizing and discussing ideas with colleagues, and the time of actual implementation of research projects. However, since moving, I’ve learnt to condense that gestation period by spending less time thinking and more time implementing ideas. In the industry, time is of essence, and it truly waits for no one.