3 Ways I Changed My Academic Mindset to Find Success in My Job Search

One thing I noticed during grad school was that a lot of academics and university programs treated non-ac, or industry jobs as an afterthought.

So many faculty I knew in grad school seemed to have such an enthusiasm and energy towards the concept of students getting postdocs, being interested in running their own labs, and becoming professors like them.

But I barely witnessed professors show the same enthusiasm towards supporting students who wanted to go into industry. I had a feeling that they weren’t in the position to give concrete advice, but still.

I just didn’t get the sense that they saw it as equally awesome.

It was so strange to me, seeing as most Ph.D. holders don’t stay in academia and eventually end up getting non-ac jobs. It’s totally normal to leave academia, but it wasn’t emphasized that way at all in the grad school environment – at least, it wasn’t for me.

I didn’t fully recognize and put a finger on this contradiction until much later, after I got my Ph.D.! I may have noticed some of it on a basic level. But looking back, I really feel like I had blinders on.

While I was in that academic environment, I was so overwhelmed with trying to stay afloat and to cross the finish line that I didn’t have any extra energy or mental space to realize all this.

If you’re reading my blog, you must have at least some interest in leaving academia.

This post is going to help you tease apart this odd conundrum (at least from my experience in life science) and get you to a mental place where you are a bit more confident in letting go and succeeding in your own industry job search.

So I’ll go through 3 ways I changed my academic mindset and broke free from expectations that I either actually experienced or imposed on myself for no good reason.

Basically, these are things I eventually realized when I started really focusing on my the job search (and even am now realizing!) and I wish I knew earlier so I didn’t waste so much time struggling to let go.

I also think these 3 things will help you examine the attitudes, services, and post-Ph.D. results that exist in your own graduate programs so you can take proper actions to help yourself get to where you want to be.

1. I separated myself from my research topic.

I was SO used to seeing faculty in academia living and breathing their research topics/expertise. Initially, that made it hard for me to imagine being able to perform in industry in topics and fields that were outside of my immediate expertise.

That was a really limiting thought process! I’m lucky to have totally rejected that.

During grad school, I realized that academic, basic laboratory research that I was doing wasn’t my passion.

But initially, I didn’t know there were so many other jobs that life science Ph.D. holders could get out in the real world. I mistakenly thought that benchwork was pretty much the end-all-be-all of “being a scientist”, and that’s all I could really do in the future.

I genuinely didn’t know how else I could use my degree and training to contribute to science outside of that insulated, academic environment. I have a couple blog posts on how to move past that already (listed below!), but once I saw how many different kinds of jobs there were, I quickly rejected the idea that labwork was the only way to contribute to and be involved in science.

In my job as a medical writer, I prepare materials that are involved in and directly influence research studies at the industry level, as well as help patients and medical providers further down the line.

Personally, that feels more practical and meaningful than the type of work I was doing in the research lab in the university setting.

When I do my work, I learn about new drugs and diseases on a regular basis! Depending on how big the projects are, it’s every few weeks to months. Although none of the projects I’ve been on or have witnessed so far have had anything to do with my actual Ph.D. research topic, they are all within the realm of human health, which has always been my interest.

Also, the fact I can quickly consolidate large amounts of scientific information, assess the validity of sources and decide how reliable studies are, and communicate my findings in a practical and sometimes even colloquial way, are all things that help me do my job.

Those are things I learned while getting my Ph.D. but were not unique to my research topic.

When you fully realize and INTERNALIZE that you probably won’t be doing work in your own field and you have useful, applicable skills already, you’ll probably (1) feel a bit less of that pressure to stick around in academia and (2) be more confident about being ready to apply to industry jobs.

2. I realized I was judging people for having non-ac jobs and realized that no job is better than another.

Another thing I noticed was that the academic, basic lab research environment is so insulated in terms of attitude and expectations when it comes to what you do with your Ph.D.

Even in 2022, there seems to be a sort of disdain that lifelong academics express towards industry jobs. That leads to a really narrow field of view available for young minds who enter grad school and pursue their Ph.D.

I didn’t really hear people saying things like “I can’t wait to use these skills in the biotech/pharma R&D lab!” or even “This Ph.D. work is great training for me to have so many options once I graduate and go to industry!”

It felt like wanting to become an academic researcher was way easier to express and felt touted like the best outcome of getting a Ph.D. compared to landing a sick, high-paying industry job. In that sense, academia felt like a cult. If you deviated and claimed to want to do something that your superiors didn’t do, you risked backlash.

Jobs like the sales scientists you see on campus (who oftentimes have Ph.D.s!), the people you email when you buy new lab equipment or need maintenance on them (Support and Field Application Scientists who oftentimes have Ph.D.s), and even the Scientific Recruiters you might be interviewing with (who also oftentimes have Ph.D.s), are all doing jobs that are equally legitimate and awesome.

What matters most is that you’re feeling fulfilled in what you’re doing. Confidently being aware of that will help you push aside any weird feelings like how you might be going for a “lame” job or feeling like “this isn’t what I should be doing with my Ph.D.”

There’s no universal “best” outcome of getting a Ph.D. Some faculty members and universities who want to use your cheap labor might see industry jobs as “less than”.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that way.

Most Ph.D. holders don’t end up in the university setting. They are in the real world, doing all sorts of cool jobs, making real money.

3. I changed how I perceived myself. Rather than seeing myself as a student, I saw myself as a perfectly hire-able employee with years of experience.

Academia’s hierarchy makes a lot of naive students feel very beholden to their PI or advisor and they go with whatever they want. They’re often revered to an inappropriate extent. They almost have a godlike perception by a lot of grad students. It’s kind of toxic when you think about it.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that they hold a lot of power over Ph.D. students because they will need references down the line.

Yeah, that sucks and I don’t know how to fix that. But I can tell you that not all jobs require you to provide a reference from your PI, specifically. Sure, some sort of manager, but that doesn’t have to be your PI. My job didn’t even ask for references.

There’s also the fact that many grad students don’t have any experience in the real world, so they are still in that student-like mindset and feel a distance from their advisor in terms of authority and importance.

All of this can lead to Ph.D. holders feeling like they don’t deserve a high pay, respect from their colleagues, and jobs that they are actually totally qualified for.

The faster you change your mindset and see your advisor/PI as a fallible human being who isn’t always right and isn’t the expert on everything (especially your own dissertation topic), you’ll help yourself feel more powerful and valuable.

This will also help you navigate the job search, interview process, and your new work environment in industry. You won’t be thinking of/referring yourself as a student, but more like an employee with years of experience in all sorts of useful stuff that the companies are desperate to hire and retain you for.

Conclusion

Academia benefits from your complacency. The longer you spend as a grad student or a postdoc with blinders on to how many opportunities there are out in the real world, the longer you’re giving up precious years of your life while being underpaid and overworked.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Do I think being a postdoc and eventually becoming a professor is a really great path for some people? Absolutely, if they love what they do and have a passion for it.

Because like I said above, it’s just 1 type of job. It’s not any more noble than any other job.

Thankfully, as someone who never wanted to stick around in academia, I found that changing my academic mindset came pretty easily – mostly because I didn’t “buy in” to the mindsets much in the first place.

If you want to do well in your job search, I don’t think it’s just about turning your CV into a resume or how friendly you come across in interviews. What’s also important is that you genuinely believe (or start to believe!):

  1. You’re not defined by your research topic, don’t limit yourself to that. You’ve already gained plenty of valuable skills in grad school that apply to all sorts of job responsibilities.
  2. No job is better than another – forget the toxic mindset of “prestige”! There are so many jobs out there for people with Ph.D.s. What matters is that you’re satisfied with your role, not what your academic colleagues think.
  3. As a Ph.D. graduate, you have 4+ years of work experience by default that a lot of companies are desperate to hire and retain. For a lot of roles, you are ready to hire.

Changing your academic mindset into something that’s more helpful for your job search in the real world will get you far. It might not be instantaneous, but I really think it’s worth starting now.

Where are you in that process?

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