3 Important Lessons I’ve Learned About Working in Industry After Leaving Academia

I remember when I was a grad student trying to figure out how to transition from my lab to a non-ac/industry job. It felt like a completely different world, a world I had absolutely no practical understanding of.

Having been at my job for exactly 3 months as of today, I wanted to write a quick post to share 3 really important lessons that I learned.

Of course, I’ve probably learned a few more than 3 lessons, but I wanted to write something short that hopefully reflects my more spontaneous, immediate ideas on what some of those lessons have been.

1. This is a whole ‘nother level of teamwork.

We all know how you should “be a team player” and “communicate well”, but I don’t think my communication and teamwork chops were tested as much as they are now in my role as a medical writer.

The difference in the level of teamwork comparing my work as a Ph.D. student and now in my industry job couldn’t be any more stark!

When I was doing my Ph.D. research, I had full ownership of my project. I did the background reading on a study I wanted to do, taught myself how to do all the experimental work and analyses, obtained the reagents and tools to conduct my experiments, interpreted the data, presented it, etc. It was pretty much all on me. I didn’t work with any other grad students, postdocs, or staff scientists on my project. If I had a question, I had to pretty much figure it out for myself. At most, I’d get directional guidance from my PI, or run ideas by him before executing them, but ultimately my success depended on my decisions.

Now, I’m responsible for just 1 or 2 steps in a multi-step process of creating medical/science education materials. It involves medical writers, such as myself, editors, artists, and designers. We’re all hired to do our part in that process. If we have questions, we can ask the people along that process as well as our multiple managers. It might sound chaotic, but with lots of the newest communication technology and remote workspace organizers, it’s really efficient.

Think of it like we’re all little cogs that spin and then make others spin, or like a constant conveyer belt of production, but all digital.

It’s actually really satisfying to work on something and then hand it off, rather than constantly agonizing over one draft or project for weeks.

I haven’t even mentioned all the steps that come before my team works on the project – the marketing, sales, finance, and other elements of running a company that get us our clients and projects in the first place!

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2. It’s really just a job.

The way my coworkers and I see our work is exactly that: it’s just work. We do what we can during our hours, and then we don’t think about it or worry about it when it’s not our hours of work.

Recently, I had a 4-day weekend, and I literally forgot what I was working on – the projects I was on, what I had been preparing before my break, and what was coming up. I didn’t think about any of that for all 4 days, and then in the morning of the first day back, I couldn’t recall what I was doing 4 days earlier.

Once I logged in and checked on my notifications, I remembered pretty quickly.

It was so refreshing!

My managers constantly bring up weekend plans, ask people about their plans, and encourage us to make plans. Before meetings we (not everyone all the time, but those who care to share) talk about random fun things that have been going on in our lives.

It’s such a different feeling from how it felt in grad school to be all-consumed by research, progress, data, appeasing my advisor, and generally being “productive”.

I thought I had a pretty good work-life balance back then – I didn’t work on weekends (even when I was writing my dissertation), I made plans with friends and always had stuff going on outside of research, and didn’t care much about publishing or other academic quantifications of success. But my work still sat at the front of my mind and I dealt with some pretty bad anxiety and depression surrounding my research.

It’s been really awesome to wake up in the mornings feeling completely normal, rather than feeling dread at the fact that I was awake.

But you know what the cherry on top is? The fact that my managers and coworkers are so nice and all seem to have great heads on their shoulders. They communicate super effectively and are cordial and helpful. It’s so pleasant! My experience in the lab was nothing like that. People were nice, no thanks to my toxic former PI, but nowhere near as relaxed and open as the folks at my current company.

So, it’s been a double whammy of “wow, I can’t believe things can be this good”. Not only does everyone normalize having a work-life balance, but DURING work, people are still pleasant while being extremely effective at their jobs across the board.

Pretty flowers from a neighborhood walk! Walking is important to me because my job is so sedentary. I like going right after work before I get hungry for dinner, or on Friday afternoons, because I only have work in the morning on Fridays!

3. Having a Ph.D. isn’t everything, so be humble.

If you’re reading my blog, you’re probably a Ph.D. student, Master’s student, or maybe a postdoc, who’s spent a lot of time in the academic realm. You’ve probably quantified your success in life through university program acceptances, awards, fellowships, conference acceptances, and the like.

Having the Ph.D. might feel neat, but it’s not necessarily going to give you an advantage when you start your job.

Now, I’m not trying to make you feel bad or minimize all the effort you put into getting that degree. I know all too well how much work it takes to get a Ph.D., and I’ve written tons of blog posts on various aspects related to my time as a Ph.D. student.

What I mean to say is that it’s not going to automatically garner peoples’ respect and it’s not going to automatically make you start at an “esteemed” position in a new workplace.

When I started my job, I immediately started working with other Ph.D.s in the life sciences and also those with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees working in the same role as me. What mattered in the context of doing the work I was hired to do wasn’t my Ph.D., it was experience in the pharmaceutical industry and experience making educational materials.

Now, I definitely had experience in the latter, but not the former!

As I’ve mentioned many times on Twitter and in my previous blog posts, I was hired for my tutoring experience, which translated well into the preparation of educational materials, and that impressed hiring managers. They still bring it up to this day as what was cool about my job application.

In the context of the medical educational materials we make, it makes perfect sense. Nope, my managers don’t gush about papers I’m on, posters I’ve made, or even the fact I have a Ph.D.!

But when it came to that pharmaceutical industry experience, I had absolutely none. So although I could do the educational design, learner-oriented thinking, scientific writing aspect of my job, I had to learn a ton of new terminology related to pharmaceutical development and medicine.

I needed a lot of help there.

One medical writer I work with doesn’t have a Ph.D. She doesn’t have a Master’s. She has a few years of very valuable pharma experience that she gained after her Bachelor’s, which got her the job we have. I’m pretty sure she’s younger than me.

When I was finding my bearings at my job, she helped me out a lot by explaining simple concepts to me while showing me how she goes about doing her work – like the fact that calling certain people “patients” is wrong in the context of our work.

Just because you have a Ph.D., it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll start at a new job knowing most of the stuff required to do the job well. It just means you did some more time in the hamster wheel of academia and have a bit more resourcefulness and skills that make you hirable.

Don’t be too proud to learn from coworkers who don’t have Ph.D.s. There’s a reason each person was hired. I’m not saying this is the case for all jobs, but for a lot of jobs, a Ph.D. isn’t everything.

You still have a lot to learn, so being humble is a great way to go when you apply to and start your jobs after leaving academia.

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