7 Things Academics Get Wrong About Industry Jobs

I recently Tweeted asking former academics that now work in industry/non-ac jobs to share the biggest myths about non-ac jobs that they’ve seen academics have, and want to debunk.

I got some really fun comments and I thought I’d make a post describing them, adding my own take on each. These are just for fun, but if you have any insight you’d like to share to help me debunk these myths, please comment them below!

1. “There are no teaching opportunities! I’ll miss teaching!”

This is probably one of the most common academic misconceptions I see flying around. For some reason, academics seem to think that meaningful teaching only exists in academia.

I get it, that’s where you teach undergrads in classrooms and mentor students in research. Teaching and mentorship – I know it’s super valuable and rewarding for a lot of academics.

I already wrote an entire blog post called Teaching Outside Academia about 3 different education-related industry fields: Continuing Medical Education, Medical Writing, and Science Communication. I’ll summarize each for you here:

  • Continuing Medical Education: The continuing training and education for medical professionals and staff in the medical field. For new and developing concepts, techniques, and technologies in the medical field, but it’s also just for making sure people remember how to perform their duties properly. Essentially, it provides lifelong training and education for medical professionals.
  • Medical Writing: Some products that medical writers prepare that are totally related to teaching and educating others includes patient decision aids, magazine and newspaper articles, informational brochures, slide decks and Powerpoint presentations to communicate product information, sales training information, health education materials, etc. When I do my job, I’m in an education mindset (that I’ve gotten very used to since my tutoring days) every day!
  • Science Communication: The goal of science communication is to educate the public about science. It can be through posters, magazines, social media posts, books, newsletters, even podcasts! Academic publishing isn’t considered science communication due to the fact that a lot of articles are behind paywalls and aren’t easy to understand by the general public. Science communication is important because it allows the public to understand important topics that directly affect them, inspires new scientists, and informs key decision makers.

Outside of those 3 options, there are many others related to training, state & federal government scientist positions, museum positions, etc.

One person I know from my grad program got a Specialist job for a state government branch (related to a certain local natural resource) right out of her Ph.D.! She goes around to various meetings with community members, local representatives, and company representatives and educates them on the current state of research and pollution in their areas using the newest data her department collected. So cool!

Just know that you could be in rooms and spaces with much higher engagement and with much more practical outcomes outside academia!

2. “I don’t want to work for a soulless, evil company that does bad science for money!”

I hate to break it to you, but if you think companies that make products to sell to people that might actually help them are evil, you might want to take a good, hard look at academia.

First, compare the salaries that administrators get paid to the salaries of grad students and postdocs. The Hechinger Report, an online higher education journalism website, reported that university administrator benefits are very lavish.

Presidents at research universities make an average of $450,000 a year, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, or CUPA-HR.

More than 60 percent of university and college presidents nationwide, at both private and public universities, also get all or part of their housing provided. 

More than 70 percent get a car or a car allowance, and more than a third get free club memberships.

It says 12 percent of the spouses of university and college presidents also are paid for the roles they assume at social events and for other duties.

The Hechinger Report (2015)

Now, what do you think about that in comparison with the salaries that grad students and postdocs get paid? Even as a faculty member, are you really going to enjoy your work and get paid decently to support your financial future?

Tuition has been growing in U.S. colleges over the past 20 years as well, according to data from the U.S. News and World Report:

The average tuition and fees at private National Universities have jumped 144%.

Out-of-state tuition and fees at public National Universities have risen 171%.

In-state tuition and fees at public National Universities have grown the most, increasing 211%.

U.S. News and world report (2021)

Where does all that money go? Do you see why it just doesn’t make sense to me when academics bemoan “evil” industry companies? Universities are very money-hungry and have a lot of other issues too!

I’m not saying all non-ac companies are infallible. Just like there are greedy university admins that turn a blind eye to things that should change in the university system, there are greedy CEOs that turn a blind eye to things too.

But there are also plenty of companies that do great science, with genuinely interesting and useful missions too. If academia isn’t working out for you, you just have to find those other opportunities for yourself.

Academia is just one of many places you can work, and it’s no more noble or infallible than other companies.

3. “I loved what I did for my Ph.D., I can’t imagine finding anything else interesting!”

You gotta give yourself and your brainpower more credit. You can definitely do way more with your training and all those years of education!

This is where transferable skills come in. There are so many resources out there that help you identify and phrase your transferable skills so they can be tailored to each job listing you apply for. This one from University of Michigan was my go-to to help me identify key phrases to use to describe my transferable skills. I also go through the exact phrasing for the bullet points on my resumes in my Industry Resume Template, Example & Tips post.

Finally, try to remember that most people with Ph.D.s don’t stay in academia and find lots of interesting and relevant jobs outside of the bubble.

One of the first Ph.D. careers flowcharts/infographics I saw when I was in grad school was this one below, from The American Society for Cell Biology. The data is a bit outdated (like 10 years old), and it’s more bioscience-focused, but it was still informative for me at the time. My biggest takeaway from it and what made me feel good was that a lot of Ph.D.s went into alt-ac and industry positions!

ASCB Ph.D. Careers Flowchart

As you can see, there are so many life science Ph.D.s out there doing all sorts of jobs that aren’t “professor”.

Some of them have GOT to be interesting, right?

4. “There’s no scientific freedom.”

I wonder, do you really have that much scientific freedom in academia, where you’re pretty much bound to your research topic because of the funding you get?

You have to apply for all that funding, too, instead of doing cool stuff for great pay in the lab.

Now, imagine all that funding is taken care of. You work on a project (or projects) that you’ve shown interest in, and find important in an actually practical sense for a specific consumer base.

Yep, you’re not just doing conceptual research that might be useful in the future.

You’re actually doing work that’s going to make a difference in the lives of patients, consumers, researchers, educators, etc., within your lifetime.

Most likely, a lot sooner.

So give yourself more of a chance at flexing those intellectual muscles!

Open up your mind to the fact that you can actually help people outside of academia.

5. “I’m going to have less lifestyle flexibility!”

This is a huge one that I hear a lot of academics say. It’s definitely cool that some academics enjoy that lifestyle – being able to work from many places, set your own schedule every day, pop out for an appointment, and shift things in your schedule as you wish.

That might not be for all academics, but a lot of folks seem to love that.

Well, that’s the same for non-ac jobs. Some jobs, like some academic positions, require you to be in a certain place for certain hours to do the job. Other times, your responsibilities might be a lot more flexible, time-wise, or location-wise, and making appointments during the day or taking days off will be a breeze.

You might even have a fully remote job! My job is fully remote and it seriously refreshed my relationship with work.

I love simply turning off my computer at the end of the day and not thinking about any of it until the next morning when I sign on for work.

If I need to take a day off, I submit a notice to my company that I want to use a certain number of hours of my PTO, it gets approved, and I just go take my days off.

Of course, unlike academia where the work is a lot more independent, I make sure to let my team know but only when it really matters – a lot of the time I don’t know people on my team are taking days off or have vacations planned until it happens, and it’s still totally fine.

Since I started my job 3 months ago, a lot of people have been taking weeks off here and there, which has been nice to see. Same with medical, dental, hair, vet, etc. appointments – it’s just been really nice to have that flexibility and see that flexibility afforded to my coworkers.

Just like there are different types of academic jobs that require different levels of in-person commitment, it’s the same for industry jobs. If you really require some specific forms of flexibility, just be open about it, and of course, seek out companies that have healthy, accepting work environments.

6. “I won’t be able to publish!”

A lot of research-based jobs will still regularly publish their results in journals. It’s totally normal and super common. Like, this isn’t even worth elaborating on.

It’s something you’ll need to seek out if you really want to keep publishing after leaving academia, because not all companies care about publications the way academics do. It’s all about what the product is, and if there’s anything related to it that can be published.

There are plenty of pharmaceutical, biotech, life science, etc. companies that publish on their studies regularly! I read their publications all the time for my medical writer job.

7. “I’ll disappoint my academic colleagues and my PI!”

As long as you care about what your academic colleagues and your PI think about you, you’re not going to have a great transition from academia to a industry/non-ac job.

Look, I get it. I get how you’ve spent your whole life achieving one thing after another in the academic environment.

Degree after degree, qualification after qualification, paper after paper, acceptance after acceptance, graduation after graduation.

It’s the world you know, and it’s what you considered to be “default” in your perception of success.

I get it because I was like that, too. Towards the end of my Bachelor’s, I mentally couldn’t even register the option of stopping there. Why NOT get the Ph.D.? Why wouldn’t I go to grad school? If I could achieve more, I might as well, it’ll only look better.

But guess what, you can shift that mindset. Think of that as your “old” mindset. It’s legitimate, but it’s not forever.

Your “new” mindset is going to be: I can do so much with this degree and all this experience, I’m going to find the best fit for me, wherever it is.

And screw what others might think!

Towards the end of my time in my Ph.D./postdoc lab, I had just about enough of my toxic former PI. He turned his nose up at the fact I was looking for “medical writing” jobs, wanted me to stick around as long as possible, and tried to misinform me and discourage me during my job search.

But I got my job all on my own without a reference from him or any publications, and surprised him with the news after I had signed the job contract (and my company did too). I ditched authorship on my Ph.D. paper which was about 90% written, and I noped out of that sorry workplace. You can read about my experience here:

Months later, I have absolutely no regrets and I’m the happiest I’ve been in my entire adult life!

Your PI doesn’t have nearly as much power or prestige in industry as they do in academia, and not a single company I interviewed with or applied for showed any interest in who my PI was, or who any of my academic colleagues were for that matter.

What’s most important is that you live your life in a way that’s best for you and makes you happy. Your financial future, your mental health, and your happiness are most important.

Conclusion

I’ve never been an actual “academic”. Even before starting my Ph.D., I wanted to go to industry/get a non-ac job.

That’s why I asked former academics on Twitter for their input on the most commonly seen misconceptions about industry jobs that they wanted to debunk!

Another thing I wanted to say was that I personally had no qualms about “leaving” academia. For me, it was pretty much the normal and only path for me. I wanted to get a job after my Ph.D., and I did.

I recognize that for others, it’s a much more emotional road. Despite my light snark, I totally understand that no longer being able to pursue being a professor, not being sure about how your values and passions align with companies outside academia, and just feeling aimless when facing the fact you have to go out into the great unknown are major, worrisome changes for a lot of folks.

So I’m hoping that this post helped tease apart your mind a bit more and show you that life on the other side isn’t so bad!

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