I did my Ph.D. in the cellular biology of brain tumors, identifying new ways to treat this aggressive and, to date, incurable disease. At that time, I was, and still I am, fascinated by the origins, development, and plasticity of cancers. I was so enthusiastic about understanding cancer biology to develop therapeutic tools that I decided to pursue a career as a researcher. So I did my first postdoc, and then the second one, and then the third one. At the end of the third one, I realized that I was walking on a dead-end road. I had a good shot at a permanent position in a lab I liked but it didn’t work out…for administrative reasons. When I had the news it was like an epiphany: you have to leave the boat, ASAP; you did your best, some things worked, some others didn’t. Overall, it is not enough to stay in the system and things will just get worse from now on. So it was time to open the door to the outside world and start a transition that continues today and will go on in the future. It has been exciting, scary, stressful, fun, enriching, and full of learnings about how the world works and how I work. It was necessary, and it was difficult in moments. It was absolutely worth doing it.
In this article, divided into three parts, I want to share my learnings on the process of transitioning from academia to industry. By industry, I mean any job in the private sector. I will walk you through this process through the following stages: 1. deciding to leave academia, 2. refocusing the meaning of a professional career, 3. exploring the outside world, and 4. getting your first job outside academia. You can consider these as tips or tools you can use or not. Maybe all of them make sense to you, maybe some, maybe none. When you get advice and it doesn’t make sense to you, just don’t do it, it’s not for you but for someone else. That is the only strong piece of advice I can give you here.
1-Taking the decision (not) to leave academia
The key to taking the right, or least wrong, decision here is being honest with yourself. You have to ask yourself the hard, painful, questions and give yourself honest answers, because the answers are already in you. You just have to give yourself the time and energy to let them come out. The more you delay this, the more complicated it will get.
Why do you want to stay in academia? It is okay to be passionate about something but, is it because it is cozy here and you are afraid of the cold, unfriendly, ruthless world out there? The news is that academia can also be cold, unfriendly, and ruthless. The difference is that in academia it will take you many years to face the ugly truth, but sooner or later it will happen.
Another important question is, what are your real chances to get a job in academia that will fit your current expectations? With real chances, I mean what is the concrete evidence you have, right here right now, that there is a place for you. Personally, if your evaluation includes lots of ifs that hide more ifs (if I publish this paper in a good journal, if my boss gets this funding, if my application for this university works) your chances are low. Networking and mentoring in academia are useful and necessary, but the most you can expect from them is to get a foot in the door for you. The weight of politics in the hiring process changes from country to country, and it will hardly create new opportunities for you.
A third and very important question is what kind of lifestyle you want. Are you okay with working long hours, with short holidays? Are you willing to relocate for a job? Is it fine for you not to have a great work-life balance? Being a postdoc, chasing the next temporary contract not knowing exactly where that will lead you might be okay when you are young, you do not have children, and you can move more or less easily from one place to the other. However, that most likely will change with time. You might want to settle somewhere, have a house, have children, or enjoy your free time. You should understand to what extent the prospect of your current job opportunities in academia match your lifestyle expectations and those dear to you.
Fact: the job market situation in academia is pretty difficult, and the lack of perspectives is leading young life scientists and postdocs to leave academia and join the industry, which points to the need for a change in academia’s career structure. Certainly, those changes, although necessary, will not happen tomorrow, or the day after.
Once more or less you figured out all these questions -and many others that will depend on your situation- you can summarize them in what would be your motivations to stay or leave, which is the most important thing here. If you are motivated enough to stay, then this is the end of this article for you. If you realize that the effort and risk/reward ratio of staying is not a good deal, then let’s move to the next stage.
2-Repurposing your professional career
So you decided to leave, what now? There are a couple of things that should happen simultaneously, as they will affect each other in an iterative process: networking, applying for jobs, getting new soft/hard skills (if required), among others. Here, I want to discuss an important topic, sense. When you do scientific research, the question of sense is in general pretty straightforward: you want to figure out how the world works and contribute to the understanding of the universe, or something similar. That specific purpose can be also found outside academia, although is less common and you might find it in different shapes and flavors, most likely as far as it is required to solve a concrete problem.
When you start looking outside academia for jobs is like going to a supermarket in the 1980s USSR compared to Amazon nowadays: if you are used to supermarkets in the USSR, there are one or two types of everything (if any), you know what to expect and if you like it or not it doesn’t matter, it is what it is. On Amazon nowadays you can find almost endless products which might resemble but all claim to be different, and also unexpected products which claim to be a solution to your need. Looking for jobs in the life sciences industry coming from academia can feel like that: it’s a never-ending discovery of options, which makes it interesting, but also overwhelming because you do not know what else is out there which might be a better fit for you. Jobs in the industry can be also tailor-made, meaning that they can be adapted, to a certain extent, to your skills and motivations.
How to identify your driver for that new job? Given the diversity of job offers, knowing that will make your job search easier, I think there are two possibilities here. Although, is also good to stay open-minded.
First, you can have a strong motivation for something, in particular, you do not want to give up on, like developing new technologies, helping a particular group of people, or doing research. In that case, you should identify the jobs that fit those motivations. The second option, you are not sure, the change is so big and there are so many unknowns that you feel lost. That is perfectly okay as far as you acknowledge it. In this case, I propose that you first identify your strongest skills, with which you feel comfortable, like doing experiments, networking, project management, people management, or writing. Then you can look for jobs for which these skills are required and see if you can picture yourself doing it. By doing so you will see if that motivates you. The interesting thing is that often you find motivations you did not know you had.
This is the end of the first part. You decided you want to leave academia and you have more or less a clear idea of what type of jobs you would like to do. The second part will deal with finding a good match and getting prepared for the recruitment process. The third and final part will discuss the interview process and getting the job. See you there!
Image: Géricault, ThéodoreFrance, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, INV 4884 – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010059199 – https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU