Reader Question: Going from a Professorship to Industry

I have a reader question I’ve wanted to answer in a post for awhile, but starting a new job, then losing that job, then finding another new job, and then starting that job has kept me busy.

Also, I’ll be honest, I had a promise of a trip to Disneyland to deliver on. (We went a couple of weekends ago, and had fun, especially the 8 year old to whom the promise had been made!)

I sent a short answer back when I got the question, but wanted to write a blog post with a more detailed answer, both to share my answer with others and provide a chance for others to add to my answer.

Here’s the question, with identifying details removed:

In your Management Monthly newsletter, you said you would still be willing to answer questions. I am very interested in your perspective on this, as I think your transition back into a “regular” job is (at least slightly) similar to what I am considering. I’m also interested in your perspective as a hiring manager in STEM.

I am currently a professor of [redacted STEM field] and just received tenure. I earned my PhD [in the last decade], did a post-doc for 2 years, and then have been a faculty member since. My university has experienced many budget cuts over the past few years, and is discussing reorganizing and suspending many programs. I am concerned about my long-term job prospects here and am considering my options in industry. It is exhausting constantly worrying about losing my job and being afraid I am no longer qualified for jobs outside of academia (i.e. no safety net). While there is no job guarantee in industry either, at least they are upfront about it.

Here are my questions for you:

How did you transition back to a full-time “regular” job? Were you concerned that there would eventually be a time when you could not transition back to a regular job?

Do you think it is possible to transition from a faculty position to industry? I had in-demand lab skills as a grad student and post-doc, but that was [less than a decade] ago. Are my lab skills too out of date? Would you hire someone like me for a technical position on one of your projects? I have a sabbatical coming up, where I will be full-time back in the lab, refreshing my experimental skills. Would that be seen as a positive in applying for an industrial position?

Now I act more as a manager, project manager, and technical writer. While I was good in the lab, I really enjoy managing my students and research projects and would prefer that if possible. When looking for a position in industry, would I need to start with a position like [individual technical contributor], rather than a team lead position? I think I would be a very good project manager but do not have industry experience in this area.

I’m going to take the questions one at a time:

How did I transition back to a “regular” job and was I worried I’d eventually be unable to make the transition?

I started my transition back to a “regular” job much like any job search: I started having more lunches and coffee meetings with people in my network, and I searched the job boards to see what was out there.

While I was doing this, the people at the job that I started in December heard I was open to returning to full time work, and they made me an offer that was really, really attractive, which I ended up taking. When that fell through, one of my friends that I’d talked to earlier about wanting to go back to a “regular” job knew of the job that became my “new new job” and forwarded my resume to the hiring manager.

I didn’t worry too much about not being able to transition back: I’m still middle management, so there are a reasonable number of positions that would be appropriate for me. I think transitions get harder as you get more senior, because there are fewer positions that are a fit for you. I’m also not yet to the age where I think worries about age discrimination kick in, although that is something I think about when I think about where my career might go next. It is a real concern, but I’m in my mid-40s, and in my field, that isn’t seen as “old.” (In tech, it might be! I don’t know.) 

Anyway, for me, my age and career stage are pretty well-matched, so I didn’t think I’d have trouble going back to a “regular” job. That might have been different if I’d waited another 10 years, but I am pretty sure I’d have been OK waiting another 5 years. Also, if I’d been an independent contractor/consultant at the level required to pay my bills for another 10 years, I’d probably be seen as more senior in career stage than I am now, and so as long as there were jobs that fit that stage, I’d probably have been OK. It is hard to say.

I don’t want to minimize the concern about age discrimination, but much like the gender discrimination I’m sure I face and the racial discrimination I know other people face, there isn’t much you can do about it as an individual, except network (which takes me from “a 40-something working mom” to “Melanie” in the eyes of hiring managers) and make your application as strong as possible. I refuse to let my choices be boxed in by worries about discrimination: I decided to just live my life how I wanted, and deal with the fallout when and if it happens. This may not be the best, most strategic approach, but it is the only one I can live with.

Is it possible to transition from a faculty position to industry?

Definitely yes, I know people who have done it. I think the most important thing to think about if you decide to make the transition to industry is how you will tell your story of why you want to make this change. In my experience, the thing that gives hiring managers pause about hiring someone making a transition of any sort that is not the usual “working your way up the ladder in one field” story is the idea that it might not “take”- that the person won’t like the new role and will quit and go back to their old role. The way to address that concern is to have a counter-narrative: a story that explains why you’re moving to the new role that makes sense and is authentic.

The other thing you can do to make your application stronger is to make it clear you really understand the role, and how it differs from your academic role. You may need to do some networking to fill in details on this.

Are my lab skills too out of date? Will someone hire me for a technical position?

Your lab skills are probably out of date, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be able to make the move back to a technical position. You’ll just need to demonstrate that you can pick up new technical skills quickly, which I’m sure you can do, since picking up new technical skills quickly is a common part of academic work. To be honest, everyone’s technical skills are constantly getting out of date, because technical fields change so quickly. So when I’m hiring for a technical role, what I want to see most is an aptitude for learning technical skills. Some hiring managers do get too focused on checking off boxes for all the technical skills the role will use, but to be honest, you don’t really want to work for one of those managers if you can help it. They will probably stymie your efforts to grow and acquire new skills on the job, too.

The easiest way to demonstrate you can pick up new skills quickly is to pick an example and put it in your cover letter. You’d say something like “While I have not had recent hands on experience with technique X, I have stayed up to date on advances in the field/managed others performing this technique and have extensive experience learning new techniques. For instance, in past role A, I…. (fill in the details of a time when you had to learn a new technique.)

Is a sabbatical a positive in applying for an industry position?

I honestly don’t know! Readers, if you have an opinion, please share it in the comments.

I doubt it will hurt, but I don’t know if it will help, either. It is just such a different world: although some big companies offer the possibility of sabbaticals, most of us in the non-academic world never get the chance to do one, and don’t really have a frame to evaluate what the benefits of one might be. So, if you see it as a positive thing that helped you refresh your technical skills, you’ll have to explicitly state that somewhere in your application materials (probably your cover letter). I would also think about in terms of what your story for your transition will be: Does it show some growth or progression that bolsters your narrative for why you’re making the move out of academia? Does it support some technical skill that is needed in the role for which you are applying? If so, play it up. If not, just include it in your resume, but play up the other parts of your background that do support your narrative.

Will I need to start as an individual contributor or could I aim for a team lead position?

I think you can aim for either an individual contributor or a team lead position. You’ll need your resume and cover letter tailored differently for the two different types of positions, though. Unless being in management is really important to you, I’d evaluate each potential position with respect to whether it gets you on the career path you think you’d like to be on. Apply for any position you think gets you on the right path and that you’d be happy at for at least 2-3 years.

The executive summary version of my answer is:

Transitioning from a professorship to an industry position is definitely possible, at both individual contributor and management levels. The key to making the transition successfully is being able to present a narrative that explains why you want to make that transition. I suspect your academic career has given you all the skills you need to make the move, but you’ll need to map them onto the role you want and create a resume and cover letter that shows that mapping and explains why this move makes sense for you.

Anyone out there want to add their experiences in the comments? Please do!

One Comment

  1. Chemjobber said:

    I think this is fundamentally field-dependent. I suspect without much experience, that this would be just fine for the more technical side of electrical engineering, for example.

    For chemistry (especially organic chemistry academia -> pharma), this sort of thing does indeed take place, but there really needs to be a strong fit (i.e. you have a professor of chemical biology, and they move into a medicinal chemistry-oriented part of a pharma company.) I think there are lots of examples of that (i.e. I suspect there are more than 20.) Most of these folks end up more at the managerial end of research, as opposed to being at the bench.

    Something that the correspondent hasn’t mentioned that I want to bring to the fore, although it might combine the worst of the possible pie-eating contests: becoming an entrepreneur. You (an academic) are already pretty well set up for this particular skill set (and it may be something that you’re trying to get away from), but I think that these days, the barrier to entry is somewhat lower than it is in the past, and offers independence that you may want to preserve more (as opposed to industrial R&D, which is more structured and directed.)

    February 27, 2018

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