7 things you need to know
There comes a time in the life of a PhD candidate – and even, from time to time, a tenured academic – when it can be worth considering a transition from academic to the private sector. This can be a difficult step, particularly if you have spent years devoting yourself to academic study, but the rewards can be great. The hardest part of it all is often the question of mindset. Here are 7 steps that will help you on your way.
The largely self-directed nature of academic life means that academics often have many skills in such areas as analysis, research, project management, and grant-writing, to name a few. But the immersive and often very specific application of these skills can mean that it is hard to separate them from your subject area. Ask yourself what specific skills would be required to do your job as it stands, were it to be advertised. Remember to include ‘soft’ skills, such as your ability to negotiate with research partners, for instance, to create and work with teams of colleagues on complex research projects, or to provide nuanced and helpful feedback to your students. Now create a spreadsheet listing these skills, how they map onto your various areas of work, and specific examples of how you have used those skills. This will enable you to separate skills from subject-specific expertise and to build a bank of examples of how you have put these skills into practice. Pay particular attention to any budgetary or financial skills you have deployed, and make sure you emphasise these in any application or interview.
Build your networks
When considering a move from academia to the private sector you may benefit from the ‘soft capital’ that comes from having a place in industry networks. Make a list of your desired employer(s) and contact them to see if they have open days or offer consultations to potential employees. If your target sector has a representative industry body, union, association or similar, approach them to see if it is possible to join as an associate or affiliated member. Keep an eye on their meetings and conferences, and see if you can attend as a guest or auditor. Follow or join in the discussion on any relevant social media groups in your industry – this can often be a great way of building informal contacts and getting advice.
Learn the language of your target sector
Building networks in this way will also enable you to get a feel for the specific ‘language’ used by your sector. You need to familiarise yourself not just with any technologically specific terminology that your target industry in the private sector uses, but also to absorb the general ‘discursive environment’ of your desired sector. Read as much as possible about your sector. Don’t ignore in-house or trade publications, as well as online forums, and social media outlets.
Enhance your communication skills
Academic life can often involve a great deal of communication to well-informed audiences, as well as a great deal of written and oral communication. But communication styles in industry can involve sending messages that are much briefer, targeted, and that deploy conscious communication strategies (examples of these include: leadership, conflict resolution, process-driven, intuitive, visual, non-linear). If these strategies are unfamiliar to you it is worth doing some work on these, and considering how your own existing communication methods might fit into one or more of them. Again, make sure to think of examples of how your communication to date (in teaching, writing, or working with colleagues) might be described in these terms.
Use professional development opportunities
Your university probably offers a range of professional development courses that could help you in your goal to move from academia to the private sector. Now is the time to book yourself on as many of these as possible. Keep a record of the courses you attend, and be sure to refer to them in your CV: this will also signal to potential employers that you are a self-starter who takes responsibility for your own professional development.
Take advice from the wise
Don’t overlook those who have already made the leap. Investigate the key players in your field, and see if any of them had an academic background or unusual career path. If someone has had a career background that looks similar to yours, you can always try to get in touch to ask them for advice.
Look back from the future
Even having done all this it can be daunting to make the leap, and at times, can even seem impossible. A good trick to have up your sleeve at this point is to imagine yourself in five years’ time, holding down your desired job in your target sector. Now think of three specific examples of what you will have achieved at this point, and then ask yourself what small step you can take today that will move you towards that goal.