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The one when a PhD works for a company

The worlds of academia and industry are quite different, and those within them communicate with one another differently and have vastly different goals and timelines. Yet, there are many occasions when these worlds overlap and must work together. I have been working with corporations for about 20 years in commercialising new technologies. Quite often, the tech has come from scientific research, which has provided me with many opportunities to work with academics and make first-hand observations regarding the challenges of those two worlds working together.

I am now sharing a few of my observations with the goal of helping PhDs easily transition to industry. Entering industry is a good choice, but it requires an understanding of the dynamics and processes of working for companies to ensure success, satisfaction and happiness.

Please do not say, ‘I need to do more research’ 

Nearly every time that I have worked with a scientist and discussed their innovation, the conversation almost always ended with them saying, ‘I need to do more research’.

This was extremely frustrating because we were discussing models for commercialisation, not further funding options for research. We had to work with what was already there to adapt the research into a product that we could bring to customers as quickly and efficiently as possible. This leads me to the next rule in industry that differs from academia: 

Nobody expects 100% correct answers

The working world operates on estimates. Rough estimates are often good enough to make decisions. While I admire academics’ drive to continue investigating and making improvements, companies work on short deadlines and lack the time to keep looking for more answers.

Nobody is expecting perfection. We consider the margin of error, so taking risks and intelligent guessing are often the ways of working in companies. If you provide an 80% probability that it is considered high in the corporate world, while 70% is really good and 60% is ‘good to go’. 

Do not be a pesky geek 

I do not know if this is predominantly a characteristic of data scientists or if it applies to other academics as well, but insisting on knowing every detail is not always fruitful in the corporate world.

PhDs need to be detail driven; they thrive on the feedback and providing one another with the highest degree of detailed comments and suggestions. This is how research papers get completed and innovation continues in academia. However, such behaviour can come across as arrogant and even hostile in an industry environment.

While feedback is quite welcome, you cannot insist on knowing every detail or continually try to force issues until all your points are addressed if you want to be productive.

In companies, collaboration does not always mean offering the most pedantic feedback possible; rather, it means being helpful and adding value to the team effort, even if your colleagues are less knowledgeable than you are.

Be sensible and smart; otherwise, you will come across as difficult to work with and find yourself without support from any colleagues, which will result in no promotions or pay raises and an unpleasant working environment. 

Speak plain English 

The language that is used to write research papers is esoteric and actually kills the idea of taking research off the shelves and giving it to the world.

I constantly struggle to understand why it is necessary to write in such a way, even for academic purposes. This situation worsens when it is used while communicating with the corporate world, especially with executives.

I promise you that nobody will think you are less smart if you use plain English (in both written and oral communication), eliminate technical jargon (unless you need to speak to your fellow geek) and use short sentences. Additionally, the regular use of bullet points makes it easier to communicate the main ideas.

Finally, messages do not need to have an extensive supporting background; three main arguments for supporting your message will suffice. Otherwise, nobody will read your documents. Time and efficiency are everything in the corporate world; concise wording that makes the point immediately and clearly is key. It is also important to identify the intention of your message in the first sentence or paragraph to alert the reader of what to expect and how much time to spend on reading the document. 

Corporations are all about money 

While this is true, it is not necessarily a bad thing. No matter what messages companies send to the world about sustainability and the need for innovation, inclusion and other politically correct (and indeed very much needed) messaging, they are driven by three simple forces: customers, shareholders and employees. This means revenue and costs (i.e. money).

There is nothing wrong with this because money is required to pay us for the job that we do. Shareholders (and by shareholders I mean millions of people who are our parents and grandparents and their pensions, your neighbour and his savings, and many other people whose pensions, savings and personal investments are managed by funds) and customers are an extremely demanding crowd that constantly demands new and better products, which they expect to have delivered with excellent services.

Once you join the industry, please remember those three main forces, and pressure the company that you are working for to meet the expectations of their customers, shareholders and employees. By agreeing to join an industry, you are agreeing to help to deliver that promise. 

When we need this product now, it really means now

Timelines are another challenging issue that academics find difficult to adapt to when joining the corporate world. There is massive pressure within companies to complete tasks quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively.

While this means that the result will not be perfect, it is better than adding massive costs to delays in R&D, production, marketing, sales, distribution, etc. There is a chain of dependencies, and every delay means higher costs, a lower return on investment, the danger that the competition will be faster and the loss of customers.

 ‘It is not the strongest that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change’

That Darwin principle is the best advice that I could give to PhDs who are transitioning from academia to industry. However, it does not require that you give up on your principles, beliefs and everything that you have learnt in academia. On the contrary, use your transferable skills to do your job well and enrich the company you are joining with the diverse thinking, curiosity and problem-solving approaches for which you were hired.

Companies need your academic skills and knowledge, but you must adapt to the new environment and become a valuable team member with those who have entrusted you with the job.

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