Making the Transition from PhD Student to Corporate Employee

The world of academia can be a very insular place. As a result, many people who have had great success in post-graduate studies are unpleasantly surprised at how difficult the transition to corporate life can be, even after they have obtained their PhD. This is natural, as even those who work while attending some of the most demanding and best online PhD programs have not yet experienced the strictures and tedium of corporate management for 8-10 hours a day. By keeping a few key tenets in mind, most PhD students are able to adjust to the differences in corporate life with relative ease, though almost all academics go through an initial culture shock as they leave the ivory tower.

According to Susan Basalla May, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, academics of all stripes, from engineering PhDs to literature PhDs to social science PhDs are surprised that their knowledge is not as valued in the corporate world. In other words, in academia the two most valuable assets a person can have is their depth of knowledge in a particular specialty, and their ability to conduct exhaustive and lengthy research regarding a specific subject. However, May argues that in the corporate world, being able to move quickly and doing a job that is “good enough” (rather than fully comprehensive) is far more valuable than cultivating a particular expertise. So, PhDs should be prepared to have their priorities shift as they join the corporate world.

In building on this theme, Science magazine points out that for science-related PhDs, the difference is also in a person’s focus. For academics, it is quite acceptable to conduct research simply because the researcher finds it interesting, without any short term applications in mind. In the corporate world, researchers are expected to work only on projects that have immediate value to the company and that will serve as a return on the company’s investment. While in some ways the corporate model is more constraining for the researcher, there are benefits: because the researcher is working on something of direct interest, he or she will receive much more attention and support than academics usually receive. For example, instead of the bi-annual reviews and occasional check-ins of academia, those who transition to the corporate world should expect weekly or even daily discussions about the progress of their work. Many people find this level of interest rewarding.

A professional panel on transitioning to corporate life, hosted by the Biophysical Society, also offered the following advice for academics considering making the leap: before making any transition, make sure to reach out to former colleagues, friends and other contacts who already work in industry. Set up informational interviews and talk with them about what they like and don’t like about corporate life. In this way, it is easier to get a sense of whether corporate life matches one’s personality and career goals.

Other things the Biophysical Society panelists mentioned: because there is no tenure in the corporate world, someone who works in industry must be able to network constantly and be able to repeatedly show his or her worth – in other words, corporate life requires more social interaction and self-promotion to get ahead and to keep one’s job. Also, when applying for corporate positions, corporations are not going to be impressed merely by the volume of an academic’s publications – instead, academics should focus on how specific skills developed during the course of a research project could benefit the corporation directly. And this advice can be taken as a general bromide: in academia, the focus is generally on the researcher and his or her interests and knowledge; in corporate life, the focus is always on the corporation itself.

By Sofia Rasmussen

Sofia Rasmussen is a graduate student in journalism and freelance writer attending school in Seattle.  Her main writing interests are education and technology.  In addition to reading and writing voraciously, she loves traveling and enjoying the outdoors.