Career Transition: From Academia to Industry and Vice Versa

Published: Nov 19, 2012

By Heather Krasna

Academia offers a unique culture and lifestyle with its own pros and cons. Individuals in the field may consider switching to industry; and those in industry may long to join the mystical “Ivory Tower.” Here are some tips for making these moves work.

Academia to Industry

In this era of diminishing tenure-track positions, many people obtain doctorates, particularly in disciplines relevant to fields outside academia, and either never work in academia at all, or make a move outside academia after only a few years as a faculty member. Examples include political science professors being hired by government contractors, financial ratings agencies, and even airlines, as statistical analysts; Hal Varian, professor of Economics, who went on to become Chief Economist of Google; Elizabeth Warren, professor who became a Senator—the list goes on.

Keys to this transition include translating your research into bottom-line deliverables, and your teaching into management skills. A first step is to transition the academic CV to a resume, cutting the length and emphasizing relevant achievements rather than listing each publication. Employers want to know how you will add value to their bottom line—emphasize the dollar amounts of grants raised, groundbreaking research, and technical skills. A handful of career coaches and resume writers come with this CV-to-resume transition expertise.

Industry to Academia

It’s hard enough to move from academia to industry, but convincing a hiring committee of faculty that your “industry” experience is at the level of scholarship to be considered for a faculty position, especially if you have few publications or little teaching experience, is even harder. Another reason this transition happens less often is that jobs in higher education typically pay less than private sector jobs. Before you think lower pay equals less work, though, it’s important to have a realistic understanding of “Ivory Tower” life—many faculty work 60-80 hours per week in research, teaching, course preparation, grant writing, office hours, grading, and service.

In disciplines that strongly value “real world” experience, the applied experience and industry connections you bring may be greatly appreciated. There is even a program at the University of Washington, called On-Ramps into Academia, to encourage female engineers to move into academia. Examples of this transition include industry executives who become business school faculty; Andrew Mack, of Simon Fraser University, who was previously Director of the Strategic Planning Office of the UN Secretary-General; and Jacques Christophe Rudell, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, who spent many years in industry before starting his faculty role.

How to do it? It’s important to understand the academic job search and how it differs from the private sector. Being prepared for job talks, writing an academic CV, understanding academic culture, and being able to write research funding proposals are all vital. If you are seriously considering this transition, focus on getting published in your field, gaining teaching experience as a lecturer or adjunct, or at a community college, and attending industry conferences to build networking connections.

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