Tuesday, April 06, 2010

I don't know much...

Canadian GirlPostdoc had a post on making the transition from academia to industry and was sent my way by a kind soul who thought I might have some text to offer. I am also in need of material for posts so I'm taking my email response and re-using it rather shamelessly.

Question: Why did you make the switch from academia to industry? What were your motivations?

Katie: If I were to put it simply, the decision was driven by a need for control. I realize that's an illusion, but it's one that works for me so I'll take it.

I did my doctorate degree in about 5 years and then took a post-doc for 3 years before taking my current job mid-2008. My family isn't particularly academic - I was only the second to go to college and so that environment was always a bit foreign to me. While there were parts I loved, it always felt unstable - everything reliant on the next grant or your peers opinions on tenure. I just wasn't comfortable feeling stressed about my stability for the rest of my life so I sought a place that - to me - seemed more steady and easy to understand. I wanted a place that was large enough that I could learn and grow and be promoted - I was basically looking for a lifetime employer and believe - despite some struggles - that I've found one.

Question: Did you find that you had vertical movement up the career ladder in industry or is it solely lateral (i.e. same job different company)?
Katie: There is a great deal of potential for moving up. I tend to be a bit competitive (in addition to being anal about time and a bit of a control freak. I also overly sensitive, pretty dramatic and type very fast.) and I feel this environment is easier to understand in terms of what's valued. There's a certain simplicity in 'make boss happy' that was - again, for me - more ambiguous when it came to 'get paper published.'

Question: Was your PhD/postdoc related to applied research that the transition seemed natural or was it in a basic science?

Katie: I've always liked stuff so I'm pretty money-hungry. My degree is in an applied field with a lot of earning potential so the transition was easy in that sense. There are several colleagues who have similar backgrounds so I'm pretty well suited to my current environment.

Question: What was difficult about this transition from academia and what was easy?

Katie: As exhausted and stressed as I sometimes am, I consider myself professionally happy. Yet there were moments of the transition that were incredibly difficult. Posts early on in my time in Industry (late 2008, I think) would reveal that I struggled a great deal with the power structure. I'd had pretty laid back bosses in my academic life and if something didn't make sense, I didn't do it. Industry is much more structured in that you must make your boss happy. Even if it's not sensible. Even if you don't agree. It was excruciating for me to do that before I grew confident in my supervisor's skills and perception - it's much easier now.

It's really personality driven, I think. I'm much more management-oriented than science/technology-based so I'm in the middle of an ego contest to some extent. I've taken the approach that when my boss (or his boss or his boss's boss) gives me a task, I do the best job I possibly can. I don't have to think it's a good idea. I can think it's the most asinine thing I've ever heard in my life. Yet I'll research and make it the simplest thing to understand. I'll work evenings and weekends, hold meetings and revise until it's a shining example of perfection. And I can feel good about that because it's all pieces in an enterprise where the comprehensive goal is important and does matter.

Question: What skills from academia did you find were the most transferable?

Katie: The skill that has helped me most is understanding my strengths and weaknesses and how they helped me fit with a team. I was always a better collaborator than PI - I liked to do my work very well and was thrilled to write papers and analyze results, but I didn't have the major ideas necessary to establish my own lab. While I wasn't a huge fan of group work, I did like the scope of collaborative efforts and allocating pieces of a large project to separate people. What I do now is largely managing those efforts and communicating the results.

I'd say presentation skills were the other skill that got me hired. I'd always liked talking about my work - how it was important, what the various problems were. Speaking in front of large crowds still makes me a little nervous, but I enjoy being the focus of attention and disseminating information. So the ability to understand big picture and translate it to various audiences is helpful as you work in teams.

Question: How did you make the transition? Did you know someone at the company or did you just send out your resume to job postings? You mentioned networking but how did you go about establishing a network? Through conferences? Through friends of friends?
Katie: I'll be honest - It's hard to get noticed if you don't know someone. So networking is valuable and something I often struggled with. In my case, I applied for this job out of grad school and met many of my current colleagues during that unsuccessful interview. So when I wanted to apply again, I searched my old email and sent a note directly to the person hiring rather than just going through the online application. Then I sent email. And called. Sent more email. Offered to visit. And after about 6 months of that, I finally got an interview and - several months later - was hired and began work here. I don't know if that's a general trend or specific to us, but the process was painfully slow.

In terms of how to meet us, we're at meetings - find industry people who are presenting posters or giving talks. Come to the booth and chat about the products before asking if there's anyone around who could talk about opportunities in research and development. If you don't meet anyone in person, look up papers and find email addresses that way. Cross-reference author lists and see if they know anyone you know who might provide an introduction.

When you talk or email - even without an introduction - be yourself and be confident. Know what you have to offer and why you think the job would be a good fit. Stay positive, but explain why the academic structure isn't ideal for you and describe why Industry allows you to do something you love - show dedication and desire to work with teams and be flattering about what you've heard about the corporation of interest. Persistence also helps - I can say that I'm intensely busy and get well over 150 emails each day. Keep your message short and interesting. Ask an easy question that someone could easily hit reply and answer quickly. Then use the opportunity to establish a conversation.

I can say that every time a position opens, my colleagues send emails that ask who we know that would be good. So keeping yourself in someone's mental address book is a good move.

Question: Could you describe a typical day/week to me. Do you work 9-5? What type of hours are expected? Is there any flexibility? Do you have to dress up?

Katie: Our office hours at 8-5. Sometimes we take lunch - there's often not time. Before/after hours teleconferences are normal (I do ~3 a week either in the evenings or before 7AM) to accommodate global teams. Having said that, there is flexibility. Several of my colleagues work from home a couple days a week. I came home early this afternoon and took a nap before returning to email.

A typical day contains an average of 4 meetings, each an hour long. This means I spent at least half my working hours either on the phone or around a table, talking about something. We like meetings very much. They make us feel important. When I'm not in a meeting, I'm often answering email, scheduling a meeting or preparing for a meeting. I visit customers (often in wonderful places - I'm going to Europe again in May and will spend a couple weeks in the Fall in Asia) and talk to them on the phone. I monitor projects and guide prioritization and funding decisions.

Our more science-focused folks are spared many of those gatherings, though they have their share. They do actual work - coding and experiments and the like - and then they talk to me and each other and try to understand the value to our customers.

Dress is business to business casual, depending on who's coming to your meetings that day. If it's a customer, I generally wear a suit (I went from owning 2 for my post-doc to my current 10). If not, I'll wear something more casual but rarely jeans and never t-shirts/sweatshirts. Unless I'm working in the labs on a weekend - then I'll wear sloppy clothes since few people are around and comfort matters more. Apart from manufacturing personnel, we'd generally in pants and dress shirts.

Question: What are the toughest problems you deal with and what part of this work do you find the most rewarding?

Katie: The workload is daunting. There is always too much to do and too few people to do it. When you sell something and have a base of customers, the expectations are generally high and prioritizing them (and explaining why we sometimes suck and can't meet those expectations) is challenging. I had someone yell at me today, in fact, because we're not working on a problem he considers very important. I don't disagree with him, but we also have x number of people who are working really hard on other things.

At a high level, we're trying to help sick people. I think that's valuable and noble and so I put effort into the silliness so we're able to get closer to that goal. I like learning and the expectation is that employees are always growing exponentially - delivering more, learning more, becoming more effective and efficient. So while the challenge can sometimes be exhausting, it's also exhilarating when you pull it off.

Conclusion: I hope that helps those who were interested. If you think of more questions, leave a comment or send an email - I'm happy to respond.


Amelie said...

Thanks for sharing, Katie! That was really interesting.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing! Do you think the extraordinarily long hours (from the blog, sounds like all mornings, all evenings, almost all weekends, and no week+ vacations to speak of) are an absolute requirement or more of you personal choice? Could someone work a little less (say 50 hours a week, plus the occasional deadline/emergency) and still do fine?

Girlpostdoc said...

Hey Katie

Could I repost this at my blog, I think many readers would benefit.

CHeers, Girlpostdoc

post-doc said...

You're always kind, Amelie.

Anonymous - Yes. There are many people who balance their time much more effectively than I do. Working 50 hours/week is perfectly reasonable and those people do well. If you want to advance quickly though, I'd say 80 hour weeks are closer to the norm.

GirlPostdoc - You're welcome to repost it. That's no problem.

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