A (so far) happy transition: how I found my way outside academia

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When I started my PhD back in 2010 I had a clear plan in mind: becoming a PI and having my own research group. I could not see myself other than an academic and, honestly, learning and studying were the things I was best at.

Then after three years, once I submitted my thesis, things were not so clear anymore. I wasn’t sure about becoming a PI, but mostly I was getting tired of the academic environment. I saw many colleagues struggling to get permanent positions and keeping moving from one country to another. Not sure that was the future I was planning. I started looking around for help. I got an appointment to the local career service to find out that they knew as much as I did. So I did what PhDs are expected to do: I applied for postdoc positions. At the end of the day, I liked research and I was still pretty good at learning and studying. I got a position in a Visual Neuroscience group. It was different from the PhD: it was challenging, many new things to master, a mixed background group to interact with. I enjoyed a lot doing research there. Still, I wasn’t happy and, most of all, my career wasn’t going anywhere. That’s frustrating: I wanted to quit, but I felt I missed all the skills to apply for a job outside academia. I didn’t know what kind of job to do and even what I was able to do.

During the second year of postdoc my institution held MARS42, a summer school on entrepreneurship. Its goal was to give PhDs tools to apply the scientific methodology in the “outside world”. I enrolled. In two weeks we heard so much stuff, many speakers came to talk about their work as R&D, startupper, founder. Some of them had a PhD. It was galvanizing. At the end I went to my PI and I told him that I was going to quit academia.

I still didn’t know what to do but I had learnt few useful things:

  1. PhDs have a whole set of useful transferable skills! Scientific methodology, analytical mindset, ability to learn fast, to name a few. It is important to recognize and to value them.

  2. Being a scientist does not strictly mean working at the bench. Research and experimental approach are required in other jobs too. Think of startups.

  3. I won’t find a job related to my research field, most likely, and I have to learn new skills to fit in other positions. But, hey, learning is what I do best.

  4. Networking is key: talk to people, keep in touch, ask for informal interviews. You never know where opportunities are.

With all this in mind I started applying for positions outside academia. Every time I talked to someone I stressed those transferable skills to differentiate from the rest of non-academic applicants. Many companies never replied, but I was prepared and I never regretted leaving academia. Others were intrigued and I started having my first job interviews.

Then one day someone from the summer school reached out to me. He was about to start his own project with a couple of friends and was recruiting a team, people with good analytical skills and experimental approach. That was my very first opportunity outside academia. Today I’m part of that startup team, we’re four PhDs out of five people. At the same time I’m also working with another company on machine learning and analytics. And I keep learning new things!

Of course this is just the beginning of the story and many things are to come. But isn’t it true for anything in life?

 

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