A PhD journey: transitioning from industry to academia
Cammy Beyts a third year PhD student in behavioural ecology, shares her experience of the transition from industry into academia to complete her PhD.
After completing my undergraduate degree then a masters, I held two roles in industry before returning to academia to start my PhD. Although this might not be a conventional route, it has given me a unique experience which might provide some thoughts to others looking to make a similar move.
As I had gained a taste for working as a research scientist and wanted to develop this career path further, it was clear that a PhD would be beneficial regardless of whether I conducted research within academia or industry.
Why did I make the transition from industry to a PhD?
When I was an undergraduate, I had a pre-conception that PhD’s were only for those who were looking to pursue a career in academia. However my time in the workplace quickly highlighted that many senior level industry research scientists held PhDs, with many of these also being women.
Secondly, it was not just the technical subject knowledge gained from a PhD which was clearly attractive to my employers but also the ability to lead and manage a wide variety of complex and multi-faceted research projects. As I had gained a taste for working as a research scientist and wanted to develop this career path further, it was clear that a PhD would be beneficial regardless of whether I conducted research within academia or industry.
Benefits of prior industrial experience to my PhD
One of the many benefits of having worked in industry is knowing what I can expect if I return to a similar company or role after gaining my doctorate. Moving from academia to industry can seem a daunting step but having had some experience of it already, I would feel confident making the move back if I wanted and my prior experience can only help if I decided to make this move. Knowing the types of roles I can apply for and maintain contacts with my former colleagues will also be an advantage in the future.
Another benefit of having worked in industry is the broad range of management styles that I dealt with. During my undergraduate and masters, I only worked closely with one or two supervisors on a project at a time, whereas I had frequent interaction with more senior figures in a professional environment. Understanding different managers and their styles has helped me navigate difficult conversations during my PhD and also helped me decide which supervisor would be most suitable for me.
Tight deadlines and multi-project-tasking are the norm in industry but was not something I had really experienced during either my undergraduate or master’s degrees. Knowing that I can work on more than one aspect of a project at once has helped with my time efficiency during my PhD. It also made me aware that in order to be most productive, I need to set myself frequent deadlines. Time management has been a surprisingly useful skill, as PhD assessment deadlines may only come round once a year in the form of annual reviews so it is easy to lose focus during this length of time.
Challenges of leaving industry
In most cases, going from full employment back into education comes with a pay cut and depending on where you are studying, it may also involve moving to a new city as well. In my case, I was coming to the end of a temporary contact so although I did experience a decrease in pay, it was a good time to start a PhD. Nevertheless it is important to consider any financial obligations which may be affected as a result starting a PhD.
Applying for any new job role can be tough and applying for a PhD is no exception. Having the time to work on applications was a lot more challenging when already in full time employment and fitting it around my work commitments. Taking days out for multiple rounds of interviews is never easy, but if I were applying whilst still in my Masters degree it would have offered a lot more flexibility.
Additionally, being outside an academic institution can cause you to come across barriers that you might have been unaware of whilst inside of them. For example, as I no longer had an university affiliation, it meant that I could not access journal articles free of charge. This became a real hurdle when trying to access articles to improve my subject knowledge on my chosen PhD topic. It also highlighted the number of articles which are behind a pay wall. However I did find that most authors were happy to share a copy of their work when I contacted them directly.
I would fully recommend it to anyone considering making the move from industry to start a PhD themselves.
Changing jobs is never easy, and moving from work environments as contrasting as academia and industry presents unique challenges. My combined experience has so far offered a huge amount of variety and having worked in both types of institution, I know I would be happy pursuing a career in either industry or academia which is a good mind set to be in when starting job applications. I would fully recommend it to anyone considering making the move from industry to start a PhD themselves.
Photo credit Cammy Beyts