Academics in the labour market


Academics in the labour market. Some experiences will follow.

In the past two years my partner, a PhD graduate and a few small postdocs under her belt, has been applying for jobs outside of academia. That in itself usually requires motivation to potential employers, because “why’d you give up your dream”? Well, the reality of an academic career, especially if both partners are academics, is not really a dream. There are many practical issues that you have less if you can work outside of the few places that offer academic jobs in a given country. But let’s assume for now that you can convince the potential employer that publishing papers isn’t your only interest, what’s next? Well, fortunately I have met a few employers that seemed to know what an academic training entails, and has a rough idea of what an academic can do. For most of us, it’s been a varied training of learning technical skills to perform studies, to write scientific papers, to write grants, to present in front of professors, but also first year students, to convince colleagues, to convince bosses, and in general we have a mind habituated to fact-based arguing and we tend to step around personal mismatches automatically and fairly fluidly. We have learned to be creative when tackling problems, because in a sense that is the work of a researcher: at the start we know nothing, perhaps we don’t even have any relevant skill. What we can do is identify our limitations, work on them (taking trainings, read a book or papers, interrogate colleagues and experts, in general “figuring things out”), thereby identifying solutions and work-arounds, such that the goal being worked towards gets closer. Sometimes drastic course changes are taken, after all, there are dead ends, certainly in research, and it’s a skills to see dead ends coming, and to have the courage to realize you’ve been on the wrong track and you must change course. I guess this may sound a bit like a startup, if you’re more familiar with that. In general rules and structure are neglected in favor of creative problem solving. And for that, most academics develop pallet of skills.

There are non-academics that develop similar pallets of skills: a wide and sometimes deep pallet. By no means did I want to imply the above is exclusive to academics, anyone can do that, it’s just that PhD’s and on provide room in most jobs not available to do that. Startups seem similar environments, and of course, they are not rarely staffed by people who might have started their university studies first. The non-academic employers I have spoken with that understood and recognized the above were all self-starters and the CEO of their own business, usually extremely competent at what they were doing. So, where I say academic, perhaps I just mean a person with a certain mix of entrepreneurship, intelligence, persistence, and creativity.

This pallet is however, I am now discovering, not known to or even understood by many other employers. The kind that you’ll find in middle-management of larger companies, or smaller to medium businesses that do not do particularly specialized work (i.e. you might find a number of competitors in the same market). Often, they’re not even clear on the difference between a bachelor and a PhD degree, other than rank. I’ll emphasize I’m not implying anything other than that’s what I’ve experienced. I simply notice these employers usually do not understand what an academic can bring to the table. Perhaps not by chance, they’re also usually not terribly interested. It’s perfectly fair that you, as an employer, seek to fill a well-defined position, and decided to invite an academic over, because they applied too. However, I think it’d be good if employers realized that such potential employees might immediately be interested in improving processes in your company. After all, that is the very thing they’ve been trained to do! And it might benefit you, after all, which employer wouldn’t be interested in increased output, more efficiency and so on. An academic may find these, perhaps in areas where you’ve never thought to look. If you’re looking for replaceable workers for your factory, an academic is probably not a good fit.

Some employers think academics have little experience, and need to be trained. They, like a high school student, will need to work for a while before they’ll be able to add value. Well, depending on your company, that may be true! However, it betrays a lack of understanding of what an academic is, which I’ll agree is a term with a lot of variance. In vernacular an academic mindset may indicate a lack of output, too much focus on theory and not enough on work. That is a fair critique. After all, improving your business, as opposed to running it, is more in line with the competences of an academic. Many companies, it turns out, are not looking to improve anything, they’re just looking to run it. In my opinion, that makes it unlikely that you know how to take advantage of the skills of an academic. Maybe it would be more correct to say that it is an effect of a highly compartmentalized company, which most larger ones are. Manager X, who’s placed the vacancy through HR on the website, is responsible for, say, production of widget Y, and is not in charge of improving the production of widget Y, let alone hiring or interviewing for it. So, they’ll see a natural division between production and development, where most academics would not see, or particularly like, the division.

Since the end of my current academic position is coming up within the year, I though it would be a good idea to start getting good at applications now, while there is still plenty of time. Until recently, I’d never applied outside of academia, so until recently all of the above was unknown to me. It’s been very educating to go through it myself, and to learn what employers typically ask, and how they are different. Mean and sigma. Another thing I didn’t know: my gut is pretty good at picking up signs. Sometimes there are clues in the way things are organized, things are approached or said that tell give you a bad or good feeling. Sometimes you catch one of those off signs, but because you’re applying you want to succeed you may bury it and focus your convincing skills on the win. However, so far I’ve learned that this is a bad case of letting ego in the way: these signals usually add up in one direction, and are dead-on. In one application, I made it to the last end of the last round and suddenly they asked my opinion about uncompensated, structural overwork. At that point, I realized I had already spotted a whole series of clues but had failed to add them up because I was too eager to get the offer. This question crystallized the pattern in front of me, and actually corroborated a story with with that employer had been in the news recently. At that moment, I realized that that was the only question they had for that interview. That interview was a major revelation, also because the position (scientific programmer) was misadvertised as a creative and free, whereas it turned out, in the final minutes of the final interview, to be all about production, and then some more production. I felt like I’d levelled up in spotting ’the right kind’ of employers that day.

I’ve felt most drawn to employers who’d ask me what I could do for them, rather than asking me if I could do what they ask of me. The best (and most academic!) interview I’ve had so far was with a very commercial, and very small (and I suspect very profitable) company run by a non-academic. He actually had me talk at length about my research, which of course I was happy to do, focused on the relevant software dev parts of it. The company felt a bit like a research group, where people had different expertises and they came together to tackle the challenges in the world of their product. Since then, I’ve been in a few other places that had a same sense of openness and curiosity, and where pursuing your hunches was encouraged. That is I think the type of company most fit for an academic: a place where all parties are naturally curious and looking to make best use of each others resources. I learned that anything that does not fit the above, is very likely to be a sign the place is no good for the academic type. If an employers lowballs your salary (because ‘you need to be trained’), it conveys a similar sign: he probably has no idea of what you can do! So then, don’t work there.

Writing this up made me realize something: an academic probably likes a versatile job, and highly compartmentalized businesses (in the sense that departments don’t ‘interfere’ with each other) are likely to require ‘unversatile’ workers, and therefore may be a bad fit. An academic should probably look for freedom and curiosity, which may be found in larger companies or institutes, but perhaps especially in smaller companies ran by smart and curious self-starters. There will be room, even the expectation, that you’ll pursue new avenues in order to improve or increase business. These are they places where you’ll find other people with larger pallets, or at least the ability to understand them, and the need to keep you pallet growing!

I still have 10 months to go on my current contract, and I expect to develop my understanding and skills more. Not that I expect anyone to read this, but in case you have insights, don’t hesitate to sends them though my brand new contact form!