Leaving Academia: The Strengths (and Weaknesses) of Academics Transitioning to Industry

This article is based on content written by Chris Richardson, an instructional designer at Pragmatic Institute, TDI’s sister company.

The academic industry is competitive and, at times, unapologetically brutal. It’s no wonder that many professionals are leaving academia and are looking outside the classroom for a fulfilling career.

But, there is a lingering fear that the skills that make sense as a professor and researcher might not translate well to the private sector. Of course, this transition isn’t without challenges, so we’ve outlined three strengths and weaknesses that academics can bring to the private sector.

Strength #1: Research

Anyone with a PhD or similar terminal degree has strong research skills. The ability to collect, sort, and synthesize complex information from diverse sources helps in any situation.

Your ability to distinguish quality sources, weigh competing claims, and question epistemological presuppositions makes you far more valuable than you likely realize.

Strength #2: Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is necessary within business environments when weighing whether to switch to a new data platform or how best to launch a new product. As an academic, your ability to approach complex ideas in clear and nuanced ways can make a huge impact within any environment — and there’s a clearer sense of urgency when millions of dollars are at stake.

Strength #3: Assessment

Setting learning objectives and measuring results, particularly over time and with different sections or cohorts, is a skill that sets academics apart.

Such measurements, and the ability to assess performance accurately, are critical to the success of all projects — not just midterms. And people in the private sector actually care about these metrics and use them to make constant improvements to their products and services.


Weakness #1: Speed

After completing coursework, “deadlines” in academia are really just suggestions. But the snail’s pace of most colleges and universities is not a luxury competitive businesses can afford.

You’re not going to have a sabbatical to read the hundreds or thousands of peer-reviewed publications you’d like to. Instead, you’ll have maybe a week to gather information. Things move quickly in the real world.

Weakness #2: Language

Academics often use scholarly vocabulary like flack jackets. Many rely on impenetrable language to protect themselves and their egos, especially when they may not have much to say.
Unfortunately, the patience for the abstruse terminology of academia doesn’t exist anywhere else. That’s not to say others don’t care about language.

The careful crafting of words and phrases tends to focus on the reader’s benefit. The struggle is being as clear and engaging as possible rather than impressive and perplexing, which I’m finding sort of refreshing.

Weakness #3: Results

There’s a scene in Ghostbusters (1984) where Ray (Dan Aykroyd) tells Peter (Bill Murray), “I like the university. They gave us money and facilities. We didn’t have to produce anything. You’ve never been out of college.

You don’t know what it’s like out there. I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.” This exchange summarizes my experience well. The bad news for transitioning academics is that there are no eternal delays or deferments. You have to produce if you want to get paid.

The Data Incubator is positioned to help academics overcome these weaknesses. More importantly, students enrolled at TDI get a chance to showcase how their strengths can be an asset and competitive edge to the private sector. Then, after completing the work, they’ll have the opportunity to connect to hiring partners seeking out highly-trained data professionals.

Interested in hearing about our alumni that have transitioned from academia to industry? Check out our blog series about them:

We’re always here to guide you through your data journey! Contact our admissions team if you have questions about leaving academia.

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