How to Transition from Academia to the Technology Industry
Making the jump from academic to tech is a big one, but not as big as you might think with these expert tips from someone who navigated it themselves, and has helped others do so as well.
By Alex M.
Posted January 31, 2024
Sometimes, your career can feel like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Within a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, the reader is often prompted with choices throughout the story. Choose “A” and suddenly you are floating down a crocodile-laced river. Choose “B” and you may encounter a voracious lion. Then, it’s off to the next choice!
A couple of years ago, my career “Choose Your Own” adventure looked something like this:
“You have completed a degree in psychology and have spent three years conducting neuroimaging research. You can either:
- Apply for and complete a PhD, becoming a clinical psychologist
- Transition out of academia into a different industry”
Granted, career choices are never that black and white, but the point stands: I had a choice.
For multiple reasons, I decided to go with B: transition to a different industry. After a bit of research, I quickly set my eyes on the technology industry. The following article outlines a number of lessons I learned during this transition, and tips and tricks if you are hoping to transition from academia to the technology industry as well.
Finding Your Next Role
One of the most daunting parts of transitioning from academic research into the technology industry was figuring out what role I was qualified for / wanted. At technology companies, there are often a couple of key roles that require prior experience in the industry or specialized training. These include:
- Product Managers
- Sales Leads
However, there are also many other roles that may be considered “entry-level”, or do not need a specific background in technology. These could include:
- Implementation Specialists (depending on the technicality of the product)
- Business Analysts
- Project Managers
- Program Managers
- Business Operations
To start the process of finding your next role, find 5-10 technology companies that you would be excited to work at. These are companies whose product & mission stick out to you! Next, go through all their open roles and read through the job descriptions. Note the experience and skills they are looking for. Are there any roles that continually jump out as not needing a background in technology?
My Tip on Choosing the Right Role
In my experience, the “weirder” the title of a potential job, the more accepting the company may be of a non-traditional background. Especially at smaller and quickly growing companies, often there are roles that the company knows it needs, but doesn’t quite know how to describe. So, if you ever look at a job and think “Hm! I’ve never heard of that title before” – check it out.
Transferring Your Skills
The answer is yes: the skills that you developed in academia or while conducting research can and will transfer to the technology industry. I know that I was very worried that every skill I had worked so hard to obtain while conducting research would prove unusable in my new role.
I could not have been more wrong.
Here are a couple of examples of skills you most likely have developed while in academia, and how they transfer to business:
1. Building and testing hypotheses
Conducting research is all about building and testing hypotheses. The good news is, building a business is also all about building and testing hypotheses. Now, instead of predicting the relationship between emotion-inducing stimuli and brain activity, you will be predicting the relationship between building a new feature and your product’s subsequent success.
2. Analytical skills
In academia, you are probably used to solving and answering problems with data. Your job in the technology industry will be no different! You will want to use those hard-earned analytical skills – whether it be coding in R or Python or building complicated linear regression models, to make the best business decisions possible.
3. Writing and communication
As an academic, clear and concise communication is key. As a subject matter expert, you are expected to relay detailed, often very technical information to an audience in a way that they can consume. These hard-earned writing skills will transfer well into the technology industry. Your skills will come in handy as you write clear and concise emails, communicate deeply technical information about your product to clients, or write decision memos.
4. Teaching and mentoring others
A big part of academia is teaching, mentoring, and helping other students. Many academics spend a significant amount, if not all, of their time helping to educate others. As I thought about transitioning away from the industry, I was most sad to leave this behind.
The good news is I now do more education and mentoring in my technology roles than I did before! Although less formal (I don’t teach a formal class with a syllabus), I am conducting orientations for new hires, product training, or mentoring others through their own career “Choose Your Own Adventures”. The teaching and mentoring skills you have developed will fit nicely into your new role.
Highlighting Your Skills
Now, the real trick becomes how you ensure that you dazzle interviewers with how your hard-earned skills are going to transfer to add value to their team and company. For each interview, go through the job description to identify what skills the employer is looking for. For each bullet point, write down a story from your time in academia that showcases that skill that you could reference during the interview. It is okay if you feel like some stories are a bit of a “stretch” – your goal is to show how you can pivot skills quickly into a new environment.
Rapid Fire: Other Tips & Tricks
Tip #1: Have a clear story as to why you want to pivot from academia to technology.
People make career pivots all the time, and you will be no different. However, what will make you stand out is your story as to why you want to pivot into the technology industry.
Tip #2: Network with individuals within the industry.
This tip is truly nothing special because networking is going to be your secret sauce for accomplishing many things within your career. However, specifically as you are looking to pivot into tech, reach out to people in your network who may have similar titles or roles as the one you are applying for. They will have valuable insight into what qualities may be needed for the role.
Tip #3: Have a mock interview before your actual interview.
Practice truly does make perfect! Before your interview, sit down with a friend, family member, or a coach on Leland to conduct a mock interview. Actually practicing answers to questions out loud will help you identify gaps in your story, flag when you may be rambling, or help you tighten up your reasons for pivoting.
Tip #4: Research and reference the values of the company while interviewing.
Technology companies often have punchy values that guide the way the company operates on a day-to-day basis. Research these values and weave them into your interview. For example, if you are interviewing at Stripe, highlight their value “Make decisions; be accountable” by emphasizing a time when you helped your team make a decision and how you held yourself accountable to seeing results. Highlighting how you already exemplify the values of a company will paint a clear picture of how you are a perfect fit for the role.
Although finding the perfect role and company will take a bit of work, you will be surprised at how well the skills you developed in academia will transfer to the technology industry.
Alex is a former Research Assistant at USC and Chief of Staff to the CEO of a private equity-backed unicorn. She was admitted to the MBA programs at Stanford, Harvard, and Northwestern (Kellogg). Book a FREE intro call with her today and learn how to navigate your own career transition.
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