HOW DO I APPLY MY ACADEMIC SKILLS TO A NEW INDUSTRY / CORPORATE OPPORTUNITIES?
We spoke to two academics who are kicking ass to learn how they made the move from ‘traditional’ academia into a career they love ahead of our online panel on 25 March and Sydney panel on 27 March:
Melina Georgousakis | Research and Policy Manager at The Bupa Health Foundation, Bupa Australia, Founder, Franklin Women
Magda Ellis | Senior Analyst, THEMA Consulting
How did you move from academia to what you are doing now?
Magda: “I did an internship for three months at a biotech business development consultancy, focussing on the commercialisation of developing technology. It was the best thing I ever did: it opened my eyes to other opportunities and it really made me understand what my transferable skills were. It utilised all the skills I had been using throughout my career to date, and then applied it to a more commercial environment.”
Melina: “I was in a medical research institute for nearly a decade and it was the only world I knew. I started to realise there was a whole other world of people using science training to improve health in different roles and that excited me.”
What did you find were the most transferable skills you were able to apply to a corporate role?
Magda: “Seeking out relevant data, putting it together in a concise and understandable format, reporting back and using all those insights to tell a story. The communication and writing skills are all things we do on a daily basis in research and academia and we take for granted that it’s a skill set and it’s something you can apply to any role.”
What would you say are the differences between academia and corporate?
Melina: “The main difference is the rigour of detail and pace. In corporate, decisions need to be made swiftly. Corporate can’t wait say, four years to introduce a new idea, product or service, like you might need in research.
I had to learn how to balance that academic rigour with speed and quality of delivery. The concept of working on a ‘minimum viable product’ was completely new territory when I started in corporate. In academic, you have a hypothesis and you rigorously test it before releasing or sharing ideas!
The outputs of my work in corporate is not comparable to academia, instead, I manage the level of energy I put into each project that matches the impact its going to make. For example, I don’t always have to do a systematic literature review for two years on a topic to make all business decisions, but I know the circumstances when I need to.”
Magda: “I definitely had a fear that maybe the grass wouldn’t be greener on the other side. I had a fear of ‘why would I give this up, and work for someone where I might be told what to do’, ha! I was nervous I’d go into a commercial environment where I’d be micromanaged and work life balance would go out the window.
The reality was much different. The work life balance is much better in corporate, to be honest! In academia, I was always in ‘planning’ mode. Whether that was my next experiments, my site visits, what I’m going to publish, how many pieces I’m going to publish, questioning ‘am I on the right track’. It was a never ending ‘to do list’ in my mind. I could never sit down and relax at the end of the day. I was always ‘thinking’. Now, in corporate, I work 8.30am - 5pm.
How did you make the move into a corporate role? How might people reading this replicate the move?
Melina: “Well to be honest, I didn’t even consider it until I had launched Franklin Women’s Network and became aware of opportunities outside of academia. While I was on maternity leave with my first child I had a lot of time thinking about what skills I had developed, where I needed more experience and how I could best add value. My role in the Bupa Health Foundation was made specifically for me thanks to building my networks over the years.”
Magda: “While wondering what it was that I might move on to if I ever left academia, I put the skills I enjoyed into seek.com and thought ‘what the heck’. I put epidemiology into the search function just to see what was out there. And, there was a job for a Health Economist. I thought ‘I have no idea what a Health Economist is’. Looking more closely at the job criteria, I saw I could tick nearly all the performance criteria and my interest was piqued.
The next step for me was enrolling in an online course in health economics to upskill on the sector. I really loved it, so when I completed that, I jumped ship and ended up in consulting! Doing the course was a big confidence booster.”
Our academic community have told us Impostor Syndrome and confidence challenges prevent them from taking those steps, above. What internal work did you navigate to put your best foot forward to make a positive change to your career?
Melina: “Honestly, I went in with so much self doubt. I thought ‘I don’t have any transferable skills, I only know research.’ In the policy role however, within a couple of years I was promoted three times. It made me realise that we can absolutely use the skills we’ve already learned outside of academia and any we don’t have - we also have a skill where we can easily learn and adapt!”
Magda: “I wasn’t happy. What motivated me to act was talking about how I felt to others. I realised that others felt the same: it wasn’t just me!
On talking to other people about it, it showed me the breath of opportunities that were out there. The more I talked to others, the more I felt it wasn’t a bad choice to leave to pursue new opportunities.
When I finished my PHD, there definitely was a niggly voice in my head, which I now know a lot of academics have which is ‘you’re leaving because you’re not good enough’. There are lots of people who do PHD’s, relatively speaking, but only a few make it to Professor status. I had to rewire that way of thinking.
When I went to that Franklin Women network, with all these academic women in the room, we’ve got all these amazing women who do their PHD’s, and they don’t go all the way, for whatever reason and it’s not because they’re not talented or intelligent: it’s because they follow another career path. It’s really important to have these conversations to let people know there’s an alternative pathway.
When women leave academia, there’s a loss of that training however the gains for the corporate world to positively impact change are enormous.”
How did you ‘rebrand’ yourself for corporates to be able to see your experience?
Magda: I started with my CV as the first step. When I was rewriting my CV, I realised my resume had to be put into the bin and start from scratch! I learned I had to sell my transferable skill set not how many publications I’d written. Rewriting it took a long time, and through this process I had a clearer picture on how to sell myself for an interview, even when I was looking for work and contacting people. Once this was in a format non-academics could understand, I felt more confident going to ‘market’.”
Melina: “When you’re doing a PHD, you’re around all these excellent people who are doing great things. You’re thinking it’s not perceived as ‘anything unusual’ to have these qualifications.
What I discovered was that in other industries, this is really highly regarded. They loved that I had presented work at conferences, that I could critically review scientific literature, that I could translate complex science in a way the general public could understand.
When I thought about all of my brilliant peers and I realised I had to stand out. I asked myself what would make myself stand out amongst a brilliant crowd? In addition to my research, I started to put myself out there, slowly. I started to speak at schools, I updated my LinkedIn profile, I signed up for a Twitter account. I made myself more visible, by design, outside of science.
That way, when people look me up they don’t only get a research page, they learn about my interests and what makes me different as a person and as a possible team member.”
Outside of corporate, what opportunities are out there?
Melina: “Until I started the Franklin Women’s network, I had no idea as to what the opportunities were outside of academia for someone with a background in health and medical research.
Every single sector has an interest in health in some capacity so the opportunities really are endless. I have met women working in start-ups, consulting firms, the major banks, government, not-for-profit organisations. Having a PHD is very highly regarded and organisations are curious about how we can apply our academic mindset to solving problems of scale.”
What advice would you give someone who might be reading this and thinking ‘how do I start’?
Melina: “It’s ridiculous that what stops us as academics is using our qualification as our sole way to define our value. I’d recommend keeping your mind open. Don’t close doors to other opportunities based on your gut reaction to what you have always known.
I had so many perceptions to what a ‘career in science’ looks like. Making a change could be the best decision of your life. “
Magda: “The key thing is to really think about the aspects of your current role you really enjoy and see how those skills could be applied elsewhere. I went to a Franklin Women workshop where we were asked to write down skills we enjoyed and skills we didn’t. I hadn’t thought about my career like that before.
And never underestimate the power of networking! I really can’t recommend how important it is to talk to other people going through what you are going through and to build those supports. You feel less alone and empowered to act.”