I recently gave a talk at a BBSTEM event on my transition from industry through academia to business. It took me back to my reflections from the initial transition from industry to academia and how I settled into the first year of my – not so common – move from an industry background into academia.

After 8 years of working in industry, I decided it was time for a different challenge. When I received news of being awarded a studentship to pursue a PhD program, I was obviously overjoyed. I had spent about 2 years searching and applying for a suitable PhD program and I had finally achieved my goal. Interestingly, the offer came with a BUT… The following clause had been included –“As your route to academic studies is a bit circuitous, it would be good if you could write a covering letter that states why you want to do a PhD after your time in industry.”

“How interesting,” I thought. The clause seemed contradictory to what I had heard at various conferences and workshops I had attended over the last few years while carrying out my research to inform my decision to pursue a PhD program.  I had always thought that industry loved academic recruits and that academics would value industrial experience. Since moving into academia, I have come across academics looking to move into industry, with little success. It now seems to me that this is not the reality of the situation. Industry and academia are not necessarily viewed as two sides of the same coin. 

During my first meeting with my supervisors upon commencing my PhD, concerns about my industrial background were brought up again, this time with an accompanying statement, – It’s not your ability but your industrial mindset. I thought to myself, “surely all that experience can only be a bonus.” I decided to view their feedback as a challenge. I remembered all the encouragement I had received from my colleagues and contacts when I shared news of my new chapter, the most common being “many spend the 1st year getting acquainted with lab techniques but you’ve got the advantage of prior lab experience so you should have a fairly smooth start”. Hmm, if only…

In just a matter of weeks in the lab, I realised that my supervisors concerns were justified. Industry and academia are two very different worlds. Yes, my industrial experience was advantageous but I have learnt that succeeding would require adaptation to the academic environment and culture. Techniques being used in industry are not necessarily applicable when you transition into academia mainly due to high throughput processes used in industry as opposed to single small scale experiments run in academia. Furthermore, the actual experimental techniques form a small part of the academic process – unlike in industry – the ability to design experiments, analyse results and prepare manuscripts for publication are much more important. In my opinion, academics focus primarily on publications whereas in industry, it is about making a profit.

Areas where I am ‘learning’ and ‘unlearning’…

Team work: You quickly learn that in academia, everyone is their own ‘jack of all trades’ and you are pretty much on your own. My days of having ready-made or bought in buffers were over. All solutions, consumables etc. you find on the shelf belongs to an individual and not a team. Yes, we may be doing the same experiments but it’s everyone for him/herself.

Consistency: Whereas in industry, most methods and processes are standardised across board and everyone will more than likely do things the same way, I quickly learnt this was not the case in academia. Get two protocols from two people doing the same experiment and chances are the procedure will be different. You basically have to do your own research and settle for what works best for you.

Equipment and technology: The joy of fancy equipment in industry! I never thought I would be doing manual picture developments, however this is what academia teaches you. It takes you back to the basics and the scientific basis behind the fancy industrial equipment starts to make sense. You soon realise everything that can be bought ready-made can also be made by you. Yes, the process may be time consuming and long-winded but I guess that is the whole idea of doing a PhD. Becoming an expert in the field without being reliant on fancy technology. Time is money in industry, hence the focus on speed.

Budget: Grants awarded in academia are by no means comparable to industrial budgets. You quickly learn the art of haggling, getting freebies and making DIY kits in the lab.

Yes, it did take me a while to get the hang of things and I found the lack of team work slightly frustrating at the start. I have spent many moments thinking – Why pour a gel when you can buy it in? or who makes phosphate buffer saline when it’s so cheap to buy? I also think that health and safety attitudes among academics are quite different compared to within industry. I have also come to accept that working 7 days a week is pretty normal…lab based PhDs are not 9 -5’s! I’ve given up on time keeping, expecting everyone to be tidy and expecting every 5-day experiment to yield any results.

Despite all the challenges, I’m glad to have experienced both worlds of industry and academia. Did I have to change my mindset? Yes! Were the concerns of my supervisory team justified? Yes! Would I do it all over again, (I cringe as I say, Yes!). Academia has taken me back to the basics, I’ve had to revisit the many theories and concepts within my discipline I had taken for granted. Academia is shaping me into a better researcher and no offence to industry, but after a while you tend to lose sight of what true scientific research is all about when all processes are streamlined and standardised. As I round up my first year, I still don’t know where the time has gone but I still look forward to making that key discovery as I put on my lab coat to start another day in the lab.