„How to move from academia to industry (or to the private sector)?” is a question, that I often hear since I started my doctoral thesis. But before, my question was rather “How do I move from industry to academia?”.
In fact, after my studies in geosciences and mining engineering, I didn’t want to engage myself to quickly on a long-term career path so I started working in industry in order to gain as much diverse experience as possible. From being an exploration geophysicist to project engineer, working in both business districts and remote, isolated areas across nine different countries, I concluded at some point that I more or less reached my goal.
Yet, after a few years, I was not happy anymore. I am not saying that working in industry is bad or is making people unhappy. I was glad about my previous experience with the different companies I worked for. But when looking at my colleagues, especially the senior employees, I realized how my future would look like: nice salary, nice work-life balance (or maybe not), various interesting projects (sometimes less interesting) and, very important, develop and make money for the company. For some people, all of this would be perfectly fine, but I couldn’t accept working for the benefit of some companies or shareholders for the rest of my (work) life. I needed to put some additional, more sustainable, society supporting target on it.
Thus, I started looking for other opportunities. Science seemed attractive, especially the perspective of creating knowledge for purposes other than money. It was also compatible with staying in the geoscientific area. The research topics at GEOMAR are quite well oriented towards sustainability. On top of that, working on sea-going expeditions was not on my experience list yet. All of this convinced me to move to Kiel and start a doctoral thesis at GEOMAR.
Of course, this was not all smooth and automatic. Having stayed for a few years in industry made me lose the connections to academia that I acquired during my studies. With patience, several tries, some reassessments, I finally got a positive answer after one year looking for a position and around fifteen applications at different research facilities (note that I luckily got the position, that I wanted the most).
Am I happy now? Yes! Do I have regrets? No(t yet, could maybe come later)! I like my research field and my working environment. I am happy with my colleagues and enjoy the life here in Kiel. Obviously, there are also some drawbacks: the publishing pressure, lower salary than in my previous company, starting a new career from zero, although I was on a relatively advanced stage in industry before. But I am developing my skills in another way, therefore I broaden my horizon and find more sense in the work I am doing now. I am living a completely new life and it is definitely not a waste of time.
In my previous position, I supervised an explosive storage site and the associated team. We were deployed within the drill and blast operation at a gold mine in Mali. Field work and adventurous challenges were my daily routine. All of it is in contrast to my current work. And although I regularly face some surprised glances from my colleagues when telling this story, I do not feel isolated in academia. I have the opportunity to meet different great people, with a lot of creativity and insightful ideas and plans. Somehow, everyone writes his own, original adventure.
In my opinion, our world is not binary and shouldn’t be separated between private sector and academia. Coming from industry, I often wonder why people often consider only these two options for their future career. If you’re an AI programming scientist, and afterwards you work as an AI developer for a company, you might find a lot of common aspects between academia and the private sector. The transition between the two positions might actually be similar to a newly qualified PhD starting a post-doc in the same research field in another research facility. If you are a microbiologist, and you launch your own start-up based on bacteria properties, you won’t lose much time on an academia-industry transition, but more on the whole entrepreneurship world and its challenges. You will, in that case, live something completely different than your programming scientist friend. And if one day you change from one company to another, you might discover big differences as well.
Academia and industry show clear differences in many aspects, but instead of trying to fit myself into these categories, I first ask myself different questions: What am I expecting from my job/career? A nice salary? A high impact? A societal/sustainable goal? Just as little problems as possible? What kind of work-life balance do I want? Am I a field person? An office person? Do I want to specialize in one field in particular? In general, the answer will always be like: “some particular position in academia or some particular position in industry would fit” or “some position in academia/industry, if…” instead of a clear “academia” or a clear “industry”. And in some cases, the opportunity is just coming to you before you even realized it!
Every day I am still learning about new career possibilities, interesting projects, etc. … and I still have a lot more to learn. If I should give one recommendation, it would be just do what you like. It is important to stay pragmatic, but nothing is impossible, even if the chances are low. And even if they are low, you might be able to compensate with your willingness to learn and your own motivation. Some people say “Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone”. I would add “don’t be afraid to jump directly with your two legs into the black hole attracting you” (this is of course a symbolic expression that should stay in its context, don’t do something dangerous). On my side, I am happy with my research and I would like to keep going in this direction for now. But even if it is not my feeling right now, I might want to change to something completely different at some point. I certainly know I will.