Several years ago, I was doing field research in a remote and extremely cold site, and I had to take a multi-day survival training course before they would let me out on the ice unsupervised.
On our first day of “Happy Camper School,” my classmates and I were given a list:
“Bring: Extreme Cold Weather gear, extra clothes of choice, sunglasses, full water bottle, camera, pee bottle, sense of humor. Leave behind: Cotton, alcohol, pets, worldly troubles, self-pity.”
Our instructors had done this before, so it turned out this was pretty good advice. Some of the things we brought were actually much more useful than we thought they would be, especially our senses of humor, which were very handy in adverse conditions.
On our second day out, our instructor asked how we’d slept the night before. “Like a baby”, I said. “You didn’t sound like a baby”, said one of my tentmates. (Apparently, I snore. But I’m glad he made a joke about it rather than try to smother me with a parka.)
Our new environment did require some adjustment, though, especially since some of the things on the “leave behind” list were things we were pretty fond of, such as our blue jeans. And it’s easy to slip into self-pity if you’re cold and sleep-deprived, or if other things aren’t working out the way you’d hoped. But self-pity means that you’re focused inward and not paying attention to your surroundings, which are full of interesting new things and potential dangers.
I got to remember this list a few months after I jumped out of my traditional-biologist role into my current career. It was becoming clear to me that some of the skills I’d honed over the previous couple of decades were going to be more of a hindrance than a help – but that others were really unexpectedly valuable. (And I got to keep my blue jeans this time, which was nice!)
OK, so what scientists’ skills should be on your packing list, if you’re thinking about jumping into industry? There are specialist skills that will be useful for particular employers, such as programming or regulatory compliance, but there are also aspects of our training that are almost universally handy.
I think the single most valuable talent is the ability to operate in areas you don’t fully understand. I was surprised to learn that it makes most people really uncomfortable to be in unfamiliar intellectual territory, because I had spent my working life in environments where that’s actually your job description.
It reminds me of something that Captain Richard Winters, an officer in the 101st Airborne in WWII, said during the Battle of the Bulge when he was warned that he and his troops would be surrounded. “We’re paratroopers,” he replied. “We’re supposed to be surrounded.” Scientists are trained to be intellectual paratroopers.
We have another form of mental toughness which we don’t give ourselves enough credit for: we’re really used to failures and setbacks, and we know how to deal with them productively. Most scientific experiments fail. After all, we don’t actually know what we’re doing, there at the bench, which is why it’s called “research” instead of “testing.” However we are trained to design experiments that will fail in an interesting way, so that something is always learned even if it wasn’t what we thought we would find out.
We’re also taught to stay calm and think the failure through, rather than getting frustrated. My boss tells me that he almost never sees me really discouraged by a problem, and I think that’s just a side effect of having to overcome failure regularly as a scientist. You’ll definitely want to hang onto that skill, too.
Finally, I was surprised and pleased to find out that careful, precise thinking and writing like you’d do for scientific papers is very useful, especially if you’re filing patent applications or doing process documentation. If there is one thing that the peer review system drives into your head, it is a very clear sense of the meaning and implications of what you’re writing, and the ability to closely analyze other peoples’ writing.
That isn’t to say that you should keep writing like an academic. Most business people find the scholarly writing style too long-winded and cautious: classic tl;dr material. Gotta admit, I’m still working on this myself, since I have a very high tolerance for Walls of Text and sometimes forget that other people don’t.
You will also have to leave behind the preference for choosing projects because they are groundbreaking, or because they are personally interesting. Basic research is very worthwhile, but industry really isn’t the place for it, unless you are working at a very large and profitable company that can afford a “blue-sky” research department. And if they can, that money is coming from the metric tons of more proletarian widgets that the company is selling.
If there’s no particular business case for what you’re doing, your company is probably not going to be able to pay you to spend years working on it. And that’s true even if the product is technically difficult and really innovative. In some cases, being too innovative can backfire: if it will take you three years to develop a really novel product, but your competition can get a simpler but useful product out in one year, you may not have much of a market when you’re ready to launch. If a business case can be made, go for it –upper management is sometimes persuadable, and those grant-writing skills may come in handy!
And that brings me to my last item on the leave-behind list. When I participated in a career-transition panel several months ago, one of the first questions we were asked was whether we actually had time to do anything else; the student was very concerned that industry was a viciously exploitive place where employees were basically worked to death, and there was no room for creativity at all.
All four of us on the panel said pretty much the same thing: commercial work isn’t more exploitive or boring than academic employment, it’s just different. However, most academics haven’t worked in industry, whereas almost all industry people have spent time in academia. If you’re considering a jump, ask people who have experienced the environment firsthand, instead of relying on preconceptions.
So, how about you? If you have made (or are considering) a career transition, what would be on your packing list? Comment below or email me at [email protected]