Leaving Academia after the PhD: One Year After

February 19, 2017

After the PhD: Academia or industry?

As I entered into the last six months of my PhD project, I started looking more seriously and concretely for my next position. I had, almost since the beginning of my project, kept an eye out for interesting research groups and companies as I came across them, but at this point I started looking more specifically at open positions.

But there was still one big decision I hadn’t made: Stay in academia or leave for the industry?

I was happy to work in academia. I liked the independent way of working there, and I liked that there was room for curiosity and a focus on investigating problems that nobody had looked at before.

But the perspectives for a career in academia were not particularly appealing. I saw many people that had stayed in academia after their successful PhDs. They had gone somewhere for a first postdoc, and now they were on their second or third postdoc.

They were still not in a permanent position, and the prospect of getting into one was at best unclear. They had made an investment in academia after their PhDs, and now they spent more time applying for the next grant to secure the next time-limited employment than on the reason they were there in the first place, the research.

Therefore, I started looking at positions both in academia and in industry. I got in touch with professors at universities abroad and started communicating with them about possibly doing a postdoc there. And I looked at companies with open positions of interest, both in Denmark and abroad.

In the end I focused mostly on industry positions, and in leaning towards an industry position I asked myself what I might miss about academia if I did go for a position in industry. The most important things I’d potentially miss from academia were:

Room for being curious.

Problems that nobody looked at before.

Presentation and dissemination of research.

I tried to keep these things in mind when I was looking at positions in industry.

About three months before finalizing my contract at the university I signed a contract with the company TICRA; I’d start with them in a position as research engineer shortly after finishing my PhD.

It has now been a year since I started with TICRA, and I believe that it is a good time to look back at the transition from academia to industry.

Year one in industry

During the first year at TICRA, I’ve had quite a lot of time to learn the, to me, relatively new field of radio frequency antennas on satellites. I spent several months on reading textbooks, journal papers, and manuals to learn the software that we develop and sell, and in addition to reading and self-study I went for two one week courses abroad.

This period was thus fairly similar to the initial period of my PhD project, where I also spent a lot of time on reading to get up to speed in the new field. But my prejudice, that in industry there is no room for contemplation, was proven wrong; TICRA made a significant investment in this initial period.

After the introductory period, I worked on a number of smaller and larger projects. Some of these projects mostly consisted of engineering work; analyze a given system and report the performance or design a system according to more or less well-established knowledge and principles. Being relatively new to the field, these projects taught me a lot and were a convenient practical addition to the introductory study and reading.

Other projects mostly consisted of research work, typically in relation to R&D projects that TICRA is working on for the European Space Agency (ESA). The goal of such projects is, for example, to develop new technologies and new concepts for future Space missions, and by virtue of being research projects they typically contain problems that nobody looked at before.

One aspect of working with TICRA that always appealed to me is that the company attends conferences. Not only with a sales booth, but also to present papers. The material for these papers is typically research or new software developments, often from ESA projects.

During my first year, I have contributed to a couple of workshop and conference papers, and next month I’ll present my first in-industry research paper at a large European conference.

Finally, I worked on our software maintenance and development projects, of which I was the project manager on two. In this role, I was the non-technical link between the software developers, antenna engineers, and sales team, and it was my responsibility to coordinate and to keep the project on track and schedule. It was a very different role, but it taught me a lot about project management, a skill that I did not learn anything about during the PhD.

What will you miss if leaving academia?

In closing, I remark that in my first year in industry I’ve had room to be curious. I’ve worked on problems that nobody looked at before, and I’ve had time to disseminate our work in conference papers (and, very soon, to present this research).

All the things I feared I might miss when leaving academia.

If you have a hard time deciding to leave academia – whether after the PhD or later – then write down what you fear to lose by leaving academia. And then look for that elsewhere. Maybe you’ll find your dream job elsewhere, maybe not. But at least clarify what you like about academia and figure out if there are better places to do that.

And in looking, do not focus narrowly on the specific research topics and problems you’ve been working on in academia. Think more broadly about the skills you might have; math, programming, modeling, instrumentation, statistics, etc. I did not do a PhD on antennas for Space applications, but now, after the PhD I did in a related field, work as a research engineer on that topic.

I made my choice and do not regret it. Good luck finding out if a career in academia or in industry is the better path for you.

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