Academia to Tech in 5 Steps
A 5-step guide to help you transition from academia to tech.
In May of 2022, I graduated with my Ph.D. in Cognitive Science, and about two months later, I started my job as a Quantitative UX Researcher at Viget. Making a drastic change to my career path wasn’t easy, but I learned a lot throughout the process, and I hope this article can help support you in your search for the right job.
Step 1: Figure Out What You Want
Identify your priorities
As is the case for most things, it’s easier to work towards a goal when you know what the goal is. So think about what you want your job responsibilities to be.
Is research a priority for you?
Do you want to use your domain-specific expertise?
What do you want your day-to-day to be like?
What tasks make you excited to start your day?
What tasks make you want to avoid work?
What is your desired salary range?
What are your work-life balance expectations?
All of these decisions will shape what you look for in a job, and it helps to have your priorities defined early. If you’re open to many things, that is fine too. I was open to using my cognitive expertise, but I also knew I was open to shifting away from it. I wanted my day-to-day to be me asking questions and using data to answer those questions, but the context I did that was not concretely defined. If you want to use your domain-specific expertise, there is a wide variety of types of jobs that exist, and you might be surprised by what is out there.
Have an open mind
As you consider job responsibilities and new roles, I would encourage you not to get too attached to a specific job title or type of company. Job titles vary greatly across institutions, so the primary focus should be keywords and responsibilities. The scale and sector of a company also greatly impact your day-to-day. Working at a tech giant (e.g., Google) means you will likely be more specialized in your role, whereas if you’re the only <insert job title> at a smaller company, you may need to do a wider variety of things. Be open. There is a lot of flexibility in the industry.
Now, while I am telling you to be open to new things, I am also going to tell you that you can afford to be a little picky. I often heard in academia that “the best job is the one you have.” Essentially, you should take what is offered because the academic job market is so competitive. Unless you stay in a super niche area, you will likely see that industry has a lot of jobs. There are so many opportunities available, and you’re not locked into a time frame of when you can apply.
So as you search for jobs, remember that you are armed with an advanced degree, a high level of domain-specific expertise, and a ton of interpersonal and interdisciplinary skills you probably don’t even realize you have. Know your worth. You are not starting over again. Focus on what would be a good fit for you, and don’t feel like you have to settle for the first thing that comes your way.
Step 2: Do Your Research
Do a literature review.
Now that you have identified what your priorities are, it's time to study up! Imagine you’re conducting a literature review for industry positions. Your primary goal is to determine the skills needed for your desired job. You can do this by reviewing job postings and LinkedIn profiles for professionals with the job title you want or just googling “<insert job> skills.” There is a wealth of information out there, and you should make an attempt to review at least some of it.
While you do your lit review, here is some information I would take note of:
Required or preferred domain-specific skills
Frequently mentioned interpersonal or interdisciplinary skills
Terms or acronyms used (especially if you don’t know what they mean)
How things are phrased
As you find things you don’t understand or skills you don’t have, see how easy it is to acquire that knowledge. Some things can be resolved with a quick google search (e.g., what do B2B and B2C mean), and others require more time and effort (e.g., learning a specific tool or software). If you have the time, Coursera, Udemy, Datacamp, or YouTube are all great resources for filling in gaps. Even if you don’t have the time to learn something, having a general understanding fully can go a long way in helping you communicate where your expertise ends and where other knowledge or skills can supplement those gaps.
For those of you who are still in graduate school or recent graduates, I strongly recommend completing an industry internship. You will get the highly coveted industry experience that many employers are looking for, and it will let you know if you enjoy that type of work. It is possible to work in the industry directly from a Ph.D. program. Still, I would encourage everyone to complete an internship if possible, as it will only improve your chances of finding that perfect-fit job.
Connect with those in the industry.
While learning more about the field, you should try connecting with industry professionals. This will help you better understand the job responsibilities, and it will help you network. Make or update your profile on LinkedIn and start connecting with people you know and following people who provide useful information. A good place to start is with individuals who graduated from your program and transitioned to the industry or other alumni. For finding new connections, you can search by job title to find professionals with that title, search by topics to find helpful posts, or search by hashtags. There are many wonderful people on LinkedIn that are very active in sharing learning resources, job postings, and helpful tips. Follow them.
If you find someone whose journey particularly resonates with you, you should reach out to them and ask to conduct an informational interview. This gives you a chance to ask specific questions about the career you want to pursue and will help to provide context and insight that you can’t find anywhere else. You can use this as an opportunity to network, but your primary focus should be to deepen your understanding of the field you are trying to transition to.
LinkedIn is a great resource for finding people who inspire you; in my experience, many are looking to help others succeed. Even if you reach out to someone and they are too busy to conduct a short interview, they will try to point you in the right direction. If you are anxious about messaging people you don’t know on LinkedIn, I have seen professionals volunteer to conduct interviews, so keep an eye out for those posts.
Step 3: Prepare your materials.
Now that you have a better understanding of what a qualified candidate looks like for the job you want, you need to translate your academic background and experience into language that better matches what recruiters are looking for.
Know your audience
As you prepare your materials, remember that your goal is to clearly and succinctly convey how your knowledge and expertise directly align with the job that you are applying for. Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you showcase all that you have to offer.
Recruiters are the ones picking your resume out of a pile of applications. Make their job easier by ensuring your materials are easy to understand and don’t require technical expertise to see the value in your skills.
Keep the discussion on your specific research area to a minimum unless it directly applies to the job you are applying for. Talking about your thesis or dissertation topic can take up valuable space and may not provide the recruiter with the takeaway you want them to have. I know it’s difficult to delete that from your materials, but it’s probably for the best.
Don’t assume recruiters or anyone else involved in the process will review other materials, like published manuscripts or books, especially if your published work is behind a paywall. If they do, that is a bonus, but you want to ensure that your resume and cover letter are enough.
Start thinking about deliverables. You asked a question, conducted research, and found some sort of answer. What did you learn? What impact did that research have?
Focus on skills. You can talk about your skills without needing to talk about the specific context in which you used those skills. Remember that you are trying to show that your skills will indeed transfer to a different context.
Remember all that you’ve accomplished.
Academia has a tendency to throw you into the deep end for a wide variety of tasks. I often found myself at the end of my Ph.D. thinking, “Oh, I forgot I spent a year doing that.” So take this time to reflect on all of the things you did. You probably have a lot more experience than you even realize. If you’re having difficulty remembering or want some ideas to get started, here are some skills you probably have that you should take credit for.
- Management/Leadership Experience
- Did you manage undergraduate/graduate researchers?
- Did you lead projects, determine tasking, work on tight deadlines, document and organize everything?
- Did you serve on any committees or as a representative?
- Teaching/Mentorship Experience
- Did you teach classes?
- Did you mentor undergraduate students? Graduate students?
- Did you review materials and provide feedback?
- Communication Experience
- Did you write manuscripts or non-technical documents? Grant applications?
- Did you give talks and poster presentations?
- Did you network at conferences?
- Independent Problem Solving
- Did you solve complex problems?
- Did you teach yourself advanced material?
All of the above skills are interpersonal or interdisciplinary skills and don’t even touch on all of your technical expertise. You have experience and can shift to industry; you just need to make sure you’re showcasing all you can. The degree to which you go into detail for these skills will depend on the type of job you’re applying for, so don’t feel like you need to list everything. In fact, you probably don’t have the room to list everything.
Create a resumé.
First, you need to make a resumé. Do not submit a curriculum vitae (CV) as a resume. Recruiters do not have time to read it, it likely doesn’t contain the information that it needs to, and it doesn’t show that you’re willing to transition to the industry. Instead, transfer some of your information from your CV to your resume, but expect to make additional changes.
Your resume should reflect career-specific things you learned in Steps 1 and 2. This often means including the industry terminology over the academic terms (or both, if relevant) or explicitly drawing connections between similar methodologies. For example, if you had experience designing experiments to compare the efficacy of different variations, you might want to mention that it is similar to A/B Testing. If you notice distinctions that seem to matter, match that in your resume. For example, qualitative vs. quantitative data is an important distinction in UX, so explicitly mention what you have experience with rather than just saying data analysis. Again, we want to make it easy for recruiters, and it shows that we did our homework.
Let’s walk through an example with my own materials to see how I incorporated what I learned. I first started with an excerpt from my CV. This section was written in 2020 while I was in graduate school.
|Contribute to experimental design intellectually and in programming experiments, as well as to data collection and advanced data analysis for projects, including eye tracking and think-aloud data. Responsibilities also include writing results for the dissemination of content and mentoring undergraduate research assistants.|
Ignoring the really long sentences and bad writing, this is not enough information or detail for a resume. I took that excerpt and tried to expand it in an initial resume draft.
Eye tracking and think-aloud protocols were moved to my Skills section
This is a little better, but it could still use some work. Knowing that I studied reasoning and intelligence is probably unimportant for data science or UX jobs. I decided to remove it. I touched on it in my cover letter if it was relevant for other jobs.
I also stopped using the verb involved as it wasn’t representative of what I was doing, independently completing most of the tasks listed.
Let's look at my next draft.
This draft is more legible overall and does a better job of incorporating career-specific things. I specify that I have experience with qualitative and quantitative data and mention predictive and statistical modeling (a phrase I often saw in job descriptions) rather than just saying data analysis. This draft is a bit vague in some places (e.g., “answer specific questions”) and could benefit from more specificity, so if you happen to have specific examples that can be explained succinctly, don’t be afraid to include those. If your research or experience isn’t a good fit for giving examples in your resume, that’s okay too. Your resume is intended to be a snapshot of your expertise, so you can always expand in a cover letter or during interviews.
Create a cover letter
For your cover letter, try to keep it short, no more than 1 page. Your cover letter should aim to do 2 things: 1) Provide context for your skills and experience and 2) Explain why you want to work with that company/organization specifically. Although those are standard aims of a cover letter, they can be particularly important when you are transitioning from academia. Recruiters may wonder why you invested so much time and effort into becoming an expert only to leave the field. Suppose you can provide context for your skills, experience, and interests and show how those map onto the job you are applying for. In that case, that will probably go a long way in reassuring the recruiter that you understand the field you are trying to enter.
As you provide all that context, try to keep in mind some of the previous advice, namely shifting to focus on deliverables and not discussing research too much. I failed to do both of those things in earlier drafts of my cover letter, shown below.
|I am currently completing my Ph.D. in Cognitive Science at Mississippi State University and will be graduating in May. My research broadly focuses on individual differences in problem-solving, exploring the causal mechanisms that drive performance on intelligence and reasoning tasks. Although most of my research has focused on inductive reasoning, I have interest and experience with other domains, including creativity, knowledge acquisition, analogical transfer, and working memory.|
Upon realizing my mistake, I wrote a better version that served as a solid template for various job applications.
|I just completed my Ph.D. in Cognitive Science at Mississippi State University. I am looking to use my research and data expertise to better understand human-computer interaction and support the development of < insert what you would do> at <insert company/org name>.|
So much like your resume, you want to produce an easy-to-read document demonstrating that you understand what kind of career you are shifting to and that you’re excited to do that kind of work.
Step 4: Apply & Interview
You're ready to apply now that you have a resume and a template cover letter. As mentioned previously, don’t only search for specific job titles. When I was looking for jobs, I knew I wanted a data-focused role but with an emphasis on research. I wanted to be able to ask questions and answer them with data. I mostly looked at data science/analyst and UX researcher roles, but I found many other job titles that asked for very similar skills.
Here’s a list of titles that I found:
Business Intelligence Analyst
Client Insights analyst
Data Insights Editor
There are differences across those various titles, but they all wanted someone to answer questions with data. There were even more job opportunities if you had experience with sales or marketing. It is a lot of work to read all the job postings. Still, sometimes the less common job titles provide incredible opportunities because common or lucrative job titles, like data scientists, tend to get spammed with applications in a short period of time.
If you find a company you like, check their careers page to see if they have other positions that might be a better fit. You can also look at competitors to find similar job openings. And again, try to have reasonable expectations for applying to work with large and popular companies. Would it be cool to work at Google or Spotify? Probably! But you are transitioning to a different career path, and popular companies will have a competitive pool. It is definitely possible to transition directly from academia to a tech giant. Still, those individuals often completed internships or are leading experts in a highly desired area (e.g., machine learning) and are not recent Ph.D. graduates. If you have your heart set on joining a FAANG company or want to boost your chances of finding your dream job, participating in one of their internship or apprenticeship programs is the most realistic way to make that happen. You'll have the opportunity to gain applicable experience, demonstrate your capabilities, and build personal connections that will make your application much more competitive.
Your interview experience will depend on a number of things, most of which I can’t give advice on, but there are a few general things to keep in mind.
You’re looking for a good fit.
A good fit goes both ways. You should aim to get the information you need to make an informed decision. You might ask questions like:
What are the day-to-day responsibilities?
Who would I be working with regularly?
What is the culture like?
What kind of advancement opportunities are there?
What is the average tenure for someone working there?
How do you support work-life balance?
What is the communication style like?
How do you support continued education?
As you develop your list of questions, ensure that the job description or the careers page cannot easily answer your questions.
Have examples ready.
Have specific examples ready to demonstrate that you are focused on meaningful outcomes. Think about a time when you conducted research that provided actionable information, used your expertise to evaluate a situation, gave a recommendation, or developed something new to solve a problem. Whatever it is that you do, you want to try and have some ideas of specific instances where you did something that will match what you would do in this new job. Don’t make the interviewer do any work on trying to figure out how your academic experience transfers to the industry. Make it clear.
Don’t go into too much detail on your research topic.
You will likely use your research as an example for many things, so I urge you to think about how much of your research you actually need to explain to the person on the other end of the call to understand your main point. I can tell you that for my dissertation, I conducted several rounds of iterative testing, and I designed and analyzed survey data and behavioral data trends to inform what the final study design would be without mentioning my actual topic. I can even go into more detail about how earlier designs helped identify certain areas that were too difficult or too easy for participants and that the survey data helped us confirm that participants were engaging in a way we expected them to.
I almost certainly did not explain my research experience succinctly while interviewing, but I think it is something to aim for. You want to avoid derailing the interview by going into way too much detail. The interviewer can always ask for more information, but it's hard to get time back if you spend 10 minutes out of a 30-minute interview going over the nuances of your research area. It can also make it harder for the interviewer to envision you transitioning to something outside of academia.
To prevent talking too much about your research, I recommend planning ahead what you will say if asked about your research topic. You can have a 30-second elevator pitch ready that you already tested out on your friends and family to ensure it’s short enough and easy to understand. If you find yourself in an interview where it makes sense to talk about your research in more detail, remember that the interview is a conversation. It is not a talk or lecture, so make sure you’re taking the time to stop and check in with the interviewer to see if they have any questions or would like to direct the conversation elsewhere.
Step 5: Trust the Process
It takes time to find a new job, both short-term and long-term. You need time to review job posts and edit your materials as needed. You also need time for companies to post more jobs. Both you and the company are trying to find a good fit, so it will take some iterations to find the right combination. As with most things in life, all you can do is focus on what you can control and be prepared for when the right opportunity arises. Luck will always be a factor, so try to be patient.
If you’re like me, you’ll probably get a lot of rejections. Try not to take those too personally. I know it can be difficult not to feel like it's personal, but many factors go into hiring someone. If you are getting more rejections than you feel you should, then again, focus on what you can control. Are your materials representing you in the best way? Should you go back to Step 2 and try to make more connections, do some informational interviews, and see where you stand after that? Although sometimes you do need more time for the right opportunity to appear, there is usually something that you can do to try and make your odds better.
Finally, I want to emphasize that you only need 1 job. That is it. Just one. You don’t need a bunch of offers; you only need one you’re excited about. So know that you’re doing the work necessary to make the transition, trust the process, and try to enjoy the start of a new chapter in your career.