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Advice / Career Paths / Career Change

From Academia to Corporate: How to Make a Major Career Transition

Making a major career transition can be intimidating. After all, it means leaving something safe and familiar for a role in a field where you probably have no contacts, few applicable skills, and absolutely no idea what to put on your resume. In fact, it almost seems easier to just stay put—even if you spend your days dreaming about doing something else.

But, though transitions are tough, they’re not impossible—you just need to take a strategic approach to the move. Today, take a lesson from Carla, a PhD who recently made the leap from academia to the corporate world. (Often, professionals with Carla’s education stay on a single career path, either industry or academia, for their entire career—but some transition from one to the other.)

Carla began in academia, with her sights set on leading her own research group. To get there, she earned a PhD in Bioinfomatics and spent 12 years researching and contributing to major papers. But as time went on, she felt less satisfied. She’d spend weeks writing grants for funding, only to be rejected—and without those resources, her research grinded to a halt. Eventually, her initial goal started to look like more and more of a long shot, so she decided to switch paths.

If you’re thinking about transitioning to a new career (even if it’s not in the academic realm), you can learn from Carla’s experience. In fact, I’ll break it down step-by-step to show you exactly how Carla made the successful transition—and how you can, too.

Weigh the Pros and Cons

Carla’s first step was working with a career coach to weigh the pros and cons of the potential switch. Initially, she was nervous to make such a huge change, but she soon realized that each major point in the analysis supported her decision to make the move.

For example, Carla’s never-ending quest for grant funding would easily be solved, since corporate positions are amply funded and would provide everything she needed to research and solve specific problems. She’d also have the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues in almost every department of the company, which would boost her business skills in a big way.

Even factors that initially seemed like downsides turned into positives. For example, scientists in industry have less research freedom (since their projects are dictated by the company), but she found that many large corporations give scientists “free time” to spend on their own projects.

Even if you don’t have the resources to consult a career coach, it’s tremendously helpful to spend time thinking through the pros and cons of new career. Everyone’s situation is different, but weighing the concerns and potential upsides can really help you decide if making a move is right for you—and feel confident moving forward if so.

Assess Your Transferable Skills 

Next, Carla evaluated her skills and compared them to the needs of the corporate world. Right off the bat, there were some that Carla didn’t have. With an exclusively academic background, she had a slight gap in communication, collaboration, and staff management skills. And that’s something that worries a lot of potential career changers—they fear that because they lack certain skills or experience, they’ll be automatically disqualified.

But in Carla’s case, she knew some of her skills—like project management, presentation delivery, and writing—would be easily transferred to a corporate setting. And, of course, her scientific skills were solid: With expertise in cellular biology, combinatorial chemistry, and bioinformatics, her experience was much more diverse (and more desirable) than a candidate with a single field of expertise.

With the talents she could offer, she knew she was still an excellent candidate—she just had to find ways to show that her background and experience could apply to a corporate position, too. With her most transferable skills in mind, she moved on to prepping her resume, cover letters, and talking points for interviews.

Update Your Resume Strategy

Like most scientists, Carla’s CV was long—in fact, it was 14 pages long, filled with posters, presentations, and publications. And believe it or not, every page was valuable. But as you probably already know, the corporate world doesn’t exactly appreciate such lengthy documents. So, Carla had to redefine her strategy to create something a little more business-friendly.

First, she whittled down her accomplishments to showcase the ones that would be most impressive to her new audience—like those that were presented at international forums and published in prestigious journals. To show she’d be a great fit for a corporate environment, Carla replaced some of her research results with examples of working under tight timelines, leading teams, and working with groups of peers. By adjusting her resume to showcase exactly what her new employers would be looking for, she was able to highlight her career on a more appropriate three-page resume.

All of your accomplishments are important, of course—but when it comes to switching careers, it’s necessary to gear your resume toward your potential employer, even if that means cutting pages, readjusting bullet points, and condensing your experience. The result is well worth it: When you focus on the most relevant information, hiring managers will easily be able to see why you’re the right fit for the job.

Brush Up on Interviewing 

When you’ve been in one industry for a long time, you may not know what to expect in an interview for a new career path. For example, Carla quickly realized that in a corporate interview, it was important to present her relevant skills (like project management and presentation delivery)—not just scientific knowledge.

So to prepare, Carla wrote down the specific abilities she wanted her employers to recognize in her—and made sure to cover those skills in her interview answers. She also brought business-specific knowledge into the conversation by reading relevant articles and becoming an expert on industry trends prior to her interviews. So, even though she hadn’t been part of the industry before, she showed she could quickly get up to speed in her new role.

You may never be able to fully anticipate the interview questions of a potential employer until you actually go through one, but by researching (both the company and industry), highlighting the key skills you want to get across, and brushing up on your interview techniques, you’ll be able to adapt quickly.

Land Your Dream Career

Carla’s search was long—she interviewed with multiple companies (and sometimes had 4-5 interviews at the same place!), but her hard work wasn’t in vain. She ended up accepting a role with a large research-driven biotech corporation, where she now researches immune deficiency disorders.

Despite the challenges of the journey (after 12 years in academia, no switch would have been perfectly smooth), Carla knows it was the right step for her career, and she’s fully embraced the transition.

So if you’re considering a career switch, follow Carla’s example. The road may be long—and it will likely be bumpy—but with the right preparation, perseverance, and a positive outlook, you can find a satisfying new occupation, too.

Photo of woman at work courtesy of Shutterstock.