With the majority of PhD students taking up careers outside of academia, how does life change when you move out of the university environment and into the corporate world? In this month’s blog I’m pleased to be hosting a guest blog by Caroline Wood, who secured her science policy post after graduating from the University of Sheffield just under a year ago. Here, she describes some observations she’s made during her first role on how the corporate world compares to life as a PhD student, including lessons learned and some useful top tips.
Sorry – what is it that you do?
Within Academia, the roles are fairly straightforward: PhD student, post-doc, technician, lecturer and professor covers most people. However, in the corporate world I struggled to make sense of how the various teams fitted together and what everybody actually did. Even when I tried looking up people’s profiles on LinkedIn, their job titles were often meaningless to me. I wish now that I had asked my new colleagues to explain what they did on a day-to-day basis when we were first introduced, before it became too embarrassing to ask.
Top tip 1: When meeting new colleagues for the first time, it can be more informative to ask what their key activities and responsibilities are, rather than their job title.
I lost count of the number of ‘policy documents’ I read during my induction. There was an official document for everything: claiming expenses, responsible travel, GDPR, not to mention continuous cybersecurity and health & safety training. Of course, my PhD also involved training modules, but these were always directly relevant to my research: how to dispense liquid nitrogen safely for tissue sampling; the correct bin for radioactive waste, and so on. Although I could understand the necessity for corporate transparency and accountability, I knew that most of them would never be relevant to my work.
Top tip 2: Induction can seem like a never-ending marathon at times! If your organisation doesn’t provide an induction checklist, draw one up with your line manager so you can be sure that everything gets done as efficiently as possible.
Throughout my PhD, I constantly struggled to pin down my super-busy supervisors for meetings to discuss my research. In stark contrast, the corporate world fills your calendar with meetings: team meetings, directorate meetings, all-staff updates, catch-ups with my line manager, etc. Once the coronavirus lockdown started and remote working became the norm, I really began to feel the effects of ‘Zoom fatigue’. When these on-line meetings lasted 90 minutes+ I, like many others, would struggle to focus, especially when issues of no relevance to my work were being discussed, meaning that I had nothing to contribute.
Top tip 3: Always go into a meeting with a clear aim of what you want to achieve, even if it is simply staying awake 😊 If the meeting isn’t directly relevant to your role, you can still use it to look out for colleagues with similar interests or overlapping responsibilities.
Creating creative opportunities
I’ve always loved coming up with new ideas and trying new approaches. During my PhD all I needed to do was get the go-ahead from my supervisor. This freedom to make decisions is more inhibited in the corporate world, where everything in the company is connected and so requires a more structured decision-making process. It felt as though all my suggestions had to be escalated through a chain of people until they reached someone with the power to make a decision. Consequently, many of my ideas simply disappeared into a void.
Top tip 4: Try to find out who are the key gatekeepers – the people who have the ability to introduce change – and approach them with your ideas. If your creative suggestions meet hesitation, aim to channel your enthusiasm into areas outside work instead, such as voluntary and freelance work.
It can be more challenging to meet people without the organised societies, interest groups and journal clubs that the academic world typically provides. Nevertheless, with a little detective work and initiative, I soon found people with common interests. Through the staff intranet, I found groups for arts & crafts, sustainability issues, climate change activism and a host of sports societies. Keen to improve my foreign language skills, I put up posters inviting people to an informal French meet-up and soon a group of us were convening every Wednesday to chat in French during our lunch break.
Top tip 5: Make the most of the intranet, staff forums and even coffee-break chat to find groups to join. But don’t be afraid to start something new if something doesn’t already exist!
Finding a work:life balance
One aspect that did improve hugely in my corporate role was my work-life balance. During my PhD, most of my fellow students frequently worked past 7pm, and I often had to go in at weekends to water my plants or use equipment that was usually booked and unavailable during the week. Now, my colleagues were actually ‘clocking off’ at sensible times and I discovered the joy of bank holidays and paid leave! What’s more, I could relax and enjoy this time, rather than spending it reading a backlog of new papers or planning my next experiments. Even if I wanted to work at weekends, it was seen as a sign that I was struggling to fulfil my core duties, rather than a show of dedication. This gave me more time to recharge my batteries, and I gradually lost that ‘burn-out’ feeling that was so prevalent during my research days.
Top tip 6: Find out in advance when public holidays and privilege days are so you can make the most of your leave and plan some extended weekends away. I always seemed to find out at the last minute when it was too late to organise anything!
Since writing this blog, Caroline has taken up a new role in Science Communication at the University of Oxford.