Volunteering to help out graduate students to remake their résumé in preparation for their job search process, I coached a few PhD students who are looking to translate their advance degrees to a lucrative corporate career or career in the government or non-government agencies. The challenge that they have is how to
transition from the academia to what we call “the real world” of work. Having started my career in th
academe myself, I kno
w the pain of transitioning. The academia was “my real world” for three years and referring to it as something separate from the real world is a bit flabbergasting.
However, I knew what it means from my own experience. Indeed, it was almost like coming from a different world. It was a shock in the beginning. It felt like coming from a different planet and speaking a different language that nobody appreciates. It took a short while before I learned, adjusted, and finally started blending after a few missteps. Having said that, I’d like to share a few pointers here that worked for me and that hopefully helps other people like the three lovely PhD graduate students I met in the workshop.
1. Theory vs. Practice – Academia exists in a world of theories and ideal scenarios. Business exists in a world of practical compromises, and sometimes, ethical boundaries. It is good to strive for the best but be aware and be open to settling for what would work at the end of the day. Stay grounded by having a constant communication with line and operations people. Listen to their daily challenges and how they deal with them. Avoid judging and be open to how they deal with the grey areas. While you might have learned the black and white stuff in school, you will see that there is a lot of grey areas in the workplace.
Learn how to deal with the grey areas and imbibe the process of how this is done but do not lose your idealism. You are going to be the one to lift the level up to the “best practices”. You will be the one to translate what is practical and useful to what is quality to strive for. You will create systems and models and they will test it to the point of great usability. There is good marriage between theory and practice, between idea and reality, between perfect and good enough. You will be the weight on the other side of the scale to tip the balance to perfectly practical work solutions.
2. Communication and Language – Go to where the people congregate during breaks like the water cooler area, the pantry, or the cafeteria. Go where the informal, off-the-record discussions happen. Listen to the conversations, the topics they talk about, and the issues about which they are concerned. Take note of the language and the character of the conversations. They speak (no pun intended) volumes of the culture and the issues on the floor. Adjust your own speak at the level and the nature of the language being used. Practice and get used to express yourself the same way.
There is another level of conversation going on in business and this is the at the formal communication level. The language used in the boardroom, during meetings, and during official work conversations. Different industries use different buzzwords. Conduct some research on your target industry or company. Read books and literatures from that industry. The business world in general has a distinct language and you can start with general business readings.
3. Middle Ground – You will find some middle ground where you could exist comfortably while in transition. There are positions, in either the government or business that require academic skills like writing or research. Look at technical training positions in your field. Corporate training is a logical place to start. Getting your foot in the door is the first step. Finding the different places where you could find yourself happy and successful is the next.
This brings me to the idea of finding your bliss. When I say find the middle ground, I did not mean that you should compromise on your ultimate career goal. Be clear about who you are and what your personal brand is and create a strategy on how to get to the position that will allow you to express it. The middle ground is your place of transition toward your happy place. Keep your eye on your end goal but navigate through the steps to get there.
4. Good Start – Your first job will set the tone, the pace, and the direction of your career. Take this chance to take the time to do your selection very wisely. Do not grab the first opportunity unless it presents some options that might lead you to where you’d want to be. There are two schools of thought about that. I believe that chance and serendipity has a place in the equation of where you’d end up eventually. There are random events that will bring you to random results that will make sense only after many years. However, I believe that these random events happen in separate bubbles and you would want to be in the universe that will randomly lead you to your final destination.
Needless to say, that you need to begin with the end in mind. Have a vision, even vaguely, of what you’d want to be when you grow up. Create your strategic goals and tactical objectives. Do an environment scan and a SWOT analysis. Identify the steps and strategies that will lead you to your goal. Then leave it up to the universe to lead you there through random chance and serendipitous events.
This is beginning to sound really exciting to me now. I hope that you are as thrilled as I am to embark on this journey now. Don’t forget to pack light because you would not imagine the detours that you might have to take. Bring a friend if you could – a mentor, an ally, or a sounding board. A friend will make the roadblocks seem easier. Bon voyage!