I recently connected with my graduate school at University of Michigan, offering to provide insights for students who are interested in career opportunities outside of academia. In my email response to one of the students, I covered how I got interested in the non-academic career path, and on what skills I gained in grad school that helped me succeed.
I’ll share that below:
I’m so glad to see that there’s interest in non-academic career options, there really is so much opportunities out there in addition to or beyond the lab.
While at Michigan I attended an entrepreneurial business symposium hosted by the Chinese Entrepreneur Network on campus. They host a number of events on campus that’s open to the public. There I had the opportunity to connect with business leaders and repeatedly successful entrepreneurs who really loved what they do. There was a passion and joy there that I did not see in the people around me in academia. They were really making a difference, changing the world by bringing amazing products what millions of people use, and doing good for the world through social and green entrepreneurial projects that helped finance the poor, and helped to bring books to the children in rural areas, to provide access to clean water…. I knew that this world was where I belonged, and immediately funded and led my own project team called China Image within CEN. (Which started out as a media consulting team and since I left it now evolved into a blog I run thechinaimage.com featured on haohaoreport and such.)
So I became interested in consulting during the last years of my Ph.D. I realized that there was no resources on campus for people like us, so I make my own. We pooled together B-school resources, invited speakers, organized case practice sessions, and contacted recruiters from top firms. In addition to that I also took up other leadership positions in Biointerface Symposium (all about non-academic career opportunities), AWIS, and got involved with Rackham student govt.
Right before I left Michigan, I saw an ad in nature.com for Head of Marketing for ReadCube. I had tried all the other reference managers out there and was very familiar with the competitors. All the case study practice I’ve done also really helped me to have a very analytical way of approaching business problems. I went to Boston for my interview with a whole marketing plan prepared ahead of time, which matched well with what they had in mind. Before ReadCube, I had talked to people about my interest in Marketing, but has been told that unless you have a marketing related degree, or experience in marketing, it’s not likely to find a job in it. Well, nothing is impossible. And actually, unknowingly, by being involved in various organizations on campus, I had gained some of the marketing skills.
Other skills that grad school actually helped me develop include leadership skills (from teaching and mentoring undergrads along with leadership in campus organizations), communication skills (from teaching and presenting data all the time, and for extra non-academic communication honing, try the local toastmasters – tons of fun), analytical skills (tons of data analysis every day…), crisis/stress management skills (that comes from working in biomedical sciences, and with all the crazy things and conflicts that happen in academia). So yes, don’t think that academia makes you unprepared for a life in the “real world”, quite the opposite, you receive quite a lot of training in relevant areas if you are goal oriented and knows where to seek out opportunity. And there’s soooo much opportunity on campus. There’s no where else that makes it so easy to organize a project team at no cost, have meeting rooms easily accessible to you, have opportunity and reason to connect with anyone you want, and have so much free resources and events open to you.