Adapting Academic Skills for Business Use

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Identifying Transferable Skills from Academia to Entrepreneurship

In the previous chapter, we discussed creativity and some of the skills that scientists develop that can be used to overcome challenges. In this chapter, we are going to focus on the skills themselves, especially from the perspective of empowering young scientists who are hesitant about whether starting their own venture is for them or not .

In transitioning from academia to entrepreneurship, I've found that several skills acquired in the academic world are not only relevant but also highly valuable in the business realm. I point them out not only for those who want to start a company but also for those who are thinking about joining one. Understanding your value is the first step to making the right career choices.

Let me walk you through some of these transferable skills.

Analytical and Critical Thinking : This is one of the most significant skills that I brought from academia to business. The words are often abused, to the point where they lose their value. Yet, it is important to be aware of this intrinsic characteristic that most scientists have.

If you were lucky, and your Ph.D. advisor was also a good mentor, probably you didn't get all the answers on a silver platter. Instead, you were encouraged to think by yourself and to question the information that was presented to you. You had to pull through difficult experiments and complex data, you had to think by yourself .

After working with countless people over many years, and interviewing even more candidates for various roles, I can't stress how important it is to have people who can simply think .

A manager can encourage people to become confident, to develop their own solutions, but sometimes it is too late to change someone's attitude, or it's simply not who they are. Of course, not all PhDs or postdocs are natural thinkers, but there is a high correlation.

Analytics and critical thinking help in breaking down complex business problems, assessing different scenarios, and making informed decisions .

Research Abilities : Of course, research has different meanings in different contexts. While scientific research focuses on extending knowledge in specific domains (science), research can be extended to many different fields.

For example, understanding the competition requires ample research. Not just checking companies' websites, but reading patents, talking to customers, checking publications and conference presentations. It has to be done systematically, not unlike any other research project. The only difference this time is that it's passive, similar to a literature review.

On the other hand, user experience research (also known as UX) requires careful experimentation. Being able to dissect the way a user interacts with our products in a way that can inform decisions is extremely complex. Although there is an endless supply of books on the matter, it mostly comes down to performing measurements on a set of predefined parameters. And, of course, unexpected surprises are the ones that will generate the most valuable insights.

Problem-Solving Skills : If there is a common denominator among all scientists is that they have to solve problems. Depending on the context these will be of different nature. From developing better-performing software to creating ways of quickly aligning a laser. We all had to overcome challenges during our PhDs or Postdocs. Without counting those arising from job insecurity: applying for grants and contract extensions, and foreigners dealing with the bureaucratic labyrinth to ensure a legal stay in the country.

The problem-solving skills honed in academia are indispensable in a startup environment and in every business. Something I have witnessed several times is that people become shy when they go to work for the first time. People who were used to thinking out of the box, to propose solutions, become suddenly complacent to the environment in which they work.

Imposter syndrome quickly kicks in, and scientists believe they have nothing valuable to say, they just do what they are commanded to do.

In such cases, it is the role of the manager to foster an environment that empowers such individuals to speak up. If you are creating a company and hiring scientists (which probably you'll do at the beginning) you have to give them space and encourage them to fully explore the context, not just their immediate domain.

Resilience and Persistence : Academia is not just about intellectual growth; it's also about developing resilience and persistence, often in the face of challenging research projects. Let's not forget about unhealthy work environments, where bullying and harassment are common currency.

This perseverance is incredibly valuable in entrepreneurship, where the path is fraught with ups and downs. The ability to stay the course, even when things get tough, has been a key factor in my entrepreneurial journey. As an entrepreneur you'll interact with a myriad of people, and not all will be polite and professional.

It is therefore our responsibility to step up for the team and foster a work environment that empowers everyone to become their better selves.

Communication Skills : I added this topic out of commitment. Most scientists believe they have a natural knack for communication, they like giving talks. Or better said, they like talking. Scientists always have opinions, and they always like expressing them. The more senior they are, the more they think in their infinite wisdom.

Scientists indeed get somewhat trained at presenting results in public. At least they are forced to do it. But very rarely they are encouraged to become better. If you go to a scientific conference, 90% of the talks simply suck. They are self-serving and address a tiny audience.

Fortunately, communication is much more than presenting to a large audience .

Communication means transmitting complex ideas through different strategies, ensuring that the information is appropriately received.

Creating graphs with data, for example, is a way of communicating complex results visually and understandably. This is a skill few people have and that is extremely valuable to convincing others about the best course of action.

Scientists are trained to write. Not always as compellingly as they could, but still, a Ph.D. thesis is around 75.000 words. More than what almost everyone has ever written as a single, coherent, piece of content.

Project Management : This is a skill most scientists develop by force rather than by careful nurturing.

Project management in itself is a discipline that has a variety of styles. From the "agile" practices of software development to the "waterfall" approach of product companies. Academic projects tend to be chaotic at best. But people push through them and organize meetings, discussions, and journal clubs.

I believe not training academics in project management is a large missed opportunity , both for people executing research (Ph.D. and Postdocs) as well as managers (PI).

However, young scientists quickly learn how to deal with deadlines, and how to manage and convince the supervisor that enough is enough. How to manage sideways when there are fellows with whom to collaborate. And how to manage down, when there are master students to supervise, for example.

Even if not exposed to common industry practices when it comes to management, scientists are faced with all the same challenges that managers would. In some cases PhDs even need to do budgeting in their projects, a rare opportunity for someone who is giving their first steps in a work environment.

Young scientists coming from academia possess a wealth of skills that can be translated to companies, big and small. Those who decide to start new ventures, creating companies and products from the ground up, can greatly benefit from leveraging all the skills they have under their belt.

For those who decide to join companies, big or small, it is important to understand the value you can bring to the team. Likewise, managers should focus on unleashing the potential of their team, and in many cases, I've seen great individuals who are not nurtured to fully develop into the professionals they could be.

Practical Tips for Adapting These Skills to a Business Context

As someone who's navigated the shift from academia to a large company, to creating my own startup, I've learned a few practical tips for adapting academic skills to a business context. Let me share these with you.

Learn to Simplify and Articulate : One of the first lessons I learned was the importance of simplifying and articulating complex concepts for a specific audience. In academia, there is a certain pride in saying things others don't understand. People often focus on detailed and technical explanations.

In business, this behavior is poorly tolerated. It's crucial to convey your ideas in a way that is easily understandable, both to your team and your managers, but likewise to potential customers and partners.

Communicating concisely and precisely is fundamental to achieving one's goals.

Flexibility in Problem-Solving : The systematic approach to problem-solving in academia is valuable, but I've found that it needs to be adapted to suit the dynamic and fast-paced environment of the business world.

Time limits tend to be much shorter, focusing on what matters is much more important than cracking that 1% improvement.

Problems will arise from many different contexts, and we need to be ready to solve them, regardless of the "intellectual purity" of their nature.

A problem is a problem, and it will require some level of creative thinking to solve it. We need to learn to value problem-solving above the solution. Perhaps that is one of the hardest transitions for academic scientists. We focus a lot on elegant solutions, and going to extra mile, to do "one last improvement to the setup". However, we lose track of the bigger picture, the real problem we had been trying to address.

Focusing on the things that matter and dropping the rest is a crucial attitude to develop.

By the way, that is also important for those who stay in academia, but who am I to judge them?

Networking Beyond Academia : One of the nicest things academia has to offer is the natural networking environment it fosters. It does not matter whether you are an introvert or extrovert, whether you are working remotely or at the lab. There are always ample opportunities to connect with fellow scientists.

And the network expands beyond the immediate work environment, we can quickly reach out to people around the world who have cited our papers, or who have done interesting things on which we will build.

might be confined to fellow academics and researchers, but in business, it’s crucial to broaden your networking scope. I've learned to reach out to a diverse range of stakeholders, including other entrepreneurs, investors, and industry professionals. This expanded network has been instrumental in providing new perspectives, opportunities, and valuable business insights.

Emphasize Practical Application : Finally, applying research and analytical skills to real-world scenarios has been a key part of my transition. It's about focusing these skills on practical applications that meet market needs. This shift from theoretical research to practical, market-driven research involves understanding what the market needs and how your product or service can meet that need. It’s about grounding your academic skills in the realities of the business world.

Adapting academic skills to a business context is not always straightforward, but with these practical tips, the transition can be smoother and more effective. By simplifying complex ideas, being flexible in problem-solving, expanding your network, and focusing on practical applications, you can successfully leverage your academic expertise in the business arena.

Case Studies or Examples of Academics Who Successfully Transitioned

Throughout my journey, I've come across several inspiring examples of academics who have successfully made the leap into entrepreneurship. Their stories have been a guiding light, showing how academic expertise can translate into groundbreaking business ventures.

Tech Entrepreneurs : The tech industry is replete with stories of academics who've used their research in computer science or engineering to launch innovative technologies. I've seen colleagues who spent years in academia delve into the tech startup world, transforming their theoretical research into practical applications. One notable example is a computer science professor whose research in artificial intelligence led to the creation of a cutting-edge AI company. The transition from academic research to developing a product that solves real-world problems was not only impressive but also indicative of the untapped potential within academic settings.

Biotech Industry : The biotech sector, in particular, showcases a significant number of academics who have turned their research into successful commercial ventures. This transition is most common in fields like pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and healthcare technologies. For instance, a researcher I know in molecular biology founded a biotech startup focusing on innovative drug development. Her deep understanding of the subject, combined with entrepreneurial acumen, has led to breakthroughs that could potentially transform certain medical treatments.

Consulting and Advisory Roles : Another path I've observed involves academics transitioning into consulting and advisory roles. This move leverages their deep, specialized knowledge, applying it to business contexts. A colleague from the field of environmental science, for instance, now advises companies on sustainability practices, translating complex environmental research into practical strategies for businesses. This role not only utilizes his academic expertise but also contributes significantly to addressing real-world environmental challenges.

These examples highlight the diverse ways in which academic skills and research can be channeled into successful business ventures. They underscore the notion that the knowledge and expertise developed in academic settings can have profound and practical applications in the business world. For those in academia looking to make a similar transition, these stories are a testament to the possibilities that await beyond the confines of traditional academic roles.

Risks and Uncertainty

One of the most significant shifts I encountered when transitioning from academia to entrepreneurship was the need to adapt to a much higher level of risk and uncertainty. In academia, the risks are often intellectual or reputational, but in entrepreneurship, they extend to financial stability and the overall viability of your business. This was a daunting realization. Suddenly, the stakes felt much higher, with not just my reputation, but also my financial stability on the line.

I've also learned to embrace failure as part of the entrepreneurial journey. In research, every experiment, whether successful or not, adds to our knowledge. Similarly, in entrepreneurship, failures are not just setbacks, but valuable lessons. This perspective has helped me to view failures as opportunities to learn and improve. Each misstep has been a stepping stone to greater understanding and better strategy.

Impact on Personal Life

The transition has also had a profound impact on my personal life, particularly in terms of time management and work-life balance. In academia, there's often a structured schedule with a relatively clear delineation between work and personal time. However, in entrepreneurship, time management becomes a juggling act. Balancing a multitude of tasks, often with fluid and unpredictable schedules, requires a high degree of organization and discipline. I've had to develop new strategies to ensure that crucial tasks are prioritized and deadlines are met.

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is another challenge that has become more pronounced. The lines between work and personal life can blur, often leading to long hours and the encroachment of work into family time and personal space. I've learned that it's crucial to make conscious efforts to maintain this balance, not just for my own well-being but also for the health of my relationships.

Lastly, the sense of personal responsibility in entrepreneurship is far greater than in academia. As an entrepreneur, the success or failure of your business rests squarely on your shoulders. There's no institutional safety net or team of colleagues to share the burden. This heightened responsibility has been both empowering and challenging, teaching me a great deal about resilience, decision-making, and leadership.

Navigating these risks, uncertainties, and personal challenges is an integral part of the transition from academia to entrepreneurship. While daunting, these aspects have also been incredibly enriching, contributing significantly to my personal and professional growth.


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Aquiles Carattino
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