May 8, 2020 | High-flyers


While working with academics planning their first post-PhD jobs in the industry, one pattern comes back over and over again: the more accomplished the person is in academic terms, the more difficult time they have with finding their first jobs outside academia. The underdogs on the other hand — the early career researchers who are nowhere near that accomplished, and who are often disrespected by their bosses and considered poor performers in academic terms — are usually much quicker and more accurate in finding their next career paths. And, often happier in industry as well.

There are multiple reasons for this phenomenon. This blog posts lists eight of them — hopefully, you can avoid these mental traps. If you feel like being a high-flyer, check through this list; some of these points might apply to you, and make the process of looking for jobs in industry much harder for you. Better prevent than heal!


Research-wise, investigating your own mind is a form of a singularity: you can’t be fully objective about yourself. If you have an academic education, it probably also means that you developed a very systematic approach to problems. Such a systematic approach helps in almost any area of life. But, it also has one serious downside: assessing yourself becomes even harder. Namely, you’ll suffer from many confounders throughout the process as you will sabotage yourself and struggle with a ton of cognitive errors. So, if you have analytic mind, this might be a path through the pain. For this reason, many high-achievers postpone the necessity to think about their future for as long as they possibly can and focus on more tangible problems related to their current research activities instead. They just don’t feel comfortable about approaching a question that can’t be answered using the scientific rigor: statistics and control condition.

High-flyers, phds


If you are in your comfort zone — in a place where you feel safe and sound — your mind might try to persuade you to stay. Even if you know that this is a not a solution that will work for you forever (and at some point, your opportunities will dry out), it’s not healthy for you in the long run, or your intuition tells you that there is some career path out there that might be even better for you. Our brains are hardwired to execute rudimentary, life-preserving actions such as eating, sleeping, or proliferating — everything else naturally causes fear. As a consequence, high-flyers are tempted to stay in the known environment, and they need win a huge internal battle before they decide to step outside. As a result, they are extremely ambivalent and undecided about trying something else. Unlike them, the underdogs are aware that they need to go as there is no room for them to stay in academia. As a consequence, they are much more committed to the job search than the high-flyers. Unfortunately, job search requires lots of active effort and you need to be fully committed to get good results. This is why any degree of ambivalence will work against you.


Moreover, if you have achievements in some area, leaving that area feels like wasting all you have achieved so far. It just feels like a regress. After all, we all desire to feel important, accomplished, and influential in some area (as discussed in the blog post entitled “Adler“). So, if we feel accomplished in the academic community, why look for something else?

So, if you already have some achievement under your belt, you have a strong desire to continue in the same direction, and you might tend to ignore even obvious “stop” signals such as statistics working against you. You might even ignore the fact that your ultimate goal (i.e., a full Professor position in STEM sciences) has many downsides and, in fact, it’s very far from what you could call a dream job.


Since they have always been praised, high-flyers usually don’t think too often about their weaknesses — while exploring your weaknesses is the key to avoid problems as a professional in the open job market. In academia, high-flyers managed to find jobs where they could exploit their strengths and thrive. They no longer need to think about how to survive in their working environment.

When it comes to finding a job in industry though, this lack of self-knowledge comes to the surface and backfires. Some high-flyers simply had the beginner’s luck while choosing their first working environment and got it right for the time being. Now, they assume that finding the right job is easy, and choose the “happy go lucky” strategy: apply for random positions hoping that they will magically find themselves in the right working culture again. Which often doesn’t happen.


To become an achiever in academic terms, you need to combine your analytic abilities with social and networking skills. Although this combination is valued in academia, it might be highly confusing to industry recruiters. When they read a resume, recruiters always try to imagine the person behind it. Most positions are either management or specialistic, and the recruiter tries to find a “safe” candidate that best fits the desired profile. Mishirings are very costly to companies, thus, they would rather go for a person who is a safe choice rather than put their bets on someone who is clearly smart but might not mentally fit the position or be unfocused. So, while reading a resume composed of hard and soft skills 50/50, recruiters might have an issue with classifying the candidate and eventually give up on the person.



Academia (a.k.a. the ivory tower) is a sort of a Shaolin monastery in which you are supposed to get trained for life. In a monastery, the most committed monks who are the most focused on their practice (or, the most undistracted) will achieve the greatest level of personal development and reach enlightenment. The same holds in academia — the focus is highly appreciated, and those who commit to the academic lifestyle are often the same detached from the outer world as Shaolin monks.

Unfortunately, this detachment can cause that real-world life will feel like a cultural shock. As of now, you will need to learn that in the real world, (1) the ultimate goal of almost any project is to make money, (2) there is a lot of under-the-table business going on (much more than in academia!), (3) most people won’t tell you about their true intentions, and (4) it’s not the most hard-working people who climb the ladder in large companies and organizations to the very top. Plus, that the world is not just, and it won’t necessarily reward you for being focused and committed to the cause. On the contrary, academics who were much less focused on their research — those who developed side-hobbies, took care of their free time, and kept friends from outside academia — usually have a more realistic view of the world and adapt to the new environment outside academia much faster.


High-flyers often have a deep feeling of self-value. Don’t take it wrong: in general, it’s very good to be self-confident and develop your own, internal sense of value independent from what other people say. The problem starts when the high perceived self-value is not associated with any particular plan. It’s about the attitude, “I don’t know what I am going to do next but find me a job with a paycheck of 100k per year because I’m worth it.” Some high-flyers don’t even feel the need to do any introspection — they think that if they will list their achievements in their resume, the dream job will find them by itself. No, it won’t!


High-flyers typically have a very strong association with their job. People who do well in academia are often mentally close to their job; they live and breathe what they do and, they are always prepared to voluntarily trade a lot of their free time to do more research. Research is the first thing they think about in the morning and the last thing they think about in the evening. In industry, it’s often hard to find an environment where everyone around you has that specific attitude to their job — in most working environments, people close the door behind at 5 pm and forget about work. It can lead to lots of frustration. It also means that the time necessary to find the right working environment for academic high-flyers is longer than for people who are mentally distant from their jobs and need to “have life” beyond their jobs. It’s great to have a very close connection with your job; you need to remember that this will increase your job search time — while most high-flyers believe that “it will all be fine” and postpone their job search till the very last moment.

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Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2020, May 8th). High-flyers. Retrieved from

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If you would like to read more about careers (for PhDs and other white-collar professionals) and effective strategies to self-navigate in the job market, please also take a look at the blog of my company, Welcome Solutions where I write posts dedicated to these topics.

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