Apr 24, 2020 | Things Learned In Academia, For The Good And For The Bad

things learned in academia

As reviewed in the post “Why Did I Really Leave Academia? Top 16 Reasons,” there are multiple reasons why I decided to eventually leave academia. Today, I would like to list a few things learned while doing science for the last 8 years. Some of these habits are helpful and make my life much easier right now, while developing my own company, Welcome Solutions. However, some habits learned in academia actually make business development harder for me.

First, things learned in academia that help me in the long run:

Maths

I don’t mean the university-level algebra but rather, a common understanding of probability and statistics. While doing science, you need to exercise your understanding of probability at all times. Namely, testing any research hypothesis means coming up with a probabilistic measure to indicate the odds that your hypothesis is true—and, it will never equal 100%. In fact, we can never confirm any theory; we can only falsify it.

For instance, let us consider the following hypothesis: apples always choose to fall towards the ground. To test this hypothesis, you let an apple fall off from your hand a hundred times. If in one of these hundred trials you observe that the apple bounces to the side rather than falling to the ground, your theory if obviously false. But if it falls to the ground a hundred times out of a hundred, it might mean that your theory is true. OR, that your theory is still false and that you did not take into account some particular conditions in which your experiment would yield different results.

For instance, if you reproduce the same experiment at the International Space Station on the Earth’s orbit, the apple will bounce in any direction rather than falling down every time. So, in the research process, you need to become sober and vigilant. You can take almost nothing for granted, constantly challenge your beliefs. And, ask yourselves: is this a reality, or is this my bubble?

Patience

Real impact only builds over time. From day to day. From one line of code to another. From meeting to meeting. From one conversation to another. You cannot speed up the process. One day many people will notice your work. But before that happens, you can only make small steps every day. In academia, it is a rare occasion that a groundbreaking discovery comes early on in the research career. First, building a sufficient level of expertise is necessary. Academic achievement are different from many other types of success, let’s say, from getting rich. In science, you cannot inherit any assets after your grandparents. You can’t win in a lottery. You can’t record one funny movie with your cat that gets viral on YouTube. There are no shortcuts to success.

Of course, occasionally, some professors become well known mostly because of their great networking and diplomatic skills. Or, because they accidentally made a huge discovery. However, but in their research community, those lucky ones usually function like a good topic for a joke than as role models. Even though they earn their salaries, they aren’t as respected as those who reached success by putting on an enormous workload and producing real novelty.

To persist in science for long, you also need to build a strong network. Building networks in science is much slower process than in business because. It’s mostly because the frequency of meetups and conferences is much lower. Professional gatherings use to happen a few times per year maximum, and that’s it. Therefore, to build a stable network as a researcher, gain some following, and develop a personal brand in the field, you would need at least 5-10 years of everyday grind. And often much more than that. While embarking onto any academic project, you should prepare for along and bumpy ride.

Not afraid of hard work

Academic jobs are not 9-to-5 jobs. Some scientists obviously claim that they indeed work 9-to-5. But I always doubt them. Even as a mere PhD student leading one project and managing 2-3 undergraduate students, I used to have hard time managing all my duties. Given how many meetings, lunch breaks, and other events we used to have at work, closing the office door behind at 5 pm was just unfeasible. So, I cannot imagine how professors with 10-20 PhD students and 5 Postdocs under their wings, plus courses to teach, grants to write, and a lot of bureaucratic and representative duties on top of that, could possibly do that.

Academia is a bit like a Shaolin monastery — the necessity to work hard is as obvious as the necessity to breathe. So, during graduate school, you can acquire the working ethics for the whole rest of your life. That becomes useful down the line, especially if you choose the entrepreneurial path. You will never cry over yourself and over the fact that, to get somewhere, you need to work your butt off day in day out.

Notion of Impact

The realization that your output is not proportional to the effort you have put into the project but rather, to the size of your audience, a.k.a. “impact”, helps me a lot. It is not true that to produce a high-impact research paper, you need to be a genius. Or, be extremely lucky. Or, work on one subject for twenty years. The impact of your work is primarily a function of how many people are interested in reading the results of your study — and not of how much effort you need to put into the study.

For instance, it is often the case that researchers who ask fundamental questions, and then apply standard analytic methods to new, hot, high-quality, large (e.g., psychiatric) datasets, and produce beautiful, colorful figures to illustrate simple conclusions, publish high and get tons of citations. In this case, the difficulty is not how to overcome challenging obstacles in the research process. It is rather: how to become the person who lands this research project — as when the data is collected, many people around will probably have a craving the same study on this dataset. As a result, it often becomes more of a politics than research at this stage.

Is Impact Good Or Bad?

I do not intend to rant at science right now. I just mean that to make an impact, it is good to learn the rules of the game. And, think of research projects as if they were business projects. What is the estimated effort, what is the estimated chance of success, and how many people in the field are potentially interested in learning about this topic. The complexity of the research pipeline and the ambition to do something novel are of minor importance for the overall outcome of the project.

Now, I keep this in mind whenever I think about my next projects. I have lots of hobbies and interests that I could potentially make my way of living. However, some of them seem to niche to become a viable profession. Working on career advisory is a type of activity that naturally makes impact. At the end of the day, most people only really truly care about a few things in their lives — their health, their relationships, their kids, and their jobs. So, if you come up with any possible life hack, product, a new piece of knowledge, or an education program that could influence one of these areas for the better, it will most likely be of interest to lots of people.

Don’t Cross People, Just Walk Away

What I also learned in science is that, it is better to avoid conflicts at any cost. If someone cannot appreciate your value, better to change the environment and find someone who does. Standing on your eyelashes to make someone else like you, has no point at all. Plus, 80% of the people whom you ghosted and left behind, will at some point come back with a much better attitude. Oh, one more fact: acknowledge people even if you don’t personally like them; it costs pretty much no time and effort and pays back 100-fold.

Be Prepared For The Problems And For The Critics

In academia, you are not sugarcoated like in most private companies where managers aim to create an atmosphere of teamwork, appreciation, kindness, courtesy, and respect — almost a family vibe. In academia, you are flooded with “constructive critics.” You are on such a dopamine hunger that every time you actually get praised for your work, it is time to celebrate. As a result, after a few years in academia, one has quite a thick skin and does not get depressed because of personal critics too easily.

The notion of currency in academia is not a simple concept

Normally, you do your job and you get paid for it. Then, with time, you acquire a portfolio of projects/positions and get promoted/paid better. But in academia, the picture is much more complicated. First, you write publications to acquire prestige, grants, and more people to execute your projects. You don’t get paid at the point when your work is finished but rather, when you promise to conduct the project. I.e., when you submit a grant proposal and that proposal gets accepted by the associated government agencies. There is hidden agenda, i.e., people making informal deals and sharing projects to maximize their personal output per person. This, in turn, maximizes the chances of getting the next pool of money. 

It means that when you enter the new research environment, you need to understand the rules, the relations between people, who is really important to you and who is not. I learned it the hard way. During the course of my PhD, it took me way too much time to realize that just doing research is just not good enough. Especially if you don’t have a good understanding of the environment that surrounds you, especially of this hidden layer of connections. 

Now, whenever I enter a new environment, I am trying to understand the relations between people first. Then, I try to grasp what the local currency is, and what is really important/not important for long-term success in this working culture. I know that this knowledge will probably have more impact on my quality of life than how good my work actually is.

Inverted imposter syndrome

In academia, most people have the imposter complex. This basically means that deep inside, they feel like underachievers — or even plain stupid. As a matter of fact, regardless of how smart you are, there will always be someone even smarter out there. For this reason, we are told by our superiors over and over again, “Don’t worry, you are much better than you think you are.” This phrase stuck to me. Now, whenever I fear of doing something new, I tell myself that from the objective standpoint, the chances of succeeding are probably higher than it appears to me. And then I jump into the deep water.

Now, a few words about the things that actually make my life in business harder given m academic experience:

Share — No Share

In academia, you openly reveal your full research pipeline online after publishing your article. The Open Science movement made big progress here over the past few years. Now — unlike ten or twenty years ago — it becomes compulsory to reveal all the details of all your solutions to public. 

This makes sense as scientists are paid from public funds, and, at least in theory, they all serve to the society. There is nothing to hide! For more, as scientists, we use to attend international conferences where we present not only our published work, but also the fresh, original, often half-baked results that we hope to get published in the future. There is an atmosphere of trust. Even though scooping happens once in a while, it is rare. Therefore, most people choose to take the risk and openly talk about their research plans and ongoing research projects. There is so much more to win than to lose!

Sssh…

This is not how things work in business though. Here, you need to be much more paranoid and keep your cards close. I adore chatting about what I am doing at the moment. I often need to cut my tongue when it comes to business contacts though. After spending so many years in academia, it is so hard to now close yourself from other people, and stay quiet when you are really excited about your current project! Now I have a company, I cannot reveal the pipeline and the statistics that led me to the solutions which I present. What used to be the reason to be proud of in the past, has now become “the know-how of the company.” And, it is all wiped under the carpet.

Monetary exchange

In academia, when you enroll a friend onto your project, you append their name to the list of project authors. As simple as that. You share the prestige, and the research achievement — it is a non-monetary exchange. In business, whenever you ask a favor, you should pay back in some way, either by plain payment or by returning the favor in some way in the future. In other words, you fall into an unwritten debt. 

I had some mental barrier against paying to people whom I knew. It felt like morphing friendships into something really weird. I am still on the learning curve, and it still feels unnatural and weird to me.

Slow Decision-Making

In science, the cost function to evaluate how you should allocate your time contains the “quality” component only. If you need to spend an additional year to make sure that one of the assumptions in your model is correct, so be it! In the real world, you need to stay vigilant  though. The market and the opportunities change/come/go way faster than in academia. Sometimes, this means making compromises on the quality. The cost function you are using to make decisions, must contain also other factors such as time. 

I am still in the process of learning how to avoid overthinking things and just put my ideas to life. Instead of spending months on planning, trying to predict any possible problem, and worrying whether my solution to a problem is optimal or not.

The Assumption That Being Smart Makes You Immune To Cognitive Errors

As a scientist, you are constantly being told that you are smart. For most people in academia, this was the case from an early age. It makes us prone to certain problems. When you get out to the real world, you can be much more naive than people who have been living in the real world for a long time now. People can feed on your enthusiasm and trick you into working for free. Or, easily steal your money just because you have too much trust in what they tell you, and in their intentions. Outside academia, I learned that I am an idiot of sorts and that if I don’t always know how to select people and projects properly. I reconnected with my intuitive mind and learned a lot in that department, but I’m still on the learning curve.

The Tendency To Invest All The Time And Energy In One Aspect Of Life

I always admired people who are able to live in a harmonious way. Those who take care of their professional life, health, wealth, social contacts, entertainment, and spirituality at the same time. You probably know the stereotype of a dizzy scientist with a 5-day beard and in a fatigued sweater. 

Well, this is not just a stereotype. In academia, your individual research performance in so important that most people tend to deemphasize many other areas of life. They do not exercise enough, don’t take enough rest, stop reading anything unrelated to their work, stop making friends with people outside academia. And, stop taking any time off for thinking about their life from a perspective. Or, for daydreaming. They often focus on practicalities, and especially, on building their professional portfolio. This is, of course, a short-lived strategy. In the long run, it always leads to exhaustion, depression, and feeling lost in your life. I still have a tendency to be a maniac about what I am doing, but I am trying to find some internal peace and harmony now.

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And you? What did you learn in science? Which of these skills/mental states help you now? Which of them make your life harder? I am curious to learn! Please share with me, either as a comment under this post, or in a DM.

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Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2020, April 24th). Things learned in academia, for the good and for the bad. Retrieved from https://nataliabielczyk.com/the-jobs-of-the-future/

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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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