Moving From Academia To The Private Sector

by Gill Sharp

Admit it. Sometimes you fantasise about leaving the comfortable world of education and heading into the exciting territory of the private sector. Is this just a pipe dream, or is it achievable? Is it even a worthwhile transition?

Former law lecturer Nicola moved to a financial services firm some years ago and has never looked back. "Teaching had ceased to be a challenge and I wanted something I could get my teeth into". She did this with such a vengeance that she is now in a senior position in her department and her salary is nudging six figures. How did she go about making the change?

"Careful planning, research and a lot of networking before I applied. I found out exactly what the job involved and I made sure that I told them how I could do it. I talked to people in the industry and got an overview of what was going on. I also learned key jargon. A lot of it is about speaking the same language as the new employer in a business and professional context."

How did they view her lecturing career? Was there a suspicion that she had sat in her ivory tower all day?

"To tell you the truth, I'm not sure they knew a lot about how academia works. So I was able to surprise them by pointing out some of the skills I'd picked up which they hadn't considered - such as being innovative in my approach". Nicola also had a small amount of experience as a solicitor, which helped her cause somewhat. "Even though it was short lived, I think that gave me a certain amount of credibility that I might not have had if I'd gone straight into lecturing. In the private sector the profit making imperative is everything. You have to prove that you have business nous."

Jim, a former senior lecturer with post doc qualifications, concurs with this, although his experience is slightly different. He works for a scientific consultancy firm, an area that is related to his original field of expertise. Like Nicola he feels that the firm that recruited him had little real concept of what he actually did in his previous career. He sold it to them on the basis of the cutting edge research he had undertaken and also by marketing how he had successfully bid for funding on a regular basis. "Most people in the private sector don't realise that that is part and parcel of the job, so it's a good point to highlight."

Having said that, once he moved to "the other side" he found the commercial learning curve so steep that it was nearly vertical. "I've learned a lot in a short time, but sometimes I am not sure that it's what I want. I'm still not at ease with having to generate so much money." He is now considering a move to the Civil Service or to the charity sector - "I see that as a sort of half way house between education and business."

When Elaine switched to banking after teaching about matters fiscal at university, she took to it like a duck to water. "I was confident at interview, even though I found most of the questions much more direct than those you get for academic posts. They are much more concerned about your background than with overarching competencies. Expect some probing biographical questions, be prepared to justify career decisions that you have made." This technique worked for her and, once in the post, her commercial instincts kicked in and carried her a long way upstream. However, eventually doubts set in. "I had family commitments and the world of finance makes no concessions to that. So I compromised by moving again, this time to an international bank that deals only with public sector clients and has espoused some of their policies, such as flexible working."

Paul is an administrator who has worked in HE and in all sorts of private firms. His sound skills and solid work record permit him to flit happily from one sector to the other. "It's a question of matching what you've done to the position on offer... as long as you are good at your job, they don't really mind where you've come from." It's a point taken up by Carey who used to work in marketing at a major university and now does the same job for a commercial organisation. "I thought they might look down on my previous experience. But they were genuinely interested in what I had done and the creativity it had involved. I backed this up with the sort of facts and figures that I thought would appeal to them and emphasized "hard" skills such as project management and hitting deadlines."

What are the essential differences between each sector? Back to Paul. He says that the myths about both areas are just that. "I've had education jobs where everyone worked really hard and in private companies where there was a heck of a lot of 'dossing' - for want of a better word. But there is a different ethos in the business world. You can progress very quickly because you are promoted on merit, but there is certainly less stability than there is in education. In the current uncertain economy a lot of people are putting in extra hours because they want to be retained if redundancy strikes. If I had to sum it up, I'd say less transparency, more accountability."

So if you are planning to make the move, the profiles above should give you food for thought and some good ideas on how to proceed: research thoroughly, think strategically and sell yourself convincingly!

 

Top Five Tips

 

  • Don't assume that private recruiters will have any knowledge of academia: spell out what you do and use as many quantitative references as possible e.g. responsible for x students over y campuses
  • Commercial awareness is important: be sure to highlight any involvement with funding, budgets, meeting financial and numerical targets. Add relevant facts and figures rather than keeping your account discursive.
  • Use the company's website to find out about their business innovations, profits, projects, successes, and get yourself brownie points by also checking up on what their main competitors are doing.
  • Prepare for a different style of interview: less emphasis on competencies, more focus on individual achievements. Demonstrate how your academic expertise, background and credentials will benefit the firm. What's "value added" about you?
  • Negotiating pay can be a hurdle: do some research (trade journals should give a good overview) so that you get some idea of ball-park salaries. If you feel uncertain on the grounds that you have a lot to learn, don't pitch yourself too high. But do ask for an early review, based on the premise that most pay decisions are taken on performance and effort.

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