The impact of the pandemic on all sectors is only beginning to emerge and given the need for greater flexibility, adaptability and innovation within both academia and the private sector, PhD students and Early Career Researchers have much to gain by acquiring the tools and skills that will enable them to navigate both.
Organised by LSE Generate and the PhD Academy, the Accelerating Business Collaboration (ABC) Sofa Sessions bring together PhDs, ECRs and industry bods to discuss key topics relating to the relationship between academia and the commercial sector. The first Sofa Session was held on 2 December 2020 and was chaired by Anthea Kolitsas, entrepreneur and former Executive Director to the Canada-UK Foundation. Invited speakers were:
- Adam McNichol, Co-founder of Well Good
- Inna Grinis – Senior Data Scientist at RavenPack and LSE PhD in Economics
- Nicolas Wüthrich – Project Manager at Roland Berger and LSE PhD in Philosophy
- Srikaran ‘Sri’ Rajasingam – Future Skills and Learning Manager, Trading and Shipping, bp, PhD in Physics from Bristol University.
Facilitated by Anthea Kolitsas, speakers and participants jointly explored the following questions:
How can we overcome the sense of schism between academia and the commercial sector?
Discussants agreed that outreach, both on a personal and an institutional level, is crucial. Researchers shouldn’t wait for businesses to come to them if they are keen on establishing relations but should go out and actively explore. To do so, they should make the most of LinkedIn, networking opportunities and internship opportunities during the PhD. On an institutional level, universities need to go where businesses are. While businesses are open-minded, they often do not know the power of research nor how to access it. There are opportunities funded by the government and research bodies such as Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) which aim to enhance research-business-collaboration and those opportunities should be leveraged. Finally, discussants talked about how they experienced the academic narrative of “failure” surrounding researchers’ decision to leave academia as a cultural hindrance to exploring options beyond the academic career pathway. This narrative, they emphasised, needs to be overcome. The reality of PhD graduates simultaneously applying both for academic and non-academic positions as a response to the high uncertainty of the academic labour market reveals how academia and the private sector constitute in fact a “joint market” rather than two opposed realms.
How can the psychological and emotional demands involved in going “to the other side” be best managed by both sides?
Transitioning from academia to the private sector often entails a cultural change or even shock. The PhD process is determined by flexible work routines, comparative structural and intellectual freedom and long-term goal orientation. In contrast, the private sector comes with a stronger emphasis on concrete and fast-paced delivery, tighter time-frames and a definite need to add value to the organisation while working with a broad range of different actors. However, the speakers discussed various ways in which the challenges of the transition process can be mitigated. Internships can facilitate a step-by-step transition by offering a valuable opportunity to seek small-scale exposure during the PhD. Also, a good team will help with the adaptation process, and a company that is genuinely interested in recruiting a team member with a research background will be devoted to a thorough, supportive onboarding process. Part and parcel of the adaptation process is finding one’s “tribe” within the new environment. As the speakers pointed out, intellectually stimulating work responsibilities and inspiring people are not confined to academia but are equally to be found within the private sector.
What are the “nuts and bolts” of the private sector?
Unsurprisingly, there is no single answer to this question! The private sector landscape is not only highly diverse and in constant flux; even within a certain sector or organisation, a great variety of tasks and roles can be found. The speakers shared insights from their own work environments and routines which revealed differences between larger corporations and SMEs or start-ups. While corporations come with clearer roles and hierarchies, roles and responsibilities tend to be less clearly defined or may be subject to ongoing change within SMEs. However, all speakers emphasised the attraction that scientific credibility yields within their respective sectors. PhD researchers and graduates are attractive to the private sector because of their range of skills which they have acquired studying a unique research topic deeply over a long period of time. These skills include the ability to work independently on an unstructured problem, the ability to liaise and communicate with a diverse set of actors and the capacity to build and dissect arguments. Most importantly, organisations value a core skill that researchers possess: their ability to bring in a creative, inquisitive and experimental mindset turning them into intra-organisational innovators or “intrapreneurs”. PhD graduates who wish to find a way into the private sector need to be aware of these skills in order to leverage them. Key advice shared by the speakers was to apply widely without getting over-focused on a particular “role”, to seek early exposure and make connections with the people from an organisation prior to applying. In the end, it’s all about finding a good fit and the easiest way to do this is by getting to know the people one wishes to work with!