Spie Press Book • newIt's a Game, Not a Formula: How to Succeed as a Scientist Working in the Private Sector
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Scientists tend to look for the 'right way' to do things. We are used to chasing after formulas and theories that describe the behavior of the universe, and this expectation that there is a 'right answer' tends to permeate much of what we do.
But the world outside the controlled environment of the science lab doesn't work that way. The most successful scientists who enter the private sector approach their work as if it were a game, with rules that need to be followed but with no clear 'right way' to do things. They take risks, make decisions quickly, and don't overthink things.
This book presents valuable insights from experienced and successful industry PhD scientists who have shared their valuable stories to help you succeed in the private sector and build that rewarding career you are seeking.
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1: Introduction
- The Game
- Element 1: There is more than one way to win
- Element 2: Winning requires taking risks
- Element 3: Knowledge alone does not make you successful
- Playbook story: Choosing the low-risk game
- The Formula Approach
- The Value of Stories
- Playbook story: Maurice Hilleman and winning the game
- Chapter 2: Rules of the Game
- Difference #1: What is Created
- Difference #2: What is Pursued
- Difference #3: What is Rewarded
- Difference #4: How One Succeeds
- Difference #5: How Progress is Made
- Scientists and the Game
- Author's note: Why is academic research not the 'real world?'
- Chapter 3: The PhD Stereotypes
- An Awakening
- The Challenges for PhDs in Industry
- The Job Seeker's Perspective
- Author's note: What a PhD meant to me
- The Hiring Manager's Perspective
- Author's note: Am I overqualified?
- The Strengths of a PhD Scientist
- The PhD Stereotypes in Industry
- Stereotypical Behavior #1: They Don't Focus on What Matters
- Stereotypical Behavior #2: They Try to Be 'Too Smart'
- Stereotypical Behavior #3: They Are Slow to Decide
- Don't Be That PhD
- Playbook story: 90% of PhDs
- Interview excerpt: Kate Bechtel on the PhD Stereotype
- Interview excerpt: Kerstin Schierle-Arndt on helping scientists transition to industry
- Chapter 4: The Private-Sector Playbook
- Habit 1: Help the Company Make Money
- Author's note: Making money for your company
- Habit 2: Figure Out What Matters and What Doesn't
- Guidelines for figuring out what matters
- Author's note: Freedom and creativity in industry
- Habit 3: Be Effective, Not Smart
- Principles that remind me not to be too smart
- Interview excerpt: Kate Bechtel on being the smartest
- Author’s note: How do successful people accomplish so much?
- Habit 4: Decide Quickly with Limited Data
- Three Types of Jobs
- Three Types of Labor
- A helpful decision-making technique
- Interview excerpt: Brit Berry-Pusey on making decisions
- Interview excerpt: Scott Sternberg on decision making in business
- Habit 5: Persuade Others to Follow You
- Playbook story: Maurice Hilleman and persuasion
- Persuasion and Integrity
- Author's note: Maintain your integrity
- Emotional Intelligence and Persuasion
- Interview excerpt: Yasaman Soudagar on influence, integrity, and playing the game
- Chapter 5: The R&D Mindsets
- The R&D Mindsets
- The Versatile Scientist
- The Development Mindset in Academic Research
- Interview excerpt: Oliver Wueseke on his advisor's valuable example
- Interview excerpt: Jason Ensher on the development mindset in academia
- Chapter 6: Startups - The Ultimate Game!
- Why Become an Entrepreneur?
- Appetite for Challenge and Adventure
- Making a Difference in the World
- The Right Opportunity
- Unique Strengths of the Scientist Entrepreneur
- Interview excerpt: Ashok Balakrishnan on critical entrepreneur skills
- Unique Challenges for the Scientist Entrepreneur
- Overcoming the Scientist Entrepreneur Challenges
- Surround yourself with good people
- Focus on the Problem
- Growth Mindset
- Interview excerpt: Marinna Madrid on the importance of the problem
- Play the Ultimate Game!
- Chapter 7: Your Career Is a Game
- Pro Tip #1: Start with Why
- Why work in the private sector?
- Interview excerpt: Roger McGowan on the professor lifestyle
- Interview excerpt: Christina C. C. Willis on staying in the lab
- Interview excerpt: Oliver Wueseke on what it takes to be a professor
- Interview excerpt: Kerstin Schierle-Arndt on wanting to do big things in industry
- Interview excerpt: Jason Ensher on making a bigger impact
- Author's note: The value of a publication 116
- Pro Tip #2: Understand Your Strengths
- What can a scientist bring to the business world?
- Interview excerpt: Christina C. C. Willis on the value of persistence
- Interview excerpt: Roger McGowan on the value of learning and teaching
- Interview excerpt: Oliver Wueseke on atypical scientist strengths
- The Value of 'Non-Technical' Strengths
- Interview excerpt: Oliver Wueseke on determining your non-technical strengths
- Interview excerpt: Brit Berry-Pusey on evolving strengths
- Pro Tip #3: Create Your Own Opportunities
- Interview excerpt: Oliver Wueseke on creating opportunities
- Interview excerpt: Christina C. C. Willis on creating opportunties
- Pro Tip #4: Think Big!
- Think like a designer
- Get outside your comfort zone
- Collect your own data
- Interview excerpt: Sona Hosseini on being a scholar 127
- Interview excerpt: Kate Bechtel on 'banging around'
- Interview excerpt: Christina C. C. Willis on leaving her comfort zone
- Interview excerpt: Sona Hosseini on collecting your own data
- Can a scientist change fields mid-career?
- Interview excerpt: Scott Sternberg discusses moving to a new discipline
- Interview excerpt: Yasaman Soudagar on the importance of culture fit
- Pro Tip #5: Fortune Favors the Bold!
- Interviewee Bios
Back in 2010, I published a book called Turning Science into Things People Need. It contained interviews with ten different scientists who had built successful careers in the private sector. I wrote the book during an extended job transition as something to do to fill the gap while I was looking for just the right opportunity to fit the new direction that I had decided to take my career. I didn't know for sure what I was going to do with the book once it was published. I had thought for some time that I'd like to write a book so that I could travel on a speaking circuit, and so when I met a publisher who was helping people create books based on interviews around a topic that excited them, I decided that the time was right.
The next task was to decide what I would interview people about as the core topic of my book. Since I was in the middle of a job search at the time, I had been reminded of the challenges a scientist faces when they decide to forgo the presumed 'conventional' career path of a professor and build their career path in the private sector instead. After a few weeks of consideration, I chose the subtitle 'Voices of Scientists Working in Industry.' By telling the stories of other successful scientists, I hoped I could attempt to open other young scientists' eyes to new career options and how to sell their unique scientist skills in the private sector. I knew that when I was nearing the end of my postgraduate studies, I would have appreciated a book that told the stories of other scientists who had built private-sector careers, and I had yet to find any other book that had addressed this topic. At the time, I was about a dozen years into my own career, and I knew many other scientists who had also build successful industry careers. They would give me a great pool from which to select interview candidates.
I had no idea where the journey that began with that book would take me. The seminar I put together to begin my speaking career focused on two key topics pulled from the book interviews: (1) jobs that scientists will enjoy and be good at in industry, and (2) the unique strengths that a scientist brings to the private sector. As I began traveling and speaking at universities, I learned so much more about where a typical university science education fails to prepare us for private-sector careers. When I left my job in early 2017 to found TurningScience, I spent time interviewing industry managers to learn their perspective on how well early-career scientists made the transition into industry. From those conversations, I realized that many of the things we scientists were taught in academia actually work against us when we transition into the private sector.
I realized that we scientists tend to look for the 'right way' to do things. We are used to chasing after formulas and theories that describe the behavior of the universe, and this expectation that there is a 'right answer' tends to permeate much of what we do. But the world outside the controlled environment of the science lab doesn't work that way. It occurred to me that the colleagues of mine who were most successful approached their work as if it were a game, with rules that need to be followed but with no clear 'right way' to do things. They took risks, made decisions quickly, and didn't overthink things - fundamentally different from what the early-career scientists I'd worked with so often seemed to do.
I realized that what early-career scientists need even more than lectures on private-sector job descriptions and how to sell themselves to an industry manager is the understanding that the private sector is a game, and they need to learn to play it. That is how I came to write this book.
In the ten years since my first book was published, I've traveled all over the world lecturing to groups of scientists who are preparing to launch their careers. The one-hour talk that I gave in the early days of my book-speaking tour has since grown into multiple short courses, seminars, and two-day workshops. I've spoken to hundreds of science PhD students and postdocs, and conversed with so many of them about their career plans and job-search challenges. I've also interviewed many industry managers to learn where the biggest gaps are in the performance of the scientists they have worked with.
In my travels, I have visited a number of universities that are doing a great job showing their early-career scientists how important and valuable privatesector careers are. Many have excellent research programs that feature successful collaborations with industry. The Optical Research Center at Southampton University and the B-PHOT program at Vrije University in Brussels stand out as great examples. But unfortunately, many universities have still not fully appreciated the importance of helping their scientists transition into private-sector careers. They continue projecting the outdated view that most scientists will become, or should become, academic research professors themselves. This view is simply not reality, and it does significant harm to continue to promote it. Many PhD students still believe they should pursue academic careers as they approach graduation, and this hurts their career planning and potential. Furthermore, the lack of exposure to mentors with private-sector experience means that few scientists learn the important principles that are critical for their success in the private sector. Through my work with TurningScience, I encourage universities and PhD advisors that they need to prepare their scientists for the careers that they will actually have, rather than continuing with the outdated view that most scientists will become professors. There is still much work to do.
And in doing so, I hope we can remove the biases that promote views that either academia or industry are the only good career choices. This attitude is still far too prevalent, as illustrated by the following quote from one of the industry scientists in my first book:
In college, I had a professor who had a twin brother, and they had both
gone to the same technical school in France. My professor continued on
to an academic career, while his twin brother went into industry. The
academic's perspective was that his brother may earn twice as much, but
he was not discovering anything new. The one in industry looked down
on his academic brother, thinking that he did work that didn't serve
– Antoine Daridon, PhD in Analytical Chemistry, Business Development and Marketing Manager at Metrolab Technology SA
In this book, I express many opinions on both academia and industry, and these are in no way meant to disparage academia, nor suggest that the private sector is always a better career option for everyone. I've loved my career in the private sector and have known many others who found their industry careers exciting and rewarding, but I firmly believe that both segments are important to society. The private sector relies on new science coming out of academia, and academia benefits from the tools and techniques developed by the private sector.
In my work, I aim to project a better picture of both, in the hope that the participants in my workshops emerge with a better view of the need for cooperation between the two. I am also a proponent of collaboration between academia and industry. Our best future is achieved with the academic sector in the private sector appreciate and respect each other, and work together. This means teaching new PhDs about both sectors, and that both sectors have tremendous value for our world. And it also means teaching PhDs how both sectors work and what working there is like, so that they can make the bestinformed decisions about their own career paths.
The 'R&D Mindsets' concept that I propose in this book is intended to promote the appreciation of both the academic and industry sectors, as well as improving collaboration between the two. When scientists understand how the two worlds work and develop mindsets that enable them to be productive in both worlds, it will bring us closer to the desired outcome.
That is why I wrote this book. I hope you find it as valuable to read as I did to write.
David M. Giltner