Moving into industry: You have most of the skills you need, and you can learn the few you are missing

Continuing on in my series about academia to industry, here’s how I gained the skills I needed to get a job outside of academia. 

I mentioned last week that I decided I wanted to leave academia, but then spent a full year preparing and learning what that meant. I started with an understanding that I had lots of skills, but wasn’t sure how those would translate to anything besides academia, and I ended with a job in industry. So I’ll start with the skills you do have that are applicable (yes, even you) and then talk about which ones you should make sure you have before starting to apply:

Skills you have:

Teaching and Presenting: One of the most critical traits desired in people who work with data is that they are able to communicate that data to other people. It is RARE in industry to have someone who can do the analyses AND communicate those to shareholders and relevant decision makers without them scratching their heads in confusion. But the good news: your entire academic career has prepared you for just this event. You know all those times you taught, and tried to get undergraduates to understand what you were talking about? Or those conferences where you build presentations to best present your results? They are training for doing that very thing which is VERY valuable in the world outside of academia. You already have this skill (high fives all around!).

Statistical knowledge: I know I sound like a jerk when I say this, but since moving into industry, I keep having to revise the list of things that I though everyone knew. I was asked “what is a p-value?” my first week, and have been asked more basic questions about statistics than I was ever asked in academia, even teaching undergraduates. You have a career full of experience doing experiments, collecting data, and making sense of that data by running statistical analyses. You are already ahead of the game in this regard.

Working hard: My mother told me: “The beginning of every job is the same, nose to the grindstone and work hard” and she was right. You need to be able to work harder and longer hours than you’re used to. Think back to your PhD – hours like that, only longer and in one place. The good news is that most of the multi-tasking you used to need to do is off your plate for now. The bad news is that means you have 9 + hours a day to focus on one task. Luckily, you’ve been doing this for awhile, and being a workaholic comes naturally to you. And even more luckily, this is not a long term commitment. You need to work hard at the beginning, but I’ve found it rare for people in my company (and other companies my friends have moved into) to work outside of regular business hours. This is a sprint, not a marathon.

Teaching yourself: In industry, they don’t expect you to be ready to go out of the box, like they often do in academia. In most industry environments, there is this whole process called “onboarding,” which I had never heard of before I started my current job. They know it’ll take you a little while to get up to speed. But, as an academic you’ve got a lifetime of experience teaching yourself. Great, it’ll serve you well. You can spend those first few months learning the things you’re going to need to know on the job, and that ability puts you ahead of your peers.

As you can see above, we’re already qualified, and have the potential to be successful. But you do need a few skills, at least for data science, that it is unlikely you have already attained. However, you can pick them up. Here are a few:

Python: Most academics I know code in R. The fancy ones also code in another language (I wrote simulations in C++)(I am not fancy though). While R is an excellent language for data analytics, and arguably the best in the world for statistics (come at me), for getting code into production, you need to know python. It’s similar to R, so shouldn’t be too hard, and if you have experience using R as a object oriented programming language, then it’ll be easier still. I learned python using DataCamp and strongly recommend it as a great resource. It has a jupyter notebook embedded in the site so you’re able to run code as you learn (learning by doing is important for me). But there are also books, youtube videos, coursera and udacity, and probably flash cards that will also help you learn this skill.

Querying database: In academia, we work on what are called “flat” data files, like CSV or excel files. Once you are looking at customer data, a flat file is simply too small. It’s like trying to open a NGS sequencing file – it’s just laughably impossible to do with your computer. So you need to learn how to query a database with schemas, like Postgres or MySQL. It’s a pretty simple programming language, and you’re going to learn to love to join tables. But this is a skill of taking a mountain of data, and finding the flower you want to study amidst the rocks. It takes time and practice, but is learnable.

Docker: I know I’m focusing a lot on the technology, but it has stood out to me as the one thing that’s very different between industry and academia. Docker is a way to run code locally that is entirely repeatable elsewhere. Your code is run within a “container” that is created with all the things you need installed in it, in a requirements file and an image. If you’re missing a requirement that exists locally on your computer, but is not in your file, the requirement won’t run. As a result, with the code base alone, you’re able to entirely reproduce your work, regardless of where you’re running your code from. When putting your work into deployment, this is especially awesome because you know that your container is ready to go before you deploy it. And it’s becoming ubiquitous across industry, so jump on that container bandwagon and download docker.

I’m sure I’m missing some things, and there are wealth of cultural differences that I haven’t even approached (feel free to comment below). But the gist of this post is that you ALREADY HAVE MOST OF THE SKILLS YOU NEED TO SUCCEED IN INDUSTRY. And the ones you lack are trival to learn. Now that we know this,next week we’ll talk  about one of the things you need to do to actually apply: a linkedIn profile.

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You’ve presented your research, you’ve taught. You know how to communicate results, you’re already ahead of the game.

The giant salamander might be a pyramid scheme

The world’s largest amphibian should be easy to find. The Chinese giant salamander can be as big as your entire body, and on average resemble a labrador. And while they used to be abundant, after months of searching, scientist are struggling to find even a few. 24 individuals, across 50 sites where the salamanders once thrived. Moreover, the few found all have genetic markers indicating they had escaped or been released from farms. There may not be any wild individuals left.

But this tragedy is getting worse. Based on analyses of the salamander, it’s becoming clear that it’s not one species but five. And they are all facing imminent extinction in the wild.

Read more about it here.

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The silence of the microfauna

A generation ago Rachel Carson warned us of bird die-offs from pesticides in the classic “Silent Spring”. Now, a new silence might be rocking the world, and causing an increasingly creepy silence: flying insects are dying at an alarming rate and in staggering amounts. A study published last fall documented a 76% decline in total seasonal biomass of insects in Germany, and speculated how widespread their result might be.

Unfortunately, that question is difficult to even approach because of another problem: a global decline of field naturalists who study these phenomena.

Want to learn more about this awkward intersection? Read about it here!

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To stay or to go: making the decision

In revisiting my academia to industry series, I’ve decided to write down some of the advice I’ve given in response to questions from those in academia since starting my job in industry. The scariest part of leaving academia was the venturing into the unknown. I’m going to write down things I wish I had known before starting this adventure, and you’re welcome to come along.

The first step on the journey from one career path to another is making the decision to go. Sometimes this happens organically. I have a friend whose postdoc advisor left her faculty position to help found a biotech startup, and my friend followed her from the University to the real world. Another friend who met someone at an academic conference and was offered a position in industry. These transitions happened seamlessly.

For me, it was a monumental decision that took me over a year to make, and another year to implement.

It started with an inkling, “I’m not sure I want to keep doing this.” I had started the career path towards the ivory tower with some basic understandings: I would never be wealthy, my choice of living locations would be limited, and I would work hard all the time. But I also saw some benefits in academia: I could pursue questions that I am interested in indefinitely. I could approach interesting ideas, and spend time collecting and analyzing data. I could hang out with people who are as passionate about biology as I am, indefinitely. And for a really long time that was enough. That was worth the sacrifices.

Until, gradually, it wasn’t.

When asked why I left, I have two answers: 1) death by 1000 cuts. I wanted to be able to pay off student loans, and live comfortably. I wanted to be able to work normal hours, with normal expectations of the jobs. I was really tired of being “required” to do things for which I was not being paid. And I wanted to be able to keep asking questions, and answering them with data, without having to constantly write grants begging for money. Finally, I wanted to stop worrying how we’re going to fund the lab, and paying for research out of pocket.  (I’m still paying off the costs of some of the experiments from my PhD).

And the second answer: 2) I was walking around London and realized I wanted a different life than the one I have. Hear me out. I have always been a big city girl, but through my academic career I kept moving from one small college town to another. I did my undergraduate, Masters, PhD and postdoc in relatively small cities and rural towns. I had to – I went where the job was. Where the research was. I don’t regret any of these decisions, but I was walking around one of my favorite cities in the world and I knew I wanted to be able to choose to live here. And that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was the final cut. I still love biology, and this summer especially, I miss the field work. But I needed a life, in addition to a job. And I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to have that in the Ivory Tower, where working more hours and for more efforts than you will ever be paid is glorified and promoted.

But I also realized in that moment that I wasn’t going to just drop everything and leave (it’s not my style). So I started planning, finished up projects, did another full field season, and prepared. I’ll write about my preparation next week, but the decision to leave came gradually and then all at once. And it’s the first step to figuring out what’s next.

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The view from our field van/home during my last field season. No regrets, about then or now.

 

Newly discovered sea creature named after my president

It was an uneventful marine creature, thriving 500 million years ago. Tiny, disc-shaped and ~1/2 inch long with raised spiral grooves on its surface. It spent it’s entire life embedded on the ocean floor, and likely never moved. It is among the earliest animals to exist on earth, and was recently discovered in a remarkably well-preserved fossil bed.

But now it holds a unique and unusual honor: it’s been given the scientific name Obamus coronatus, in honor of President Barack Obama’s passion for science.

Read more about it here!

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Where did language come from?

There is research occurring right now on the cutting-edge intersection of evolutionary biology, experimental archaeology, neuroscience, and linguistics. And it all centers around a surprisingly simple question: where does language come from?

And the latest research argues that it revolves around our ancestors’ hard-earned ability to produce complex tools.

Want to know these two ideas are related? Read more here!

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After thousands of years, the Giant African baobab trees are suddenly dying

Baobab trees, some of the oldest and biggest trees in Africa, are abruptly dying. 9 of the 13 oldest individuals, aged between 1,100 and 2,500 years have died in the last decade.

This is unprecedented, and scientist speculate that it’s due to climate change.

Want to know more about these trees, and what might be leading to their demise? Read about it here!

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