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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Balsters

Changing career in a global pandemic: Looking back on 2020

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

Like most people, this year has been an emotional rollercoaster filled with highs and lows. Maybe if I'd known what was coming I wouldn't have embarked on a massive career change...

It was about this time last year that I decided academia wasn't right for me. It was an incredibly hard decision to come to, and one that I had been thinking long and hard about for some time. Like most academics, this is the only life I knew. This is what I'd studied and trained for. I knew lots of incredible scientists that were struggling to get permanent positions, and here I was fortunate enough to have a lectureship at one of the top Psychology departments in the country. So why wasn't I happy?

I don't want to dwell on my reasons for leaving in this post. I'm always happy to answer questions via email and if there's a lot of interest I may write a post about it. In short, I left academia because I didn't have an academic brand (see my previous post on Finding your Unique Selling Point As A Scientist). I love coming up with new experiments, new hypotheses, doing science!

I didn't want to be tied down to just one area of research, I’m not a scientific monogamist. I’m promiscuous, and every few months I found I got bored and moved on to the next topic that excited me. However, this is not the academic way.

During my 3 years as a lecturer there were 3 national strikes. Morale amongst lecturers was low across the country. Then I started to notice something... My friends were leaving academia for positions in industry... and a lot of us started wondering "we can do that?".

The fact that academics could leave academia was a revelation! It's never something I had really considered. And when I spoke with people that had left academia, they were all happy and fulfilled. The old days of choosing between academic freedom and corporate rigidity were gone. I believe the tech revolution has largely changed the way companies operate. All my former colleagues had a better work-life balance, along with better salaries and benefits. They had given up doing their own research and were using their skills to advise other people. This was exactly what I had been looking for! But changing career isn't easy.

Tip #1

One thing I learned is that a lot of companies are wary about hiring academics. I typically didn’t get shortlisted, and when I did manage to get an interview I heard lots of anecdotes about academics that couldn't adjust to the new way of doing things.

I learned quickly that it really helps to have a non-academic champion to vouch for you and say "don't worry, they'll be fine". A personal recommendation goes a long way.

At the beginning of this year, my champion happened to moving abroad and asked if I wanted to be considered for her job. After months of interviews, I was offered what I thought was going to be my perfect job. I signed my contract in early March, about 2 weeks before the first UK lockdown. I started "working" for this company whilst the lockdown was still in place. I couldn't go to the office, so I couldn't get a company laptop, register for a company badge and a company email address. There was nothing I could do.

Then the worst happened. I learned that the entire department was being terminated worldwide. Just as soon as it began, I had lost my perfect job.

What's the key benefit of academia compared to industry? Job Security. This was a lesson on how - through no fault of your own - you could be let go. The pandemic had made it impossible to make a profit in my new job. The company realised back in May/June that things wouldn’t be going back to ‘business as usual’ for at least another year. I have to say in this regard I think they had more foresight than most governments. Or perhaps they were just more honest...

So it was the Summer and I was back on the job market. What was the next step? Do I go back to academia after this failed experience or push ahead with a career outside academia? I think I inherited the stubbornness gene from my parents so I decided to push forward

Tip #2

I reached out to a very successful friend from my PhD, Dr Tim Holmes, and he gave me some great advice - “You need to brand yourself”

  1. Get a webpage

    1. Use consistent photos, banners, colours, names across all your platforms - remember you’re a brand now!

  2. Strengthen your social media presence

    1. Get back onto Twitter and LinkedIn and start posting

  3. Start writing science communication pieces - lots of jobs will ask for examples

    1. This can include blogs on your website or articles for Medium or The Conversation

Funnily enough, these were things I always meant to do as an academic but never had the time for. Now I finally had the time. I’ve used Wix to create my webpage. It has great templates, but it still takes time to build everything. Especially generating content.

Tip #3

Always make a good impression, you never know who’s going to offer you a job

A recruiter told me that 80% of jobs aren’t advertised but are created to bring in the right people. Even within academia, I think this was the case. I got my second post doc because I built a good relationship with Nici whilst I was acting as a tour guide for the MRI unit. I left academia because a friend put me forward for her job. I saw this quote once on LinkedIn and it’s very true.

Don’t apply for jobs, be headhunted

After strengthening my social media presence, Jo reached out to me. The conversation started with “Would Gorilla be useful in your new job?”, to which I replied “I’m afraid I no longer have a new job”. I thought that would be the end of that, but actually it lead to a different conversation.

I‘ve been lucky enough to have been offered 2 perfect jobs this year. At Gorilla, I get to do all the things I liked best about academia, lecturing (see Gorilla Academy), running training webinars (book a place here), and creating experiments for academics and businesses.

2020 has been a rollercoaster for everyone, there’s no denying it. I had massive highs being offered two new jobs, but I also had massive lows. Leaving academia (having to say goodbye to a wonderful psychology department via Zoom), spending months with nothing to do, and obviously losing a job I was very excited to start.

For any academics considering making the shift to industry I hope my tips are helpful. I don't regret it. Your hardest task will be convincing businesses you can leave academia behind you. Part of that will be having a strong social media presence and showing off your science communication skills. Also, network and build positive relationships. I’ve loved Gorilla since I heard about it 4 years ago and spent a lot of time tweeting about it. Now I’m delighted to work for them.

Cheers everyone! Hope 2021 brings you all a perfect job as well!

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