Psychologist logo
Ashleigh Johnstone
Careers and professional development, Teaching and learning, Trainees and training, Work and occupational

From academia to industry… and back again

Ashleigh Johnstone discusses how we can better promote the movement between academia and industry.

03 January 2023

Plot twist – I’m going back to academia! (No really 😂) Dr Ashleigh Johnstone, @_ajohnstone, 12 April 2022

In the midst of lockdown, I was finishing my PhD from home and worrying about what would come next after I submitted my thesis. I had a zero hours contract for teaching and was on furlough for a research project support officer position. It was unclear when lockdown restrictions would be lifted, when we would be allowed back into university buildings, and what state the academic job market would be in following the pandemic. I was feeling a little lost within academia, and that mixed with pandemic fatigue led to feelings of needing to change things up and try something else.

I decided to open up my job search, including industry roles as well as academic roles. I found myself looking for jobs that would allow me to make good use of my skills outside of academia, with a particular focus on jobs that would allow me to work from home (given the pandemic). Jobs closely related to public engagement and working with researchers were particularly grabbing my attention, and I ended up being offered a role at a tech company which would allow me to work with researchers wanting to take their research online.

At first it felt like I’d stepped into a whole other world. There was a huge focus on working as a team, which felt like a nice change, as it can sometimes feel like there’s a focus on individual achievements within academia. I was also really enjoying working with researchers from all across the world; hearing about their research and how they came to their research questions satisfied the innate curiosity that drives me.

At this point I was still seeing everything in terms of academia vs industry, as if they were two completely separate entities with no similarities or connection. But over time I realised that the grass isn’t always greener. Pressure, long hours, and burnout aren’t just seen in academia, they can be found in industry too. I also found myself starting to feel a bit lost; I kept seeing friends working on great pedagogical projects and felt like I was just watching from the outside, not quite sure whether I was ‘allowed’ to get involved. There was also a lot of guilt: I felt as though I had made a big deal about my move to industry and worried that I’d be seen as a failure or hypocrite if I wasn’t happy.

But in early 2022 I was asked ‘What puts a fire in your belly?’. This was a pivotal question, as I realised that teaching is my passion. Working with students directly, helping them learn new concepts, sharing my passion for cognitive psychology is what makes me happy. Once I realised this, it didn’t take long to realise that it was time to return to academia.

When I saw that Arden University was hiring, I knew it was the perfect fit. Arden’s ethos of reducing barriers to higher education fits perfectly with my compassionate leadership approach to teaching. I sent my application in and fortunately it was successful, leading to my April 2022 tweet about my plot twist of heading back to academia! One specific reply to my tweet stood out and has helped to change the way I think about academia and industry – in fact, it’s a tweet that inspired this article.

Congrats on the new job! TBH, we need more fluid movement between academia and industry, so you are now a brilliant example of that. Dr Aidan Horner, @aidanhorner

When I had started thinking about applying for an academic role again, I was concerned that doors had been permanently closed. I was worried that time away from teaching would’ve made me an unattractive prospect for a university, even though I thought I’d learnt a lot along the way that would be useful in a new role. Dr Aidan Horner’s tweet about more fluidity between academia and industry really gave me the confidence that I could bring knowledge and skills from my industry role into my new academic job and that they might even be useful.

Knowledge and skill transfers

By thinking about academia and industry as two completely separate entities in which travel can only happen in one direction (i.e. academia to industry), we’re missing out on potential knowledge and skill sharing. There is so much that academia can teach industry and vice versa. For example, my understanding of the structure of universities was helpful in my industry role, as was my insights into various research methods and topics within behavioural science. On the flip side, during my job in industry I was occasionally involved in reviewing applications and hiring. This experience of hiring psychology graduates has been helpful as I’m now involved with several employability projects at Arden University. I’m able to work with our Careers team to see how we can best help students think more deeply about their skillset and experiences so they can put their best foot forward in applications.

When thinking about what those from academia can take to industry roles, it’s important to consider things such as critical thinking, project management, and communication skills. Additionally, subject knowledge and an understanding of research methods can also be sought after! As well as these valuable skills and knowledge, academics are often able to pick up new things relatively quickly and can succinctly communicate complex concepts which can be highly valued.

Working in industry can teach a person a lot about being willing to try new ways of doing things and taking managed risks to find out what works. This can bring a fresh perspective into academia which can traditionally be quite conservative and risk-averse. Another thing that academia could take from industry is some of the work culture: it should feel more acceptable to ask for help and encourage expertise split across a team rather than a project being very reliant on one person.

Academia and industry can learn a lot from each other and there could be a great two-way partnership if we tried. So what can we do to move towards greater fluidity between academic and industry careers?

The future

If we want to see more movement between academia and industry, we need to start by raising awareness of the wide variety of career options available following postgraduate study. Within psychology there is often a focus on professional practitioner pathways (such as clinical psychology, educational psychology, forensic psychology, etc.), research routes through postdocs, or teaching roles. This means that there can be a lack of awareness of other career options such as data analysis, science communication, and user experience roles (amongst many others). There is also a lack of clear understanding about the value of transferrable skills picked up during time as a psychology researcher, and students may not understand how industry recruitment can work. For example, having an up-to-date LinkedIn profile can be highly beneficial for industry roles, as it allows recruiters to find your profile and potentially reach out to you about roles they’re recruiting for. Additionally, having a referral from someone within the company can help you get a foot in the door in industry roles, and many people are open to having a chat or informational interview with you to see whether they can refer you. As this isn’t necessarily common knowledge within academia, it can lead to an inequality of information that may act as a barrier to industry roles.

If we can get more people going into industry, we can hopefully start developing a stronger partnership between academia and industry, which would benefit both sectors. By raising awareness we can hopefully equip early career researchers to have the confidence to try something different and succeed in whichever role they choose, leading to more fluidity between academia and industry.

About the author

Dr Ashleigh Johnstone is an Assistant Lecturer at Arden University. Following her PhD investigating cognitive changes associated with martial arts practice, she took a role in industry working with researchers taking their experiments online. She has now returned to academia and is enjoying teaching cognitive psychology at Arden University.