Careers and professional development

From academia to industry – two stories

Ashleigh Johnstone and Joshua Balsters on their moves to Gorilla, the online experiment builder.

26 April 2021

Many academics have thought about life outside of academia. Who hasn’t found themselves thinking ‘I wish I could just drop this marking and become a…’ at some point in their career? Maybe it’s a big transition like opening a cafe, working in a bookshop, or running a vineyard. Or maybe it’s finding a similar job outside of academia with a better work-life balance. As more people are turning that dream into reality, we wanted to share the stories of two academics that happened to move into the same company. 

Ashleigh’s story

As I was finishing the write up of my PhD thesis I was juggling several short-term zero-hour contracts. It was tiring work and I found myself constantly thinking ‘when I get a full-time job I can…’ or ‘I can’t wait until I have a permanent contract so I can…’ I even found myself longing for the days when I could prove to a bank that I had an income stable enough to consider a mortgage!  

We all know that academia can be tough and competitive. It can be hard enough to find a permanent contract at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic when resources are stretched and there’s a high level of uncertainty. I had previously started weighing up the things that really matter to me – I knew I wanted a job where I could work flexibly from home, where I could enjoy guilt-free weekends, and where I was doing exciting work. This can be possible in academia, but I realised I could find these things in other jobs too, so I widened my job search.

The more I looked at a wider range of jobs, the more I realised how exhausted I was with academia. I loved the science and the research, I loved the people, but the ‘always on’ competitive culture just wasn’t for me anymore. So when I got offered a job in a company that would make use of my skills, I jumped at the opportunity!

Joshua’s story

I stayed in academia for more than 10 years after my PhD – two long postdocs and a lectureship. Why did I decide to leave? I’ve always found this an incredibly difficult question to answer. You feel guilty because there are so many talented PhDs and Postdocs that can’t find a permanent academic position. And there was never one major incident or factor to justify why I wasn’t happy in my job – the best analogy for me has always been ‘death by 1000 cuts’. An increasing number of things were annoying me, related to deep flaws in almost every academic system. Each one on their own wasn’t enough to make me want to leave academia, but together they added up to a much larger problem that eventually outweighed the enjoyment I had for research and science. 

I wasn’t the only one feeling like this. During the three years I was a lecturer, there were three nationwide strikes. The mood amongst university staff was (and still is) low. This is when I noticed seasoned academics leaving to take positions at companies and charities. I knew of more and more PhD students and postdocs leaving academia, but I hadn’t seen senior lecturers and professors leaving. 

This was an eye-opener. Although I’d invested 15 years in academia, I still had options. I’d spent years telling students about transferable skills. Now it was time to practise what I’d been preaching.

Why industry needs academics 

‘Industry’ is a broad term, and something that people may define differently. Within psychology, it seems like many separate academia and applied psychology (such as clinicians) from other roles. From there, these other roles may be further split into public sector and private sector roles. Some may refer to these private sector jobs as being ‘industry’ jobs, whilst others may lump together private and public sector jobs under the umbrella term ‘industry’. Within this article we use the term ‘industry’ to refer to any role outside of academia and applied psychology. But what positions are there outside of academia for a psychology graduate?

First, it’s important not to underestimate your skill set. Behavioural scientists have an incredible array of skills! We can work with complex data, we are great critical thinkers, we can communicate with different groups of people, and we can juggle multiple projects with varying priority levels. It’s no wonder that so many academics have been successful in making a move from academia to industry!

Sadly, many academics that leave feel a sense of guilt or shame about their decision. Personally I’ve felt this a few times since finishing my PhD. I’ve found myself wondering whether my mentors feel disappointed that they’ve invested so much time into my training for me to go and use my skills elsewhere. Luckily I’ve had great mentors who remind me that they’re happy as long as I’m happy with what I’m doing.

There’s also a terrible stigma that the people who leave academia are the ones that ‘couldn’t cut it’ or that you have ‘sold out’. However, if you look at other STEM fields like biology, chemistry, computer science, and engineering, it’s common to do a placement in industry after your PhD. Perhaps these industry career paths are more obvious – biologists and chemists can go to work in a pharmaceutical company, computer scientists and engineers at a tech company. What’s the career path for a psychologist who doesn’t want to stay in academia or work in a more applied field (e.g. as a clinician)? It doesn’t seem as if there is a clear path, and maybe that is part of the problem. 

Perhaps this is an example of the ‘Paradox of Choice’ – Psychologists develop a balance of communication and analytical skills that would allow them to slot into many different types of jobs and companies. A PhD highlights initiative, self-motivation, and excellent time management skills (all skills that top employers prioritise). We know that a psychologist with good analytical and communication skills could work in almost any industry position. At the same time there doesn’t appear to be one specific role that has a clear transition from the type of work conducted by a psychology student during their PhD or postdoc outside of academia and applied roles. It may be that this is because of the lack of a clear definition of industry, meaning that those wanting a job outside of academia may not know where to start looking or have misconceptions about industry. However, we are also seeing a new wave of industry positions that require psychology-specific behavioural insights. 

Industry has changed

At one point, academics typically saw industry as a soulless and rigid option, where the main goal is to make money rather than conduct good science. Industry positions are now so varied and open! You could work in science communication, you could do data analysis for a charity, you could be implementing research in policy, or involved with project management, to name just a few options.

There are an increasing number of positions built specifically for psychologists in industry. In the last few years, many top companies and agencies (including Amazon, Google, HMRC, and Unilever) have created behavioural science teams and Chief Behavioural Officer positions because they recognise that the best way to grow a company and create a good product is to understand the behaviour of their customers and their employees. 

Working in industry tends to involve taking theoretical interventions and principles and applying them to the real-world. For example, there are an increasing number of apps and software packages being designed that promote good mental health practices or support people with anxiety and depression. Creating and testing psychology-based products requires psychologists with research experience, essentially using all those skills you developed during your PhD. Similarly, more and more Educational Technology is being developed. If designed through collaborations between educational psychologists, data scientists, technologists and game designers we might get high quality, evidence tested educational games that provide personalised adaptive education and decrease inequality.

What we do in industry

We have both found work at Gorilla, the online experiment builder. Alongside a team of developers and customer support, we help ambitious behavioural scientists create and host online experiments easily. So what do we actually do each day?

Ashleigh: My experiences during my PhD have prepared me well for the role I’m in, even if I didn’t know that at the time. For instance, I loved getting involved with science communication – what’s the point in doing cool science if you don’t get to speak to people about it? – and it has given me a lot of confidence in talking to different groups of people about psychological research. In my job I get to chat to lots of people about behavioural science and the research they’re doing, and I can really connect with them due to my own experiences with research. If someone tells me that they’ve spent ages making their research design engaging for participants, I completely understand that pain because I’ve been there myself. 

Similarly, if I speak to someone who is looking for ways to implement online research ideas into their research methods course, I am able to reflect on my own experience of teaching research methods. I really enjoyed the teaching work I did throughout my PhD, and I worked hard to get an Advance HE Fellowship (FHEA), so I knew I wanted a job that would still have an element of education involved.

Now I get to spend parts of my day thinking about how we can educate researchers about online research, whether that’s through social media posts, blogs, or lectures. I get to help people take the first steps into online research, which some people can be wary about due to stepping into the unknown. It’s amazing to see how people flourish once they’ve got past that first step! It reminds me of teaching statistics to first year undergraduates and seeing their excitement once they realise the possibilities. 

I’ve found that the job is some of my favourite aspects of academia – networking, connecting, and educating – without the competitive, publish-or-perish culture. Each day I’m excited to work and see who I’ll be talking to that day! I have also learnt so much about other areas of psychology; my PhD was in cognitive psychology and I found myself becoming focused on a very narrow area of the sub-field. Now I’m learning about types of research that I didn’t even know were possible!

Joshua: When I was thinking about leaving academia, I asked myself ‘what parts of the job do you really enjoy? What parts would you give up if you could?’. This helped me to figure out what my perfect job would be. It involved designing science experiments and doing science education. I was very lucky to be offered a position at Gorilla where I get to do exactly that.

Although I left academia, I’m still giving lots of lectures and presentations which feeds my desire for delivering science education. I give weekly onboarding webinars to introduce new users to Gorilla, and I also run a project called Gorilla Academy. Gorilla Academy is a free series of research methods lectures where I introduce a topic in psychology, and then step-by-step build an experiment, preprocess and analyse the data. The skills I developed as a lecturer are key to my ability to create and deliver this content, combined with some new skills I’ve had to pick up in video and sound editing. Tweaking my skills to deliver online lectures has given me a newfound respect for social media influencers! 

My other passion is answering questions and designing the best experiments possible. Before leaving academia I collaborated with lots of great scientists from around the world and loved learning about their research whilst integrating it with my own experiences and ideas. At our consultancy service (Gorilla Studio), I get to use my years of research experience to help clients develop new and existing paradigms within Gorilla, and where possible I try to provide useful insights on experimental design. I love that the projects are so diverse and I get to work with a range of scientists (psychologists, economists, behavioural scientists in the private sector). Ultimately, I’m helping researchers take their research outside of the lab and get the high-quality data they need which is incredibly rewarding.

Final comments

Working in industry can provide opportunities to try new things and to be creative. Learning new skills and participating in training is encouraged, so the desire to keep learning is met. It’s worth remembering that there are so many jobs outside of academia that can be equally as challenging and fulfilling as a typical academic job. 

A job in industry may not be for everyone, but we should be making sure that it is seen as a good and legitimate option for academics. By not doing so it’s a disservice to all those researchers finishing their academic training and thinking there’s only one path. 

- Editor's note: Originally published online, 26 April 2021