Last February, I left my position as a tenured associate professor and took a job conducting research in the tech industry. After having over six months to adjust to my new reality, I have learned something important:
Things are different in the real world.
Before my current position, I had never had a permanent, full-time job outside of academia. I always knew that being a professor is different from other jobs, and I got some hints about those differences in a book I had read while preparing to change jobs (Caterine, 2020). But I still had some “culture shock” as I learned the ropes at my new job.
Communication from Top Leadership
At my old position, I heard from the university president twice per year: at the beginning of the school year and after financial and strategic decisions were made in the wake of the state legislature’s appropriations. I heard from other upper management even less: the provost once per year and others less than that (or not at all).
My new employer is completely different. Senior management communicates at least once per week. There is little confusion among employees about the goals and priorities of senior leadership. Employees talk about these updates regularly and incorporate leadership’s insights into their decision making. Upper leadership is such a familiar presence that employees refer to them by their first name. Ironically, I feel more connected to my company’s upper leadership — even though I am working remotely from a different state — than I ever did to my university’s upper leadership who worked in an office that I could walk to in 5 minutes.
Letters of Recommendation
Academia is probably the only industry that still uses the letter of recommendation. As a professor, I wrote dozens of letters of recommendation per year for students applying to grad school. It was a lot of work; each student needs their own letter, and often I had to customize their letters for each program. Given how competitive psychology graduate programs are, having 5 students applying for graduate school would mean I was writing 30-50 letters. Even if I streamlined this process by writing a letter for a student and tweaking it for each program, this would be hours of work per student.
What boggles my mind is that academia is aware that letters of recommendation have problems. Letters of recommendation provide very little unique information. All letters of recommendation sound similar: 98% of sentences in the letters are positive (Heilman et al., 2015), which is probably due to multiple layers of self-selection. (Only high-performing students apply to graduate school. Students only ask professors to write letters if they think the professors will say something good about them. Professors only agree to write letters about students that they can write positive things about.) As a result, there is little variation, and the letters are useless for distinguishing applicants from one another.
Letters are flawed in other ways. They encourage faculty (both the letter writer and the recipients) to give weight to subjective criteria, and they enhance halo effects. They are also onerous to students, who must cultivate a relationship with a faculty member for a long period of time with uncertain returns.
I don’t miss letters of recommendation at all. That is one of the most positive changes in moving from academia to the private sector.
As a professor, I attended 2-4 conferences per year. Most of these overlapped with a weekend and would be announced several months (sometimes years) in advance. There was ample notice to make travel arrangements and arrangements for child care and other needs back home.
Industry is very different in travel. In my first year working in my new job, I will have been scheduled for four work trips. Most of the time, I had 6-8 weeks of notice, but for one trip the exact dates weren’t nailed down until 2½ weeks before. I was so shocked about the short notice that I posted on Facebook to ask if this was typical. I got a swift and unanimous response: it was. But at least weekend travel is rare. Only one of my four trips have required part of my weekend.
Spending my adult life in academia acculturated me into the ivory tower’s communication style. The four-part presentation structure (i.e., introduction, methods, results, conclusion) is the bread and butter of presenting research at conferences and in journals. It’s a structure that is logical, fits most methodologies, and has ample room for nuance and caveats.
Communication in the fast-moving tech industry is very different. My new co-workers and supervisors do not want the details of methodology, caveats, and suggestions for new research. They want just enough information to make decisions and move on. Written reports are a fraction of the length of a scholarly article, and the details of the methodology are put in an appendix (if they are mentioned at all). More than once, I have had a person interrupt a presentation and tell me to streamline my talk and give fewer details. For someone as wordy as I am and who spent over a decade in academia, this is a tough adjustment.
One of the troubles I have had is that the communication style within my company isn’t codified formally. All the rules are unwritten, and there’s no style guide for people. It’s just something that I’m expected to pick up. Again, this is a big change from the written style guide of the APA manual that has guided my writing style for 15 years.
Taking Research Seriously
My company takes research very seriously, and it shows in their internal policies. For example, my company implements open science practices (though they do not call them that). Every study has its methodology pre-registered and peer-reviewed in advance. Sample sizes must be justified in advanced, and a priori power must calculated, with results being sufficiently high to make Type II errors unlikely. Computer code used to retrieve and analyze data is retained, and studies are expected to be completely reproducible. Research matters to my employer, and that means doing research rigorously. There is no replication crisis at my workplace.
Another way my employer takes research seriously is how quickly it gets implemented into practice. In academia, researchers are not in a position to implement their research findings, and many professor complain about the disconnect between research and practice. Research at my company is very different. Research influences decisions almost immediately, and people in leadership and who execute decisions take internal research very seriously.
Moreover, the implementation of research-based decisions are monitored closely. If the decision does not produce the consequences that were expected from research, then the company reverses the decision and tries to figure out why the discrepancy happened. There are no zombie findings that live on as the cherished work of senior scientists, and no one takes any notice of studies that do not seem to work in the outside world. At my company, reality trumps theory, and there is little patience for allowing a statistically significant p-value to be the last word on a research topic.
The contrast with academia is stark. In scholarly journals, massively flawed studies — or even studies that are known frauds or extremely likely to be fraudulent — linger on, unretracted in the literature. Flawed work sometimes is admired and “built on” for decades (a key factor in social psychology’s fall from grace). After seeing the way a company acts when it really cares about research producing accurate results, it makes me wonder about academia’s priorities. Academia seems to care more about research outputs — articles, conference presentations, impact factors — then about whether the results of research are true.
It is clear that 7½ months outside of academia has taught me much about how the “real world” functions. But I am sure that there is more to learn. I often feel like a first-year graduate student, and with time I will likely discover more differences between academia and industry. This is the first time in several years where I have felt surprised in my career. Although the adjustment is sometimes rough, it is exciting to encounter new perspectives and practices — many of which are better than what I experienced before.
Caterine, C. L. (2020). Leaving academia: A practical guide. Princeton University Press.
Heilman, M., Breyer, F. J., Williams, F., Klieger, D., & Flor, M. (2015). Automated analysis of text in graduate school recommendations. ETS Research Report Series, 2015(2), 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1002/ets2.12070