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Industry to Ph.D. Pipeline: Graduate School 2.0: Part 2

 Emily in full PPE standing next to a pipeline right of way with construction equipment in the background.
Taking a work trip into the field to test GIS applications.

What I Learned Working In The Corporate World:

Overall, working in industry was well worth the time invested. It provided me with a lot of hands-on experience that I likely would not have gotten if I had continued straight on to more graduate work. Here are a few of the major things I learned:

Setting a Schedule and Boundaries: One of the most important things I took away from working a job with a more set schedule is the importance of work-life balance. In my first graduate school degree, I didn’t define clear boundaries and placed my grad school responsibilities above everything else to the detriment of my mental health and well-being. While working in industry, I learned to prioritize my mental health and define my identity outside of my work. Additionally, I quickly learned to define what is and is not inside the scope of my job description.

When I made the decision to come back to grad school, I made the conscious decision to try to keep that industry mindset and view getting a Ph.D. as a job. While I am by no means perfect at balancing everything, I do attempt to keep a fairly normal schedule. It looks like not working late into the night or all weekend, prioritizing sleep, being active, and visiting friends. I try to remind myself that I am much more than the job I am currently doing. I have big goals and dreams, but I refuse to lose myself in the process. Working corporate, especially in an hourly or billable hour setting, I learned how to value my time and contributions.

Real-World Applications: Working in a customer-facing IT group, I quickly learned that new technology is only as good as its usability! I could make the neatest, fanciest application out there, but if it isn’t practical or beneficial, no one will use it. This can be applied in my science career by recognizing the need to make our work relatable.

Essential Skills: The corporate world is big on professional development. When I was working, I had training opportunities to develop professional skills (e.g., communication, and emotional intelligence) that were immensely helpful for returning to academia. Being in a more business-orientated environment, I had to be able to maintain a balance of understanding highly technical concepts while being able to explain them quickly to non-experts. These kinds of communication skills are invaluable and directly transferable to science communication.

Project Management: While project management is often seen as this explicitly corporate term, being able to gather requirements, define project scope, and organize time and resources are all very important skills for Ph.D. students (as well as those continuing on to careers in higher education or scientific research). Taking a business approach can be incredibly beneficial.

Financial Considerations: It would be very remiss of me not to also mention the financial aspect of taking time off to work in industry. By working and saving money for several years between graduate programs, I am in a much more comfortable position financially than I was the first time. Having a stable job following my master’s allowed me to really understand my finances and when I made the decision to come back to graduate school I knew what was feasible for me in terms of cost of living, benefits, and stipends. Finances and financial security are personal and dependent on many factors, so everyone has to assess their situation for themselves.

Preparing for Making the Transition Back:

For the most part, I’ve enjoyed transitioning back to an academic environment. However, after taking time off, there were definitely some obstacles that I had to overcome and things I wish I had mentally prepared for before getting back into student mode.

Things I’d wish I’d known:

1. Structuring My Time: Coming from a corporate setting, I initially found a difference in how time is structured to be an adjustment. I went from having incredibly routine days to having free-form schedules. This can be a blessing for those who desire freedom and a curse for those who thrive on structure. I’ve tried to keep a standard workday approach when possible to keep some normalcy and maintain healthy working hours

2. Social Dynamics: Returning to graduate school can change the social dynamic with your friend group(s). This is not necessarily positive or negative. Still, I have noticed I’ve had to navigate being back in the student stage of life when most of my non-academic friends are buying homes, getting married, having children, taking vacations, and contributing to their 401k. Meanwhile, much of my new cohort is younger and adjusting to the jump between undergraduate to graduate studies. It’s fun to relate to both groups in very different stages of life.

3.Changes in Technology: Things are not the same as the last time I did grad school. I was naive in thinking, “I’ve done it before. I’ll jump right back into grad school. It’s like nothing has changed!” While this may not be as much of an issue moving forward, I was utterly shocked by the changes in technology – the difference between 2017 and 2021 was huge! As a millennial, my whole life I have watched the rapid change in technology, but when I left graduate school I was taking paper notes, doing most things manually, and using external hard drives. Now I’m constantly trying to get up to speed on Canvas, citation managers, different cloud storage options, and collaborative documents for group projects primarily done online. It was a learning curve!

Deciding to do a Ph.D. can and will be a tough decision no matter when you make it; you’ll just have to consider different sets of life’s circumstances. Ultimately, I don’t have any regrets about taking time off or making the decision to come back. Having 4 years to regroup was absolutely necessary for my journey, and I’m not convinced that I would have finished a Ph.D. if I’d continued on immediately. Whatever choice you make – whether it is to continue on or to take time between degrees – the most important piece of advice I have is that your decision needs to be for you. Consider what best suits you in your current season of life and go for it.

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