Hoping to debunk the myths surrounding making the leap into industry after a PhD, our mini series, PhD to Industry, asks 'what are my options?', 'is my work relevant?', 'what even is industry?' In this first episode, we ask Zach Sorrells, Head of Innovation and Industry Engagement at Skillfluence, about his work on training PhD students to work effectively with businesses, industry and the public.
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Carolin Oetzmann 0:00
So you've decided to do a PhD, whether you're just applying a few months in, or the dreaded thesis write-up is on the horizon, you'll probably be thinking about what to do next. As we've heard from Kate Murray in our last episode, there often seems to be a dichotomy in the post PhD life. Do I stay in academia? Or do I take the leap into industry?
Nicol Bergou 0:23
It seems that around 60% of PhD students end up in some kind of industry role. If you're erring on the side of the fence, you might be wondering, what are my options? Will my topics or skills be relevant, is there a chance for collaboration? What even his industry?
Katie White 0:40
In this mini series, we speak to interviewees who might just have the answers to some of these questions. In this first episode, I met with Zack Sorrells, head of innovation and industry engagement at Skillfluence, a company that offers training to researchers and academics in working effectively with businesses, industry, and the public.
So Zach firstly, could you explain how you define the term industry in this scenario?
Zach Sorrells 1:09
Yeah, that's a really good question. It's a question that actually comes up a fair bit during the programmes. And kind of bizarrely, it's it's not typically the way industry talks about themselves, right? So only when you go into academia, do they tend to go and say it's working with industry as this other thing, kind of like everything is, is industry in a way. And I think for us, when we talk about industry, it's really a non academic environment. So it could be large, multinational, multinational, it could be startup, it could be SMEs, small, medium sized enterprises, it could be NGOs, or governments or not for profits. So it's really when we think about industry in this context, it's anything outside of the university environment.
Katie White 1:53
And I think that's interesting as well, because for a lot of people, I think when they think industry, they they automatically think profit making companies and actually, in this sense, it could, it's basically everything outside of academia, right? So even government organisations.
Zach Sorrells 2:07
that's the way we're talking about it. I mean, many people will, you know, some people will have different definitions and think about it in a different way and say, no, it's specifically, you know, working with companies, but for us, it's just, you know, how do you transfer what you're working on and the skills you're developing in academia to something outside of that environment?
Katie White 2:24
Could you tell us a little bit about Skillfluence as a company, and specifically your role within them?
Zach Sorrells 2:29
Yeah, so we are a skills development company, but fundamentally, I kind of think of Skillfluence as we help kind of bridge the gap between academia and industry, but we do it from a skills perspective. So it's kind of looking at saying, what are the skills and capabilities and competencies that industry is looking for? And where are those gaps or deficiencies might be a bit hard, but but in terms of those kind of academic, you know, coming from an academic environment, going into industry, where are those gaps and we kind of look to fill those were kind of that that bridge between industry and academia, but really focusing on those skills to enable those leaving academia to work effectively with with industry. And typically we focus, we're not not really the technical side of things, not not the academics, and we're not teaching people academic writing, we're focusing on those very transferable skills that you can take and apply anywhere I really.
Katie White 3:22
And was the idea for this company born from experience are seeing that, in general, academics, were finding it hard to transition into industry or hard to pose themselves as suitable for industry?
Zach Sorrells 3:34
Yeah, absolutely. And I think it stems from the fact that the university system specifically in the UK has been developed to be very good at what it does, right? It's very good at developing academics, researchers, you know, that that skill set, what it typically hasn't been very good at, is developing those industry centric skills, because that's not that's not what it's been built for. Right. And so there was this gap, where you've got these extremely intelligent, highly motivated, well trained PhD students that are still kind of lacking those skills that they need to be able to deliver an impact. And it's called a return on investment, very quickly, when they go out in the industry, and kind of building on you know, there's lots of different data out there that says, you know, what percentage of people who get a PhD actually end up working in academia versus industry, and it can be anywhere from, you know, 60% to 90%, depending on the research that you're looking at. And so most PhD students are going to work in industry. And so we're working on developing those skills to enable that to enable them to kind of make that transition more effectively.
Katie White 4:36
When you say return on investment. Does that literally mean profit wise? So the amount of money that you for the time or effort that you put into your PhD then the return you're getting on that?
Zach Sorrells 4:45
Yeah, that's a really good question. That's probably not entirely clear. So the return on investment, actually, in this context, I'm referring to is the government's return on investment, right. So they're fundamentally paying for the development of PhDs through whether their centres for doctoral training in these types of facilities is that we're investing a significant amount of our taxpayer pounds into the development of these, these individuals. Now, we want to get a return on investment. So when they go out and work in industry, they're able to add value and deliver impact. And so government and you'll see, you'll see this, where there's an increased emphasis on developing these industry centric skills and collaborations with industry. It's because they want to get more impact in terms of, you know, GDP growth, improvement of quality of life, job creation, wealth, creation, these types of things. And so when I talk about return on investment, I'm actually thinking about it from the government standpoint, they're investing in the development of these PhD students, what we as society are going to get as a return from that.
Katie White 5:44
At what point do you think PhD students should be thinking about how to connect with industry?
Zach Sorrells 5:51
Immediately. So one of the programmes and I can't take full credit for this statement, but what comes up in the programmes, and we actually did a webinar where we invited some of our past participants on and said, what did you guys remember, and one of the participants, she said, remember that things actually said, dig your well, before you're thirsty, dig your well before you're thirsty. And I think that's the key principle is like, start as early as you can. Because even if you're, you know, three, four years away from needing that, you want to start developing those relationships, developing that mindset and working on those skills. If you wait until you know you're about finished and about ready to get out, it's kind of too late. And what we're trying to do is bring that skill set further forward, if you will, right. So it's, we're thinking about it earlier, because there's many students that we work with in the final phase of their PhD, or there's a real sense of panic and anxiety around this. And so if we can start some of this stuff earlier, when we get towards the end, we're going to feel a little bit better about the situation.
Katie White 6:51
So now imagining that we're PhD students in the midst of our work, we've already decided early on the industry, or something that we want to focus on, during the course that you run for PhD students that I've recently been a part of, you have some areas of focus for transitioning into industry. And one of the key ones is identifying and selling yourself as an expert, but also identifying your transferable skills that you gain from a PhD studentship. And as we know, these might need to be broad and generalizable and sold to industry jobs in a way that they might understand them. So what would you say are the top transferable skills that you think PhD students have that would be suited to an industry role?
Zach Sorrells 7:27
Okay, so I think I think there's, there's loads, right? And it depends on the role that you're going into, but project management, there's research research out there, that's when we're the one number one skills that companies are looking for is project management skills. So absolutely, I mean, your whole PhD is a big project and managing that managing the resources and the time the deliverables. So absolutely, absolutely. Project Management, organisational skills, right, the ability to organise lots of complex factors and put all that together, communication skills as well, I mean, the ability to take complex ideas, and communicate them in a way that's easy for others to understand if you're able to do that and develop that skill. So I mean, there's, there's, there's a huge, huge amount of them. And it really is just going and kind of digging into and thinking about your work that way, right? So instead of thinking about it, or in addition to thinking about it as the science and the research, but think about it and be aware of Actually, I'm developing leadership skills, project management skills, communication skills, teamwork, all these types of things. So you will be developing lots of different transferable skills that are very valuable to industry. It's just about being able to define and communicate to industry in a way that's relevant to them.
Katie White 8:42
And I remember during a part of the course you mentioned that you think the industry aren't necessarily that good at articulating what they need, and academia aren't that good at articulating what they have, what would be your advice, if any, for looking through job descriptions and trying to match up the things that industry jobs need with the things that academics have?
Zach Sorrells 9:01
That's a really good question. I'm not an expert at recruitment, I'm not an expert at interviewing, I'm not an expert at getting your CV reviewed. That's not my gig, right. But I can say I would say I would probably just go and you know, look at all those those types of roles that you're looking for. And just look for those words that are popping out because they will be buzzword but general principle is use the language that your audience so to speak is using so if your audience and in this context, it is the people that you want to get a job with, right? You want to make yourself interesting and relevant and attractive to them. Well match and mirror their language. So if they're using language like leadership, you use language like leadership, if they are using language like organisational skills, you use language like organisational skills, and it's the reality is, is that you probably have all those skills anyways. It's more about just making it fit in a way that's relevant. For them, so if you're if they're looking for organisational skills, and you're calling it project management, for example, they've got to do the work to connect the dots. Project management can be called organisational skills, right? And you may have an interview with three different people. And one person is calling it project management skills in one person's calling organisational skills, or whatever. And so I don't I don't know if that's useful or not, but I think it's that key principle of is use the language that your audience is using. That's how you position yourself in a way that's relevant for them.
Katie White 10:32
Just having an idea of a little bit more business jargon, I guess.
Zach Sorrells 10:35
I mean, the other way to do it right, as you think about this as a project, if you think about this, not as getting the interview or getting the job, but if you think about it, and I think this is a useful way to think about it is actually think about it as trying to find good fit for something that's right for you. That's really the right mindset. Now, this links back to that question about when should you start, if you start early, it gives you the luxury of focusing on fit. And it gives you the luxury to treat this as a research project, to go out and have conversations and learn what they're looking for, learn the terminology, before you're stressed out about trying to get a job. And then you can then go and say, Okay, now I understand what it needed. And over that three, four year period, you found the fit, and you figured it out, it compounds the problem by waiting to the end, because then you're just trying to get a job. But if you can start early and focus on finding what the right fit is, that's when you can kind of really get that good connection.
Katie White 11:31
I really like this idea of finding a good fit, because it takes the onus away from you, as a as an academic trying to fit into this big industry world when actually you need to find a job that is right for you as well, rather than just trying to fit yourself into this other sector.
Zach Sorrells 11:46
Yeah, I think that is a huge mindset shift. And you know, some of the future conversations you'll have with different some of your guests that I've had as well is if you just do that little shift and go, actually, I'm not, I'm trying to find what's right for me, as opposed to trying to make myself right for them. Now, there's a little bit of you know, back and forth around that and matching your skills with what they're looking for. But what's more important is going you are us PhD students coming out of this, you are highly talented, well trained, potentially very valuable employees. And if you do this, right, you're going to have more, the problem is going to be deciding what you want to do not getting a job. And so I think that's kind of a mindset shift. I think it's useful for a lot of folks,
Katie White 12:26
When I speak to people who have transitioned from their PhD into big four or med tech roles. A massive part of it is having the confidence to say actually, I do think I can do this and I do think that I'd be relevant for your role. Okay, so maybe a competence training during PhD would be a bigger takeaway.
Zach Sorrells 12:44
100% I mean, I think, okay, so I gotta be careful with this. But like, the programmes that we do are they provide skills, right, they provide skills and tools, more important, I think, be working on confidence right, now, you can't just create confidence, right. So that's why you have skills and tools because developing those skills and learning those tools gives you confidence, it's part of giving you confidence. So it's not just like, you know, rah, rah, you're the best. But we got to give you some things to make you feel like you've got that, however, that being said, is that you can learn all the tools, all the frameworks, all this stuff that you want all skills, but at some point, you got to get out there and do it. And that's how you get confidence. How do you become more confident speaking with businesses, you got to go out there and speak with businesses, one of my mentors from way back is a fantastic writer. And I was doing a lot of writing underneath him and, and he says, He says, always remember this, he's like, if you want to become a good writer? Write. And that's the only way you can become a good writer is you can't read books on writing, become a good writer, you got to go out and write. And that's how you become confident around that. So there's this kind of thing. It's just kind of like we can work on the skills and work on the principles and the frameworks. But on some level, we just got to get out there and do some stuff. And that's how you develop that confidence.
Katie White 13:57
And in that sense, and just a follow up question from that, would that be in terms of just speaking to people from the companies that you would aspire to work with on LinkedIn, or actually having placements or work experience with them? Or all of the above?
Zach Sorrells 14:11
All of the above, all of the above. Yes, yes. Yes. And yes, the more and I think that's a great opportunity, kind of your PhD experiences, you've got a period of time, where you do I know you've got huge amounts of work, right. So anything extra is challenging, but that is a time when you can kind of explore and try things out as well. And so yes, work placements. Yes, conferences. Yes, conversations, yes, doing podcasts and talking to people, all of these things. It's just the more you expose yourself to that, the more you engage with that, the more confidence you're going to get, the more you're going to realise that this whole mythical beast of industry, it's just another thing you know, it's not a big thing.
Katie White 14:48
If we think now about another key aspect of the cause that stuck out for me anyway was being able to identify your research specific or topic specific expertise, which might fill a gap in knowledge at a specific company in a way that you can position yourself as an expert. In your opinion, how can PhD researchers best communicate their topic specific or research specific expertise to industry?
Zach Sorrells 15:13
So this is a really good question. And it might be a little bit controversial here. I think we spend so much time thinking about how we communicate outwards, right? So how do we communicate to them? How do we get them to understand how do we pitch our research? Right? And I would just, I'd flip it. And I think what I would start doing is start asking more questions, start asking better questions, to understand their situation. And just ask and ask and listen. And it's this old kind of 7030 rule 70%, listening, 30% talking. And if you apply that, what you're going to find is you're going to go, Ah, I understand what their problems are, because they got problems, I understand what their issues are, I see what their challenges are. Now I can take that. And then I can frame whatever it is I'm working on in a way that's relevant to them. If we start from a position of, I'm going to tell them how awesome I am, I'm going to tell them all the great stuff I'm going to do and tell them how amazing my research is. It's needle in the haystack type stuff that you're going to hit the mark. So what you want to do is instead of going in and telling go in and start asking questions and listening, and then you know how to frame it. For me, I would spend less time focusing on pitching more time focusing on thinking about how to ask really good questions and listen, genuinely listen. And I don't know if that's a if that's the answer that we're looking for. But from a communication standpoint, start by asking questions and learning, then you've got the material, you need to be able to communicate whatever it is that you're working on, in a way that's relevant. If you don't do that, you're just throwing stuff against the wall.
Katie White 16:45
One of the big things I learned and the course as well was, again, this idea of trying to find a good fit for you. And so when I was approaching or thinking about job interviews before, I was very much thinking, Okay, this is a very set definition of what they're looking for in a role. And I have to try and see how I can fit in with that. And actually, there's this whole idea that it hadn't even occurred to me, which is that you could try and yeah, essentially listen to what their problems are, and how you can fit into that. And I think that's a really interesting avenue to go down for PhD researchers who essentially have really expert knowledge on that specific topic and have done for three years.
Zach Sorrells 17:21
You got the opportunity to take people to new places, because sometimes and this kind of communications and unfairly, we put all the emphasis and the pressure on the PhD student or the academic that they need, it's their problem, that we're not able to build better connections or collaborations with industry, it's their problem, when I don't get industry to understand the value. Now, the reality is to share a problem because industry isn't always that great holding them us as this example, they're not that great at articulating what they need and what they want all the times. And actually writing job descriptions is a really hard thing to do. And that's a challenge, right? So that requirement of what they're looking looking for, is basically a starting point for a conversation. I mean, if you look at there's lists that people have what they're looking for, there's nobody in the world that has that right there, that person doesn't exist, that's a unicorn. But what it is, is saying, this is where we're starting, and now you go, Okay, let's figure this out and figure out what you're really trying to achieve what I can do how I fit into that, well, I'm not so good in this area, but I can really help you in here. And then you work that out, you figure out a fit, it's more organic, it's more, you know, there's more texture to it than saying, oh, there's Katie, that ticks all the boxes to what I've listed, that just doesn't happen. That's not the way it works.
Katie White 18:33
So basically acknowledging that they're trying to find someone who is the best fit for that, but assume that there won't be anyone that would take all those boxes.
Zach Sorrells 18:40
Definitely. And you can actually help define the fit, right? I mean, that's the thing is through the asking those questions, because I've interviewed you know many people before and you have a conversation, you realise, huh, that conversation has led me to realise that I want something that I didn't realise that I locked in, or I was wanting to do the wrong thing. Or actually that skill or capability that this person brings, helps me think about how I want to approach this challenge. And so it's much more organic than trying to find that perfect match between, you know, what they're asking for their job requirement and CV. It's a more organic conversation.
Katie White 19:14
And just to kind of finish off then, what do you think, from your experiences of talking to people in your company and on the programmes that you run? What is the biggest difference between academia and industry, do you think?
Zach Sorrells 19:26
So? First off, that's a really challenging question. Because if we go back to the first question was how do we define industry? Industry can be all sorts of things, you know, the biggest difference between you know, if we take for example, what's what's it like in a multinational? What's it like working at a an r&d department in a pharmaceutical company versus in a high tech startup versus in a not for profit versus in a government agency. So I think that is a caveat is the characteristics of different industries, the characteristics of different companies within different industries, the characteristics of different departments within In different companies, you know, it can be quite varied. That being said, one of the fundamental differences, I think, is that as part of a PhD, and in this academic environment, PhDs have the opportunity to spend four years thinking about one thing, fundamentally, right focus on one question, one challenge for four years, in my whole career in industry, over 22 years, I've never spent four years working on one thing, maybe four months now, I mean, I mean, that's extreme, but the pace at which things are changing, and you're having to move to different areas. And folks, there usually isn't that luxury of going so deep into so much depth and detail into one specific area, that creates a variety of different things, and whether it's around pace, and speed and need for completeness and need for all of the answers, and all of these types of things. But I think that's the fundamental difference is that most roles in industry, you're not able to go so deep on the one specific subject to genuinely become an expert in that, on that level, where in academia, you're able to do that, I think that's the fundamental difference. And there's lots of things that come out of that as a result.
Katie White 21:07
That's interesting. And I remember, Rosh, who were going to interview one of the episodes in his interview that he did for your course I remember he said that, and one of his top tips for considering how to move between academia and industry would be to not always focus on getting the perfect answer and getting it right, but just focus on and how you can get there efficiently and quickly, and how you can use other people to help that. And I think that differentiation definitely rings true for me, as well.
Zach Sorrells 21:32
There's a real point of tension there, that that comes up. And it's hard to kind of articulate in a way that doesn't feel like you're not concerned about quality of the output, right? Because fundamentally, listen, we don't need to be perfect, we need to be good enough, whatever good enough is now good enough is different in different situations. But good enough, early on in the process could be not very good and good enough, a little bit later on needs to be really good, right? And so there's different levels of that. But this idea of understanding what good enough is at that stage, and how do you get to that efficiently and quickly, because speed is absolutely going to be more important in industry, right. And so, again, it's all relative, what speed is for different situations. So speed, and pharmaceuticals versus speed in software development are two different things. But understanding that I need to get it to good enough, as quick as possible. And again, whatever quick is whatever quick means and whatever good enough means it changes. But that's the fundamental fundamental goal that industry, most cases is trying to get to.
Katie White 22:32
Yeah, nice, thank you,
Zach Sorrells 22:34
which is different, by the way than saying you have four years to finish this, right? Because that's like, okay, you can do whatever you want. Fundamentally, just as long as you're finished within four years, we're in industry, it's like, I want it done as fast as we can get it done. If we can get it done in in six months versus two years, let's get it done in six months. That's kind of a unique environment where you've got four years, that's a big period of time, there's a pretty fundamental different mindset around that.
Katie White 23:01
And maybe that's something also to bear in mind when using those transferable skills. So for example, project management, I have project management skills, I can manage a project to be finished in four years. And but that was just because that's how long I was given. And I could hopefully do it quicker as well, given the time frame.
Zach Sorrells 23:17
Right? Well, you absolutely could do it quicker, right? If you just said, Listen, you have to get me a deliverable within four months. That's what you have to get. You'd figure out a way to get me a deliverable, right or get a deliverable, right, it would be a different deliverable. But you would all of a sudden create some real tension and some real, probably innovativeness about how you're doing it. Because you've got to do it in four months. He's like, Yeah, but I need I need four years, you don't have four years, not four months. And so that forces it puts an edge on things that does kind of focus the mind in a different way.
Katie White 23:46
What would be your one take home message for PhD students who are wanting to go into industry?
Zach Sorrells 23:52
If you're looking to go into industry, and this is probably beyond just going into industry. I preach about this internally, at Skillfluence all the time as well. The number one skill, I believe the number one most valuable skill, transferable skill that will set you up for success and open opportunities and help you get jobs and help you get projects and basically just allow you to deliver the impact that you want to have. It's fundamentally communication. If you break it all down. I believe it's a communications challenge, the ability to effectively communicate your skills, your capabilities, your work in a way that is relevant to the person that's receiving it. And whether that person receiving it is an investor, if you want to start a business, whether it's HR manager, if you're trying to get a job, whether it's the funding body, if you're trying to put together a grant, fundamentally, it's that ability to communicate effectively in a way that's engaging, gets people to see your vision. make people believe that you're able to do it in these types of things. So that would be my thing. And I kind of in a lot of the programmes is like, instead of separating research and communication, think about communication as part of the research project that you're applying that same scientific method and scientific discipline to develop effective communication strategies, right? So you create a hypothesis to say, I think this will be a good good communication strategy. And you try it, you'd want to test and you get feedback. So you get some data on and say, actually, when I was speaking, that person, their eyes glazed over, they didn't seem to get it. Okay, that's some useful data, need to go back and try to figure out create a new hypothesis for how to explain this in a way that's meaningful. And you try that you test that you go, huh, that wasn't quite so bad, that was a lot better. And you try another one, another one. And you continue to work on that over time, so that by the end of your your PhD experience, you've got some seriously effective communication to explain how you can add value to people. So I mean, that's a long winded way to explain that. But I think it's, if I were to say, you know, one piece of advice, really proactively Think about your communication skills, and work on developing those.
Katie White 26:00
And I'm now going to go back to my LinkedIn and check that communication is all over the about section.
Zach Sorrells 26:05
We sometimes get so caught up in like our skills and our competencies, right. It's all people all it's all people. And so your ability to effectively connect with people, your ability to get people motivated by what you're working on your ability to sell your ideas, and selling is a bad dirty word. But we're all in it, that is going to allow you to get maximum value from all that you've put into your PhD work. Without that you got half of the half of the story, right? You need the other half to really activate those skills that you've developed.
Katie White 26:38
And I guess that's quite a nice parallel to end on between academia and industry is that you have this product or service or thing that you've worked on, and you've researched it, and you have the empirical evidence. And then, like you said, it's selling it, isn't it. So whether that's in for profit, or in research outputs, or just convincing people that this is the best way of doing something? I think that's quite a nice parallel between the two as well.
Zach Sorrells 27:03
Yeah. And I'd say one last thing, or you gave me one bit of advice, but we're parting words, I'll give another parting words because once you get me started, you can't shut me up, develop that confidence, right? And just go out and do it, go out and try go out and engage with people. This is a confidence issue more than anything else. And so if I were to give you one piece of advice would be a little bit of a rah, rah, you know, to kind of build it up is that most PhDs you guys are the top 1%. You're hardworking, intellectually, highly capable, motivated, want to deliver impact, you're naturally curious. I mean, most companies would love to have you as part of their team. And so having that in the back of your mind and say, Listen, I know, academia can be tough, and you guys can get beat up a lot, because you're always being evaluated, reviewed, which is, you know, just part of the deal. But you got to kind of insulate yourself from that a little bit and kind of know that you're pretty awesome people. And it's hard to find and keep good, awesome people out there. So you're a valuable commodity. You know, keep that in the back of your mind a more in front of your mind, because it'll help you as you move out there.
Katie White 28:07
Thank you. Yeah, that's, that's really that's a really lovely way to end.
And while I practice reminding myself that I'm a valuable commodity as a PhD student, make sure you tune into the rest of this miniseries, where we'll interview representatives from the likes of the Big Four, med tech, and academic partnerships to find out how their PhD helped them end up in the industry role they're in today.