Behave According to Culture
Dr. Joe Z. Sostaric, Manager ACS Graduate
& Postdoctoral Scholars Office
In a brief conversation with a colleague at ACS recently, I was re- minded that one of the main complaints companies continue to
pass along to us is that they cannot find enough technically skilled
workers to fill their positions. “Really? ...” I pondered aloud. In my
office, I regularly hear about highly skilled graduate students and
postdocs who struggle to land positions in industry.
Shortly after that conversation, I found myself in the pres-
ence of several industrial chemists. One of them said, “One of our
recent interviewees was the perfect fit with our technical needs,
but she just didn’t get the behavioral questions. She didn’t get the
These conversations prompted me to think more deeply
about the differences in culture between academia and industry,
and how this might affect the ability of graduate students and
postdoctoral scholars to make a successful transition from aca-
demic research to working in industry.
Recognizing Cultural Differences
To understand cultural differences between academia and industry, consider the different goals and type of work that is done in
both enterprises. It might help to compare academia to industry
in the framework of a sport—soccer is my favorite! For this analogy, Team Industry closely resembles a real soccer team: Everyone works toward winning the game, pleasing the spectators, and
collecting the admission fees. And games are generally won by
the team with players that function better as a group, and not the
team with the best individual player or two. In Team Academia,
however, one player takes a free kick over and over again, with
the aim of understanding what parameters result in the best free
kick. Other individuals on the team work on other fundamentals
of the game. The outcomes of this effort are reported to the team
manager, who reports the findings to the team sponsors. In this
scenario, individual excellence is what allows the team manager
to run a successful program. Pleasing the spectators is of minimal
concern, since the sponsors of Team Academia are interested in
the fundamental outcomes. It is clear that a successful player on
Team Academia would have to make some changes in the way
they play if they wish to gain a position, and succeed as a player
on Team Industry.
Understanding the Industrial Hierarchy
The cultural distinction between academia and industry is also
apparent from the organizational structure. We can gain some
insight of the culture at a hypothetical company by considering a
pyramid framework for the company’s employee hierarchy. Scientific assistants and scientists make up the base of the pyramid.
They support senior scientists, who report to project managers,
who execute the research planned by scientific directors who
function as part of the senior management team and report di-
rectly to the CEO. The CEO works with a group of stakeholders, a
board of directors, or both at the top of the pyramid.
The CEO bases decisions about the direction of the company’s research on advice from the senior management team, as
well as advice, directives, or a combination of both from the board
and stakeholders. Cross-collaborative activities are essential to the
company’s success. Industrial chemists at this company work in
teams which include product development, manufacturing, and
marketing and sales units. The directors and project managers
in each unit organize and manage all these collaborations in the
context of the company’s overall mission and goals. All of these
groups and individuals keep in mind market trends and the bottom line.
Finding Your Place in Industry
This is the reality: Before they extend their offers, companies are
investing quite a bit of effort in understanding how a candidate is
going to fit in with their company’s culture. What does this mean for
you as you think about whether to establish your career in industry?
As graduate students or postdocs, most of you are immersed
in an academic culture, spending years in an environment dedicated to pure research. Getting the best scientific outcome governs
how you have learned to think and behave with reference to innovation, leadership, collaboration, finance, and more. The things you
do here serve the advance of pure research well, and because pure
research is your goal, these behaviors also serve you well.
To conduct a viable job search and launch a successful industrial career, you may need to recognize and change behaviors that
are aligned with success in academia.
Dr. Joe Z. Sostaric, is the Manager of the
ACS Graduate & Postdoctoral Scholars
Office. Joe has B.Sc. (Hons.) and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry from The University of
Melbourne and has held postdoctoral positions at the National Institutes of Health
and at The Ohio State University. This
excerpt is from an article he wrote for the
Graduate & Postdoctoral Scholars Bulletin
in December of 2011.