SPIE Career Center

Essential Skills for a Career in the Private Sector

David Giltner
Founder, TurningScience

What can you do to be more employable than the other scientists and engineers who will be vying for the same jobs?

Completing our technical education and preparing to begin our careers in photonics can be one of the more exciting periods of our lives. For those of us who begin our careers in the private sector, the anticipation of getting to solve real world problems can be particularly exciting.

However, despite the excellent technical skills we learn through our formal education, university doesn't generally teach us how to be productive in an industry environment. This is especially true if we have an advanced degree and spent several years in a research lab. Academic research is very different than product development, and many early career scientists and engineers find that some of the work habits they picked up in academia don't serve them so well in their first industry job.

Their managers notice this as well. Many tech company managers describe the same set of academic habits that limit the productivity of their R&D staff members with advanced technical degrees. Learning to recognize these habits will make you more employable in the private sector:

  1. Make sure your work helps the company make money. Spending time on an interesting problem may have been acceptable in the research lab where the goal was publication of novel results, but that will not earn your industry manager's approval. Companies need revenue to survive, so make sure you are working on things that will reduce costs, improve yields, or result in a new product with a clear market.
  2. Learn to figure out what matters and what doesn't. Not every task that gets added to a project will end up contributing significantly to the desired result. Some tasks simply improve understanding in a noncritical area, or reduce risk slightly and make the development team feel better, but ultimately don't make a big impact on the outcome. These tasks take time and resources that could be better spent on more critical tasks. Learn to tell the difference and you will increase your value as a member of the technical team.
  3. Focus on being effective, not smart. Of course, companies do need smart scientists and engineers to be successful, but their real goal is results. Our formal education taught us that we always need to know the right answer and be able to solve problems on our own. This approach is too slow for a company that is competing to win. Focus on getting results, even if it means admitting you don't know the answer and finding someone else who does. Points are awarded for fast and efficient results, not for being right.
  4. Learn to make decisions with "just enough" data. In science and engineering, more data and more analysis typically result in greater certainty. The inability for early career scientists and engineers to make quick decisions is one of the biggest complaints from industry managers. In an industry environment, there are many nontechnical factors that affect success, including decisions made by customers and vendors, personnel issues, and macro-economic influences. In this environment, progress requires making a decision for an important question even when there is no "right" answer, which can be a particular challenge for those of us who were trained to relentlessly gather data before making a decision. If you want a successful industry career, learn to make decisions with less data than you might like to have.
  5. Learn to persuade others to follow you and your ideas. Academic research publications typically require enough data and analysis that the results speak for themselves. This is often not possible in a company environment (see skill number 4). There might not be a "right" answer, and you may need to convince nontechnical people who wouldn't understand your proof anyway. Learn to be persuasive by being articulate and helping others see the value in your ideas, and you will be much more successful in your industry career.

 David Giltner is a speaker, career coach, and founder of TurningScience, a company designed to teach scientists and engineers how to design rewarding careers in industry.