How a stint in Silicon Valley unleashed one researcher’s business skills
Tomasz Głowacki’s career now straddles academia and industry, thanks to his participation in a leadership programme organized by the Polish government.
In 2007, when I started work as a research and teaching assistant at Poznań University of Technology in Poland (a job that straddled bioinformatics research and teaching discrete mathematics, algorithms and data structures), I thought academia would be a lifelong career. I enjoyed the intellectual freedom, chance to work on challenging problems and travel opportunities.
Shortly after defending my computer-science PhD thesis in 2013, I secured a place on the Polish government’s Top 500 Innovators initiative, a nine-week programme in research commercialization and management at universities with high positions in the Academic Ranking of World Universities. It was set up because the Polish government thought a lack of cooperation between researchers and business was one of the main reasons for the country’s low position in European Innovation Scoreboard rankings.
The focus at my interview was how to commercialize my research results. I was asked about factors such as potential customers, business models and pricing. Two months later, I was one of 500 scientists sent either to the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford University, California; or the University of Cambridge, UK.
The goal was to learn from the very best researchers and business practitioners. While at the Walter A. Haas School of Business at Berkeley, I spent time with researchers, practitioners and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. What surprised me the most was the marriage between business and academic institutions in California.
Lecturers shared their experiences of research commercialization, business and start-up firms. This was very different from Poland, where a scientific career does not recognize commercial activities in terms of cooperation between business and academia. In my experience, many Polish scientists see commercialization activities as a roadblock to their academic careers.
During the Berkeley training, I heard how PhD students can successfully transition into business. These lectures were delivered by Peter Fiske, who is now director of the Water Energy Resilience Research Institute at Berkeley Lab, and whose career straddles both industry and academia. Fiske focused on transferable skills between academia and business, covering data analysis, resourcefulness, technological awareness, resilience, project management, problem solving, English proficiency and good written communication. Fiske is a strong advocate of the need to market yourself as a scientist. Mark Rittenberg, a business and leadership communications specialist at Haas School of Business, taught us about the power of communication and storytelling. As scientists, we focus mostly on research results. We tend to think that the content we present is enough to sell ourselves. But in business, how you present yourself, self-confidence, an interesting story and non-verbal communication are of at least the same importance.
The innovators programme included one-day visits to technology companies in Silicon Valley, and the opportunity to undertake internships at some of them. I visited Google, the software companies Splunk and Autodesk, as well as NASA and biotechnology firm Genentech. These visits helped me to understand that ambitious work and challenging problems are not just the domain of universities.
I did a three-week internship at PAX Water Technologies in Richmond, California, where I was one of five Polish scientists who set up an interdisciplinary team to work on reducing household water consumption. This was a long way from our research topics, and a new area for all of us. Willingness to learn new things, self-curiosity, creativeness and being open to unexplored areas helped us to drill down into the problem and to propose a solution. All of these are standard skills for a scientist.
The programme helped me to understand that scientists can be effective and successful outside academia, and that the business world is full of challenging problems to work on.
But the most important conclusion for me is that the applied aspect of what I do matters the most. The best fit for me seemed to be a transition into business.
Between June and September 2013, after completing the innovators programme, I applied for several research and development positions in business. I prepared a long CV that covered my research achievements. No one got back to me.
It was an important lesson. As scientists, we have to understand how our skills fit current job-market demands. So I connected with some old university friends who were working in business to discuss their interview experience.
I decided to revamp my CV by making the description of my education shorter and focusing on my transferable skills; I included organizational skills, experience of data-analysis techniques, language skills and my structured approach to problem solving.
As scientists we focus more on problems and solutions when we describe our work. But a potential business employer is more interested in how you get there. You should focus on the tools and methods you have used, knowledge of foreign languages, and how you organize and report your work.
In 2013, I found a job as an analyst at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence at its new offices in Poznań, working with IT systems and insurance data to detect customer fraud.
A year later, I discussed my transition with Fiske, who told me: “Now that you are on the other side, don’t lose touch with your friends in academia — seek ways to help them be more relevant to the outside world.”
I wanted to give something back and to find my own way to contribute to the academic world. I am now head of product development at Analyx, an international marketing data-analytics company, and also work part-time at Poznań School of Banking as a business practitioner, teaching project management as well as systems analysis and design. I discuss the real business cases I face with my students. I also organize lectures and meetings for students with business experts, chief executives and consultants. Some of these have started long-term academic collaborations, and they provide a great opportunity for students to learn from practitioners and to land internships. I have managed to organize a master’s programme between academia and business. Students have the chance to get involved in hot industry topics supervised by business experts, and to present results and defend their theses at their universities. Teaching based on my personal experience is more satisfying for me. Leaving academia was not a failure. It helped me to explore new opportunities, to better understand my professional expectations and to find the career path that fits me best.
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