Moving from academia to industry — a mathematician’s tale

A picture of a huge library shading into a massive industrial factory floor.
A picture of a huge library shading into a massive industrial factory floor.
How the transition from acadmy to industry looks like. Combined from Unsplash images. (This one and this one.) Here and in what follows the term ‘industry’ simply refers to any non-academical company or position.

Personal Background

I started my math studies at the University of Helsinki in 2006, and roughly ten years later I got my PhD in mathematics from the very same institution. Despite studying a small amount of computer science, university pedagogy and physics, by my estimate I finished as a ’95% pure mathematician’. By this I mean that even though I’ve always been interested in things beyond just mathematics, my research profile and thus majority of my work was completely focused in math for the sake of math in a field with few immediate applications to the real world.

Motivations for the change

Besides the ‘negative pressure’ from instability of the academical work life and the frustrations from the cumbersome application rounds, there were also several positive motivations to seek new professional vistas.

The transition

Even though the timeline of the situation was not quite that clear cut, for the sake of clarity of the exposition we’ll look at the progress in three steps: Preparation, Application submissions and Interviews.

Preparation

The idea of working in the private sector had been rolling in my mind every now and then, but I seriously started to consider it in May 2019. (Incidentally, the results and feedback of the Finnish Academy grant application rounds in math are usually announced around May.) I decided to steer my work and hobbies to a direction that would be more applicable not only to my current research and teaching but also to possible future non-academical jobs. I was still planning to possibly stay in academia, but I started hedging my bets.

Application submissions

My original plan had been to wait until around June to start applying for positions with my certification-boosted CV, but this changed with the call from the aforementioned headhunter. In my limited experience, headhunters tend to be kinda hype-y about your hireability and skills, but the pep-talks I got from them were really useful for me and I decided to give a go at applying for a position in a company that we will call Company D. Unrelated to this, on the same week a colleague sent me an email about an interesting math consulting position they had noticed, and motivated by the push from the headhunter I decided to give it a go and apply for this Company S as well. The key point I got from the headhunter and what you should remember is that your skills as a PhD are valuable and there are companies who would be eager to have you.

A comparison of a page of an academical CV next to a one page CV. The academical CV is a wall of text, the other not.
A comparison of a page of an academical CV next to a one page CV. The academical CV is a wall of text, the other not.
For comparison, here are side by side page 2/4 of my ‘academical CV’ (https://luisto.fi/documents/CV-Luisto.pdf) and my one-page ‘industry CV’ (https://luisto.fi/documents/CV-Luisto-OnePage.pdf).

Interviews

Academical positions, at least on the postdoc level, very rarely have actual job interviews. Thus, by December 2019 I had had essentially one proper job interview for a university teacher position, but no relevant interview experience for technical roles in the private sector. Even though I am quite extroverted and happy to improvise, I was exceedingly nervous. Here there is another good argument for starting to apply early as you will get experience in being in interviews. I don’t know if I learned to be interviewed better, but at least after the first few times I was a lot less nervous before and during.

A flow chart of the results of various interviews.
A flow chart of the results of various interviews.
Because literally everything is better with Sankey diagrams, and because it’s nice to have some colorful pictures every now and then.

Afterword

A year ago when I was first starting to seriously consider leaving the academia, the idea filled me with varying levels of dread. I had many conflicting fears and worries, many of them revolving around feelings of loss and defeat. Now, a year later, I don’t feel at all like I had given up or lost. There are some wistful feelings, of course, but mostly I feel relief, content and excitement. My exciting job will actually stop in the afternoons, I get to sleep in my own bed next to my wife every night of the week and I don’t have to spend a month every year just to apply for my own job. The decision was hard and stressful and it took me months to process and to come to terms with, but in the end it was worth it. So if you are planning a transition and feel worried: it’s quite normal to be scared, take it easy, talk to your loved ones about it and be assured that it can actually feel pretty awesome on the other side.

A mathematician trying to make linear algebra think.

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