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Build for success > Tough Tales of Transition > Fast Track: Academia to Management

Fast Track: Academia to Management

By Galia Barhava-Monteith

“Is there any way to fast-track gaining experience? I’m 28, but because I did a PhD (I was going to be an academic), I only got my first graduate job two years ago. Some of the people I did my under-grad studies with are in management now, and I don’t seem to be making any headway to catch up. I’m working as a business analyst in the electricity industry on a three-year graduate program, and have no shortage of raw technical skills – I’ve had some popular science articles published, my degrees are in maths and physics, and I have been tutoring for years.

Now that’s a hard one! Thank you very much for this question. As you’re clearly finding, your undergraduate peers have had a lot of time to prove themselves and deliver visible results while you were in Academia. Do remember that although publication is the hallmark of success in Academia, corporates look for results in their ‘own language’. This means you’ll need to:

  • figure out how to find opportunities to broaden your experience;
  • deliver on those opportunities so you can start to build a portfolio of achievements that are relevant to your new context;
  • find a way that’s appropriate to your firm’s culture to make sure people know about you and what you’ve accomplished.

Women Aren’t as Good at Putting Themselves Forward

Sarah and I have been doing considerable analysis on the ongoing lack of senior women at the top of corporate New Zealand. One of the common explanations is that women are less up-front about their ambitions. In observing young graduates on the graduate programme in the large company I used to work for, I have to say the men were – generally speaking – better at putting themselves forward.

Women tend to assume (or hope) that their excellent work and contributions will be recognised and they’ll advance naturally as a result. Reflect on your own tendencies. Are you your own best saleswoman? Do you expect your good work to advertise itself? Even if you don’t see things this way, the reality is that even well-advertised, excellent outputs are only part of the picture and you’ll need to do more if you’re keen to fast-track into management.

Does Your Manager Know of your Frustration?

Have you actually expressed your desire to fast-track into management with your manager? I’ve observed over the years that many corporate managers have a tendency to assume PhDs love doing deeply analytical or technical work and have little interest in taking on management roles. Because this IS true for quite a few PhDs, managers tend to equate all PhD hires with these characteristics. So you do need to make sure you’re not placed in this particular bucket.

An important step, in my view, is to share your ambition to take on a management role with your manager/supervisor and ask her how you can move into that from your current context. She might actually have some very good ideas for you to implement. You can ask that the steps suggested be incorporated into your regular performance reviews.

Get Noticed Through Participating in the Right Kind of Projects

Discuss with your manager what opportunities exist that would be more in line with your management aspirations. Could you volunteer to lead a project that involves managing people in some way and not just analysing data?

Simply by signalling you’re keen to take on challenges that involve a component of working with people and getting results through them, you’ll begin to draw attention to your ambition to fast-track your career. But of course, you must make sure you can deliver on them.

Also, you don’t need to rely solely on your manager to find these opportunities. One worthwhile way to figure out how to approach things, and who to go to, is to find yourself an internal mentor. Another way is simply through yourself, and the effort you put into getting know people so that they have a chance to notice you.

Find an Internal Mentor

You don’t need to rely wholly on your manager to find these broadening opportunities. Even though organisations have got a lot of common characteristics, they are also unique in many crucial ways. The best way for you to understand that ‘uniqueness’ is by having someone in your firm that you trust to ‘translate’ the political landscape for you. A very powerful way for you to do that is through a good internal mentor.

My definition of an internal mentor is someone with whom you have an informal relationship, and who’s not your direct boss. He or she needs to be knowledgeable about ‘how things work round here’. This person does not necessarily have to be more senior or even older. A good mentor can help guide you through the ‘unspoken rules’ of your company and help you work out things for yourself, which you might not otherwise be able to do. If you want to read more about mentors is and how they differ to coaches, read the earlier chapter ‘A coach or a mentor’ in this volume.

If you don’t have a mentor yet, make it a priority to find one. This is not something you do formally; it is more about ‘getting-to-know-people’ and seeing who you really click with. In order to achieve this, you’ll need to really network internally.

Networking Internally

That networking word again! But I’m afraid it is really important if you want to advance. I’ve heard and read commentators who say that women aren’t as good at internal networking and getting themselves known with the ‘powers that be’. Networking internally will serve two crucial purposes:

  • Finding good allies you can trust who might be good mentors.
  • Getting yourself known among the senior management of the organisation.

In most organisations senior managers hold formal or informal talent discussions (or both). They talk about who’s up and coming, who’s a star, etc. The more they know you and see you, the more able they are to judge whether or not you’re ‘management material’.

Of course, you may be a natural networker! But if you don’t feel confident about it, try the articles below.

  • Professionelle’s Passion for Networking (Book 1: Begin with Success)
  • Nature versus Networker (in this volume)

Lateral Shift

Finally, consider a lateral move. The benefit of this is that it will take you out of your current role which might be seen as ‘purely technical’. It can also send a clear signal to management about your serious intent to pursue a management role. A lateral role would not mean a rise up the hierarchy but might help you gain experience which is more relevant to management.

Many former specialists attribute their later success in their management career to taking lateral moves and gaining more generalist skills. Alison Andrew’s interview on the Professionelle website is a good example.

Keep your ears open to new developments that might interest you. Again, the best way to find out about such opportunities is through internal networking. Taking deliberate action is always the best way if you’re ambitious and want results!

Rachel’s Answer

After writing my reply to the question posed at the beginning of this chapter, I turned to someone who’s been in a similar position. Rachel has a PhD and, like our questioner, entered corporate life later than her under-graduate peers. Rachel was kind enough to provide us with her perspective.

Having been in the same situation, I know how frustrating it can be to see the careers of your peers taking off when your own is just starting out. However, given that at 28 you have a PhD, two years’ work experience and are on a graduate programme, you are obviously a talented and motivated individual and will achieve the goals you set for yourself.

My advice at this point would be to take a quick reality check, spend time working out what you are aiming for, and then make a plan.

The Reality Check

Don’t be too hard on yourself! You took a backwards/sideways step when you moved from an academic career path into a commercial role and it will take time to gain the experience needed to move into bigger roles. On the other hand, while you may be behind your age group peers, your added life and research experience will probably mean you are well poised to move more quickly through the ranks than your graduate programme peers.

Working Out Your Goals

With two years’ work experience, this is a great time to take stock and identify what you are aiming for. I would recommend spending some time assessing your strengths and weaknesses and most importantly what you enjoy about work. Some outside views might be helpful here. The skills you developed during your PhD study will always be with you, it’s up to you to decide whether they define your future or just enhance it.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that management comes in many different guises, what in particular are you looking for in future roles? For example, do you want to be a generalist? A specialist? Leader of people? Work in the same industry? Or to build skills that are transferable across industries? A clear picture of where you want to be will help in your discussions with mentors, colleagues and bosses as you execute your plan.

The Plan

This is the time to take all that great advice that Galia has given and figure out how you can use it to achieve your goals. I would reinforce the value of talking to your manager, having a mentor and networking.

 A Final Word

There can be preconceived ideas about the ‘over-qualified’. Many people do not understand what is involved in postgrad study and some can even be seemingly threatened by it (this came a big surprise to me, and is worth being aware of). For me, my PhD was a thoroughly enjoyable life and learning experience. I have taken skills from that time and applied them in my working life, but I know that it is only the results on the job that count in the end.

Member’s Response

Before we posted this advice, we sent it to the member who’d asked us the question to get her views and to find out how useful it actually proved to her.  She kindly responded with the reply below.  We thought it would be good to share it.

Thanks for the response.  I have already been doing some of the suggestions you made, so I guess it’s partly a case of waiting for that to come to fruition.  

My current manager also has a PhD (and a fair amount of wisdom) which makes it easier, and I’ve discussed my goals with him.  Unfortunately, he’s moving to a new job in a different company in a different town in a few weeks, but I’m planning to keep in touch with him as an external mentor.  My company also has a very flat management structure (both a blessing and a curse!), so my senior manager is in the same room as me and the CEO is quite approachable.  I will also be moving to a new area of the company sometime soon on my grad rotation – it was meant to be this week but it isn’t organised yet.

It’s good to get the reassurance that I should be able to get on the fast-track and catch-up and pass my peers.  The networking ideas are particularly helpful as I tend to be a bit shy so I’m not the best at it.   I will also be following Rachel’s advice to work out my goals and then come up with a plan to achieve them – part of which will involve telling my new manager that I want to put together a development plan that will see me ready for management roles in a year’s time.”

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