19 September 2018

Blast from the Past: Hanging Out with Academics

A few weeks ago, I somehow ended up meeting with an ex-colleague, an academic who was working in the same research institute as I was back then. It was a chance to catch up, and hear about what has been happening ever since I left.

I must say, it was an interesting experience. It was interesting to see how the institute has changed the past year and a half. And it also brought to light the various issues that academics face, and given the overall situation of the field, it's not a rosy one.

See, academics for the most part specialise in a very narrow part of their field. It's the total opposite of the so-called "Generalists" which are what is the norm in the industry, whether it is in tech or in HR. In the industry, what is important is that you can perform a select set of skills, irrespective of whatever the topic might be. In academia, what is important is that the topic you are working in is unique and novel, irrespective of what tools or methods you might use.

I was talking to my ex-colleague, who had an interesting perspective of things, since she was an academic, but also dabbled in the industry. So she knows what both sides look like. This was in contrast to the friend that she brought with, who was a post-doc looking for a new position, who knew a lot about theoretical syntax, but obviously has difficulty figuring out how useful this knowledge is to the outside world.

Back in January 2017, when I was at the Employment Office, talking to the Unemployment Officer as we were figuring out my options for gaining employment (this was a crucial step that was required if I wanted to gain unemployment benefits), I explicitly mentioned that I wasn't trying to remain as an academic. I had a CV that was very specialised and narrow, and I told him that I want to branch out into something new and different. It took me 6 months to do the transition. I learned and relearned new things, ways of presenting myself, methods of convincing people that I was useful to the organisation they were running. And after 6 months, I found a new job. And it rocks!

In any case, my ex-colleague and I lamented that academia doesn't typically train you for employment. It trains you to specialise, and know that little corner of knowledge that you claim. But beyond that, the system doesn't really train you to make sure that you have a job that would sustain you once you graduate.


  1. You're painting a very accurate picture of academia I think. It's the same issue in France, from what I can see. You can be an expert on X or Z but be completely unemployable outside academia despite knowledge and skills that would benefit the world!

    1. Zhu,

      This point is crucial, but there's plenty of other issues that academia needs to work on. The issue of giving their graduates employable skills is just one point, which this current post addresses.