Lifelong learning: Moving between the academe and the business world

Anne Worner,, CC BY-SA 2.0
Anne Worner,, CC BY-SA 2.0

In the 21th century, you can no longer stay in a single role for your entire career. Gillian Hayes explains what it means to be a lifelong learner and to find one’s way around various environments.

Often when people think of “learning,” they think of children. However, learning can and should be life-long. At the recent Jacobs Foundation Research Fellows annual conference, Greg Duncan implored us to recreate ourselves every 15 years. I am not sure I agree with the timescale (15 years is long in this post-post-modern era), but I do agree on the principle.

I am in the midst of doing just this kind of reinvention now. I am on a partial leave from the university where I am a professor, which allows me to work with a startup. This is not a new path, particularly for computer scientists. My advisor Gregory Abowd launched multiple companies, including one based on my dissertation research. Several dear friends have taken various levels of leaves to work with corporations large and small over the years.

It was new for me, though. And now that I am knee-deep in it, I have some comments on why academics should do it – both because it is good for us and because we are good for business.

Academics are used to criticism and failure

When I tell my former colleagues from places like Deloitte and Avanade that I expect to be rejected around 70% of the time, they are shocked. Realistically, though, this is academic life. NSF funding rates in my directorate (Cyber-Human Systems) are a paltry 18%, and we are doing better than many. Last year, the average acceptance rate across conferences to which my students and I submit our work hovered just below 25%. In fact, tenure committees often don’t see contributions as worthwhile if they are above those rates. As I write this post, I have four grant proposals and two papers under review, all awaiting scrutiny, critique, and indeed rejection.

So, how does this translate?

Well, sales is pretty much a numbers game. You have to get rejected a lot to be a successful salesperson, and you have to sell a lot to run a startup. You are selling to employees. You are selling to funders. You are selling to your actual customers. Sell. Sell. Sell. And get rejected. A lot. But carry on.

Academics wear a lot of hats

In my pre-startup life as a professor, I was a researcher, teacher, community organizer, manager, mentor, public speaker, consultant, and more. When you are a professor, you are constantly switching contexts. I would regularly stop my deep work of writing or doing data analysis to deal with a student in distress at my office door or to run down the hall and teach a class. I was part-time evangelist for my research, for my students, and for my university. I was part-time career counselor. And on the list goes.

Adding a couple more hats to start working at a startup was trivial. And thanks to a supportive dean and department chair, I was even able to remove a few of those academic hats to keep up with my startup hats.

Academics are good at processing information

Most of my research work as a professor these days comes down to planning out strategy for the research, checking on progress, recognizing when a project needs to pivot, and just responding to and analyzing data – both process and outcomes data.

Most of my work running a startup is actually pretty similar. I am setting strategy, checking on progress, recognizing when our strategies need to pivot, and taking in a lot of data about how our business is running, what our customers need, and analyzing and responding to these data.

Solid business processes translate surprisingly well to academia

I knew this long ago, but recent experiences have reinforced this for me. My first “proper” job was at Deloitte, a place known for well-trained analysts. It was there that I learned to write weekly status reports and to just show up every day and work.

When I started grad school, I assumed these practices were the same and regularly sent my advisor status reports. He was surprised, pleasantly I think, because soon he asked the rest of the team to do the same. I have carried this practice over to my current research group, and my students send status reports every week. I have switched this process up some as I have grown in my roles, but the concepts are basically the same.

Status reports and objectives are just small items. There are a million little things on a day-to-day basis that I see in my startup work that I know will influence my teaching, research, and mentorship. New skills I have learned include: financial forecasting, marketing and PR, different types and styles of public speaking, and more.

Acting differently requires seeing things differently requires acting differently….

I love to travel, because nothing is quite so equalizing and humbling as seeing how others live and being a stranger in a new land. The same is true for shifting your work environment. If I am honest with myself, I had become complacent. Ten years out of graduate school had taught me how to get my papers published without experiencing nearly the challenge I once faced.

Leaping into a new environment is exhausting and exhilarating and oh so very educational. I have learned more, grown more, and become more in the last six months than in prior years. In today’s fast-changing work environment, lifelong learning is crucial, and we have no choice but to periodically reinvent ourselves.

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