The career insights I’m bringing back to academia after a year at Google

The career insights I’m bringing back to academia after a year at Google

An Android statue is displayed in front of a building on the Google campus, California.

A stint at Google showed Olivier Müller how to make the right choices for himself instead of worrying too much about what others think.Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty

I left Google in the summer after working there as an analyst for a year. After I left, I posted a series of tweets sharing some of my reflections on working in the private sector. The tweets went viral among academics – it seems that many were interested in what I took with me to the university world.

I am an astronomer by training and joined Google’s anti-spam team from a postdoctoral position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). The task involved assessing suspicious activity in Google’s advertising ecosystem. Some of such activities are accidental and others intentional, such as when other advertisers click on ads to waste their competitors’ budgets. Whenever a customer raised a valid concern, the team examined the data with the aim of detecting as much fraudulent activity as possible and preventing it from happening in the future.

At the end of July I left Google to start a new postdoc at EPFL. One of the main reasons I decided to return to academia was the desire to regain the independence I had lost in the private sector. There you are eventually hired to do a job, and in most cases your manager or senior staff determine what you do and how you do it. This can leave you with work that you’re just not excited about. But my time at Google has taught me valuable lessons that I’m eager to share with others in academia.

Don’t be a hero

This is one of the most important lessons I take with me. If a task can only be completed by endangering your mental and even physical health, you are actually hiding flaws in the system. If you continuously work well beyond your contract hours or responsibilities, these flaws will go undetected and remain unresolved. Google promotes this “don’t be a hero” mentality.

During my first week, for example, I delved into the extensive topic of spam to prepare for the job and worked late into the night. My manager, who was in a different time zone, saw me online and suggested I stop. This brief interaction created a different expectation than I was used to; in academia my working hours were often well outside normal office hours.

As a counter-example from academia, I know of a part-time administrative position at a student organization that was paid as 40% of a full-time job. The postholder worked for several years without any problems, managing the secretarial duties of a large student organization at a university. Under normal circumstances, the workload was manageable, but one year there was an internal reorganization that increased the workload and an extra project that required a lot of time and energy. Within a year, the workload became much more than a part-time person could handle. They stepped up, worked way beyond their contract hours, behaved like a hero and endured constant stress for an extended period of time. This resulted in a burnout and they eventually stepped down from the position.

Only after this happened was the system repaired and the person revealed the increased pressure and workload. Now the role is 80% of a job. The lesson here is: do it right, but if it’s too much to handle, speak up instead of trying to get through it, especially in times of crisis. Only in this way can systemic problems be solved.

You are responsible for your career

This is true in the private sector as well as in academia. I was actively reminded of it by my colleagues and executives at Google, but in academia, memories aren’t so present.

When I left academia to join Google, what I struggled most with was the idea that other people – especially those in my immediate scientific environment – would judge me and think badly of me, especially my boss, that time and had spent energy on bringing me to the institute in the first place. But if you put the interests of others before your own, you have no control over your career. I made the choice that I thought was right for me.

When I got back to EPFL, I almost apologized to a senior professor and said I was back and ready to work at the institute again. He didn’t even know I had been gone for a year. I was so worried about what colleagues at the institute would think of me, but people come and go all the time.

Academics are highly skilled

I always thought that as an astronomer I would struggle to find a job outside of a university.

You don’t see many vacancies for astronomers in the private sector. However, I found that the years I had spent writing code to analyze data; discussing the great unknowns in the universe; present my research to a wide audience; and writing research papers and grant proposals had formed skills that are highly sought after outside of academia. I realized that those skills qualified me for positions as a data scientist or software engineer in industries as diverse as information technology, banking, and life sciences. There is actually a talent shortage in these industries, but to take advantage of this, you need to know how to sell your skills.

If you write in a job application that you have published seven peer-reviewed articles, you will likely get blank stares from recruiters instead of invitations to interviews. But by making it clear that you have managed a research project from start to finish – by working with different stakeholders (colleagues, referees and editors), scheduling meetings, documenting efforts and bringing the project to a successful conclusion – many sought after skills forward. I now know that when my current postgraduate contract expires, if I don’t find anything in academia, the door to the private sector will be wide open for academics like me.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

Competing Interests

The author declares no conflict of interest.

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