Dr Emma McHarg - How I moved from academia to industry


Having completed my PhD in social neuroscience, I first left academia for the commercial world some 9 years ago.

It felt like quite a shift, and I imagined everything would be different.  Sure enough, being in the office every day, (and a shared office with other people!) was a bit of a shock to the system.  Even the notion of a shared drive was a new experience.  Academia can be quite an individual pursuit. By the time you finish your PhD, the expectation is that you are one of the most knowledgeable people in the world about your chosen topic.  This is, almost by definition, quite a solitary place. While you may work on specific research papers with colleagues, ultimately there is a strong emphasis on personal intellectual freedom and responsibility. 

The commercial world felt much more communal – the team relies on each other far more, both in terms of knowledge sharing and different tasks on a project. It also felt more restrictive – what gets done is driven by the briefs that come in, the needs of a client.  Slowly though, I came to realise that many of the things that I liked about academia were still there in this new world.

The reason I originally went into academia was because I am essentially curious.  Coming up with research questions, and then going to do an experiment to find out the answer seemed like an excellent way to make a living. And then going to a conference to share those findings with peers, to answer their questions and discuss future ideas was hugely satisfying.

In market research, the process is not that different.  Sometimes the research question is posed by a client, sometimes I work with the client to hit upon the research question, but either way, there is a question, then there’s an experiment (or a survey) and then there’s analysis to answer the question and come full circle.  It still gives me great satisfaction to go to that client debrief with some sense that we have answered that question, with a certain degree of confidence in those findings. And of course, ideas about where to go next!

During the pandemic, these two sides actually just ended up as one, while during lockdown we ran our own experiment on the differences in on and offline behaviour (find here). This was the original starting point of my thesis, and here I was, all these years later running another experiment in it!  The running joke was that it was a thought leadership project 12 years in the making…

The other side of academia, teaching, is something I haven’t entirely left behind – I still do a couple of lectures a year.  It is good to keep my hand in and have a part in bringing along the next generation – indeed, one member of my current team is a graduate from that course!  Of course, this is also important in my current role, and I continue to play an active part in the training and development of junior members of the team.

All in all, while you can’t entirely take the academic out of me (as my bookshelves will testify), the skills that I’ve learned left me well placed in my commercial career, as the two are genuinely not as far apart as they might seem.

I don’t miss the marking though!

Emma McHarg is a Dr in Social Neuroscience.