Ivory Towers in the Rearview Mirror: Emma Friesen

We continue with our new column, featuring interviews with PhDs who have charted a course unrelated to the tenure track, putting academia squarely in the rearview mirror.

Our hope is that seeing and hearing from a wide range of PhDs who are celebrating their careers rather than settling for them will inspire every grad student, ABD and PhD to add the road OFTEN traveled to their list of options.

We are excited to hear and share your stories. If you have a PhD and are working outside of the academy and would like to share your experience with TPII readers, we’d love to hear from you!

Today we are pleased to feature Dr. Emma Friesen

I’d wanted to be an academic even before I started my undergraduate degrees. It took ten years from when I finished undergrad to decide on my PhD topic, and then another nine years to finish my PhD part time. As my PhD progressed, I kept my ties to industry and realized that I wanted to be in an academic environment, but in an industry-based position. A PhD was essential to a research career in academia.

Throughout my time as a part-time PhD student, I also worked part-time in government (health) and non-profit (disability services) roles. I met some wonderful academics who were very committed to translating the results and outcomes of (health) research into practice. This became a key focus of my own work, and for my own research it meant finding ways to make my research on mobile shower commode chairs available to clinicians and end users. I was fortunate to find avenues for this through advocacy, professional, and trade-based associations.

Throughout my PhD journey, I was acutely aware that most PhDs do NOT get academic (tenured) jobs. Even so, I continued to believe I could be an exception and did everything I could to position myself for a tenure track position. My thesis had 6 (!) first-authored publications and I’d networked extensively in Australia and overseas. Despite many applications, I got only two post doc interviews, and no job offers. In the last year of my studies, I’d moved countries to follow my then-husband from Australia to The Netherlands. My applications were not competitive for any academic posts in my field, as I’d had no experience in Dutch institutions. I had a long period of grieving at not being in academia. I’d wanted so much to be a professor and follow in my father’s footsteps. There was a strong sense of loss and confusion as it became obvious a job in academia wasn’t to be.

Thankfully, in the last weeks of my PhD I was offered a great job in a pharmaceutical company. The two years I spent there were an absolute revelation. I worked more closely with academics (working as consultants to industry) that I’d done as a grad student. I read more papers and did more mapping of how to translate research conducted in well-controlled contexts to the messiness of the real world. It was amazing. Unfortunately, the company got into financial strife and made 25% of the workforce redundant. My whole department was let go. It was awful and I worried that I’d never find another industry position with so much potential.

Gosh was I wrong! Towards the end of my redundancy period, someone at Raz Design Inc found my PhD thesis online. (Hooray for open access repositories!) The company invited me for an interview. I thought they were just looking for some consulting on short term projects. Instead they offered me a job! We negotiated an arrangement so I could stay in the Netherlands to work remotely, and travel when needed.

My role is amazing. Raz manufactures mobile shower commode chairs – the exact product category I’d studied in my thesis. I’m the company’s clinical director, which means I oversee all clinical education worldwide, and handle the clinical aspects of compliance for medical device regulations and market access. I literally use the results of my PhD work every single day, and make it available to clinicians, technical and sales reps, and end users around the world. I’m starting to engage with academic colleagues around the world to brainstorm research ideas, run industry-based student projects, and generally push policy development in the field forward. It’s incredible. The energy and focus in industry is wonderfully different to academia. Translating findings from well-controlled studies into the realities of real world human experiences is messy, challenging, complex, and uncertain. It’s also fast-paced and a whole lot of fun! 

One topic I wish I’d learnt more about during my PhD is managing a business. Even though I’d worked in non-academic roles (government and nonprofits) I didn’t learn about managing budgets or pursuing sales or managing people. These are skills I’m learning on-the-job now, and quickly! Another area I wish I’d learned more about is how to set up academic / industry partnerships, or rather, how to navigate the politics and differing drivers for the various stakeholders. I’m acutely aware that academics need to bring in money, and their KPIs are based on dollars. Partnerships and in-kind support that I can offer aren’t going to get my academic colleagues the recognition they need for their own careers. Hopefully in the future, my company and industry will be in a position to bring research money to support evidence generation.

For anyone considering a career outside of academia, and pursuing non-academic roles after graduating, I say TRY IT!! Yes it takes work and a big change in mindset to get out. It’s challenging to shift from begging for scraps of scarce funding to saying – convincingly! – “hey I’ve got all these skills that are hugely valuable to you, potential employer!”. There’s an astonishing amount of work happening in industry and there are many companies who value PhD-level skills and knowledge. Thankfully, there are also lots of career transition resources around to guide you as you make the move. I’m loving my industry-based position and look forward to being the industry partner in a lot of cool research in the future!

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Ivory Towers in the Rearview Mirror: Emma Friesen — 1 Comment

  1. Thank you Dr. Emma for sharing your experience. Being a final year phd student, I am at the crossroads of deciding what I want to do with my career. Reading about your experience has been enlightening.

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