3 Things You Can't Do In Business (That You Used To Do in Academia)

Not a lot of preamble here: I’ve been thinking quite a lot about why former academics seem sometimes to struggle in the business world. Here are three of the biggest, most important things that post-academics or alt-academics looking to enter the business world need to understand before they make the leap.

(Since I’m not a scientist, I can’t tell you how much #3 applies to ex-scientists; my guess is that it applies quite differently to quantitative research than qualitative or theoretical research. So please take that into account when you’re reading this!)

Anyway: don’t do these 3 things.

1. Ignore things (deadlines, emails, etc.) and hope they’ll go away.

I can’t tell you how many academics I know who submit pieces late, whether they’re books or chapters or papers or conference proposals or whatnot. And when I say late, I don’t mean on Monday when they promised it on Friday. I mean months late. Years late, in some cases.

And I have a confession to make: in my academic career, I’ve done this too. It’s the norm. It causes no end of hair-tearing frustration for the people who are on the receiving end of these pieces and proposals, but it’s part of academic culture, I suppose.

I also hear this quite a bit: “I was supposed to email my advisor back, but I can’t face it, so I marathoned Breaking Bad on Netflix.” “I haven’t done anything on my dissertation/book in months; I just can’t get into the right head space.” “I’m just not making progress. I don’t know why. I’m avoiding going to campus.”

This stuff flummoxes me.

In business, if you don’t go to work, you get fired. If you don’t make progress on a project for months, even weeks, you get fired. If you turn in an assignment six months late, you get fired. If you don’t create or add value, you get fired.

If you avoid your boss because you can’t face speaking to her, you get a reputation as unreliable. If you avoid a necessary task because you don’t want to do it, you get reprimanded and told to do it. If you cause your colleagues hair-tearing frustration because you just can’t be relied upon to do the things you’re supposed to do… guess what? You’re out.

I’m starting to think that this is the biggest cultural shift that ex-academics need to make in order to get into the business side of things. Deadlines aren’t suggestions; they’re deadlines. Assigned tasks aren’t optional, and they’re on specific timelines. You can’t avoid a client’s calls. You can’t avoid your boss’s emails.

In business, you don’t make excuses. You do your damn work, you do it on time, and you do it well.

2. Revise until something is perfect.

We all know the maxim that the perfect is the enemy of the good. And we all know that the best dissertation is a done dissertation. But the reason we need to keep those things in mind – heck, the reason so many academics have posters of sayings like these up on their office walls – is because often, in academia, there’s so much time spent honing and refining and critiquing an idea that it becomes a shadow of what it was.

There’s something else that’s more destructive, though, that goes along with this endless refinement and quest for perfection (a perfection that, I might add, is impossible): the fact that so much academic discourse is in the business not of building on others’ ideas but of tearing them down. The peer review that excoriates an argument for being flawed, even if there’s something substantive to it; the debate sessions in grad seminars that seem more a game of point-scoring than intellectual inquiry; the smirking associate professor at the back of the conference panel waiting to pounce on any chink in an argument’s armour (and there is always one).

Of course, criticism is necessary to chip art out of roughly hewn stone. But in business, at least in the business environments in which I’ve spent most of my time, there’s much more of a spirit of exploration – which is ironic, because academia is supposed to be about exploration. Failure isn’t personal, and it’s not even bad, really: it’s just the discovery of something that didn’t work, which frees up resources to find something that does work. I’ve never felt more intellectually constrained than in certain academic environments, and I’ve never felt more intellectually exhilarated than in entrepreneurship.

3. Suggest instead of asserting.

Oh, weasel words. You know: “It seems to me that”, “I believe there’s a possibility that”, “It might be the case that”, and all those meek little phrases that peep out ideas without committing to them.

I’ve used those phrases far more times than I care to mention, in my academic work. Heck, I still use them in business… when they’re warranted. But while the surface function of weasel words is to bring an idea to the conversation, they’re often used as an excuse for plausible deniability. The line of thinking is: if all I do is suggest something, then I don’t have to commit to the idea! I can deny I ever meant it; I was just suggesting it, testing it, thinking that it’s a possibility. I didn’t mean it.

Many academics, particularly graduate students and others who are in less secure academic positions, use these words because academic criticism can be vicious, mean and very personal. And by “personal”, I don’t mean that a scathing review of an article is likely to end with a “your mom” joke; I mean that academics tend to identify themselves – and their colleagues – largely by their work, so that a criticism of the work is a criticism of the self.

So why, in business, should you assert rather than suggest? It’s not because you’re more likely to be right. In fact, you’re fairly likely to be wrong. Business ideas change just as much as academic ideas.

It’s because in business, the stakes are different. You’re not trying to be right, necessarily; you’re trying to innovate and bring new ideas to the table that will help the business be more successful. And in business, the stakes aren’t personal; sure, it feels bad to be wrong, but instead of being a personal failing, it’s purely a professional one. And there’s psychological space to try again, in a way that there isn’t in academia.

A wrong idea in academia, is denigrated, mocked, pushed aside or into the dreaded dustbin of Outdated Theories. A wrong idea in business is shrugged over, set aside, and quickly forgotten in pursuit of a more successful one. No harm, no foul.

Can you guess which side I prefer?