Contributor Shimi Rii
After 10 years in an academic setting, first as a PhD student, then postdoctoral fellow and finally assistant research professor, Carrie Leonard accepted a job at BAE Systems, Inc., a global defence, security and aerospace company, where she spent more than 12 years. Based in Honolulu, Hawaii, she started as a manager of Applied Sciences and Algorithms and Ethics Officer, becoming a lead on Advanced Concepts in her last 2 years. I first met Carrie in 2003, when we collaborated on a multi-institutional oceanic eddy project. Over time, Carrie became not only my role model (she was the only female PhD that I knew in a leadership industry position at that time) but also a mentor, providing me guidance and multiple career perspectives. A few months ago, I ran into Carrie at the Joint Aquatic Sciences Meeting held at the Oregon Convention Center. As we caught up over beers, she told me about her new position as Director of Science at The Freshwater Trust, a non-profit organization with a mission to preserve and restore Oregon’s freshwater ecosystems. Having now worked in three very different work environments – academia, industry and non-profit – Carrie was full of insight and advice.
What motivated your transition from academia to industry?
I went to work for industry because I could not land a tenure-track academic position. I had a self-funded research faculty position, but was dependent entirely upon my own grant funding. I knew that I was just a few grant rejection letters away from not having a job, and as the main source of income for my family, this situation was not financially acceptable. At this time, I found out about a small technology start-up that was doing ocean remote sensing for the US Navy, and I made the leap into the unknown. What drew me in was continuing to do research in my area of expertise, but with greater job stability, better pay and benefits. The specific employer and workplace was not the driver, but the ability to continue to pay my mortgage and to do research certainly was.
After more than 12 years at BAE Systems, why did you move to a non-profit organization?
When I started at BAE Systems, it was a small start-up of about 50 employees. Over the intervening years, we were acquired by a large defence contractor, which then went on to make several more acquisitions. Ultimately, I was working for a corporation of over 10,000 employees. The culture of the large organization was, as you can imagine, dramatically different than the small research firm I had initially joined. In some ways, there was more job stability in the large organization. However, there was significantly less flexibility in the research avenues we could pursue, and an exponential increase in the amount of corporate bureaucracy and inefficiency that significantly hampered my ability to execute a research project with no defined outcome or product.
Whilst I was at BAE Systems, I did receive excellent training in business dynamics, pitching a project and managing research in a deadline-driven environment. I saw my dissatisfaction with my current position as an opportunity to use those skills in the environmental field. In my job search, I targeted the environmental/geoscience arena, looking for a workplace that rewarded innovation and environmental profit as opposed to one that rewarded compliance and financial profit. I believe the timing was fortuitous – many non-profits are now trying to be more outcome focused and I believe my research-in-business background brought the right skills.
From your perspective, what are the major differences between working in private industry versus a non-profit organization?
In private industry, if something ultimately doesn’t provide value or profit to the shareholders or a client, the work will not be approved. In the non-profit world, the side questions are often just as important as the project you are executing, simply because those are the ones that the consulting world won’t focus on, and are often the ones that need answering in order to further our mission.
The negative side is that the non-profit world can get sidetracked or distracted on too many great ideas or too many problems to solve. Or, we can become complacent and not work to advance our community. Private industry certainly pays better and has more benefits, which cannot be discounted.
Is there a difference in job stability between all three job realms?
In my experience, and given the fiscal environment we’ve all been living in for the past 10-15 years, I don’t think industry, non-profits, academia or government employees have any more stability than the other. In any of my positions, I’ve always felt as though I only had a secure job for the next 2 years. There are many things outside my influence (government funding priorities, world events, company priorities, university hiring priorities, the whims of private donations) that can impact my ability to stay employed at the same place.
Did a background in academia help or hinder you in each of the jobs you’ve had?
I’ve never felt hindered by my post-doc and research faculty work. Working in a male-dominated Department of Defense environment as a NASA Graduate Research Fellow, my PhD in physical oceanography opened some doors that I think would have been closed without it.
The need to communicate orally and in written form in academia has benefited my non-academic career enormously. I can give a talk in front of almost any audience. In addition, I can write grant proposals, technical reports and summaries of technical work to non-technical audiences. Those were all skills I learned in the academic environment.
What advice do you have for someone contemplating all three work environments: academia, industry, and non-profit?
One of the most striking differences between academia and industry was that the sense of internal cooperation within industry was so much stronger than in academia. As an academic professor, you are responsible for your own research, lab and students. On the positive side, you direct what you want to study and how. The negative side is that the system leads to competition with the person in the office or lab next door — for facilities, for funding, for recognition. In industry you want to make more money than your competition, so you and your coworkers are all in it together, which makes collaboration on a daily basis a natural occurrence.
Even though I’ve only been here a year, the non-profit realm seems to be a blend of the two. We have our mission and are working together to solve it, but the rest of the environmental community is seen more as partners in this effort (though maybe not exactly on the same path) rather than competitors. This may be because everyone is scrambling for limited restoration funding.
From a research perspective, I have not done any direct experimentation or answering of fundamental research questions since I’ve left academia. What I have done since then is applied science – taking the fundamental research and experimentation from the lab or the field and applying it to real problems to create a product. That is a pretty distinct difference, especially if what drives you is finding out the answer to ‘why.’ However, I get great satisfaction from understanding how the work was done to answer the ‘why’ question, and then being able to put that research into practice. I think it’s a rare (perhaps even non-existent) work environment where you could do both.