James Wilde: Tunnel Vision

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Winter 2017 | Greer Arthur

In 2004, James Wilde left NC State to launch a new career in the corporate arena. Twelve years later, he returned to NC State as Head of Agribusiness for the New Zealand government’s Trade and Enterprise Agency (NZTE) to explain precisely why business skills are a good investment for postdocs.

“Postdocs have a huge advantage in the private sector because science is fundamental to all the biggest corporations,” says Wilde. However, he adds, “if postdocs do not branch out from their intense area of expertise, they will ultimately do themselves a disservice.”

Shaped by their academic training, postdocs finely tune their focus to such precision that they become specialists in their field. However, as significant a part as this process plays in research and development worldwide, this constricted, tunneled concentration can be detrimental to their own careers.

Awareness of the liability of being too focused has spread alongside the swelling of the postdoc population. As post-postdoc academic positions remain dismayingly scarce, many postdocs remain stuck in a peculiar career limbo, unable to escape by simply churning out more publications or accepting more teaching roles. But even for those researchers who have always anticipated an exit from academia, the restricted targets of publications and grant proposals prevent the next career step from being as well-informed and profitable as it could be. Taking time to prepare and acquire transferrable skills is crucial.

“Everything is interdisciplinary,” Wilde explains. “The global world operates across intersecting sectors.” Unlike academia, with its narrow routes towards the most desirable jobs of permanent faculty and professorship positions, non-academic career paths are far less methodized. Instead, professions shift and oscillate across different disciplines, weaving up and around multifaceted career ladders with innumerable branches and links. For any postdoc considering a leap into the outside world, being ready for a fluid and changeable realm of employment is nothing less than vital.

“I discovered very quickly that the private sector is completely different to [academic] research,” says Wilde. After realizing he had an idea that might appeal to the corporate world, Wilde made the intrepid but calculated decision to embark on an entrepreneurial pursuit. Here, his business skills – strikingly distinct from his microbiology and marine biology training – became invaluable.

“An education in business became essential because it gave me a fundamental understanding of the main principles of business, and the dynamics of how a business will function,” describes Wilde. From a comprehension of profits and debts, to how a product becomes valuable to a company, understanding business allowed Wilde to utilize his existing expertise and survive in a non-academic environment.

“This is applicable to absolutely everyone,” says Wilde. “For instance, if an artist wants to sell their art, they need to be able to balance their checkbook. They can’t just rely on their art alone.”

Importantly, Wilde also recognized that setting up a business didn’t mean he was aiming to make it “big” on his own. As he developed his own business his aim was not to create an entirely new corporate entity, but instead was to work alongside those who were already established and successful.

“It was about vertical integration,” continues Wilde. “The big companies are already out there. I knew I needed to portray my product as something that would complement those existing companies.” By understanding his field in the global market, Wilde structured his corporate plan to ensure his product could be seen as “useful” to the businesses already working in the same arena.

“Working in academia is valuable because it allows you to build yourself as a brand through your own publications,” Wilde says, contemplating postdoctoral researchers who may want to enter the business world. Before leaving academia, postdocs can make the most of their research setting by using it as a platform for preparation. Attending conferences and presenting research provides ideal opportunities for networking and being seen as a dependable and promising researcher, who could translate research into beneficial products. What’s more, he continues, “there are always corporate sponsors at conferences.” Conferences are ideal for recruiting financial backing and support, but also for interacting with potential sponsors. This provides researchers with an opportunity to learn more about what prospective clients might want from a new business.

“You always have to have a long-term view,” says Wilde, and explains that there are other tools that postdocs should arm themselves with, many of which are particularly simple. “If you haven’t got your own business cards, you need to get some.” His point is elementary but paramount to building contacts: people will never know your value until they need you, so you’re off to a head start if they walk off with your business card in their pocket.

And after business cards? “Get yourself a mentor,” Wilde says. Leaving academia should not be a case of reinventing the wheel. No matter what sector or field, existing expertise is ubiquitous and a practical tool to exploit. “I think one of my strengths is recognizing when someone could be valuable or helpful to me later,” explains Wilde.

Wilde makes no implication that the transition from academia to the business-based science sector is easy. He reflects that his own leap into the private sector was a risk, but one he has never regretted.

“I just loved it. It was me driving for it on my own all the way. There was a certain freedom to what I was doing,” Wilde recalls.

Amongst the lessons and pieces of advice he received along the way, he mentions one that has stuck with him throughout, and one he feels could be of particular benefit to all postdocs: “Don’t ever confuse movement for progress,” Wilde counsels. “Just doing something doesn’t mean you’re moving forward. Circumstances will always change, and you must consider what is needed tomorrow.”