My battle with impostor syndrome after moving from academia to consultancy

Businessman in office writing on whiteboard.

Moving into business after years of experience in academia was hard for Matteo Tardello, because he lacked industry experience.Credit: Getty

“Sorry, I can’t hear you. I think you’re on mute,” said my new manager, from his home office in North Carolina.

This was a first for me. I’d worked in both Europe and the United States during my academic career, but was not used to showing up at work on a laptop screen every morning. During my PhD and two postdoctoral placements, I’d been accustomed to visiting the laboratory every day and running experiments.

I quit academia and my second postdoc in 2021, joining a Chicago-based consultancy that provides research support to R&D and corporate clients, as a project manager and life-science consultant, that November.

My core role is to ensure that deadlines are met across several projects and that data sets are delivered by means of polished presentations to my clients. Although I’m not at liberty to name any specific clients, they are typically big companies working in the pharmaceutical or biotechnology space.

A fictional example might be a client that wants to know how beneficial vitamin D supplements are for adolescents, so that its staff can assess whether to add the vitamin to a product that they’re making. I and a team of PhD-level analysts would research scientific publications, clinical trials and patents that talked about vitamin D in adolescents — and also interview subject-matter experts — so that we could deliver a comprehensive answer to the client’s questions. Perhaps the closest equivalent project, academically, would be producing a literature review on a specific topic, to a hard deadline.

Starting from scratch

Working out a completely new career trajectory after years of experience in academia was hard. Because of my lack of industry experience, I was lucky enough to be mentored by colleagues, but negative feedback on my work was often difficult to take: I had to remind myself to stay humble.

Project management was one skill that I had to learn on the go. PhD students are always being told that project management is one transferable skill that they already have. But that isn’t the entire truth, in my experience. Managing a single PhD project over several years can be very different from managing several commercial projects (I currently manage six projects), hitting deadlines every other week. In academia, I was the only one taking care of my project, but here I had to facilitate other people’s work and make sure that everyone in my team would deliver their contributions on time.

My scientific background made it easy to ramp up my knowledge about any life science-related topic, so at least I was confident that the final results and presentations were accurate and data driven. Having a PhD brings plenty of value to my job: graduate students are all very used to learning complex science in great detail. Distilling that science to present to clients did not feel extremely difficult or unfamiliar.

You can’t know everything

But a few weeks into my new job, impostor syndrome kicked in. In academia, I was used to knowing every single detail of my niche topic. But as a consultant, I had to present results that I had little or no idea about. Worst of all, I had to do this in front of true experts in the relevant field. It took me a long time to deal with the fact that not knowing everything was OK: tight deadlines meant that I simply did not have enough time to dig as deeply as I’d have liked into a topic.

Once, while I was running a competitor-analysis exercise for a biotech client, I highlighted a company that I found to be a strong competitor. But shortly afterwards, I found out that my client had bought that company years ago, and therefore it did not represent a threat at all. It was an embarrassing moment for me, and it took some time to re-establish my confidence with that client and win back its respect. I learnt that, faced with embarrassing moments or questions that I couldn’t answer, it was acceptable to say, “I don’t know, but let me look into it.”

My career leap made me realize that PhD students, alongside their science, acquire resilience, and the ability to adapt and learn things in a very short amount of time. I am grateful for the almost 10-year academic journey that took me here, even though it didn’t give me every tool to manage people, prioritize tasks and cope with impostor syndrome.

It’s OK that academia didn’t teach me everything that I’ve needed to know in industry. It gave me a solid enough foundation to build on — and, with the help of mentors and colleagues, I’m prepared to continue my career in consulting.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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