Language gap between academia and business

Transitioning from Academia to Industry

19 January 2019

Have you ever felt like you don't know how to put accurate words on your ideas when speaking with a business person?

If like me you have been within the academic universe for some time and have tried to get a job in the private sector, you have probably realized it is not always easy to understand each other. On one side of the barrier, researchers and engineers. On the other, business professionals. Both species originating from the common Homo Sapiens Sapiens but which have developed divergent vocabulary and related behavior because of the environmental pressure. Jokes apart, the language of science and business are quite different and worth exploring.

To begin with, let's compare the environment. In academia, the goal is to excel in some aspect and to be more innovative and original than others. This is why words commonly used (and overused) related to this aspect are: novel, insight, paradigm, extremely, elucidate and robust. The research often aims to understand and describe things, this is why it is common to talk about landscapes and frameworks. What counts is the global impact of the work, how broad it is. There is usually a hypothesis somewhere on the line, uncertainty that needs to be acknowledged to avoid the critics with putative, respectively, potentially.

It is also common to use we even for a one-person task or overusing the passive voice. This use of we often sounds odd to business people and results in an uncertainty of which part of the project you actually did yourself.

Critical attitude

Researches are trained to keep their critical spirit awake and challenge each other. One of the first things I was told at a 'how to get a job' workshop for PhDs was to be less critical. When I listen to my colleagues who are now working in business, I often hear phrases like opportunities for improvement used instead of phrases like pitfalls. When something is not working, it would be said that it is in development, with growth potential. Spending longer than usual to understand a complex case is an investment in the company knowledge capital. Even firing employees can be called restructuring. Like it or not, attitude is different and working in a corporate universe means you should try to fit in and formulate your critiques with prudence.

Working culture

Corporate people often prefer fast (and sometimes ugly) solutions, that minimize time and maximize profit. This why words such as ballpark are often used. Itemize, prioritize, agile, takeaways show that time and task management plays an important role in the work culture. Another type of expressions are incentivize, proactive, repurpose, it reflects how dynamic the corporate world is. You are required to act and react quickly, find solutions rather than questions. It is common to talk about empowerment and leverage when discussing strategy, words that are rare in academia. Business is about money, therefore some expressions higlight value, profit, and material gains; such as push the envelope and added value.

The difference in wording reflects different attitudes and methods used in business and research worlds. This does not mean that skills gained in one universe cannot be useful in the another. However, the competence one gains in research needs to be worded in a way it can be understood and considered useful in the corporate world. The skill of making yourself understood can really help foster a smooth transition into the business world. Communication, in general, is a very important skill for any team and a key factor for company success.

A researcher, even when working in a team, is responsible for his project from A to Z. He or she communicates with other researches that already have a lot of knowledge about your topic. Conversely, in the corporate world, your work is just a part of a bigger process and so you need to properly communicate and document your work. This is why a lot of place in the corporate vernacular is given to the organization of work and management.

CV writing

Your journey to the corporate world starts with a CV. A researcher's CV is usually a very complete and long list of projects, contributions, presentations and publications in a chronological order. The CV you will send to hiring managers in the private sector should be quite different. Even though writing CVs is a whole different subject, I can advise you to follow the Google recommendations for tech jobs at least. The format and wording of your CV should be inspired by the corporate world and speak in a business tone. For example, instead of writing 'Studied system X in conditions A, B and published a paper entitled Novel landscape of system X indicates [very long technical word] in conditions A, B', you can write: 'Achieved Z/Improved by Z/Discovered Z when studying the system X'. You should also add your logistical duties of the project for example 'Managed a team of N people/ (international) project' or 'Monthly reported progress to an international commission in a form of dashboards and [format] presentations'.

In the research world, the second wording may sound unnatural. Also, no one cares if and how you were reporting or managing your project if you published a great paper. In the private sector, the fixation over the publications is not well understood so it is hard for them to see what skills it takes to publish a journal paper. This is why such an achievement needs to be decomposed in smaller tasks that can be understood and valued.

Tell me about your research

If you have never prepared an answer to this question, practice on your non-academic friends and/or family members, usually you lose your listener in the first two sentences. Start your response with why not with how, focus on the big picture, avoid technical words, scientific names and try to make parallels with every day or business life. You should always adapt your vocabulary to your interlocutor. Do not be afraid to speak too broadly, you can always go into specifics if they ask for more details on certain aspects that you mention in your pitch. To get inspired with short presentation format, you can have a look at guidelines for elevator pitch or 3MT videos.


Another form of communication often used in the business world are presentations, usually with support slides. In the private sector, presentations are used a lot. And if you think that the content matters more than the form, you are right. But, the form is very important, much much more than in scientific word. The purpose of presentations is to persuade and inform your audience. This is why putting the big picture first, just like for the elevator pitch is crucial. Don’t neglect the visuals. Beautiful illustrations and tidy design can help develop your message.

Final word

Even though there is a gap between science and business, it does not mean one cannot belong to both. It may take some effort, just like learning to speak another language but learning to adapt to the business world can give you a lot of satisfaction and open the doors. So go out to the world, participate in the events organized by the industry and converse with them. Do not get taken by surprise at your dream job/internship interview, it would be dull to miss it because of the content ‘lost in translation’.

Data Scientist

PhD in Bio-Mathematics, Data Science & Machine Learning