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Flailing my way into industry

April 30, 2016

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I decided after grad school that I no longer wanted to pursue a career in academic science. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but respect for tenure-track professors. The job is incredibly demanding – they have to secure grants, train grad students and postdocs, publish papers, and teach courses to snotty nosed undergrads. And they have to possess a special kind of personality, passion, and ability to focus on unraveling a particular scientific mystery for years. 

I knew that lifestyle wasn’t a perfect fit for me, so I wanted to explore other options. The problem was, I honestly had no idea what careers even EXISTED for someone with my training. There was only one career path that had ever been laid out for me: PhD > postdoc > professor. Anything that strayed from this path was considered an “alternative career.” WHICH IS STUPID – because according to the 2012 NIH Workforce survey only 8% of people entering PhD programs will end up as tenure-track professors.

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If you’re a PhD student and like crying yourself to sleep, click here to see an enlarged version

The persistent stigma around leaving academic science is baffling to me. Times have changed, and what used to be the most prominent career path simply isn’t anymore. It’s not a big deal, except some people in academia still make it one. As a student, I actually heard people say that taking a career in biotech was akin to “selling your soul to the devil.” It’s a weird combination of upholding an outdated tradition and shaming people into a certain career path – one that mathematically cannot hold the volume of PhDs that are currently graduating.

So if the majority of us don’t end up in tenure-track faculty jobs, why the hell are the other career choices considered “alternative?” And why don’t we provide tools and resources to help people succeed after earning their degree, no matter what direction they choose? Why are we setting all these poor (literally poor) graduate students up for failure? It doesn’t make any sense to me!

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So when I graduated, I had no professional guidance or career development training for a job in biotech. Nonetheless, I slapped together a resume and started sending it off to every job posting I could find. I applied to nearly 100 positions and was met with nothing but crickets. I later learned that academic and industrial resumes are completely different – honestly, my resume was so off the mark that my chances might have been better if I’d mailed them “HAVE PHD WILL WORK” in macaroni art.

No one gave a shit about the details of my thesis project that I had lovingly spelled out. They wanted me to sell my skills to them, to show them why I would be valuable. They wanted to know how I optimized lab work to improve experimental outcomes, save time, save money, or ideally, all three. They wanted to know about leadership and project management experience. I’m sure these specifics will vary depending on what field you work in, but the point is I hadn’t done my homework.

So how does one “study up” on their career options? The answer my friend, is conducting informational interviews! If you’ve never done one of these, I highly recommend it. You basically chat with someone about their career – what led them to that job, what does their daily work consist of, do they have to travel or work long hours, etc. Keep it short and simple, and most importantly DO NOT ask them for a job. The point of the interview is to gain perspective about different career options and to build your professional network. Asking the person for a job is rude – you’re not using them, you’re learning from them. If they know of a job opening they’ll probably tell you on their own, anyway. So just be cool, ok?

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I know social skills are hard, but you can do it. I believe in you.

I had some great informational interviews with people that worked in the biotech industry. Having been in my shoes, many of them understood my confusion and were more than happy to help me succeed. Some of them even sent me their resumes to help me improve my own. For example, they taught me the importance of using the exact keywords in a job posting, because most resumes have to go through an HR computer filter before they ever seen human eyes. I incorporated all the things I had learned and eventually managed to land a job. YAY ME!

I wont lie, the transition has been crazytown. I feel like I have impostor syndrome all over again, because everyone speaks in acronyms and I have no idea how business works. Half the time I speak to my manager I run back to my computer and google the acronyms she used to figure out what the heck she was talking about. Smile-and-nod-and-figure-it-out-later.

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*internally screaming*

After talking to some friends, I realized these feelings aren’t unique to my field. Lot’s of people feel overwhelmed when they dive into a new job, because coming up to speed is awkward! After three months at my current job, the majority of what I’ve learned has nothing to do with experiments. It’s mostly learning how a company works, which is VERY different than how a university lab works. Even though it’s intimidating, I’m slowly growing a backbone and learning that it’s safe to assert myself as an educated member of the team. I swear, I’ve learned more in my first three months here than I did in the last 3 YEARS of grad school.

I’m still doing informational interviews every chance I get – they’re so valuable! Networking never stops guys. I know it’s awkward but it’s probably the most important thing you can do for your career. I lost count of how many people told me they landed their dream job because they happened to know the right person. You can leverage your connections in so many ways, and building your network is probably the most critical thing you can do to ensure your future success. I know it’s hard and it’s uncomfortable and you hate it, but get your ass out there and network.

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You can’t spell network without “work” – AMIRITE?

Hop onto LinkedIn and check out your connections. Do they have job titles that intrigue you? Ask them about it! Do they work at a company you might want to work for? ASK THEM ABOUT IT! You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to chat on the phone, meet for coffee, or even just answer your questions via email. A great resume only gets you so far. A great resume with an actual human connection gets you a hundred times further.

I learned how to get a job the hard way, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Learn what your resume should look like. Get your butt out there and make some connections. And most importantly, don’t be discouraged. Job hunting is hard for everyone and involves a lot of frustration. But if you just do your homework, you’ll be miles ahead of chumps like me! 🙂

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2 Comments
  1. Hi,
    I really like your article. You spelled out, what a lot of people in academia should be aware of. My husband is also in the process of transitioning from academia to industry, and it is hard to get a foot in the door somewhere.
    Best Simone.

    • Great, I’m glad that it was helpful for you! I wish there had been more help along the way for my own transition, which is part of the reason I share my stories. I also think it’s great to hear about career development challenges and failures – especially when things turn out okay in the end. Helps us see that we’re just human, and it’s okay to make mistakes! Anyway, if he needs any advice or wants to complain about the difficulties of our career path to someone, let me know. Here to help! 😉

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