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PhD Myth Busters: Making the Transition From Academia to Industry

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Nothing about the PhD process educates you on how to find a non-academic job, apply your skills, or sell yourself to employers. The PhD process involves a long, intense, and often fraught, mentorship with your advisor. At the end, the advisor places you in your first job (or abandons you entirely), his or her opinion of you determines the course of your career. Enduring this dynamic for half a dozen years leaves many PhD students an emotional wreck, convinced they can’t do anything without their advisors’ approval and help. It also leaves them totally ignorant of how the mainstream job market works. ~Allison Shrager 

If that isn’t a wake-up call for most, I don’t know what is. The point of this blog post is to help PhDs and postdocs-no matter what stage you are in-with some of the most common career and professional development questions that you are or will be faced with, when you feel like you are lacking information. And the ultimate goal is to break it all down and separate fact from fiction.

A lot of these questions will be those that I also wish were answered truthfully and in-depth during my first year as a graduate student, as many times I just felt lost. Many of these answers didn’t come until much later (towards the end of my PhD), as I had to find out the hard way and through my own experiences.

Since the launch of TheGradStudentWay in May of 2012, I have received a long list of questions, some very well-thought out, and others maybe seem a bit lost, misinformed, or lacking clear direction.

Additionally, after being a speaker for the AAAS Career Webinar in October 2014 (Transitioning Your PhD Career from Lab to Management) and Beyond The Professoriate in May 2014, I compiled a list of questions that I felt needed to be addressed.

These top 20 questions (below) are what grad students are or will be faced with in today’s economy and job market, especially when trying to transition from academia into industry or business. I will do my best to try and address them. If I missed any pressing questions, feel free to post in the comments section.

‘Alternative’ and non-traditional career options need to be available and made apparent for those who are stuck in the post-doc loop, burned out at the bench, or are looking for a way out. Therefore, making the jump from Academia to Industry and other fields such as Finance, Law, Government, WritingVenture Capital, Consulting, Entrepreneurship, Sales, Technology Transfer is the first step, and the fact of the matter is that PhDs in general lack the marketable skills and the necessary know-how to be able to cross-over.

Before I start, let me say that lately, I have seen a recent trend that isn’t necessarily a positive one. And that is to charge PhDs and postdocs for solid, helpful career and professional advice. Many are choosing to jump the ‘PhD Problem Bandwagon’ and try and sell you advice. And turn their site into a marketing platform. Or make you think there is some holy grail product, advice, or program that will uncover all the truths.

Unfortunately, in many ways you will have to find out what is right for you on your own terms. The truth is that many simply just need a jump-start. The career direction that you take from there is up to you (i.e. transitioning from academia into industry), as again-you will most likely have to figure things out your own and make your own decisions.

Be Cautious: It is easy to prey on graduate students or postdocs in need of career or professional advice, but honestly when there is a fee associated with it-I would be very careful. An article, titled Let the Truth Be Told: Get the Right Advice When You Need It (written in May 2013) still holds true today, especially when you’re seeking advice on ‘Alternative’ PhD Careers Outside of Academia.

Resume/CV

The false hope many PhDs are being fed is to tell you that your perfect resume or CV will land you your dream job. Keep in mind that a resume is a TOOL to get you an interview. It is not the complete story. Yes, having a poor resume will prevent you from getting an interview. But I see countless articles discussing how to draft a perfect resume, and making that the main focus. And how you need to spend a large amount of time on this.

Yes, a resume is an important step in the job process (and common sense will tell you not to have grammar or spelling errors on it). But it is just one of many hoops you must jump through. It is a piece of the puzzle. But not the only piece. And not the only pinpointed issue here where PhDs fall short. Think big picture. The goal is to get your polished resume in the hands of the right person (i.e. hiring manager), and to be able to hit the ground running from Day 1 (based on the value you can add).

This means you get a jumpstart on your resume versus waiting a week before your defense to crank one out. It is never too early to start working on your resume so that you have one ready to go at all times, even when applying to internships. You never know when you might need it or be asked for it, so don’t procrastinate.

Transferable Skills

There are also many articles feeding PhDs the false hope that transferable skills (solely acquired during a PhD program in academia) are enough. For some number of jobs transferable skills are (this is also very company dependent), but for many-these skills are NOT ENOUGH. So it isn’t just about finding the power and confidence within yourself. Or setting better goals.  Or having a better tailored resume.

You either have the skills (and experience) the employer is looking for-or you don’t-for the particular job you are interested in. If they are willing to take a chance on you (i.e. view you as a quick-learner), that is great, but the issue is still staring at you right in the face.

That is why the struggle is so prevalent and why many PhDs look for that foot-in-the-door position, where industry will typically hire you based on what you did last. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, as it is very individualistic, but you need to be aware of the current job market so you can prepare and adapt ahead of time.

The idea is to gain skills outside of academia to make yourself more marketable.  So, did you put in the time and work ahead of time? If you didn’t, don’t be surprised if it takes you awhile to find a full-time and stable job outside of the postdoc.

Did you know that there are currently 86,000 US biology PhD students? This is doing nothing but flooding the system with soon-to-be PhDs that will have many of the same “transferable” skills as you-especially when transitioning from academia into industry or business.

Standing Out From The Crowd

So how do you really stand out from the crowd? By having the perfect resume? By just networking? Again, these are pieces of the puzzle that all need to fit together. While some may argue that one piece of the puzzle may be more important than another, it is pointless to try and attribute that networking solely by itself (for example) will “solve” all your problems and land you a great job. You still have to perform.

When it comes to finding employment you must couple value (what you bring to the table) and skills (to demonstrate value) along with the right personality (that matches the job/company of interest), all while having a customer-focused, team-based mentality. Many PhDs fall short in some, if not all of these categories. In academia, you once had a scientific problem that you were faced with and had to solve. When you work in industry, you are trading that in to focus on solving a customer’s problems.

The success of the products that your company makes and markets will be based on how well they solve a customer’s problem. When there is a problem, there is a need, and a solution (product) to meet that need. That’s why you have to know how to talk the language of industry and not look like an academic when you are applying. They will see it coming a mile away. But how do you know the language unless you have made the cross-over? Herein lies the caveat, and the point of this blog post.

Networking

I’ll just say that there are also many articles discussing the importance of networking. Yes, networking is crucial and can account for 90% of finding a job. But you don’t network just to find a job. It should be value based and focused. Many blogs promote the importance of networking for graduate students and PhDs, but deliver the wrong message and real purpose of networking. People are not simply objects that you connect with and use to just find a job.


bigpicturephd

So, before we dive into the top 20 questions, let me just summarize the “big picture” here to put it all in perspective. Here are some important things to consider when weighing factors that are going to get you noticed and help you transition from academia into industry or business (in no particular order or level of importance):

Maximize Productivity

1) Your productivity as a PhD student mattersTry to come up with a plan, publish, and graduate as soon as possible. A PhD program can last 5-7 years, but make them productive years. Make sure the time spent in academia is justifiable, as you are trading X amount of years for getting valuable experience (and most likely a higher salary) in industry.

In general, you also have to think how your publications translate to adding value to your future company that you want to work for (i.e. pick a company in the same field or scientific discipline). If I published something in Plant Science but I want to manage/research products for a Chemistry-based company do you see a disconnect here?

If this is the case, figure out how you can connect the two and find common ground between skill sets, when a job calls for a different background (whether slightly different or very different).  Be realistic and don’t stretch the truth here either. There can be gaps, but when you are a quick-learner (and demonstrate the drive/attitude to never stop learning), employers recognize this-although every hiring manager is different in what they value and look for.

Boost Your Skills

2) Taking your transferable skills to the next level. This means you are not complacent and under the impression that what you did as a PhD student is going to give you that ‘competitive edge.’ Now, if you have a thesis project that is very niche-focused and is cutting-edge, that skill set in itself may be in high demand. But many PhD students are not this lucky. The fact that there is an overabundance of PhD students kind of dilutes out the value of transferable skills in a way-at least to an employer.

So yes, this means coupling your transferable skills acquired during your PhD with additional skills OUTSIDE OF ACADEMIA. If you need business experience for a job you are applying, you aren’t going to get it by sitting in lab all day. You may need an internship.

Be Patient and Focus On Value

3) Yes, it is all about who you know and not what you know. But even so, let’s say you know the CEO of a company. He or she thinks very highly of you. You’re lucky because you have to do very little to really make yourself a well-rounded candidate. You are under the impression that the PhD in itself will suffice and allow you to hit the ground running. They start you out in a great position based on the fact you have such a great personal relationship with the head person. A few weeks in, they find out that you just aren’t measuring up to what they thought. This actually does happen.

Just because you have a great connection or even a PhD, doesn’t equal great performance on the job. So keep this in mind if you are reaching for the sky. Transitioning into industry is a culture shock in itself, so remember the transition takes patience. Be able to demonstrate/add value to your future employer from Day 1, a lot of which connects to #2 above.

It’s Never Too Late To Start Networking

4) Start Networking and making key connections during your time as a PhD student. You’ve heard this before, but it is an important point. Focus on how you can add value back to each person. Build up your reputation and online presence. Run a science blog. Get involved in LinkedIn Group Discussions. Set up informational interviews and start learning what careers are a good match for you based on your interests and strengths. Connect with those working in industry. See my networking guide for more info.

Know What Matters To Industry

5) Knowing the language of industry and what matters to industry. This is shown NOT just on a resume, but also in the in-person interview-which should align with knowing the company and its values, the market and the customer, and being able to demonstrate how your experiences and skills all MATCH up. You are painting a picture. Having half a painting isn’t going to land you the job you ultimately want. Everything is weighed accordingly.

Know what matters to a company and how they perceive you. Yes, results and profits matter. People matter. Your boss matters. The customer and the market matters. It’s not just about you and your thesis project anymore. People will depend on you to hit deadlines and complete projects.

You may have a very strong technical background, but not have a clue what the market is like or what your buyer’s behavior, perception, or scientific problems are. Don’t be someone who does an inside-out approach where your “great” idea for a product only comes from your own department (internal). Then the product flops. A successful product/project will be centered around solving a market problem, also known as an outside-in approach.

Look Like Someone Who “Gets” It

6) Leave out Academic Jargon. That means leave it out of your resume and your job interview. No one cares about your thesis anymore, unfortunately. You can talk about what you learned from your graduate school experience and the skills you acquired in the process, but don’t go beyond that.

A lot of those conferences, poster presentations, awards, and all the prestige centered around being a stellar PhD student and post-doc doesn’t really matter as much to industry. They are going to be focused on how you can perform on the job and adapt to the company and team-based culture.

Be someone who recognized the problem and took action. You did steps #1-5 above (or a combination thereof). You did all you could to stand out from the crowd. And guess what? You’re going to come out on top.


Top 20 Questions (Categorized):

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Resume/CV

Q1**: Should I remove most of the research things and emphasize some other services experiences on my resume? **This is one of the most in-depth questions and answers

Q2: How long a CV should be? I have a long CV with all the experience, but the majority are research oriented.

Q7: Should we have a CV and resume available online (personal website; linkedin) or make it available on an as-needed basis? If we make it available online, how do we tailor to accommodate different jobs?


Networking

Q3: How do you network without sounding desperate?

Q9: I knew friends who worked in industry and they put me in touch with others (in research, which is what I’m interested in). I wrote to them but got no reply. In addition, it’s hard to get to talk to the relevant person and usually they are evasive. How do you get around this?

Q12: What is an informational interview and how do you effectively use it? How do you schedule an informational interview?  How do you even find whom to contact for setting something like this up?

Q19: Many companies are very careful about not making contact information for hiring managers available. How do you connect to hiring managers in companies, when the only people you know are in academia?


Career/Industry Specific

Q6**: What transferable skills did you highlight when you applied for the job of product manager? Did you need to get a specific certification? **This is one of the most in-depth questions and answers

Q15: I’m interested in project management, is that similar to product management?

Q17: If I want to go to product management in science area, will getting an internship in marketing but not science related internship help my transition, or does it have to be an internship in science related marketing?

Q8: Part 1: What is your work life balance like? Are you still putting in the same long hours? I want a better work life balance compared to academia. Did all your work pay off? Part 2:  How did you deal with conciliating both professional and personal life?  How important is it to be willing to move cities/countries, for example? What sort of travel requirements are typical for a product manager?

Q13: What do you think about an MD/PhD in non-academic jobs?


Applying For Jobs

Q10: Since the PhD is more of a moving target for graduation, when do you recommend applying for potential jobs that I would have interest in?

Q11: In your experience, is there an optimal timeframe to decide that you should make career transition? For example, would it be more difficult to make a transition if I have completed postdocs?

Q14: Did you decide to start in your actual position as a result of all the interviews that you had, or was something that you had in mind from the beginning?


Experience/Skills

Q4: Can you provide a bit more information about your consulting work experience, what did you do exactly and how did you start it?

Q5**: Can you talk a bit about the STEM paradox – i.e. the observation that while employers have high need for STEM professionals, science PhD graduates often have a hard time finding a job in the industry.  This paradox get some coverage recently in both Washington Post and Physics World magazine. **This is one of the most in-depth questions and answers


Professional/Career Development

Q16: Are there any specific career fairs that are specially useful for people that want to move away from the bench?

Q18: Did you use the services of a career coach or a recruiter during your career transition? Did you find it useful?

Q20: Do you know some good links or books as resources for career or professional advice?


Q1: Should I remove most of the research things and emphasize some other services experiences on my resume? 

The short answer- Depends on the job you are applying for.  

The long answerHere is some advice (and questions to think about) that I gave someone previously when they sent me their resume:

-What job are you tailoring this to? I actually had about 10-20 resumes all tailored to each job I was applying for or interested in. One generic resume is going to be tough to land a position, since it should be unique.

-You will really need to highlight your skill sets to make it stand out to an employer. For example, you want to avoid having a lot of awards and funding/conferences/recognition in your job history/description. To someone in industry this doesn’t really translate to value added I am afraid to say. Verbiage is also important.

Many academics may put down ‘demonstrated’ ‘wrote’ ‘solicited’ ‘supervised’ ‘awarded’ ‘recognized’ ‘invited’ and ‘reorganized.’ If I was a hiring manager in industry the only thing that I would probably pay attention to is supervised. ‘Demonstrated’ maybe as well (but demonstrated what? does this add value to an employer? does it help hit team/company goals or meet revenue targets/help your team members?). Quantify your results.

-You need a solid and clear objective statement at the top of your resume. What is your goal? What job do you want? What value can you add? Make it like a one to two sentence thing.

-Cut down the awards stuff, and summarize it if necessary. Have something like top 5 things that really stand out. Business skills. Leadership skills. Stuff OUTSIDE of academia. Don’t make it look so much like you are applying for another academic position. Your CV is more appropriate for this. A CV is used for academic positions and that is where you can list every award, honor, paper, etc. But a resume should be used for industry positions. And they are very different. Resume should be 1-2 pages. A CV can go up to 10 pages.

-These are top 100 action verbs you will want to center your job descriptions/skills around, here. Some resumes may list verbs such as ‘investigated’ ‘observed’ ‘managed’ ‘coordinated’ and ‘hired’. The first 4 actually aren’t too bad. But, let’s say you are at an interview. Would you say to the hiring manager “I observed various aspects of the scientific complex…?” Or would you think about rewording this? What does this mean to an employer?

-Your goal is to skip HR. Additionally, your biggest goal is to network and find someone within industry (the hiring manager) that will get your resume directly. This happens through informational interviews. The resume is just a tool to get you noticed. But it means nothing if you just apply to jobs online and it gets filtered out through a keyword ranking. Worry about the interview stage later. But you have to jump through all the hoops to successfully land a job. Focus on the people and which company you want to work for..and less on the resume/job application process and you will see opportunities surface.

*Again, your goal is to get noticed. And be someone who GETS IT. Like hey look at me, I know what an industry hiring manager is looking for in a candidate. I know how to market myself accordingly. I know what skills you are looking for. And I know how to talk the ‘industry language’ because I know what is important to you.

Then the interview convinces them that you can demonstrate this from day 1 if they hire you. “I have the skills, I know how to contribute greatly to a team, and I will help your company hit its goals in a short amount of time.” That is your pitch. If you do this, you will beat out 90% of the other candidates applying for the same job..

When you do informational interviews for a particular position you are interested in, what you do at the end of it is ask if they will correct your resume.. 99% of them will say yes. 25% or less will take time to correct it. That is nothing against you. That is because they are busy. But what you can ask them at the informational interview is how can I make my resume stand out more (don’t bring it with). Like what should highlight/make stand out if I want to become a ___Scientist in industry___?

Once you know this you can tailor your resume. Team work is big in industry. Deadlines are important. Project management skills are important. These are actually skills you learn in grad school. Have you googled transferable PhD skills? If not, I would. That is what you want to bring forward on your resume.. In addition to skills you have obtained outside of academia. That is what you have to highlight more.

In industry you are working under pressure. You have to remain calm. You have to work well with others to get stuff done. That is why in some ways, soft skills (behavorial) matter more than hard skills. Don’t skimp on highlighting ‘capable of working both independently and in a multidisciplinary team environment.’

Make sure everything on your resume matches up and paints the right picture. There shouldn’t be any sort of disconnect with the job description, objective statement, and skills that matter for the job (and the overall flow or your resume). Also, be prepared to answer any questions or explain anything on your resume as it’s all fair game when doing an in-person interview.

Going further, the problem with academia is that in many ways you are a lone ranger. You are better off saying you ran your own research project but also collaborated with others as well. Don’t make it look like you were the only one driving the project forward. You involved/depended on other people for its success. That’s what they want to hear. You don’t want to look like you are taking all the glory. Whatever you put for highlight of qualifications, you have to make sure your job experience reflects that. All it has to do is get them interested enough to invite you for an interview. Also see:

  1. What matters to industry employers
  2. Complete networking guide

What other skills have you gained outside of academia? Blogging? Business classes? Projects? Collaborations? Consulting? Running a business on the side? Industry loves to see stuff like this. If you can translate your resume to look attractive to them-that is what you highlight.

I would not focus your time on getting the perfect resume. Its OVERRATED. Spend 95% of your time networking, meeting people in industry, and creating opportunities. I did 2-3 informational interviews a week during grad school and built up a network that I added value to and vice versa. By the time I graduated, I received a handful of offers. You can too.

I am just stating that when you reach out to people, getting out of academia becomes much easier. And you learn to recognize what is important to industry and what is NO LONGER important. i.e. stuff that you can forget. For example, publications do matter. But not as much as you think in industry. Also no one cares about your thesis anymore. You need to highlight skills you learned while doing PhD/Postdoc.

Example of  some skills/techniques highlighted: immunofluroescence, western blotting, molecular biology, bioengineering techniques, siRNA, shRNA… Tissue culture experience.. Experience working with a humanized mouse model.. I think you get the point. It’s more like a checklist of skills you learned. Mix the hard skills in with the soft skills (i.e. strong communication skills). More on this later (see questions 5 and 6 below).

Honestly, that is all someone in industry cares about.. Highlighting on your resume “writing a grant proposal” might also be important if the job you are applying for requires a lot of scientific writing. But again, writing grant proposals is more what a professor typically would do. You could reword it to something like, “Effectively demonstrated scientific writing skills and met deadline 2 weeks ahead of schedule..” Something like that. Quantify your results, because hitting deadlines to industry is important.

 Back To Questions


Q2: How long a CV should be? I have a long CV with all the experience, but the majority are research oriented.

I would focus on coming up with a good resume. A resume is usually 1 page, but can go up to 2 pages. A CV is more for academic positions and there really is no limit to the length. I’ve seen some go 10 pages. But to industry, they don’t want to see a CV, they want to see a resume highlighting your skills and the value that you can add from Day 1. Are you going to be a quick learner if there are gaps or are you going to be someone they are going to have to spend a lot of time training? You want to convince them you have the necessary skills for the job, but also that you can adapt and hit the ground running. But avoid the CV as it doesn’t speak well to the language of industry in most cases.

 Back To Questions


Q3: How do you network without sounding desperate?

When you are a PhD student you actually have an advantage because informational interviews are not intended to seek employment. And there is no limit to the amount you can do. Even as a postdoc, you are viewed as someone in training.  See my complete networking guide. I list a sample of info interview questions you can ask, and also how to approach someone to ask them for an interview. These are not viewed as being desperate. Also, do not tell them at the interview you are looking for employment. You are there to learn and add value. Nothing more, nothing less.

 Back To Questions


Q4: Can you provide a bit more information about your consulting work experience, what did you do exactly and how did you start it?

Consulting is a bit different and a future blog post will address this career and how to transition post-PhD.

Since this question is addressed to me personally- I developed a skill outside of academia I really want to capitalize on. Did I plan on doing consulting for local biotech startups for social media? No. It was just a passion of mine and was one of my strengths where I realized I could be viewed as an expert (hence credibility develops as you work your way up with success stories). The highlight here is what VALUE can you add to a company? What skills or expertise have you learned? Patent law? Computer programming? Bioinformatics? Economics? Business? When you combine science with these fields the applications become endless and very powerful.

I started an online business in 2009: RCW and taught myself web development, SEO. Then when I launched The GradStudentWay and I went further with promoting my blog and really marketing the site to reach a broad audience. It was more of a ‘self-taught’ skill. I wrote more about consulting here and provided additional links.

Find what you are passionate about, as each person will be unique. An example is here.

You can certainly create your own path. You don’t have to follow mine. I am just one of many examples. Also see: Branching Points- PhD To Consulting

 Back To Questions


Q5: Can you talk a bit about the STEM paradox – i.e. the observation that while employers have high need for STEM professionals, science PhD graduates often have a hard time finding a job in the industry.  This paradox get some coverage recently in both Washington Post and Physics World magazine.

Also known as the PhD Industry Career Gap, which I addressed in a previous post:

I eventually realized that, like many Ph.D.’s in many other fields, I had fallen into the Ph.D.-industry gap—i.e., the gap between highly specialized Ph.D. training and corporate-world expectations of hiring candidates who are industry friendly. Even in “lucrative” fields like computer science, job postings that say things like “Ph.D. or dropped out of Ph.D. a plus” show just how wide that gap really is. ~The PhD Industry Gap

PhD grads have many attractive and transferable skills: Data analysis and synthesis skills, writing and publishing, research design, presenting, grant writing, managing people and budgets, interdisciplinary contexts, self-motivation, critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, time-management and teamwork. These skills are effectively utilized in many fields outside of academia and serve as an important part of our workforce.”

Data analysis and synthesis skills are the most transferable PhD-completion skills and are critical in 75% of careers, important in not only faculty careers, but also business, government, non-profit (BGN) careers, and in non-faculty academic work. Source

I guess when I say “one” marketable skill as mentioned in this post, I am grouping a lot of these skills sets that come along with the bench science and referring to this as “one”. I do think the PhD is very valuable and serves as a great training program to help you in future careers. To be a good scientist, obviously you must also be good at many other skills such as data analysis and synthesis, critical thinking and problem solving skills. Also, good communication and presentation skills are key and will be very important when working in a team in industry.

However, the problem is that these skills sets (although valuable and crucial in any future job beyond the PhD) are not enough. If they were, we wouldn’t be seeing articles like this: titled, “Biotech & Pharma Whining About Talent: That Makes Me Mad.”

This article refers to this report, which states that many life science executives are complaining about seeing a talent shortage. Out of 19 surveyed industries, only 28 percent said they were “very confident” in getting access to top talent whereas 72% say they will expand their R&D department. So the question is why are companies expanding if they feel they aren’t getting the top talent? And on top of it, laying people off? (it clearly indicates that they have a different definition of what a ‘qualified’ worker is)

This report goes on to describe how the people with traditional skills—chemistry, microbiology, etc.—don’t necessarily fit in the biotech and pharma industry’s new R&D models: “As companies rely more heavily on partnerships with academic centers and contract research organizations to help with R&D, the industry has developed an increasing appetite for people with skills in managing outside partnerships and regulatory affairs. There also aren’t enough people to meet the needs in biomedical engineering, bioinformatics/data analysis, health economics/outcomes research, and systems biology, according to the PwC report.”

What this tells us specifically is that PhD programs are not meeting the training demands of industry (position-dependent). AND/OR companies are being lazy and are not taking the time to develop their employees. They are spoiled and expect PhDs to enter into the field with very specific skills and to hit the ground running. The only way to obtain these skills in absence of development or training on the job from an employer (once you make the cross-over) is to take on an internship, which I mention in this article.

Internships are viewed as training on the job, and are an excellent way to get your foot in the door. How I see it, needed skills sets and the cross-over is very POSITION dependent, but there are usually multiple jumps you have to make. First, academia into industry or government (for example). Second, industry (science) into business (if you are trying to step away from the bench). Typically, companies will hire you based on what you did last. This means that if you were a scientist in academia, you will most likely crossover as a scientist in industry.

Once you have established yourself within the company, only then can you cross-over into other fields like business-related positions. This is not always the case (as many have a unique skill set, past experience, personality, or the right connection) and I have seen a handful make a “double jump”. Not impossible, but still very hard in today’s day and age.

“A frequent failing of our system is that students come out of graduate school with bench skills (technical skills) but not as much in other categories. You will need these other skills regardless of your career path (academic or otherwise).”

 Back To Questions


Q6: What transferable skills did you highlight when you applied for the job of product manager? Did you need to get a specific certification?

PhD grads have many attractive and transferable skills: Data analysis and synthesis skills, writing and publishing, research design, presenting, grant writing, managing people and budgets, interdisciplinary contexts, self-motivation, critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, time-management and teamwork. These skills are effectively utilized in many fields outside of academia and serve as an important part of our workforce.

I think you can imagine the wide variety of professional attributes and skills needed to be successful as a product manager. There are too many to list them all, but if you have an entrepreneurial drive and spirit, are a leader and highly influential, enjoy a challenge, are a self-starter/critical thinker, are able to prioritize multiple tasks, work well in teams, are an effective communicator, work well under pressure, and want to use your scientific knowledge in a business setting, then Product Management might be a great fit for you.

It is how well you can work with people.. In teams.. Versus being a lone ranger in lab. Any BUSINESS skills you have acquired outside of academia..Soft skills and behavioral skills are a big one sometimes more so than hard skills. Your goal is to NOT look just like an academic.

Here is an example of what I highlighted on my resume for a product manager position:

(Many of these skills/attributes can apply to other positions in industry as well.)

• Exceptional product management and customer service skills, with ability to use critical thinking and discipline to meet customer needs, develop product strategies, and support sales, marketing, and R&D.
• Very knowledgeable on scientific details, techniques, procedures, and products in the functional genomics field with over five years of translational scientific research experience and expertise.
• Proven track record of success as an entrepreneur with experience in launching and growing a company, developing a product line and reaching a target audience, and tripling revenue in one year.
• Very well-rounded, self-motivated, and passionate with an eagerness to learn and adapt to a dynamic market.
• Strong ability to provide scientific, technical and application support during pre- and post-sales activities to ensure the highest customer satisfaction and maintain excellent clientele relations.
• Superb presentation and interpersonal skills and ability to clearly communicate ideas and data both written and verbal to individuals as well as large audiences.
• Strong problem solving skills and ability to multitask and tackle tough challenges in fast-paced environments, and manage/prioritize projects to ensure timely completion of important milestones.
• Analytical and strategic thinker able to refine processes and operations to improve organizational efficiency and methods by working both independently and collaboratively with team members.
• Advanced computer science skills including numerous web site developments, Microsoft Office applications (Word, Project, Excel, Access and Power Point), and basic HTML/JavaScript Programming.
See Question 1 for additional information.

Q7: Should we have a CV and resume available online (personal website; linkedin) or make it available on an as-needed basis? If we make it available online, how do we tailor it to accommodate different jobs?

LinkedIn is really the only site I see in having an online resume in terms of value. Other than that, all those job sites like Monster, CareerBuilder, Glassdoor.. Aren’t going to get you hired. You have to network and get your resume to the hiring manager. Storing it online won’t get you out in front of anyone and won’t get you noticed.

The things that need to stand out do need to speak specifically to the job description.. Even if you don’t match up 75% to what they want, if you can demonstrate you are a quick learner they will take a chance on you. Especially if someone from within the company is willing to vouch for you. That is why networking is so important..

You should have a different resume for each job. You change your objective statement as the first and foremost thing. After that, it will come down to specific skills the job requires or is asking for.  You have about 30 seconds or less to impress an employer from scanning the first 1/3 of the top of your resume.

If your job asks for a specific experience (and really emphasizes) with for example, synthetic biology, then spend extra time to highlight this in any way that you can. Use buzz words or strong action verbs that demonstrate your skill set in this area of science. You can also have an ‘Experiences, Skills and Attributes Section’ (in addition to your job history and description sections) to make it stand out more. Ultimately, you want to demonstrate that you know how to speak the language and you are aware of what they view as valuable-even if you don’t have all the skills “required” for the job (or listed as ‘preferred’).

 Back To Questions


Q8: Part 1: What is your work life balance like? Are you still putting in the same long hours? I want a better work life balance compared to academia. Did all your work pay off?

Part 2:  How did you deal with conciliating both professional and personal life?  How important is it to be willing to move cities/countries, for example? What sort of travel requirements are typical for a product manager?

Product management has about a 6 month learning curve with any new position/product. Once you get over the hump, you will be working 40 hours/week. But this can depend on where you are in the product life cycle (product launches I can tend to put in more hours), your travel schedule, the size of your company/team, the company culture, your boss, etc.

To hit deadlines, I have certainly put in 60+ hour weeks. But still not nearly as bad as being a graduate student where I would put in 80+ hour weeks while doing an internship and writing a thesis. Plus you get paid a decent salary for all your hard work.

You can also become (get promoted to) a market segment manager (manager of product managers), or even a Director of a whole department/area. The directors aren’t too far from the VP in a company. The higher up you go, the more responsibility you will take on-which likely means more hours.

I know friends who are postdocs putting in 80+ hour weeks. My time in industry is also less stressful and more enjoyable. I also work more in teams, so I feel like there is a lot more support.

Overall, I am very content where I am at as a Product Manager in terms of work/life balance as well as salary.
Grad student stipend: 23-28K

Postdoc salary ~40K.
It’s a no-brainer :)
So yes- it all paid off. I wrote more about why I like what I do here.

Part 2:

I moved from Madison, WI to St Louis to take on a Product Manager job. I left all my friends behind. My family instead of being 3 hours away is now 7 hours away (drive). I had to make a sacrifice to get to the level that I am at now. But once you get about 2 years of industry experience under your belt, it becomes easier to move around.

Industry definitely makes work-life balance easier to maintain. I still play in a rock band on the weekends as well.

It was easy for me to make the move and accept the job that gave me the best opportunity as a product manager with a great company. It can also depend on where you are it in terms of a relationship, or if you have a family. I was single at the time-which gave me more latitude and willingness to move.

Finances also play a role.. Location does play a role. It also depends on the company you want to work for as well..

Keep in mind:

There is also a backwards strategy that many PhDs take on during their career search. They focus on the position and match that up to the company. The problem with this is that it takes the focus off how you can add value to a company. It becomes more about you. The point is that if the position that you obtain within the company will add the most value based on your strengths and contributions, then it is the best fit. Therefore, when doing your job search focus on the company first, how you can add value, then backtrack to find the correct position. This means you should have multiple roles in mind that play on your strengths and not just one. If you haven’t figured this out yet, here is what you missed earlier.

Be open to moving if you want to find the best opportunity.  I think if the opportunity is great and you have to make the decision, you should think long and hard about the potential growth/future with the company and upwards mobility. If it makes sense and the offer is attractive, I say go for it.

Travel depends on: the company, the product line you manage, the size + the market, and how much demand your product has in different areas. I travel 10-20% of time. I also have option of attending conferences specifically related to my product. I easily can maintain a work-home balance.  Again, it varies, but be sure to ask this at the job interview so this is made clear up-front.

Many times if I have top accounts I want to visit to help support the sales force, I will schedule visits and give seminars/talks on campus or with big pharma. It is all about large sales opportunities and driving revenue as well.. But the focus has to be on the customer and the value your product can add to help solve their problem. This will then justify you traveling to these accounts.

 Back To Questions


Q9: I knew friends who worked in industry and they put me in touch with others (in research, which is what I’m interested in). I wrote to them but got no reply. In addition, it’s hard to get to talk to the relevant person and usually they are evasive. How do you get around this?

It depends on your approach. I was also very aggressive, but not too pushy.  Please see my complete networking guide.

Cold emails almost always got me a response. After 3x, if there is no response leave them alone. Many times they are busy or on travel. You also have to learn to be patient. Cold emails (after a few) no longer become necessary as it spiderwebs into introductions from a person that now knows you..

Chances are though if someone introduces you (email works best), your chances of having an informational interview with that person go way up. You just have to get the ball rolling. Set up a time ASAP that works within that person’s schedule and location. Drive to wherever is close to their work. Meet them for coffee or lunch.

Also, it depends on the title of the email and how you are wording the email. You don’t want to sound like someone who is desperate. I included in my networking guide on how you can word emails.

It also depends on how the other person is introducing you. And the most important part is what are your intentions? Be clear and upfront about your intentions. If I got an email to meet with someone but I had no idea what it was about, I would be very skeptical and less apt to reply.

Only ask to be introduced to do an informational interview to LEARN about that person’s career and ask questions. You are a PhD student or Postdoc who is learning. Play the student card. They are very open to this.

If you tried to set up an info interview with someone just to try and get hired (and they sensed this), they would be evasive.

Also see: Dave Jensen’s Tooling Up Article

 Back To Questions


Q10: Since the PhD is more of a moving target for graduation, when do you recommend applying for potential jobs that I would have interest in?

Timing is a difficult one. I can’t answer to a T.  Why? Because a PhD can take 5-7 years to graduate. Time varies depending on the person. But it is never too early to start networking. I started info interviews my 4th year of grad school and did an internship in my 5th year.

‘Applying’ for jobs is a loose term. What does this mean? Does this mean you are applying online? Does this mean you are giving your resume to someone you know in industry? If you have a network built up, it becomes more about HOW you are applying instead of when.

If you had 5 people in industry that knew you well (personally) and know the value you can bring from day 1, you could apply for a job right after your defense and get an interview fast. If you don’t have a network built up or know anyone personally, then the time you should put in should not be ‘applying’ for jobs but to build your network (at least a year ahead of time in my opinion). Because when you get that PhD or are getting close to it, you may be able ask those people if there are any openings (if you know them well personally). Many times, they know job openings before they are even posted to external public.. Your objective is to snag that position up/apply to it before it leaks to the public and then becomes more competitive. If they can create a position for you from scratch (as Promega did for me), even better..

But see this past article I wrote as I talk about coming up with a ‘plan’.

 Back To Questions

phdresearchsignificant


Q11: In your experience, is there an optimal timeframe to decide when you should make a career transition? For example, would it be more difficult to make a transition if I have completed postdocs?

I don’t think about it is how many postdocs you have or haven’t completed. I think it is about the skills you have outside of academia that is attractive to employers. A 1st year postdoc versus a 3 time postdoc after 9 years can be viewed the same (although the 3x postdoc not nearly as productive), depending on what skills are acquired and are highlighted. Sadly, there is no limit on time you can spend as a postdoc. Industry will view you same as long as the time you spent was productive. Publications do help with this to justify your time, but I think people miss the big picture. They still focus too much on academics and not doing things outside of academia, then they have a hard time making the transition and can’t figure out why.

Also see: Science Careers- Overqualified or Underqualified?

 Back To Questions


Q12: What is an informational interview and how do you effectively use it? How do you schedule an informational interview?  How do you even find whom to contact for setting something like this up?

Please see my networking guide.

 Back To Questions


Q13: What do you think about an MD/PhD in non-academic jobs?

I know a handful of MD/PhDs in non-academic jobs. All depends on what your passion is. MDs, PhDs, MD/PhDs have a wide variety of careers available to them, you just have to seek them out and find what is best for you. I do however, think that going outside of academia should NOT be frowned upon by anyone because it is just naïve if someone does. If you have less than 15% chance of becoming a professor (field dependent), then it is obvious the other 85% club gives you much better odds.

Check out:

Medical Science Liason

Between 85% and 90% of physician-scientists take jobs in academic medical centers

The MD/PhD What Comes After?

 Back To Questions


Q14: Did you decide to start in your actual position as a result of all the interviews that you had, or was it something that you had in mind from the beginning?

I certainly did not know I wanted to become a product manager right off the bat. I had to start from square one. And it started with Dave Jensen’s article.

My story here.

You can do the same and follow the same guide when it comes to networking to learn more and pave the way.

I started with Field Application Scientist.. Technical Service Scientist, Product Specialists. I connected the dots. I asked them what the next step was. And it was a product manager. Based on my interests and skills as an entrepreneur, I decided this was something I wanted to pursue. But you have to ask the right question at an info interview to figure this out. That means not being afraid to ask them what they do and do NOT like about their job..

 Back To Questions


Q15: I’m interested in project management, is that similar to product management?

Much different, but there can be overlap. Product management is in charge of a product portfolio. You are responsible for driving a product to market. You do a lot of marketing. You help create new products and support existing ones. You are a DOER. Project Management is more broad, which is why I consider them less of being a ‘doer’ since they do a little bit of everything to move a project forward to completion. They depend on others to get the project done, and have little authority. Product managers also depend on others and have to lead by influence to get things done, but you will lead the overall direction of your product.

Project Management is, according to Wikipedia, “planning, organizing, and managing resources to bring about the successful completion of specific project goals and objectives,” within constraints such as time and money.  That same definition could be used to categorize the process of getting your PhD (or completing a postdoc): planning, organizing, and managing experiments (along with other resources) to bring about the successful completion of your scientific project in 5-6 years, within your lab’s budget. Source: BioCareers- Want To Be a Project Manager? Get Your PhD

So yes, project management manages projects not products, with a finite time point (there is a start and a finish). You help lead the project and keep things on track. The Project Managers at my company uses a Stage-Gate process. There are numerous checkpoints. There is a lot of paperwork. It can be a rewarding career for some, but it is not my cup of tea (everyone is different). Project Managers can take on many different projects and learn a lot about a broad variety of products/processes within the company. You have to assess risks and costs with doing a project. Expect problems along the way. You are held accountable for deadlines based on what other people work towards and how efficient things get done.

Set up info interviews with project managers, I am sure you will learn a lot :)

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Q16: Are there any specific career fairs that are specially useful for people that want to move away from the bench?

Usually, yes but it depends on your college campus. UW-Madison had a few per year. But I got more value out of doing 1-on-1 informational interviews that I ever did at a career fair.

Plus, you get to spend a lot more time with someone to address all your questions. And they get to know you personally…

Another example of a STEM career fair: STEM Expo

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Q17: If I want to go to product management in the science area, will getting an internship in marketing but not a science-related internship help my transition, or does it have to be an internship in science-related marketing?

ANY internship is helpful, and any industry experience is very valuable. Some product management positions require heavy marketing, others (depending on company) may rely on other strategic and tactical marketing teams to get tasks completed. But in general, being a good product manager is all about knowing your CUSTOMER and the Market. And that means knowing your customer’s scientific problem and how to address it. What product can you create to help solve it? You aren’t going to learn or find out the answers to these questions working at the bench in academia most likely. Hence, the need for a an internship outside of academia.

Always look two steps ahead. What job do you ultimately want to end up with? Nowadays, employers don’t like to spend a lot of time training you, especially in industry. That is the whole idea of an internship. To get you up to speed and shuttle you into a permanent position. So look at it this way:

If I were to get an internship that is unrelated science-wise and mainly marketing, but I ultimately wanted a job that is science-related (with business) do you think it would be easier to land a job and/or speak of my experiences if I already know the customer/market in that field (Science)? That doesn’t mean an internship that is not science-related is not useful. This experience is invaluable either way. But if you can certainly match the two: internship and job together this will make the transition much easier.

Also, keep in mind that if the internship goes well, it could also lead to a permanent position. So if they offered it to you at the end of your internship and it wasn’t something you liked to do (because you truly wanted something science related) what would you do? Certainly do not turn down any internship opportunity without giving it careful thought, however. It is always nice to have options, but if you don’t think another internship opportunity will come along for a while, then take it. Hardest thing to do however, is to tell your PI and get him or her to agree.

It took me a year of networking to even be offered an internship opportunity. Never underestimate the power of networking, but it does require a LOT of effort and patience.

 Back To Questions


Q18: Did you use the services of a career coach or a recruiter during your career transition? Did you find it useful?

See: Grad Student Advice Series- Hire an Executive Coach

Yes, it can be very useful. I however, did not use a career coach personally.

Be careful of recruiters. They sometimes do not have your best interests in mind, but can still be helpful in some situations. See: Tooling Up: On Headhunters.

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Q19: Many companies are very careful about not making contact information for hiring managers available. How do you connect to hiring managers in companies, when the only people you know are in academia?

– Most senior-level employees believe that there is intrinsic value in having connections and facilitating connections. It’s a cheap, relatively easy way to make the world a better place, and they consider their actions “paying it forward.” They know that new opportunities can be created–all by giving up a few minutes of their time.

– Many employers recommend that their managers conduct a certain number of informational interviews every month. This is standard practice in many companies, as it sets the tone for good PR in the community and says something about the company’s culture.

– “Opportunity hires” occur even during a hiring freeze or in companies that have recently downsized. This happens when no specific opening exists and yet good people surface via informational interviews. So it makes good sense for both parties to reach out for informational interviews; for you, having a personal connection means you’ll be in a better position for a job interview invitation; and for them, the possibility exists that you’ll be a great “find.”

From Science Careers: Tooling Up- The Informational Interview

Point is-you will eventually find the hiring manager if you network enough and with the right people..

See my networking guide and article.

 Back To Questions


Q20: Do you know some good links or books as resources for career or professional advice?

1) Cracking The Hidden Job Market

This will open your eyes to a lot of what I have written above. Excellent advice!

2) MyIDP

3) 

4) Science Careers

 Back To Questions


Feel free to post additional comments/questions in the comments section.


Further Reading

Mythbusting for Academics: Considering a Job in Biotech/Pharma

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