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Top 11 Alternative Entry Level PhD Science Careers To Skip the PostDoc

Many postdocs realize that they are working a contract position that will eventually expire. The thought of ‘what comes next’ can be extremely daunting; especially considering the reality that most will not end up in academia. It can be intimidating and overwhelming to explore the endless possibilities of what you can do next. More often than not, the biggest hurdles that you must overcome are learning about the opportunities available and making sure you have the skills required.

Once you have this knowledge, what do you do with it? Are you really gathering the skills required to be a competitive candidate in the job market you are about to enter? Will you be ready to accept the fact that, even with a PhD, you may be unemployed?

Taking charge of your career is not a passive action and it requires you to constantly be in motiondeveloping and mapping out your plan just as you would any critical experiment that will be added to your next Cell manuscript.

~ThePostDocWay

You spend 5-7 years getting a PhD. You want to see a return of investment. You want to end up with a fulfilling career that utilizes your PhD. You want to know all your options for the types of alternative PhD careers (outside of academia) that are out there, but the steps you need to take are missing or are unclear.

Going further, how does one define a return of investment? Will this is up to you. So you need to think about what matters to you so you can maximize where your PhD will take you in your career. A PhD is not the end, it is only the beginning.

You are so focused finishing your PhD and writing your thesis that you hardly have any time to work on your resume, let alone even think about it. Apply for jobs? Yeah, after “I defend and take a vacation.”

Here’s what you need to keep in mind.

By taking on a postdoc and not doing the planning prior to your graduation you are hurting yourself in the long run in two ways:

  1. You are missing out on real-world experience and OPPORTUNITY that may be (and most likely will be) found in a job area that better matches your interests, skills, and strengths and value you can add to a company.
  2. You will miss out financially-which is not a reason to go into science or grad school in the first place-but taking on a low-wage postdoc salary does not equal to what you could be making in other areas in industry and can hurt you especially if you are graduating with undergrad/grad school debt.

You have to pay your dues like anyone else. The important thing that defines your PhD and the value that it holds is what you do AFTER. How would you rather spend your time? Doing a 2-4 year postdoc (or even second postdoc) then transitioning into a career you should have figured out long ago? Or rewinding the clock and skipping the postdoc altogether?

An academic postdoc may be appropriate for some. But for many, it is not. Don’t delay the inevitable and put off the decision you need to make now versus later. If you haven’t come to this point of realization, which is common for many, maybe you need to put in the work ahead of time to make sure you are making an informed decision. That way you can go further down a path of your choosing with the level of confidence that you need.

Many just don’t want to put in the work in hopes that time by itself will help unwind things and bring forth answers through luck or serendipity. Reality check: it just doesn’t work that way.

With that said, it is important to point out that even if you go into industry, you will still be paying your dues. You aren’t going to start out in some senior level management position. You’re going to have to work your way up. So stop reading articles on the ‘top 10 PhD careers in industry’ because they aren’t telling you anything other than giving you a wishlist. Be realistic about where you are now and where you want to be in short term (not just the long run). Put the entitlement aside.

Whether you decide to “pay your dues” as a postdoc stuck in academia or as an entry-level professional working in industry, the point is that if you want to get your “dues” out of way NOW rather than later-then spend it in the industry that you are going to ultimately end up in.

Why are you paying “double dues” as an academic postdoc, then as an entry-level PhD in industry when you could just pay “single dues” as an entry level-PhD in industry?

Although an academic postdoc can (in a way) be paying its way forward towards an entry-level PhD career in industry (and there can be industry based postdocs), it is still not a simple apples-to-apples comparison and in many ways will only delay the start of your career.

You may end up in your mid to late 30’s with an industry career that finally allows you to support your family and have a work-life balance (postdocs are getting longer, and it is not uncommon to do multiple postdocs, AKA the “permadoc”).

You are only lengthening your timeline in terms of career progression if you want to pay double dues. Some may argue a postdoc helped them gain a new set of skills and made them more well-rounded. Why this certainly may be the case, you have to match that up to the industry position you go into in order to justify the value of the continued postdoc time spent in academia. This ‘justification’ may happen in retrospect years later, but it also makes you wonder had you transitioned into industry sooner how much further ahead you would have gotten.

Again, what’s missing from the equation is that a PhD student (regardless of category) needs to be made aware of all their career options ahead time (be proactive), do the proper planning ahead of time (such as networking), and do a self-assessment to make informed decisions and not just using the PhD experience as the main deciding criteria.

  • Misconception #1: I will do a postdoc to buy myself some time and “figure it out later”
  • Misconception #2: The PhD is the “end game”
  • Misconception #3: There are tons of careers out there for PhD’s which will make the transition into any these careers easy
  • Misconception #4: I have gained enough transferable skills in graduate school to distinguish myself from everyone else
  • Misconception #5: I can get “any” job out of graduate school or a postdoc
  • Misconception #6: Entry Level PhD Careers are no different than mid-level or even senior and there is no need to distinguish in terms of what is feasible.

Although it is easy to read and absorb articles like this (From Cheeky Scientist: Top 10 List of Alternative Careers For PhD Science Graduates), this article is misleading many PhD’s and giving them a false hope. And quite frankly is written by a series of authors that aren’t really out to genuinely help you (or lack the industry experience to back it up) and will only try and prey off a PhD’s naivety.

For example, as someone who is a Product Manager in the Biotech Industry, I can tell you it is most likely not an entry level career out of graduate school. Neither is a Business Development Manager and many others. Can it be with enough experience obtained outside of graduate school? Yes. But it is unlikely unless you are a rare breed.

So no, you are not going to get ‘any’ industry job just because you have a PhD and you think you have the transferable skills, the perfect resume, or are super confident.

You may eventually obtain your ideal industry career after you cross-over and pay your dues and PROVE yourself at your job. And it’s going to take time and hard work. A PhD doesn’t help you win an office argument and will make you look arrogant if you think you are better than everyone else just because you have a title or come off this way.

Be realistic in your expectations… You aren’t going to become a Venture Capitalist fresh out of postdoc or grad school with zero reputation. When you go into industry, you reset your clock and you have to build your reputation up again from scratch. Generally speaking, academic achievements won’t get you very far in industry as again, this doesn’t really add any value to an employer.

So, let’s be realistic and honest to those when we are giving advice and defining what entry level careers are for newly minted PhD’s, and the steps they need to take to make the transition.

But, before we go further, let’s just revisit a “PhD Return of Investment” To Put It Into Perspective:

From a previous post, is a PhD really worth it? (Back to Top)

  1. The Intellectual: See a PhD as being worth it for expanding one’s mind, knowledge of a field, and becoming an expert in a particular field.
  2. The Job-Lander: View a PhD as being worth it based on whether or not they could land a ‘good’ job and the type of job that they wanted (field based, industry based, location based, etc.).
  3. The Time-Saver: View a PhD as being worth it based on how long it took them to graduate, or how long it took to get into the workforce or end up with the job they ultimately wanted.
  4. The Opportunist: View a PhD as positive since it can lead to new opportunities. This could be credibility within a company and with customers, being viewed as the technical expert, or getting job promotions (i.e. senior scientist)-since the glass ceiling is raised or lifted. The opportunity could also lie with transitioning into a different field.
  5. The Industrialist: Doesn’t care about academia and this may have been apparent from Day 1, mid-PhD, or towards the end of the PhD. They only care about going into a field like industry and the worth of a PhD will depend on the hindrance or success of landing a job in this area. See #2.

Whatever your reasons are.. This helps you see the big picture here and how a PhD and career choice is very individualistic.  This post is a mixture of #2 (Job Lander), #3 (Time-Saver), #4 (The Opportunist), and #5 (The Industrialist).

As someone who works in industry at a large biotech company (over 10,000+ employees), I have come up with a list of the top entry-level careers for PhD’s that I see as the most common and that are realistic.

Keep in mind this list is not exhaustive and is just to give you a good idea of what is out there if you decide to make the transition. So yes, there are other positions out there and this can be very industry and company dependent (biotech, pharma, government, non-profit, hospital, CRO, etc.)

So where will a biology PhD take you?

biologyphdtrack

PhD’s need to gain a better understanding of their non-academic career options. A large majority find their calling and inevitably end up in ‘alternative’ STEM PhD careers due to the attractiveness and better career prospects of industry. How many actually end up as tenure-track faculty? Less than 8%.

You can skip the post-doc and end up in a different segments/area! Look downstream. And you don’t have to go through the post-doc loop to end up as an industry researcher, government researcher, or in a science/non-science related job. A postdoc is NOT a pre-requisite, so stop buying into the fact that this is a “default” position post-PhD.

I want to strongly suggest that you obtain an internship during your PhD to gain any experience you can to boost your chances of obtaining an industry position, whether entry-level or experienced.

For example, you could work for a biotech company as a graphic designer to learn how to produce marketing collateral for companies, or specialize in design, media, or advertising. You could take on an internship as a technical writer to gain the in-depth product knowledge and insight about the market. Or you could even take on a marketing internship where you gain product management experience by helping to create and/or launch products to market, and gain crucial team/cross-collaboration skills spanning across many different departments.

I just want to re-emphasize why an internship is so crucial, since the current advice trend is to really try and “sell” PhD’s on their “invaluable transferable skills” and convince them that this is enough. In many cases, transferable skills are not enough. So here is a recap from a previous blog post:


Transferable Skills

There are also many articles feeding PhD’s the false hope that transferable skills (solely acquired during a PhD program in academia) are enough in all cases of finding a job post-PhD. 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.

But, let’s take a step back here for a moment and just recap on what those transferable skills are. They are certainly useful and you no doubt as a PhD-holder you will take them to your next job.

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, project management, time-management and teamwork. These skills are effectively utilized in many fields outside of academia and serve as an important part of our workforce.

The point here however, is to not stay under the impression that you don’t have to do any work outside of academia to become more marketable. You need to boost your skills and experience in any way that you can, while you can (during grad school) in order to increase your chances.

With that said, 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 PhD’s 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 PhD’s that will have many of the same “transferable” skills as you-especially when transitioning from academia into industry or business.

So Cheeky Scientist’s quote misses the point entirely:

Every PhD job is a PhD job. You can never be too qualified for a job. Having a PhD perfectly qualifies you for ‘any’ industry position. When you strip a PhD down, it’s really just a degree in knowledge. You’re a Doctor of Philosophy after all. Your gift is your ability to acquire knowledge and use it to your advantage. You have the knowledge. Now all you have to do is leverage it… PhD’s thrive on both competition and collaboration. PhD’s have to compete for resources and for publications, while also having to share resources and collaborate to get published. No one is more qualified to work on their own or with a team. If you’re a PhD, start seeing yourself as a self-starter AND a team player, and leverage this unique combination to get the industry job of your choice.

Unfortunately, there is a lot more to the story here, and the grass isn’t as green as some may try to make you believe outside of academia. It just isn’t that simple and so cut and dry.

No, having a PhD does not qualify you for ‘any’ industry position. And when there are thousands of PhD’s out there who all have the same transferable skills as you, you aren’t going to ‘get the industry job of your choice’ fresh out of grad school or a postdoc. I think we all have heard enough of this unrealistic view and “feel good” false mentality. With that said, let’s move on and put the marketing bandwagon behind us.

Here is a reality-check that summarizes it quite nicely:

The result is an employment market where companies can afford to be choosy — and companies have mostly stopped choosing scientists straight out of grad school or a postdoc. “Companies are no longer willing to hire PhD’s who don’t bring additional skill sets to the table,” says Eric Celidonio, a veteran corporate recruiter. “They tend to hire candidates who they think will add value [to the company] in addition to research skills.”

~Science Careers Magazine


So, let’s get started. For each position, I will provide what the job involves/entails, list how many jumps you need to take, the type of move, and what the position can lead to. Can you break the ‘rules’ or take shortcuts? Certainly. There are exceptions. But these are the most COMMON paths I see.

Will you use your PhD?

Whether or not the position ‘requires’ a PhD, it is important to point out that a PhD will give you a huge leg up and will improve your ability to understand and explain the science behind the brand or your product(s).

Additionally, having a PhD will give you more credibility with customers and key opinion leaders, and can add tremendous value to your team. In the long run, it can also help open up a lot of doors and opportunities. However, it is important to not lose sight of what matters after grad school and not get caught up on deserving some ‘special treatment’ or high-end position (especially starting) just because you have a PhD.

Again, I am providing you with realistic expectations and entry level careers in order to give you hope in order to skip the postdoc. Find what is right for you and follow your passion. But keep in mind that I am certainly not telling you which path to take as it is entirely individualistic.


Quick Summary of Top 11 Entry-Level Careers Covered:

    1. Industrial R&D Scientist (or even Industry Postdoc)
    2. Product Specialist or Technical Marketing Specialist
    3. Technical Support Scientist
    4. Manufacturing/Operations
    5. Technical Writer
    6. Medical Science Liaison
    7. Consulting
    8. Sales (i.e. Field Application Scientist, Inside Sales)
    9. Recruiter
    10. Project Coordinator
    11. Technical Applications/Support and Customer Education

  Additional Careers


1. Industrial R&D Scientist (or even Postdoc)

If you thrive on intense scientific exploration and want to work with a sense of real and immediate purpose, then consider discovery research. There is also drug discovery and preclinical research. If you are already doing scientific research during your PhD or postdoc studies, then this is the first and foremost obvious choice.

As a researcher, you are the driving force of innovation for your company. One of the major perks and advantages of working as a researcher in industry is the team environment. When you throw a dynamic team in the mix, with people who are creative and collaborative-it makes seemingly ‘impossible’ scientific problems become possible to solve.

You will get great satisfaction out of seeing your products get launched into the market and getting feedback from your customers as to how your research led to advancing their own and helped solve their scientific problem (or even leading to a therapeutic or business partnership).

Industry will typically hire you based on what you did last. So the gap to bridge really isn’t that big. Many won’t even network to land a job in industry if the R&D position matches closely to what their thesis was on (or they will work as temp to get a foot in the door then land a permanent position). This applies even more if the position is niche-focused.

A good example is someone who had a stem cell project or some hot topic that is in high demand in industry. Did you work with genome-editing such as ZFN or CRISPR during your time in grad school? Guess what? There are companies that highly value these types of skills versus the generic molecular biology bench skills. That is why the lab you chose during your time in grad school does affect your career prospects.

That’s not to say that if you didn’t have a niche-focused thesis project that you aren’t marketable. It is very company dependent in what they are looking for. Your goal is to maximize your skills outside of academia to not look like an academic. Become MORE marketable to make the transition easier to outcompete other PhD’s who have the same set of transferable skills as you. Or outcompete those that do have that niche focus.

There are also industry post-docs which you can read more about here.

Move: Bench to bench move (lateral)

Jump: 1 Jump: Academia to Industry

Can lead to: Operations, Business Development, Marketing, Sales, Tech Support, Product Development, Quality, Regulatory or Clinical Affairs, Patent Law, Consulting, Venture Capital, Project Management, VP of R&D, etc.

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2. Product Specialist or Technical Marketing Specialist

From the American Marketing Association: “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

Product Management has many different definitions but can be defined as (from Pragmatic Marketing): “A member of either the marketing organization or the development organization who is responsible for ensuring that a product gets created, tested, and shipped on schedule and meets specifications. It is a highly internally focused job, bridging the marketing and development organizations, and requiring a high degree of technical competence and project management experience.”

“The role of product management spans many activities from strategic to tactical— some very technical, others less so. The strategic role of product management is to be messenger of the market, delivering information to the departments that need market facts to make decisions.” ~Pragmatic Marketing

Marketing is a great way to apply your scientific, medical, and/or business acumen. Marketing professionals can be involved in the earliest stages of product development all the way to product launch/commercialization and post-launch support/brand management.

A product specialist is usually under supervision of a Product Manager. What this does is expose you to many aspects of the product life cycle. You may even develop and launch your own product.

Once you learn the ropes and product portfolio, you may even do sales visits or calls, or present at seminars. Additionally, you will be responsible for support of your product (tactical) which could involve creating marketing collateral or responding to sales inquiries (expect numerous daily emails). As each product line will encounter issues, you will also be given issues that you can fix.

Your goal as a product specialist or technical marketing specialist is to go into product management. But you most likely will not start as a product manager until you have demonstrated success with product development and customers.

To learn more about product management, please visit my previous post here.

Ways to get exposure during grad school: Audit a business class, write a business plan or do a SWOT analysis, take an entrepreneurial class, create or manage your own product (this can be online), etc.

Product Life Cycle

Move: Bench to Business.

Jump: 2 Jumps: Academia to Industry. Industry to Business.

Can lead to: Sales, Product Development or Product Management which can also lead to Director of Marketing, Senior Product Management, Product Market Analyst, Consultant, Medical Affairs, Business Development, Commercial Operations, etc.

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3. Technical Support Scientist

Although probably not the most exciting job, it can be very rewarding for some. A technical support scientist position can be a great way to get your feet wet by learning/demonstrating deep technical scientific knowledge and being able to empathize and solve a customer’s problem(s).  This job will entail making product recommendations, providing application support to scientists, engineers, researchers, technicians, and most importantly-the customer.

Though this process, you will gain a deep understanding of the product portfolio, understand what the market needs (by understanding their pain points), and sharpen/boost your scientific knowledge of the field as you seek and provide answers.

After all, there can be very broad product areas that you are not familiar with. Since it is not always in one specific area, you will become exposed to many different levels of science (company dependent). This can make you very well-rounded and put you in a great position to shuttle into other positions.

What can make this position mundane is that you will spend the majority of your days dealing with customers by phone, email, or live chat. But these job functions/responsibilities are important avenues in order to reach customer resolution.

You will work across multiple departments and disciplines to provide feedback about products, document and resolve customer issues and complaints in a timely manner. Identifying product discrepancies is key and being able to recommend solutions. You may be expected to provide fast-paced technical contact/call-center support and your performance may be measured by the number of tickets closed out in a given week or month (like a quota).

Many times when you get stuck and can’t provide an answer, you can elevate to the product manager who will then assist you with more technical expertise. As a product manager I can tell you that it is not uncommon for a conference call to be set up to resolve a customer’s issue in order to put out the fire.

Think of a technical support scientist as someone who is a firefighter. When the going gets heavy and the fire is too big to put out, you will call in reinforcements. But you will be expected to put out a lot of ‘little fires’ as this occurs on a daily basis within a company and managing a product line/keeping customers happy.

Top performers will be rewarded and you can expect to be promoted quickly, as this is not meant to be a long-term position. Once you are able to demonstrate that you know the product/market and are efficient in solving a customer’s problem/being the technical expertise, this puts you in a great position to move into other areas like sales or marketing.

Move: Bench to Desk.

Jump: 1 Jump: Academia to Industry

Can lead to: Product Management, Sales, Manager of Tech Support/Call Center, and many other business-related positions.

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4. Manufacturing/Operations

Every company can market and sell great products but this is all dependent on what manufacturing/operations can make and deliver in a timely manner. Internal capabilities will also define what can or cannot be made based on the timing of the market, and can cause a bottleneck if resources are limited or a department is running lean. Basically, manufacturing is CRUCIAL to being able to hit deadlines and make sure the product gets in the customer’s hands in a reasonable timeframe.

You may perform numerous procedures and lab techniques such as aseptic handling, media preparation, inventory management, bioinformatics, tissue culture preparation and/or harvest, equipment setup and operation, high-throughput automation and robotics/liquid handling, maintaining good record keeping such as charts/lab notebook, etc.

You may end up making something without asking “Why”, which can be the downside if you lose sight of the market and what products are being developed and how exactly they are helping to solve a customer’s scientific problem.

But if you stay engaged with upper management and the marketing team, chances are you may get promoted to a Scientist within R&D or within the Operations/Manufacturing group (depending). Many others choose to transition out into other business positions such as marketing or sales.

It may sound cut-and-dry, but this career can actually be quite rewarding as well as challenging and you will acquire a lot of valuable industry skills into your future career. Teamwork will be crucial and you will use/sharpen your scientific background and lab skills on a daily basis. Project and time management is another great skill that is learned and demonstrated.

If a customer has an issue with your product, they will elevate to a technical support scientist (#3) who may then elevate it to a product manager (#2) who in turn may team up with manufacturing to pinpoint the problem (this is issue dependent). Therefore, you will also learn the pain points of your customers and how to solve them.

Although manufacturing is different than a Scientist (#1), this doesn’t mean that manufacturing does not lie on the innovative side. In many cases, operations and R&D work together to test new products and be able to launch them into market. This career can be exciting and a great starting position for some.

It also gives you the ability to really show you are able to meet the demands of the market and propose ideas for how to improve operational efficiency. Coming up with new ideas/protocols/procedures to ultimately reduce the Cost of Goods (COGS) can really get you noticed and benefit your entire group for years to come.

Also most likely responsible for: following Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s), Good manufacturing Processes (cGMP’s), having possible knowledge of ISO and FDA protocols, etc.

Move: Bench to bench move (lateral)

Jump: 1 Jump: Academia to Industry

Can lead to: Product Management, Product Development, Business Development, Plant Manager, Consulting, R&D Research Scientist

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5. Technical Writer

Did you enjoy writing your thesis and communicating your deep technical knowledge and understanding of science in a written manner? Did you enjoy writing a grant for your PI? First author journal publications? A career as technical writer will allow you to really capitalize on your writing skills and get noticed. The other key in industry for this position is that there is always a need for technical writers when there are product launches.  Think about it.

There is a constant need to write and publish written material to be able to educate customers, promote awareness, and provide technical expertise (such as protocols) to customers so they understand how to USE your product.

You will be able to work in a cross-functional team and environment to obtain an in-depth understanding of technical knowledge to write scientific content for product support and documentation. This can include technical bulletins, blog articles, sales training, press releases, technical marketing pages, data sheets, application notes, product brochures, web-based collateral, etc.

The key is to be able to explain scientific and technical information in a clear and concise manner. Just like you had to do at your thesis defense. You present deep scientific information and make it understandable. If you walk up to a random person on the street, you should be able to explain science to him or her in a way they can understand.

Many scientists tend to use scientific jargon and people have a hard time seeing the value in what you are trying to say. If the general population can’t understand it, your customers will also have a hard time understanding it as well (don’t assume everyone is an expert in your field).

Technical writers will also have visibility working with R&D or scientists to verify the technical accuracy or product documentation.

You may collaborate in order to complete documents. A technical bulletin is a good example where you may rely on R&D for data or supporting figures. You may look to them to provide the protocol or supporting information behind the experimental data. Once you have that piece of information, you can further polish it, provide additional suggestions or finalize the document for publication.

Another important job function is to own and manage updates and revisions to existing technical literature.

Existing products will need to be updated accordingly based on market needs or new features that are added. Products may be changed, updated, or even retired. Each company will have their own content and style regulations and rules (fonts, colors, branding), and you will learn to edit documents within these constraints (a trademark for example is important).

A slightly related position is Corporate Communications, which lies more on the general business side in order to convey a story to investors and other stakeholders. This tends to be a little less technical, but still allows you to use your writing skills. A position as a communications specialist allows you to help develop and deploy corporate positioning, branding and messaging.

As someone in Corporate Communications, you will create and update investor relations, be responsible for content management such as websites, online/social media communications, database management, and plan/execute multi-channel communications. For someone with a PhD, this may be a less common path but is still a good foot in the door.

Entry-level applicants should consider taking positions (say as an internship during grad school) that involve writing press releases or running trade show booths, such as PR communication, technical communication, or marcom positions.

Move: Bench to Desk

Jump: 1 Jump: Academia to Industry

Can lead to: Corporate Communications/PR, Marketing, Advertising, Sales, Business Development, Finance, Other Industries

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JumpAcademicHurdle

6. Medical Science Liaison (MSL)

Do you enjoy communicating or presenting highly-technical scientific information to support the needs of scientists and/or clinicians?

Do you enjoy reading about current clinical trials/studies or scientific publications, digesting clinical data, and being able to provide suggestions/advice based on your expertise and scientific knowledge of the current field? This is one of the harder entry-level careers to break into, but not impossible.

Approximately 75% of your job will be communicating scientific, clinical, and research information based on current needs.

Think of this position as a consultant and not as a sales representative. The downside however, is that some (say Medical Doctors) may view and treat you as a sales person. Although this position in itself carries a lot of prestige to begin with, and you will gain a lot of respect as you continue to build your reputation. Keep in mind that you will also be competing against PharmD’s and MD’s, who may have more clinical knowledge and experience than you, which makes this position challenging and very competitive.

But if you can find a way to fill the gaps and convince a big pharma company to bring you on as an MSL (i.e. volunteer early, focus on your therapeutic/expertise area only, and being able to demonstrate that you are a quick-learner and an effective communicator/educator of scientific information), this can be a very rewarding career.

To bring it all together, here is the definition of a Medical Science Liaison or MSL from the MSLS (Medical Science Liaison Society):

The Medical Science Liaison (MSL) is a specific role within the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, CRO and other health-care industries. MSLs have advanced scientific training and academic credentials generally consisting of a doctorate degree (Ph.D., PharmD., M.D.) in the life sciences. They concentrate on a specific Therapeutic Area (i.e. Oncology, Cardiology, CNS, Pulmonary, Hematology, Surgery, Women’s Health Care, etc) and disease state.

Medical Science Liaisons are vital in the success of a company. They work throughout a product’s lifecycle, help to ensure that products are utilized effectively, serve as scientific peers and resources within the medical community, and are scientific experts to internal colleagues at companies. However, the primary purpose of the MSL role is to establish and maintain peer-peer relationships with leading physicians, referred to as Key Opinion Leaders (KOL’s), at major academic institutions and clinics.

~MSLS

Also check out: Spotlight #1 and Spotlight #2

Move: Bench to Business

Jump: Varies. Usually 2 Jumps: Academia to Industry. Industry to Business.

Can lead to: Manager or Director of MSL’s, Marketing, Sales, Business Development, Associate Medical Director, Management in Medical/Clinical Affairs, in-house Medical Communications, Health Economics, KOL Management

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7. Consulting

Management consulting can be an excellent way to put your analytical and scientific training to use while you develop your business expertise. If you have the passion to innovate, drive change, and help companies be more successful, it may be the right career choice for you.

You will learn how to lead teams, manage people, and take on challenging and interesting problems. The connections that you make with top business professionals will also open doors to future career opportunities. And, your hard work and efforts could also have a huge impact on the future direction of the company.

Management consulting firms are going to be your most realistic/feasible option if you wish to become a consultant fresh out of graduate school. This is because as a PhD you have gained critical thinking, analytical, and deep problem-solving skills they highly value:

It doesn’t matter all that much what your Ph.D. is in—the important thing is the analytical approach you bring, writes Brian Rolfes, partner and director of global recruiting at McKinsey & Company, in an e-mail. “That said,” Rolfes adds, “we are delighted when new hires have specific domain knowledge that is relevant to our clients. People with training in electrical engineering may be suited to serve high-tech clients like the telecom industry. And in our healthcare work we have many people with biology, genetics, bioengineering or organic chemistry backgrounds, including a good number of M.D.s.”

Quantitative analysis skills are especially desirable. To be a strong candidate for a consultant job, a scientist should also be effective on teams, have great communication skills, and be able to point to a record of making a difference inside and outside the lab.

One thing that isn’t required—surprisingly—is business knowledge. Most Ph.D. consultants do need to learn business skills, concepts, and terminology, Bennett says, but that challenge is quickly overcome by the training that consulting firms provide their entry-level recruits.

~Science Careers Magazine

From PhD Career Guide:

If you are interested in consulting right out of graduate school, then you are likely looking at management consulting firms, who value the ability to think critically over specific knowledge.  These management consulting firms vary in size and variety of clientele, and most importantly, many are actively recruiting PhD’s in all disciplines because they acknowledge the analytical skills that are necessary to successfully complete a doctoral program.

The major firms including McKinsey & Co., Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Co., (which are also known colloquially as the big three in consulting circles), have formal programs to bring new hires up to speed on business competencies if their background is not business related.  More than anything, (yes, including business acumen), these firms value your critical thinking skills.

~http://www.phdcareerguide.com/consulting.html

Move: Bench to Business

Jump: 2 Jumps: Academia to Industry. Industry to Business.

Can lead to: Partner at firm, Marketing, Business Development, Commercial Operations, Venture Capital, CEO

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8. Sales (i.e. Field Application Scientist, Inside Sales)

This is one of my favorites and having knowledge of this position actually saved my PhD.

Think of a Field Application Scientist or FAS (for short) as a specialized sales rep/account manager with deep scientific technical knowledge and expertise. They provide support to customers of companies in laboratory equipment, reagents, or lab-services.

Chances are when you are dealing with customers who may have complex problems or scientific questions, these cannot be met by telephone or email. So as a FAS, you help provide that face-to-face interaction and technical support for the customer. You will get to travel a lot which can be exciting, and will have high visibility in the company.

Product managers will look to you to help drive their products and provide on-site technical support when needed. If you hold a PhD in biology, your strong suit will obviously be driving biology-related products. For this reason, people within the company will turn to you as the ‘point-person’ if their background is in chemistry (and their comfort or knowledge level is lacking), for example.

A general account manager or sales rep may also not have the necessary knowledge in order to close a big sales opportunity. What happens is they call upon a specialist, or Field Application Scientist to help close the big/high ticket sale.

The reason for this is that Product Managers are already spread pretty thin. They certainly don’t have the time to fly all over the world to help close sales throughout the year. This can be in their priority list at times, but this is generally the job of the sales force.

That is why Application Scientists exist, to go beyond the general account managers and drive those niche-focused sales and/or provide highly technical support. They may also give scientific seminars on the latest technology at Universities or conferences, provide training, and/or even set up equipment or do product demonstrations.

It is a GREAT way to demonstrate your knowledge of the field and how your product fits into that field as a SOLUTION. You are not selling just a product, but a solution to solve a customer’s scientific problem.

You will gain trust among your customers and establish great relationships. A FAS can lead to many other positions such as marketing, sales management, and business development. You will have demonstrated first-hand that you have customer-facing experience and you know what the market needs.

Your feedback is also very highly valued in the company as Product Managers/Sales Managers will look to you for new product ideas and Voice of Customer (VOC) feedback of current/existing products performance.

When technical inquiries from customers can’t be met by telephone and e-mail tech-support teams, they escalate to applications scientists. “Especially when they require lab work, an applications scientist speaks with the customer and can go so far as to test samples or specific applications,” Herzer continues. Herzer has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Rutgers University; such high-level credentials are common among applications scientists, and often are necessary for dealing with the complexity of modern research tools.

~Science Career Magazine

Lastly, Inside Sales is a bit different in that is done remotely. It can still be technical, but without the field support that a FAS gives. Performance metrics and ways in which to grow accounts via sales will be different (i.e. cold calls versus face-to-face visits), but inside sales is a great option for those who don’t wish to travel or are just starting their careers out and have a family.

Also check out: Hit The Ground Running: Field Application Scientist

Move: Bench to Business

Jump: 2 Jumps: Academia to Industry. Industry to Business.

Can Lead to: Sales Operations/Training, Marketing, Business Development, Consulting

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9. Recruiter

If you are a people person who enjoys and feeds off personal interaction and networking, and if bringing people together based on common interests is a driver for you, a career in recruiting may be right up your alley.

This job will allow you to exercise your “people” skills while you contribute to the scientific community and the impact you make on people’s lives. After all, you are bringing value to both the company and the individual by filling the position, as you assess what is a great fit based on that individual’s background, education, skills, company value, etc.

Although some may argue that recruiting may be more for people with industry experience under their belt, it is not uncommon for a PhD to fill this position as you understand the value and skills needed for a science/technical position. This is even more so if you are filling positions for a company that is hiring in your PhD area of expertise.

In many cases, learning the “ins” and “outs” of industry can be learned on the job, as long as you are a quick-learner, and have the skills needed to be able to aggressively identify and get candidates hired, all while building your network/reputation.

Think of a recruiter as a hiring consultant. Your strength would lie in the understanding and having a good grasp on the strategy within an organization and identifying the talent needed/required in order to achieve that company’s goals, whether short or long term. You are ultimately helping companies save time, energy and money. Organizations are willing to pay a premium to secure top talent. In a nutshell, it is your role as a recruiter to identify, evaluate, and attract top talent.

This is a great position as it will help you to gain more expertise and knowledge of the industry and what companies really value in candidates.

One of the common companies hiring in this area that I see is Kelley Scientific, which is a science staffing company that hires PhD’s fresh out of grad school.

Move: Bench to Staffing Agency.

Jump: 1 Jump: Academia to Recruiting Firm (Varies by Industry).

Can Lead to: Business Development, Sales, Starting your own firm, a Career counselor of Executive Coach, Consulting, or Human Resources/Organizational Development Consultant.

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StageGateProcess

10. Project Coordinator

Would you rather focus on the big picture versus being a specialist in a specific area of scientific discipline? Do you enjoy being the facilitator in the decision-making process, managing a team, and/or helping to define options in order to pull together information from many groups working on a project in order to hit deadlines?

If you don’t mind being a highly-visible point-person and doing lots of paperwork/documentation (just being honest), project management might be right up your alley. A Project Coordinator is a step below a Project Manager, just like a Product Specialist is below a Product Manager.

You be responsible for assisting the Project Manager in all aspects of Project Management including project planning, data gathering, analysis, development, communication, status tracking, implementation, budget monitoring, and follow-up. You will coordinate project activities with the project manager and communicate information to key project stakeholders.

You can expect and will learn from changes in project requirements, deadlines, scheduled dates, etc. There will be unexpected hitches. You will learn how to communicate crucial and relevant information to your team members. You are responsible for providing project status reports and meeting updates. There will be project tracking logs including actions, issues, anomalies, problems, change, risk, etc.

This entry-level position will give you hands-on experience with understanding what constitutes the scope of a project and what individual team members are responsible for. You will have little to no authority, but will lead by influence. Once you have enough experience under your belt and a reputation for successfully managing projects/teams, this most likely will lead to a promotion as Project Manager.

Being a Project Coordinator/Manager is vital to launch new products into the market or complete projects/large milestones (projects and the types of projects can vary by company). You are essential to a company as you will pool together resources and teams in order to execute the stages of the Stage-Gate Innovation Process (again, can vary by company). See image above.

You can also (down the road) obtain your Project Management Professional (PMP) Certification. You can read more about that here and what the prerequisites are.

Move: Bench to Business. Leads to Project Management

Jump: 2 Jumps: Academia to Industry. Industry to Business.

Can Lead to: Project Manager which can lead to Project Team Leader, VP of Development or Project Management, Consulting, Marketing or Business Development, Portfolio or Alliance Management, etc.

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11. Technical Applications/Support and Customer Education

Depending on the company, many will have a customer education or technical applications support team with varying responsibilities and job functions. If a product manager needs to schedule a workshop, customer visit, online webinar, or sales training-the Customer Education team is responsible for coordinating all the events and making sure everything goes smoothly.

If someone on your team is attending a scientific conference for example, you may be responsible for ensuring that sales/marketing/R&D has the needed marketing/sales collateral to advertise your product. You may also travel and attend conferences to help with setup of the booth, setup of presentations/slides of speakers from your company, have sign-up sheets/lead capture forms ready for customers, gather marketing/sales reports, provide product support, etc.

Where the customer needs you (based on business needs), is where you will most likely go/focus your attention. Many can even be potential clients or business partners, or high-profile customers.

More importantly, your whole job is to understand the needs of a customer, educate, and solve any pain points/problems they may be having through the exchange of information.

For example, you may need to gather information ahead of time (such a survey) to understand what a customer wants to get out of a workshop, seminar, or presentation. Then you can plan ahead accordingly to make sure you have the needed resources to meet those requirements.

Feedback from the customer (before and after) is crucial in order to continually improve your methods and make sure you are doing your absolute best in order to ensure the highest customer satisfaction.

This is a good position to play on both sides of marketing and sales support, as well as understanding the needs of the customer. Because of this, a Customer Education role can shuttle you into many different positions in areas where your job overlaps.

Move: Bench to Desk.

Jump: 1 Jump: Academia to Industry

Can lead to: Management (Customer Support Lead), Sales, Marketing, and many other business-related positions.

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Additional Careers

Don’t see a job that interests you? Make sure you Register and take the myIDP test: http://myidp.sciencecareers.org/ You may be surprised at what matches up to your skills/interests.

For example, I did not list Law in this blog post. If you are someone who has gained interest/skills during your PhD in Patent Writing or in Technology Transfer you could find yourself shuttling into this area.

Going further, I have seen some PhD’s write patents along with their Professors and have gained a very good understanding of the patent process and what is out there in the field. You could even go to law school and/or apply as an entry-level associate in a firm (or work for your Tech Transfer Department at your University). It is not uncommon for PhD’s to work as patent agents during the day and go to a nearby law school at night.

Entrepreneurship is also a great route for some with the right personality and drive:

It took me a while to realize what is now obvious: Ph.D.’s are well-suited to being their own bosses. As a humanities graduate student, I managed my own projects from beginning to end, with no one telling me on a regular basis what to do or how to do it. In general, doctoral students are incredibly self-motivated and driven: to plan, research, write, present, teach, apply, report, submit, budget, edit, navigate bureaucracy, and manage their own time and their supervisors’ expectations. And we do this with limited funding, drawing on our creativity and resourcefulness to accomplish our goals.

~Jennifer Polk

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Just Remember…

You define your career and where you want to take it. It is up to you to find and create these opportunities, and to act NOW as you equip yourself with knowledge and the steps you need to take in order to successfully transition into industry.

‘Alternative’ and non-traditional career options, which are now becoming the standard, 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, LawGovernment, WritingVenture Capital, Consulting, Entrepreneurship, SalesTechnology Transfer is the first step.

Please also check out: 5 Ways to Gain Valuable Skills Outside of Your Academic Training


 

Further Reading:

I Just Got My PhD, Am I Ready for an Industry Job?

The Four Horsemen – Postdocalypse

Yes this is a long post, digest it slowly 🙂

PhD Myth Busters: Making the Transition From Academia to Industry

thealtphdplan

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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phdqanda

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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).”

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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

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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’.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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..

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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.

 Back To Questions


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?

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

1) crackinghiddenjob

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

Is A PhD Really Worth It? Or A Waste of Time?

Some may look back 5 years or even 10 years post-PhD and say it was definitely worth it. Others may be fresh out of graduate school and have a different view/opinion or may only feel frustration.

It may be defined by the job you ended up with (or ultimately want), the opportunities that your PhD led to, or how you define success. Others may say the PhD gave them more credibility, upwards mobility, and technical expertise needed for their job. Others may have pursued a different field apart from their PhD training and claim the PhD served a much different purpose (such as self-discovery).

The skills learned during a PhD are also invaluable in many ways, but the reality is that these transferable skills still don’t seem to be enough by themselves to land your first job in many cases (although very job and company dependent). But whether a PhD program ‘fully’ trains or prepares you for the job market or not, still doesn’t define its worth. The point is that a PhD-even if it doesn’t pay off now-certainly can (or will) later. But one very important point to make is this:

How you define the value of a PhD or if it was worth 5-7 years of your life (and time out of the workforce)-is entirely individualistic.

With that said, let’s go into this article-which is written by Michelle Capes, along with 2 other PhD’s who offer their perspective. Please keep an open mind as you read through the comments, as each PhD will have their own experiences which may be different from your own.

Is A PhD Really Worth It? – Michelle Capes

I am often asked whether my PhD was worth it. Would I do it again?

PhD programs are almost universally trial-by-fire experiences. When they’re completed, many new PhDs find out that they’re underprepared for finding jobs in anything but academia.

This should come as no surprise to any PhD. But the real question is what are you doing about it? With the flood of articles that are heightening awareness and pitching the idea of careers outside of academia as the norm, it all becomes diluted unless you actually put it into action.

As they begin their job hunt, they run up against the “overqualified, inexperienced” wall with a resounding thud. They are often turned away from entry-level positions in favor of bachelors and master’s level candidates, and become disillusioned about having earned their PhD at all.

I decided to ask couple of my colleagues about their thoughts on this question before weighing in with comments of my own. This article will give you three different answers and perspectives on the question “Is A PhD Worth It?” From there, you decide (it is very individualistic).

Debbie completed her PhD in 2012 and is currently on her second postdoc. Although she had funding for another year, she realized that complacency was not an option. She got a head start on her job search by participating in frequent networking events, serving on a committee to organize biotech events in the community, and building up leadership cred by acting as president of her university’s postdoctoral association.

She is no stranger to the frustrations of the job hunt, having weathered some truly frustrating situations: being told, for example, during an informational interview with an industry scientist that she should complete a third postdoc in order to broaden her skill set, and losing out as #2 on the short list after several exhausting interviews.

At the time of this writing, Debbie has accepted a position as Associate Medical Writer at a large contract research organization.

Debbie’s response to “Was your PhD worth it?” was this:

The answer is no longer the obvious ‘yes’ that it would have been in the past. With a tough job market and increasingly high [hiring] standards, having a PhD doesn’t seem to mean as much as it did in the past. However, there is more to the picture as well. Getting my PhD ensured that I was trained to think as a scientist. It altered my whole thought process for the better and that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Debbie also spoke about her sense of accomplishment:

I kept working through some tough times and finished my degree. I’m proud of that. I eventually realized that the job market is going to be tough at any level – it is what it is. No matter what level you are at, what job you are trying to get, if you apply yourself to networking and distinguishing yourself from the herd, eventually you will earn yourself a good job.

I knew Holly while I was in graduate school, when she was completing a postdoc in a neighboring lab. After the postdoc, Holly became assistant scientist in a clinical research lab, then left for a position with a global leader in the medical device industry. Her pathway toward deciding to pursue a career outside of academia sounds (unsurprisingly) familiar.

Here’s Holly’s response:

Yes, my PhD was completely worth it, although for surprising reasons. Following my decision to pursue a career in the industry, I was unsure of what to expect since I had previously been pursuing an academic track. The decision was largely due to frustration with:

(1) the grant landscape 

(2) the lengthy amount of time to impact patient’s lives pursuing academic research (I was interested in bench-to-bedside science).

The benefit of having a PhD was realized as early as my interview. I had pursued a clinical research position and discovered that while PhD’s in the bench-science arena are very common, if not required, in clinical research, it is not necessarily expected. My PhD, along with some experience in clinical research, and the ability to communicate effectively, landed me the job.

The most surprising element of my training which has given me the best advantage? My post-doctoral years. These years have set me apart from other colleagues who have a PhD. Having 1 or more post-doctoral years has shown my ability to expand my knowledge into another area, and also the ability to manage my own research ideas and projects.

In my experience, research in the industry is not only about what you know – it’s also about project management and the ability to communicate across groups of people.”

Holly continues:

Another benefit of the PhD is the characterization that you are a learner.

‘Learner’ personalities love to expand and grow, which is encouraged in the industry. If [they are] going into industry, someone with a PhD should understand their value is not necessarily the knowledge they bring to the company (although that is important), but the characteristics that are needed to finish a PhD which include:

(1) persistence, (2) resilience, (3) idea generation, (4) project management, and, (5) dedication.

This list is not comprehensive, but gives a view into the dimensions [that] a PhD has to offer. Potential PhD students, current students and post-graduates should reflect on what their PhD experience will or has taught them, not just about the science, but the soft skills that help to set them apart – I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to figure it out; it might have paid off even sooner.

And I’m back (Michelle Capes).

For my part, I am very happy to have earned my PhD and I would do it again, although not for the original reason I had in mind when I began my program. Sure, I gained a lot of expertise in a niche area of science, and that was all very interesting. But I knew it wouldn’t sustain me for my entire professional career.

When I made the decision to leave academia, I had to capitalize on the other things I learned during grad school and my postdoc, beginning with marketing myself effectively during my job search.

I attained a position as a scientific recruiter precisely because I had a PhD. The agency prided itself on “scientists recruiting scientists,” and having that credential after my name lent credibility to their selling point. (In fact, when my first set of business cards arrived without my credentials, they were immediately re-ordered at the supervisor’s request.)

Now that I have launched my own business venture, I realize that the network I built during graduate school and my postdoc is priceless. I have numerous contacts, both in academia and industry, who know me well and are willing to vouch for my abilities, refer potential clients, and put me in touch with additional colleagues.

It was during the PhD program that I got my first experience doing many of the things that I now offer as services through my business, including grant writing and editing, writing articles, and mentoring. When I pitch these services to prospective clients, having a PhD imparts a high degree of clout. It’s also helpful to be able to point to the successful grant applications I prepared during grad school and my postdoc.

Let’s re-visit the original question: “Is a PhD Worth It?”

I’ve related three positive responses about the value of a PhD. However, a simple Google search will turn up a plethora of negative responses, along with doom-and-gloom articles relating the poor job prospects for PhDs.

If you’re asking this question and you already have your PhD, it probably means that you’re not planning to stay in academia. It likely also means that you’ve made the realization that your training didn’t include the part about looking for jobs, writing resumes, interviewing, etc.

You’re in good company: many other PhDs are waking up to the hard reality that there simply are not enough academic positions for the 64,000-odd PhDs awarded every year in the U.S. alone. Some would make the case that this imbalance is a good thing, because more students are given the chance to succeed and to benefit from one-on-one advice from professors during their education (Source: The Wire).

Regardless, the realization that too many PhDs were being cranked out for the number of tenured academic positions available set in as early as the 1990’s. Way back then, PhDs were forced to search for employment in other sectors, belatedly realizing that they were woefully unprepared to transition into such careers.

That the situation has not been remediated almost twenty-five years later is reprehensible, especially now that funding crunches are forcing not only new PhDs and postdocs into the non-academic career path, but also established professors.

I recently read an article on The New York Times titled “When Education Brings Depression.” The comments (which admittedly got off-topic) about the article ranged from personal experiences of depression in grad school to questioning the point of going through graduate school at all, with one reader (we’ll identify her as Suzanne) complaining, “If I had it to do over again, I would never have devoted all those years to a doctorate. Graduate school is definitely a total scam.”

To which “lxp19” replied the following (emphasis added):

It [grad school] is only a scam if you only went into it to get a job…if you went into it thinking it was the ticket to a job…or if you were misled by the department, who sold it as a ticket to a job. Education is about a lot more than getting a particular job. I agree that grad schools need to promote and prepare students for a broader spectrum of professional opportunities.

But learning to understand the world in more depth, to develop our own ideas in more depth is not a scam. But it may be an expensive proposition that does not quickly turn into a lucrative career.

One article I came across recently provides a colorful narrative explaining that the only PhD worth getting is in economics, and pointing out the drawbacks of pursuing a PhD in other fields.  The author suggests that those who pursue a PhD in the life sciences are either “suicidal fool[s]” or “incomprehensible sociopath[s].”

Further, he cautions, “if you are considering getting a lab science PhD, please immediately hit yourself in the face with a brick. Now you know what it’s like.”

However, the author brings up several caveats, among which was my major bugaboo with the article: “if enough people read and believe this blog post, it will cease to be true. There’s a piece of economics for you: as soon as people become aware that a thing is overvalued, they will start bidding up its price.” Every time there’s a mention of a shortage in X sector, you can be reasonably sure that there will be an excess in 10 years’ time.

(Side thought: You don’t get a PhD for money. If you are-it is for the wrong reasons)

A great example of this is the purported STEM shortage touted by the Obama administration. Though the debate continues to this day as to whether that shortage actually exists, one piece of evidence stands out to me. The National Institutes of Health recently trotted out a program to help new biomedical PhDs find alternative careers in the face of “unattractive” job prospects in the field.

Regardless of the situation across STEM fields as a whole, the situation at the top seems clear: there are too many biomedical PhDs. The overwhelming numbers of resumes that flood in for nearly every industry position posted further bolsters this conclusion.

As a recruiter, I was frequently contacted by PhDs wanting to apply for positions advertized for bachelor’s-level candidates.

The conversations would go something like this: Candidate X calls to inquire about a position with Y Biotech Company. “I’m familiar with that position,” I might say, “and it’s honestly too entry-level for someone with your credentials.” I say this based on the fact that I’ve spoken personally with the hiring manager for the position to see what points they might be flexible on. Hiring a PhD to do menial tasks is not one of them.

Candidate X protests, “but I’m willing to do any kind of [grunt work] and I’m okay with the [horrible] salary. I just want to get my foot in the door in industry.” There it is. Candidate X has told me a whole lot of things about him-/herself that are not conducive to getting a job at Y Biotech.

At this point in the conversation I’m already put off. And then it happens. Candidate X drops the bomb. “Would it help to leave the PhD off my resume?”

This question has sparked numerous, sometimes heated debates—one of which has been raging on LinkedIn since 2011, with almost 400 comments (see http://ow.ly/CkDPq). This seems like a no-brainer to me: it’s completely unethical. Starting a new position under false pretenses is never a good thing. And nobody—not even the PhDs themselves—really believes that a PhD will be happy with an entry-level industry position involving, say, calibrating lab equipment.

Employers are savvy to this strategy: candidate X will exploit valuable company resources and training to get the critical “1-2 years of industry experience” that every job description seems to require, and then pursue a better opportunity elsewhere. Trying to convince them otherwise simply will not work.

Let’s recap again. Despite my earlier positive reflections on whether getting a PhD is worthwhile, I believe (and I’m sure I’m not alone here) that there should be far, far fewer students entering PhD programs. The job market, be it in academia or industry, just can’t support such a top-heavy pool of candidates, and there are plenty of embittered, unemployed, or underemployed PhDs to prove it.

If you do decide to pursue a PhD, you should know exactly what you want to get out of it. Choose your advisor carefully: if yours is the old-school, 24/7/365 in-the-lab type of person, you will have very little opportunity to do anything other than lab work, let alone career development. When you finish, you’ll be well prepared to be a postdoc. If you decide to pursue a career outside of academia, you will have a very hard time.

Realize that you need MORE than just a PhD. You have to squeeze as many transferable/soft skills as you possibly can out of your degree program. THESE are the skills that will allow you to make a successful transition.

EDUCATE YOURSELF about other sectors and career paths where your skills apply.  A lot of PhDs I’ve spoken to have a very narrow view of career opportunities for PhDs in STEM. They are accustomed to doing research in academia, so the default answer for industry seems to be R&D Scientist.

There are so many more opportunities out there that capitalize on your PhD training! You are severely limiting your chances of finding a job if “R&D Scientist” is the only avenue you pursue. I highly recommend checking out Toby Freedman’s book, “Careers in Biotechnology and Drug Development” to investigate the diverse career paths that are available.

Make a list of possible careers, and write down the value proposition you bring to each one. What I mean is this: just about anyone can do a Western blot or run a PCR. But do you have the sort of dynamism it takes to head up a lab, lead a project, or be effective in a customer-facing role? Did you organize seminars or conferences? Serve in a leadership role? Manage the lab? Mentor people?

Believe me: if you are up against 30 other PhD-level molecular biologists, there have to be extra qualities that differentiate you­ from the herd.

 “Was your PhD worth it?”

If you’re asking yourself this question, here’s my advice: It doesn’t matter. You got your PhD. Be proud of your accomplishment and move on: a defeatist attitude will not get you a job. Remember that YOU get to create the lens that potential employers view you through, and that starts with crafting a positive narrative to explain who you are and what you want to achieve.

Further Reading

goingtodophd        phdisnotenough        youngscientistadvice

The culture of non-responsibility must be changed

Point of view: How postdocs benefit from building a union

Hit the Ground Running: Life After Academia (The PostDocWay) 

PhD as a training of the mind

Why won’t anyone respect me for the years of work I’ve done (instead of getting ‘work experience’) and give me a job?

Enough doom and gloom Part 3: Standing upon the great infrastructure of science


About the Author:

Michelle Capes earned her Ph.D. in Physiology in 2010 and was an AHA-funded postdoctoral fellow until 2013, when she transitioned into a private sector role as a scientific recruiter. As such, she has a unique perspective on the challenges facing academicians looking to transition into industry–both from the side of the job hunter, and as a recruiter trying to match candidates’ skill sets with available industry positions. Michelle has now ventured out on her own to found Adeptify, the brain-child of her dual passions for career advice and freelance writing

PhD Career Series: Product Management

Is Product Management the Right Fit For You?

Product management can be a very rewarding and exciting career for many. Not only do you get to use your scientific background and knowledge, you also get to learn many things spanning sales to finance to law. It can be challenging, but at the same time you will become a more deeply-rooted scientist while learning the business behind what makes your customer tick. You will gain deep satisfaction from helping your customer solve their scientific problem or needs.

Your day will never be boring. You will interact with various cross-functional groups and it is these relationships with your team and customers that will drive the success of your product. The product that you ‘own’ or manage could also be a science-based product that relates directly to your thesis work or prior hands-on experience. So in reality, it’s almost like you never left off. As you evolve and gain credibility in your role, you will be viewed as the technical expert, much like your PhD where you focused on one very particular topic.  It is this expertise that spans across the company as you drive your product and new ideas to market.

Product management will open up many doors and opportunities for you in the future. So if you are considering an alternative PhD career, put product management at the top of your list. 

In order to grasp whether Product Management is a good fit for you, you must first fully understand what it is and why it is important. Businesses need to manage their growing product lines and the complexity of these products. Therefore, there are newly minted product managers created every day. All product managers and product leaders begin their journey from different points in their career continuum.

Keep in mind however, that one must first make the jump from academia into industry.  But the beauty for PhDs once they make the crossover is that product managers can come from almost every function. Whether that means you started out in Tech Services, R&D, or Sales- it is a great transition and stepping stone especially if you are burnt out from working at the bench. Rarely will anyone make the jump from PhD to product management without the necessary experience, but if you have your sights set on product management-there are steps that you can take to successfully enter this type of career.

The fact of the matter is, the role of a “Product Manager” is not-well defined and is company and industry-type dependent. You can mention to your friends that you are a Product Manager (or applying) for a Biotech company and you may get a look of confusion: “What is that? So what do you do? Are you some sort of sales rep?”

When you get this sort of question, you have two choices: just smile and nod or try to define what you actually ‘do’. This in itself is complex, which is why it makes such a great interview question. When I encounter this question-I have my short and sweet version. But now for my long version…

After reading this post, you should have a better understanding of the general role of a Product Manager, and how it is a great career opportunity for PhDs wanting to leave academia.

A narrow list of some other alternative PhD Careers was outlined in a previous article by Next Scientist, although it is surprising that Product Manager (or Marketing) was not listed, in addition to the steps needed to take to break into these careers right out of grad school.   As such, I would highly recommend purchasing an additional resource to get a more in-depth understanding of what each career involves and how to break into biotech/pharma.

Before we dive deeper, I would like to reiterate that there is no true definition for a product manager because the answer is so broad and encompasses many different disciplines/skill sets.  Additionally, there also really is no formalized training for product managers, as almost everything must be learned on the job.

As a PhD student, post-doc, or working professional who is interested in transitioning into product management, there are 5 important questions that must be answered in-depth in order to grasp the importance of this type of career:

  1. “What is Product Management?”
  2. “Why is Product Management Important?”
  3. “What does it take to be a successful Product Manager (another great interview question)”
  4. “Will you need a PhD/MBA and/or is it useful in this role?”
  5. “How can a PhD successfully break into the field?”

What is Product Management?

The best way to describe a newly minted product manager is someone who is lost in the desert. From day 1 you are trying to navigate your way around the company and orient yourself. Everything seems unfamiliar.  The only tool you have to use at your disposal (if any) is a compass. But it is up to you to find the right direction that you need to go for your product and for your team. This means there is no right or wrong answer. The endpoint could be the same, but the direction that you take is entirely up to you. It is your job to lead by influence, find who the go-to person is and assemble the ‘right’ teams. You must learn how to read the market and know where to take your product in the future and fend off competition. The truth of the matter is a product manager is the driving force or ‘mini-entrepreneur’ behind a product as they bring in skills from all different areas to adapt to drive revenue forward in an ever-changing and dynamic market. ~Me

To simplify, product management is the functional responsibility for strategic planning and tactical execution of a company’s new and existing products.  This includes overseeing all the activities and functions associated with a particular product or group of products. Going further, product managers act as a ‘field general’ for their product, coordinating activities spanning the diverse functional areas of a business to ensure a maximal return on product investment.

What is exciting about product management? You are the hub of knowledge about your product for the entire company. If you are a ‘people person’ this will help play on your strengths as you will be expected to know a great deal about your customers that make up your market. This means interacting with customers and associated companies in your market segment. Over time, you will build a reputation and will rely on not only short-term but long-term relationships with these customers.

A product manager is the liaison between sales, operations, technical support, legal and the technical product development team.

As a product manager, you will work across many different areas and disciplines:

You may seek information from the sales force regarding a customer’s needs and what the competition looks like. In return, the sales force will expect you to provide information about the product and the direction of the market-You will be responsible for training the sales force, providing sales/marketing collateral, and coming up with a sound marketing/sales strategy. Customer service/Tech Services will send you information about how to improve your product (i.e. defects, bugs, service requests, customer complaints). R&D may look to you for feedback from customers (VOC-Voice of Customer) to help them further improve/develop a product that is in the pipeline. The list goes on and on, and each day is a new challenge.

Variety is the name of the game: Each day is unique. Depending on where you are at in the product life cycle, you could be heavily involved in a different function or area (some daily, weekly, or monthly). But first we must understand what the Product Life Cycle entails.

A simplified model of the Product Life Cycle is shown below.

The ‘In-Depth’ Product Management Life Cycle involves 4 distinct phases:

  1. Discovery and Innovation
    1. Market Insight/Strategy
  2. New Product Planning
    1. Concept
    2. Feasibility
    3. Definition
  3. New Product Innovation
    1. Development
    2. Launch
  4. Post-Launch Product Management
    1. Performance Management
    2. Growth-Maturity-Decline
  • Discovery and Innovation (Market Insight/Strategy) could involve– (1) Market Insight: Identifying segment markets, defining customer targets and assessing customer needs, creating customer personas, defining industry trends, evaluating competitors, comparing competitor products; (2) Formulating a Strategy: Establishing a strategic baseline, SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats), determining life cycle state, uncovering opportunities, integrating a product roadmap, aligning cross-functional teams, etc.
  • New Product Planning could involve: Prioritizing opportunities, producing opportunity statements, shaping value proposition, asserting competitive positioning, building prototypes, developing a business case, deriving forecasts, composing product requirements, preparing a launch plan, defining marketing mix model, establishing future metrics, conducting make vs. buy analysis, constructing product master plan, etc. 
  • New Product Introduction could involve: Overseeing development, managing scope and trade-offs, managing projects, securing regulatory approvals, synchronizing operations, orchestrating product launch, publishing marketing material collateral and educating the sales force, preparing service organization, announcing product, conducting analyst meetings, etc. 
  • Post-Launch Product Management could involve: Conducting post-launch audits, tracking customer satisfaction, leveraging cross-functional teams, reassessing industry movement/trends, reevaluating competitor actions, conducting win-loss studies, evaluating metrics and KPIs, analyzing product profit and loss, refining value based pricing, improving promotional programs, gauging channel performance, rationalizing portfolios, discontinuing products, etc.

Now that you have a better understanding of the Product Management Life Cycle Process, we can continue to define what product management is.

Again, each company is unique in defining a product management role. You may own a very specific product portfolio or may be responsible for a large group of products. Some companies (particularly smaller companies) will give you more latitude in terms of how structured the position is. The advantage here is that you have the potential to make more of an impact, be closer to the decision making process, and learn more by doing more.

In other words, with less support (i.e. marketing) you will have more responsibility. Larger companies may be more structured in defining your role and responsibilities as a product manager. Therefore, no two product manager roles are the same and are largely company dependent.

Why is Product Management Important?

Without a product management process, the new product development could lead to chaos and result in high costs and failure rates. Additionally, customers (patients, doctors, scientists, etc.) can become overwhelmed with volumes of material and ads containing product information. Without marketing, a new technology may go unnoticed, but when you couple a superb marketing campaign with a product that meets a customer’s expectations- it has a high chance for success.

See The 4 P’s and questions to keep in mind when it comes to a successful marketing campaign: Product, Price, Place, Promotion

A product manager’s job is to accurately convey this information, capture the voice of the customer, and come up with novel ideas to meet a customer’s needs (real needs, not perceived needs). The ultimate goal in this case is to help the customer solve their scientific problem. Therefore, product managers  are the driving force behind  this process.

As mentioned before, the beauty of product management is the range of activities for which you will be responsible for and the wide-variety of skills/knowledge you will acquire in the process. The expectations are HIGH, but the variety and excitement of being the “jack of all trades” means you will never have a boring day and you will be constantly challenged to grow and significantly contribute to your organization’s success.

Keep in mind, as a product manager-you are ultimately responsible and accountable for the success of failure of the product. That means it is your job to educate the sales force because they are your eyes and ears, and in turn help you establish that relationship with the customer. After all, the success of your product ultimately depends on your customer. You will also need to effectively implement marketing campaigns, develop new products to stay competitive, develop pricing  and launch strategies, etc.

What does it take to be a successful Product Manager?

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.

So from this, there are 5 soft skills that will separate the “best from the rest”: Leadership, influence, persistence, passion, and focus.

Product managers are business people who work across functions and serve to integrate or synchronize the work of others so that products and portfolios can be planned, developed, launched, and managed.

To put it in perspective, if you want to build a house, what would you do first? Would you hire an architect? Go find a building contractor? Employ a surveyor to determine the “lay of the land”? Who would the best person to synchronize the work of various people who must be involved in achieving the desired outcome? That would be the general contractor (GC) who coordinates the timing and flow of work activities because the GC knows how to build the whole house. The GC has the ability to anticipate problems and the finesse needed to coordinate proper scheduling and setting priorities. Product managers, just like GCs, must be able to:

  • Communicate clearly to people in all functions
  • Garner respect from people in those functions
  • Appreciate the timing and coordination of work produced by people in those functions and anticipate that there will be problems to be solved along the way
  • Create a shared vision with all those concerned
  • Know enough to recognize the quality of the work performed in the fulfillment of the vision

I think you get the idea. However, apart from the long list of soft and hard skills that are required of a product manager, balancing competing priorities can be one of the biggest challenges.

Balancing Competing Priorities: The 80/20 Rule

Focus on the 20% that really matters. That 20% produces 80% of your results

If you want to be a bad product manager, do everything yourself. You’re the product manager, after all, so you should be the final authority on everything related to the product. You should be the one answering questions from salespeople, drafting press releases for marketing, defining all of the processes for suppliers, and pouring over every detail with engineering. Sure it takes a lot of your time, but that’s what a product manager should be spending time on. What other more important things are there to do?”

On the other side of that coin, a good product manager is able to delegate tactical activities which allow you to spend time on the strategic aspects of your job. Effective product managers will pass on product knowledge and responsibilities for tactical decision-making to the product development team when necessary and be able to assess their time accordingly.

Since product management involves interacting with various functional counterparts across the organization, you will soon find that you are at the center of competing priorities (strategic vs. tactical). Among these priorities, there are those that will further your product line objectives and those that will not. So how do you balance your time? Each product manager will learn what works best for them over time, but the 80/20 rule is a great way to assess how your time should be spent-and this will come with experience.

With that said, balancing competing priorities can span many different examples and will depend on your responsibilities and job duties. The requests for your time and attention will span from answering a question raised by a customer service representative to doing a conference call with a customer or sales rep to answering a mass group of emails.

Examples of the 80/20 rule include:

  • 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers
  • 20% of your product or service range contributes to 80% of your profit
  • 80% of customer complaints originate from 20% of the causes
  • 20% of your individual effort and time achieves 80% of the desired results
  • 80% of your business productivity loss results from 20% of the causes
  • 20% of your staff is responsible for 80% of the business outputs and results
  • 80% of the value in the business is generated by 20% of the processes

Will you use your PhD?

The short answer as to whether you will use your PhD and scientific training: Yes (as explained above).

First, it is important to point out that there is no fixed education requirement for marketing positions and can vary company by company. An advanced degree is extremely helpful, but in most cases it is not required. A PhD will give you a huge leg up and will improve your ability to understand and explain the science behind the brand or your product(s). This in turn will increase your overall effectiveness. Additionally, having a PhD will give you more credibility with customers and key opinion leaders, and can add tremendous value to your marketing team.

If you are considering applying/interviewing for a product manager position there are four key factors that are important (in my opinion):

The education required [desired] for a position, the dependence companies place in that position’s impact in driving their revenues, the company culture, and the location of job. ~ Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News

The first 3 things listed here are key factors in not only interviews but also on the job.

What you have to pick out from this is that product managers can have a large impact on driving company’s revenues. This is what is exciting about the role as you will carry a lot of responsibility. But at the same time, the scientific expertise that you acquire while pursuing your PhD is a key factor. Someone who is a hybrid-who understands the science AND the business will add tremendous value.

You have probably heard that it is much easier to teach a scientist business but it is much harder to teach a business professional science. Therefore, someone with a PhD may be viewed more favorable than someone without (i.e. an MBA with no science background)-but it come down to your fit with the company culture (i.e. personality), past experience, technical background, knowledge of the market, etc.

What about an MBA?

This begs the next question as to whether obtain an MBA for a product management role in biotech/pharma. Although an MBA may allow you to acquire new business knowledge and understanding, the answer is that a lot of what you will learn as a product manager (and what will be required of you) most likely cannot be learned in a classroom. This means that the experience takes precedence over education (as with many cases). Therefore, an MBA is not “necessary” but can be helpful, depending on the role. Although taking a business class may teach you something like Net-Present Value (NPV) and could help you when doing a 5 year sales forecast-this does not mean that this cannot be learned on the spot (especially if you are a quick-learner).

What matters beyond your PhD once you graduate is not your fancy degree, the amount of papers you have published in prestigious journals, or how many business classes you have taken. It all comes down to value, and how you can demonstrate this from day 1. If you cannot perform, a PhD/MBA/MD/JD is meaningless to an employer. So before you decide to pursue an MBA and fork over $80K+ (for a good business school), work for a few years as a product manager or in industry (in general) and decide from there it if is necessary or not.

How to Break Into The Field of Product Management

1)      The Best Starting Point: 5 Ways To Gain Experience Outside of Your Academic Training

2)      Network to Land a Summer Internship: These types of internships often translate into full-time jobs , which is highly dependent on your performance and fit in the company culture.

3)      Starting out in sales is a great way to learn about marketing, see how customers make purchasing decisions, and understand issues that sales is faced with. Sales may be intimidating to scientists but serves as an important role to educate other doctors/scientists about products.  You’ll learn how to communicate with customers and understand their needs.

4)      Not feeling sales? Consider a role as a medical science liaison. Chances are that your science or medical background will qualify you for this position and be very valuable.

5)      Apply for positions such as technical services, field application scientist, project manager, or join a product development team. Working closely with marketing/product management teams will make this transition much easier

6)      If you got your foot in the door already at a biotech company, request an internship or rotation as a product specialist, associate product manager, or in marketing. Many times if you take on a product specialist role you will eventually be promoted to a product manager.

7)      Have additional ideas? Please comment below!

Recommended Books for Further Reading:

My Top 3:

Articles:

Videos:

5 Ways to Gain Valuable Skills Outside of Your Academic Training

The PhD Industry Career Gap

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

We already know that the PhD Market is saturated, and articles that “promote awareness” or point out the PhD-Industry Gap are a dime a dozen. What’s missing from the equation are the solutions.  The reality is that the first job that you obtain directly out of graduate school is the most crucial. It is also the most difficult. Therefore you need to be aware of all of your possible options.

The odds are against you. You look like a science person. You want to go into industry but they look at you as an academic with only one marketable skill: bench science.

The doom and gloom articles aren’t going to help you get anywhere. And frankly, I think we are all just tired of reading them.  Many experienced working professionals are aware of what the market looks like, but as long as they are employed, who wants to think about what they could have faced?

The newly minted PhD is experiencing the hardships right now and searching for answers. The reality is that many just don’t know how to provide real practical solutions and the attitude is that “hard work” will get you to where you need to be. And it’s “good luck” to you because you are entirely on your own.

If you could rewind and go back a few years maybe you wish you knew all this sooner rather than later. Maybe you finally decided to join the 85% club and face reality (only 15% will land a tenure-track position within 5 years). But you need to put the past behind you and move on.

The bottom line is that if you have the right personality, drive, leadership, and strong interpersonal skills and the ability to work well in a team environment, then breaking into a field of your choice is very feasible. You just need the know-how. This ‘right personality’ will be valuable as you work in a team and develop your needed skill set(s) that will carry with you into your future career. Although there is a glut of capable job seekers, do not let this discourage you.

Before we dive deeper, you need to understand that there is no set career path, and everyone’s career path is UNIQUE. Many working professionals stumble into their current career path by accident, chance, change of interests/goals, life situation, or series of occurrences. But hopefully with the advice given, you will find your calling.

If you ask, let’s say an experienced manager in industry, how they got to where they are today-many will tell you that they did not plan on jumping into their field directly from their PhD. That’s because the majority of PhDs don’t really do any career planning. You’ll jump into the postdoc only to leave after you spent X amount of years figuring out what you truly want to do. During graduate school, the focus is on getting the PhD and the attitude is that things will just unfold and work themselves out. This can continue throughout the postdoc position(s).

There is a sense of entitlement among PhD’s. Their ego takes ahold of them. “I worked this hard, therefore I deserve this position or X amount of salary.”  Guess what? You have to pay your dues just like everyone else.  The PhD doesn’t guarantee you the job, and although you may have published a Nature paper, it doesn’t add any value to a company or client (and when you hand your business card to a customer, they see your name, company, your position title, letters next to your name, and nothing else). The real question is can you work well in a team? Can you communicate effectively without putting yourself above others? Once you realize there is a bigger picture than just YOU and how you are just a piece of the puzzle, than you will finally start to see the benefits.  Be someone who under-promises and over-delivers.

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.

When it comes to a resume or cover letter, there is too much emphasis placed on these two items. They are simply a tool to get you an interview and nothing else. Once you reach that interview stage, you need to get over what is written on your resume and focus on the value that you can add to a company. Not brag about what you did with your thesis work. No one really cares to hear about your thesis anymore.  A PhD is a training program to help you develop as a scientist and launch your career.

If you are banging your head against the wall that’s probably because you aren’t doing it right. Or you just lack the marketable skills to crossover (which is discussed later in this article). Or it could be a combination of both.

To quote Donald Asher who is author of Cracking the Hidden Job Market, “You get a job by talking to people: You don’t get a job by having a great resume, a good interview look, a firm handshake, or a solid education. You get a job because you get in front of somebody and they decide to add you to the payroll. Most job seekers look for jobs by talking to computer software. It’s faster to talk to people. People are more likely to pass you along than computers are. Computers are picky. People are helpful.”

You can beat the odds. Frankly, you have to beat the odds.

“The United States quit creating jobs more than a decade ago. Then the Great Recession hit, which I date from September 14, 2008, when Lehman Brothers failed. This smacked down workers even more. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1999 and 2009 the U.S. economy created only 121,000 new jobs, a growth rate of .01 percent/year. A decade to create 121,000 net new jobs! It takes 125,000 new jobs per month  to keep up with the population growth alone. It will take considerable time to create enough jobs to absorb the 30 million people who are unemployed, underemployed, or discouraged and off the market.”

The economy is exacerbating anxieties. A survey done in 2012 in Nature shows the concerns of many scientists around the world as the global recession squeezes research budgets. The shortfall in grant funding is nothing new, but many will soon realize that industry offers many attractive ‘alternative’ career options.  On the bright side, the unemployment rate for PhD’s is below 4%. But getting a PhD doesn’t mean that you are immune to economic hardships or the struggles of finding a job.

Half of PhD candidates in the life science and engineering field still require seven years or more to complete their degree. If you have invested all this time and have decided to finish, don’t you want to see a return on your investment without ‘giving up’ even more years of your life? In other words, if you don’t plan on staying in academia, why are you spending 5+ years as a postdoc?

So the question becomes, how can you beat the odds? What can you do NOW as a PhD student or postdoc that will give you the marketable skills to crossover? And when you gain these marketable skills, how can you couple this with NETWORKING so that you are tapping into the “hidden job market”?

Solutions to Beat The Odds

Now that you are aware of the problems and what you will be faced with or are going through, there needs to be solutions that give you an edge.

If you haven’t already, make sure you read the article: “The missing piece to changing the university culture.” The biggest challenge that we are faced with today as PhD students is a culture change:

70% of life science PhDs pursue a postdoc after graduation (based on 2010 data) which means that PhDs are unsure of their careers and/or unequipped for a nonacademic career. 40% of graduate students are indifferent or unsatisfied with their graduate school experience. Current PhD programs will continue to train primarily for an academic career. But this is a ‘false hope,’ and you may be in your mid-30’s until you’ve come to realize this and decided to make a change. It is time that Universities, faculty, and professors stop looking the other way when it comes to fixing the problem.

The Biotechnology and Life Science Advising (BALSA) group was founded in 2010 by a group of dissatisfied postdocs and graduate students. The result is that through their collaborative efforts, they have developed a model where post-docs and graduate students work with startups in the form of 6 to 8 week consulting projects. The result? BALSA has worked with 37 companies and 53 projects. Graduate students and postdocs are coming out with real world business experience.

Even researchers with NO prior business knowledge are making valuable contributions to both early and late stage companies. As a PhD student or postdoc, you are trained to analyze and think critically. The best part is that BALSA’s partnership with Washington University in Saint Louis and the Office of Technology Management has provided Universities and Principal Investigators as a means to commercialize their work.

Although BALSA’s efforts look promising, we are still left with the question as to whether these efforts can be expanded on a national level. Also, are they sustainable? Will Universities and Professors push more for the adoption of these efforts? Only time will tell.

The bottom line is that you aren’t going to sit around and wait for BALSA to come along to your University. So in the meantime, you have to go create these opportunities on your own. BALSA may give you hands-on experience (via projects) with industry challenges, business concepts, competitive intelligence and market analysis, technology due diligence, regulatory affairs, project management, and licensing/business plan development. Does this sound like a checklist of wishful thinking? Well, there is nothing stopping you from gaining some or a combination of these skills and experience during your time as a graduate student/postdoc.

So here are the top 5 solutions to gain valuable skills outside of your academic training and beat the odds once you get your PhD:

1)      Consider Consulting

There are many consulting opportunities available for scientists. These many options span freelance work, working for a consulting firm or even starting your own consulting company. Whichever that may be, I would highly recommend doing freelance consulting work during your PhD. This could shuttle you into a management consulting position upon graduation.

Find a unique skill set that you are good at and offer your services to a company. If you need an example, check out how a graphic illustrator/scientific visual communicator went freelance during and out of graduate school.

Another example is self-taught SEO or social media marketing consulting. Many companies (including start-ups) are blogging and doing digital marketing, and learning the ropes of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. If you are already running a professional blog (all PhD students should!), you have already learned how to effectively run social media and marketing campaigns, and chances are you could do part-time work offering your services. You are also developing your technical writing skills in addition to sharing scientific ideas and making worldwide network contacts.

**Management consulting can be an excellent way to put your analytical and scientific training to use while you develop your business expertise. If you have the passion to innovate, drive change, and help companies be more successful, it might be the career choice for you. You will learn how to lead teams, manage people, and take on challenging and interesting problems. The connections that you make with top business professionals will also open doors to future career opportunities. And, your hard work and efforts could also have a huge impact on the future direction of the company.

Further Reading:

http://www.branchingpoints.com/one-branch-ahead/phd-to-consulting/

http://www.phdcareerguide.com/consulting.html

http://www.phd2consulting.com/

2)      Consider doing a summer internship during your PhD studies or during your postdoc

As mentioned in a previous article, the most practical solution for many is to obtain a paid internship (ideally) during your time in graduate school. Internships are CRUCIAL and I cannot stress enough that graduate students and post-docs should take a summer off (or balance the internship 50% and graduate school 50%) and obtain industry experience. That way you will come out with real-world industry experience and some marketable skills. You need to negotiate and leverage this in any way that you can.

A lot of companies are willing to try you out for a short 3 months. That initial spark will come from their interest in you via informational interviews (see below). Chances are if they like you at the end of the internship, you might also have an offer waiting for you upon graduation at that same company.

The first step to land an internship position is to do informational interviews and start networking. You can read more about informational interviews here. Read: How To Network and Add Value to Yourself and Others to get a good starting point. Just because internship positions aren’t posted doesn’t mean they can’t be created or they don’t exist. Ask around and you’ll be surprised what you will find.

Internships also boost Postdocs’ skills and really add to their marketability. The challenge as any might imagine, is getting your PI to agree.

3)      Consider auditing or taking business classes, participating in workshops, or leading/organizing business events on campus.

If you are a science person, then take a business class and start networking with business professors and MBA students. If not business, find a secondary interest and step out of your comfort zone. Get involved in patent law, tech transfer, computer programming, or entrepreneurial classes. This will come down solely to you and your interests. Many business professors will allow you to sit in their class even if you aren’t taking the class for credit. Entrepreneurial management classes for example, will expose you to writing business plans and doing SWOT analysis, and growing local starts-ups via group projects.

4)      Start a side business, professional blog, develop a product, or find like-minded individuals preferably with an entrepreneurial mindset or business drive.

5)      Network every week. Then network some more.

Step 1: Network to obtain an internship and gain the marketable skills that you need

Step 2: Network to obtain a job post-PhD

Did you catch that? You need to network to create opportunities. Then you network to create more opportunities beyond that. During or after PhD, it doesn’t matter. If you lack marketable skills, you’ll need to network to obtain them or find out what those specific skills are. Even with internship experience under you belt, you will need to network beyond the PhD to land an industry position. Obviously, it is MUCH easier to use the power of networking when you already have the marketable skills to find an industry job versus networking from scratch (i.e. skipping Step 1 and jumping right into Step 2). But whatever stage you are in, it is never too late to start. There is no stopping when it comes to networking and the truth is that it is a lifelong process and requires continual effort.

PhD graduate students and postdocs simply don’t network enough. How can you understand the needs of a company if you don’t speak to people? How can you know the industry, the market, and the customer? Chances are a startup company in your area has a need. What value can you add to fulfill that need?  This ties into #2 above.

There are many more examples. The reality is that it is not impossible to create opportunities, take on an internship, do consulting, and/or run a professional blog during your PhD and come out with a huge leg up upon graduation. Those that do #1-#5 or a combination thereof will stand out from the crowd and will most likely beat out other PhD students who focused on nothing else but getting their degree. Chances are you will land a job in industry and work in a fulfilling career. Gaining the marketable skills to crossover is no easy task, but with hard work, patience, and the right connections anything is possible.

Keep pushing and you will see good things come your way.

Email me with any questions. Future article will be on how to transition into Product Management, Marketing, or Sales.


Further Reading:

phdisnotenough

Internships Boost Postdocs’ Skills, Worldliness, and Marketability

The PhD Industry Gap

Life after the PhD: Re-Train Your Brain

3 Things PhDs Leaving Academia Should Know About Business

Taking Charge of Your Career


So.. Where will a biology PhD take you? A faculty job is now the “alternative” PhD career as less than 8% will become tenure-track faculty.

Grad Student Advice Series: Approaching Your Advisor About Alternative PhD Careers

Doctoral students in many disciplines realize the odds are against them. But students are often afraid to approach their advisers about other nonfaculty career choices, for fear of disapproval. And the professors themselves may not know how to advise students about any other careers than the research life, although given the dismal job-market statistics in recent years, that ignorance about nonacademic options becomes less and less acceptable.”  ~The Future of the PhD

Today, there is something that is holding a lot of PhD students back. Fear. What happens is they never really come out of their shell, and they feel that if they do there will be disapproval from their advisors and professors. You will be marked as the “oddball” or the person who spent years getting a PhD only to “waste” it in a field that isn’t fully utilizing the degree. This couldn’t be further from the truth!

The reality is that “non-traditional” or “alternative” PhD careers are not so uncommon anymore and are becoming traditional. In fact, the more that we hammer away at the issue and try to promote awareness about graduate education reform and the need to accommodate alternative PhD careers, the more we realize that these types of careers are deemed “acceptable.” More importantly, there are very satisfying careers outside of academia that fully utilize your training, skills and knowledge. You can apply your PhD training to other fields and be very successful. There are thousands of PhD’s that made the transition years ago, and are working in fulfilling careers with good career prospects and bright futures.

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 can relate to the apprehension and fear of pursuing industrial careers because of how your PI will take the news. In all honesty, you have to look out for yourself. And, if that is what is truly BEST FOR YOU, then you shouldn’t hesitate being clear and up-front about your intentions.

I flat out went to my PI during my final year as a PhD student and stated that I was not going to stay in academia or do a post-doc. You can back this up with informational interviews as well: tell your PI that you researched this position and feel that it would better play to your strengths and future opportunities. It looks more impressive to justify the want and need to go into industry (or whatever field you had in mind) when you base it off something concrete. And this is simply by seeing first-hand what real-world experience looks like and internalizing this to channel your direction.

So here is how you can approach your supervisor and broach the subject:

1)    Come up with a plan beforehand

Instead of going to your Professor and simply saying, “I don’t want to stay in academia or become a Professor,” you can phrase it in a way that plays to your advantage. First, I would not recommend approaching your Professor unless you have done the necessary networking and informational interviews to get to this point. Why? Because once you have done this, it gives you a justification and reasoning for pursuing a career outside of academia. You are basing this off what you have done and learned (i.e. real-world examples), and ultimately what uniquely matches you. And, you also created potential opportunities on your own in the process.

We have known for a long time that the career prospects in academia are not favorable (only 14% of those in the life sciences land an academic position within 5 years of finishing a PhD based on a NSF survey). But this is NOT the reason that you want to pitch to your Professor. It is not a valid reason and lacks depth. One resource that I highly recommend that you should check out is MyIDP. It will personalize and pinpoint what careers are a good match for you! Once you take an online self-assessment test, your test results will show which science careers to pick from and may be a good fit (over 20 science careers are featured and ranked based on your skill set and interests).

A “plan” means that you have gone out into the world and talked to scientists or PhD’s who have transitioned into alternative careers. You can set up informational interviews with someone who is two years out of their PhD. This will give you a fresh perspective on how they made the transition, and they are more likely to be able to relate to your current situation. The more you learn about these positions, the more you are able to fit your plan to your career goals and identify your strengths and weaknesses. What happens is you are able to see the opportunity that lies ahead of you.

For example, let’s say you did informational interviews with a business manager in biotech industry. Let’s also say that this manager had a certain path that you learned about: PhD, post-doc, working in industry at the bench, then moving away from there (worked his or her way up into a management position).  A lot of people that have these career paths just happened by chance, promotion, or opportunity that opened up for them. They may not have had a career plan like what you are attempting to lay out ahead of you.

In other words, you know the “jumps” you wish to make ahead of time, as it also validates the value of a PhD, how you can effectively utilize it, and explains the need to leave academia WITHOUT hesitation, fear, and/or doubts. Therefore, this is putting YOU at an advantage.

You are taking hold of your own future and at least knowing the REALISTIC and necessary steps that one needs to take in order to transition out of academia. “Realistic” is defined as what your network (via informational interviews) lays out for you. In other words, they are going to tell you based on your current interests and skill set, which entry-level positions are going to be obtainable for YOU (if you were to apply for a job right now, what are you chances and what is a good match for you?).

So instead of reading about what positions you THINK would be a good fit for you, get out there and start creating opportunities for yourself! Nothing beats face to face interaction. So simply googling and reading blog articles about what kinds of PhD careers are out there won’t really get you anywhere. This is something that I call “PhD complacency” where the need to network and learn about career opportunities on your own isn’t viewed as “necessary.” Many PhD’s think that everything will “just fall into place” or just “happen by chance” someday. If this is your attitude you need to change it now.

Knowing what you want to do ahead of time will get you there much quicker and will be more focused. It will be a better use of your time and energy. Think about it. If I told you that you could skip an academic post-doc and go right into an alternative career in a different field wouldn’t you (if you knew ahead of time that is truly what you wanted to do)?

Just as I respect those who wish to stay in academia, they also need to respect those that wish to branch out from this field. That is why you must become numb to any reactions from those within academia and stick to your decision regardless of what other people think. 5 years from now when you are established in your career, it won’t even matter what people in academia used to think of you.

I also do not disapprove of the decision to take on a post-doc. However, there are also academia post-docs and industry post-docs. So I do disapprove if you are doing a post-doc and you don’t have a career path in mind or even know what field you want to be in. And I can almost guess that a lot of PhD’s took on a post-doc or stayed in academia simply because of fear that their thesis advisor would view them as a disappointment,  would not be supportive, and may give a poor reference for a career OTHER than what lies within academia. Also, many PhD’s stay in academia simply because they didn’t network or create opportunities outside of academia.

The whole point is that you may not have a complete and totally clear career path laid out in front of you (let’s say over the next 5 years). But what can happen is you at least can justify to your Professor why you wish to pursue a career outside of academia. And the best way to pitch this is that it better plays to your strengths, interests, potential opportunity, and career plan.

2)     Open dialogue: Know what to say

Approaching my professor about pursuing a career outside of academia was one of the hardest things I had to do. Here is why:

I was offered multiple internship opportunities during my 4th and 5th year of my PhD. During my 4th year I didn’t jump on it because I was afraid that my Professor would say “No.” The more informational interviews that I did and the more unemployed PhD’s that I saw, the more I realized that I needed to create and jump on any opportunities which presented themselves. Therefore, getting over this fear is a very key part of being a successful PhD student. Beyond the PhD is really what matters, and if your Professor cares about you and your future, they will RESPECT your decision. Therefore, when another opportunity presented itself the last 6 months of my PhD, I jumped on it.

I said something like this:

Based on what I have been doing over the past year by talking to PhD’s in the field, I have come to realize that I wish to pursue a different career path vs. obtain a post-doc or stay in academia. I feel that based on my strengths and interests that I would like to pursue other opportunities. I hope you will support my decision as I truly appreciate my time here and the scientific training that I have received. I feel that I can better use my education in other fields and this is what will truly make me happy. So with that said, an opportunity of a lifetime in the biotech industry has recently presented itself as I have been made an offer. I would like to jump on it with your permission.”

You have to look out for yourself. If you don’t, conflicts will only arise later on in your career. If you do not wish to stay in academia, why are you doing an academia post-doc? Are you buying yourself time until you figure it out? If you already are a post-doc, the same rules apply. You can still approach your Professor in the same way.

Here is the response I received:

We will always have different definitions of science. I am disappointed that you do not wish to stay in the field and become a scientist. BUT, I want you to do what is truly right for you and what makes you happy. I want to see you be successful. I want to see you get your PhD and utilize it however you see fit. I want to see you in a career that you truly want to be in. So, I guess that it’s OK and I’m fine with it.”

I took the heat. So one day went by where I was coined a “disappointment” or whatever else you want to call it. But your Professors need to care about your well-being. Even the Professors that DO NOT support alternative PhD careers almost have to care about what happens to you beyond the PhD stage. Why? It is a reflection on them. If you end as an unemployed PhD, this reflects not only poorly on you but them as well.

That is why, if you do the proper planning ahead of time and “take the heat,” you will be ten steps ahead of anyone who sits back in fear and pursues a post-doc only because that is the “expected” thing to do.

And chances are that you may be surprised. Different Professors will react in different ways. Some may be supportive, others may not. It doesn’t really matter if they are supportive or not. What matters is that you help yourself, seek out opportunities, and build your network outside of academia. Don’t expect your Professor or anyone else to do this for you.

3)      Execute your plan and jump on created opportunities

So you’ve done your informational interviews and networked to learn about the types of positions outside of academia that interest you. You’ve told your Professor and others of your intentions of wanting to pursue a career outside of academia (either before or after an opportunity presents itself).  Now what? You need an action plan.

Chances are if you started networking and adding value to yourself and others, an opportunity will present itself EVENTUALLY (either during or hopefully right after your PhD). If you have read my 3 part series networking guide, you will see that at the end of an informational interview, I suggest that you ask for your resume or CV to be reviewed for feedback purposes (constructive criticism).

This will help to identify “gaps” and steps/actions needed to fill those gaps, get your name out there, and demonstrate a potential unique skill set that may add value back to the person who is reading/correcting it (One example-they might think: “Oh I had no idea this person ran their own business on the side. Or did this in lab. Or has this unique “niche” skill set. Maybe we should meet to discuss further ideas or collaborations”). I will be expanding on how to add value to others in a future post.

If you truly wish to pursue a certain career outside of academia, you will do whatever it takes to obtain the necessary steps and jump through whatever hoops you have to. The problem is that many don’t know the steps that they need to take to make this happen. And without a doubt, networking is the first and most crucial step that many PhD’s are missing or try to skip altogether.

Let’s say you wish to be in Business Development in Biotech Industry. You aren’t going to be able to crossover straight from academia unless you are really lucky. There are two jumps that you have to make. Academia to Industry. Then, Science to Business. If you can do it all in one jump that’s great, but that is not being realistic. And this is exactly why you need an action plan to execute once your professor is aware of your intentions.

In order to be able to crossover, you still may need a set of unique skills or related work experience. This is the number one problem and complaint that I hear from a lot of PhD’s. They don’t have the marketable skills to be able to crossover. You need to obtain the experience in any way that you can. This means you should be open to doing internships. If you can leverage a summer internship during your PhD or your post-doc, you need to jump on this opportunity. If you doubt that this opportunity can be created, you haven’t networked nearly enough.

When I say “Action Plan,” I mean plan ahead before you finish your PhD. The problem that I see OVER and OVER is that many PhD students are too overly focused on finishing the degree. While it is important to be a successful PhD student, learn about things you wish you knew before staring a PhD, stay motivated, write your thesis, and defend in a timely manner… This is only part of the equation. Getting the PhD is only the beginning and is not the end-game. Why do you think there is a book called A PhD Is Not Enough? It is MORE important to have a career plan laid out in front of you. If you think that getting the PhD is all that matters, you need to read what matters beyond grad school.

Here is what your Action Plan should look like (from start to finish):

  1. Identify your unique interests, matches, and career possibilities by using Science Careers MyIDP
  2. Start creating opportunities by building your network, adding value to others, doing informational interviews, and learning about alternative careers (pick your top 5 from MyIDP).
  3. Put yourself out there in any way that you can. Find out ways to stand out from the crowd that is UNIQUE to you. Think about starting a Professional Science Blog. Establish your online reputation.
  4. Overcome your fear and do not hide your intentions.
  5. Approach your Professor (as outlined above). It is up to you whether or not you wish to approach your Advisor before or after an opportunity presents itself. If an opportunity doesn’t arise, you need to keep networking and be patient. Think about how you can add value to others (this will be another one of my future posts).
  6. Look for continued support. Assuming by now you have a network that you have created outside of academia (in addition to your own Professor that is aware of your situation). PhD’s should be aided in their job search.
  7. Jump on an opportunity that presents itself whether before or after your PhD and make the cross-over.
  8. Be proud of your decision. Move forward and never look back.

Further Reading

A comprehensive overview of the many careers in the life sciences industry: