Monday, June 18, 2012

Breaking into Industry

There's been a lot of talk on chemistry blogs lately about what it takes to make the transition from academia to industry. Derek Lowe has a really strong advice post, and Chemjobber has a post reacting to an article that summarized some hiring manager's reasons for preferring to hire people with industrial experience.

I went into industry directly after graduate school, so I have been asked for advice on this topic quite a bit- people who know they want to go into industry want to know how to skip doing an academic postdoc, people who are already doing a postdoc want to know how to translate that experience into industrial job offers, etc.

I never feel like I have particularly good advice to give, since my path into industry was largely paved by luck- I happened to be finishing my PhD with experience in informatics at a time when biotech was booming and informatics was a hot field. It is a very different environment now. But I do have some recommendations, based primarily on my experience as a hiring manager:

1. Network like crazy
As I said in my comment over on Chemjobber's post, the one thing that is guaranteed to make me read a resume (as opposed to just skimming it) is a personal recommendation from someone I trust. It is even better if I know the applicant personally! This is not because I am lazy or evil and don't want to give new people a chance. It is because I am busy, and if I have an open position, I have more work than people right now. I need someone who can come in and make a difference right now. I don't mind training employees- I actually expect that I'll be doing some training for all positions, since even my most senior people usually want to learn whatever skills they need to get to the next level. But I can't afford to hire someone who isn't going to be able to hit the ground running. Sadly, it is very hard to determine whether or not you are someone who can do that from your resume, or even from interviews. A recommendation from someone I trust is the best indicator there is.

Given this, I think that if I were coming out of graduate school right now, sure that I wanted to go into industry but unable to get an industry job, I would NOT do what I almost did back in the day- i.e., take a postdoc that would be prestigious to academics, but in a location without much industry. I'd take a postdoc in a location with a lot of industry, and then network. Of course, back when I was making my decision about what to do after graduate school, I was not initially certain that I wanted to go into industry. If I had ended up at that postdoc, maybe I'd still be in academia today! Also, I want to be clear that I am basing this on wild conjecture- I have no data at all on whether or not a decent postdoc in a town full of industry is more likely to land you an industrial job than an extremely prestigious postdoc in a relatively industry-free location. However, given the role networking has played in my career and the role it plays in the hiring I do and see other people do, and given the fact that it is easier to network with  people in the same geographic area as you are... I think the postdoc in the industry-rich area is the way to go if you want to eventually be in industry.

Of course, there are now more and better electronic ways to network than ever before, so please don't take that last paragraph as iron-clad "you must do this or you'll never get a job" advice, and certainly don't lapse into despair if you are currently doing a postdoc in a city with no industry. But the basic advice to network is as close to iron-clad advice as you can get. You really need to network if you want to get into industry. If you don't know how to network, there is a lot of advice about how to do it available online- including an old post of mine with some tips on how to start.

2. Consider diverse potential roles, but understand the job for which you are applying
One of the other things I mentioned in my comments over on Chemjobber's post is that it might be easier to catch a break in an industrial field that does not have a direct academic equivalent. This is again my own conjecture based on what I've seen of hiring in industry rather than hard data, so you should also take that advice with a grain of salt. However, I have seen hiring managers in fields with direct academic equivalents (e.g., medicinal chemistry, computational chemistry) get flooded with applicants while hiring managers in fields that are only loosely related to things in which you can get a degree (e.g., enterprise informatics, process development) get very few applicants, or get applicants that clearly have no idea what the job to which they are applying entails. I have myself received an unbelievable number of applications with cover letters that make it clear the applicant really wants to be working in a related field that has an academic equivalent. Needless to say, I didn't interview those applicants. Maybe they would turn out to be good at what I do, but why would I want to hire someone who says right in his cover letter that he wants to be doing something else?

How do you learn about the fields that do not have academic equivalents, and how do you figure out what to put in the cover letter so as not to have your application immediately shunted into the garbage? Conduct informational interviews! Really. If you don't have anyone close by to ask, do it via email. If you can't find anyone in your extended network to interview, check your alumni associations. I am continually surprised by how few inquiries I get from mine given the fact that I've indicated my willingness to field such inquiries. I have received a grand total of three requests from my undergraduate alumni association and one from my graduate alumni association. I graduated from college in 1994 and got my PhD in 1999. I think it is safe to say that I am an underutilized resource for the recent graduates of my college and graduate program.

3. Know the professional version of your field
Even when there is a direct equivalent of your academic field in industry, there are often differences in how that field is practiced. In most cases, the industrial version probably focuses more on reliability and less on bleeding edge innovation.  Industrial scientists don't expect new hires coming from academia to know all the ins and outs of how the field is practiced in industry- we remember the different motivations and constraints of academia, after all. But we are always pleasantly surprised when someone interviewing out of academia demonstrates that he or she understands that there is a difference, and why that difference exists. Conversely, we are deeply annoyed when an interviewee tries to tell us that we're doing it all wrong, and if we would just apply the latest techniques from academia all of our problems would be solved. Here's a hint: we do keep up on our fields. If we aren't applying the latest techniques it could be because we're lazy or uninformed. It could also be because the latest techniques do not translate well to our industrial setting- at least not yet. Regardless of the actual reason, it would be best if you assumed the latter. Insulting your interviewer is never a good interview technique.
If you are working in a field that is a hybrid between science and technology, it would be a very, very good idea to learn what non-scientist professionals in the relevant technology field consider to be good practices. For instance, if you are a programmer, learn what patterns are and how they can be used. If you are a data geek, understand the theory behind relational databases. Not all industrial positions will require this knowledge of you, but having it will open up additional opportunities for you. I am much more willing to train on specific tools and the processes required for doing my kind of work in industry than I am willing to teach the basic tenets of the "tech" side of my work. I know that most relevant academic positions neither teach them nor require their use, but they are not hidden, arcane knowledge- a simple web search would turn up many resources for anyone who wants to learn them.

4. Don't dismiss contract work
Contract and temp work can seem like a bad option, with their lack of security and lack of benefits. However, they can also be an excellent way to get your foot in the door and prove your value to a company and to build a network of people who can vouch for the quality of your work in an industrial setting.  I've personally hired several former contractors, because it provides a great way to see if someone is going to be good at the work I have and is going to fit in with the team. I am more likely to take a risk on a contractor than a full time hire, too, because if he or she doesn't work out, I can just not renew the contract as opposed to jumping through the 18 different hoops required to actually fire someone.

(Incidentally, contract work also does not have to be a financially bad choice. It should pay a higher hourly rate than a salaried full time position would, because the company is not also paying benefits. In the US, one useful rule of thumb for figuring out what you should expect as a contract rate is to figure out what your annual salary would be in thousands of dollars, and then take that same base amount in hundreds of dollars for an hourly rate. For instance, if your salary would be $75,000/year, you should make roughly $75/hour as a contractor. Of course, you may find you need to accept a little less, particularly since you don't have any industrial experience. But that calculation will at least get you into the right neighborhood. You can now do the math and understand why some people, particularly people with large networks that make it easy to find work and working spouses or other means of securing benefits, prefer contract work to full time employment. If you can get steady contracts, you can make far more money than you make as an employee. But that is a big if! And it is not likely to happen when you are just starting out.)

Of course, right now, you could do all of these things and still have a hard time finding a job in industry. I have noticed an improvement in the biotech/pharma jobs situation, but it is still a much, much tighter market than it was when I got my first industry job. That is unfortunate and unfair, and as much as I'd like to say that every industrial scientist of my generation is aware of how much harder it is for people starting out now, that would be a lie. Within any group of people there are some who are unwilling to acknowledge the role of random luck in their success, and industrial scientists are no exception.  But most of us know that it is harder now, and will try to help out when we can.


The posts I linked to at the top were quite chemistry-centric, but still contained some advice that was useful for other fields. Similarly, my advice is slanted towards computational fields, but I hope that it also contains some generally useful advice. I'm sure I'm overlooking some good advice. If I think of more, I'll post again. And if you have any ideas and/or specific questions, leave them in the comments. I can't usually reply during the work day, but I will reply eventually.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Anonymous5:28 AM

    Sending to DH.

    1. Your DH should totally start that company. Of course, it is easy for me to say that- I don't have to make the finances work out!

  3. I'm an accountant, not a chemist, but I think some of my experience translates well.

    The *best* job I've had started out as a contract gig. I was familiar with the company culture, personalities, and challenges within that organization before taking a permanent position. There's a lot to be said for dipping your toe in the pool before you jump in the deep end.

    Recruiters can be a great source of jobs in my field. Does your field use recruiters?

    1. I will confess that I often daydream about being a contractor again. There is something awfully liberating about charging by the hour. Suddenly, everyone wants you to just get the work done and go home already!

      Recruiters are active in biotech. They are more common in boom times, but even now they get used, particularly for really specialized positions. It is definitely a good idea to be nice to any recruiter who contacts you, and try to help them out!

  4. Anonymous8:49 PM

    As someone on the other side, how should people contact others about informational interviews? I am interested in talking to a couple of people about what they do, however, I have only talked to some of them briefly and it feels a little awkward to ask.

    1. Honestly, just email and ask. Most people are really quite happy to talk about themselves. You can offer to buy them lunch or coffee, if it makes you feel better. I usually offer to buy lunch when someone contacts me for an informational interview, though.

      The only big no-no is making it obvious you are contacting that person because you want a job. You have to make it about asking for information.

  5. I love the explanation that the reason you're hiring is that you have more work than you can handle *right now* and so that's why you need someone you're pretty sure will work. Either because someone vouched for them or they have experience that screams that they'll be a net asset very quickly. I think a lot of people don't quite get this -- that hiring doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens in a very, very busy place. Hiring often comes after demand is there.

  6. Dr. Confused11:42 PM

    I just got an industrial job offer after spending my entire life to date in academia. If you happen to have a post in your head about how to seamlessly start an industrial job without making an ass of myself, that would be awesome.

  7. @Dr. Confused- hmmm. Maybe I do! I'll try to post one within a week. Congrats on the new job!

  8. Rumpus2:24 PM

    I'm an engineering academic, and I recently discovered the power of networking with my industrial contacts. It's amazing how far of a reach my friends from grad school have. On the other hand, I have found it difficult to make new contacts after taking this academic position. Though it is anecdotal, I think my experience backs up your suggestion to aim for areas with more industry if that is where one would like to end up.

    This post, along with a few of your other posts (e.g., deep vs scanner), has made me more excited about consulting work...but so far I've found it tough to make time and take the first step.


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