Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Ask Cloud: Exploring Industry Options and Informational Interviews

I'm stretching the original definition of the "Ask Cloud" series a bit with this post, but since it was my own arbitrary definition to begin with, I think that's OK. I have found myself typing out advice about how to look into different industry options and related advice about how to organize and conduct informational interviews several times recently, so I thought I'd combine it all into one post. I don't have a single query email to include, but roughly speaking, here is a composite question:

"I'm finishing up graduate school/my postdoc and am considering going into industry. I don't really know what options are out there in industry for someone with my background. What do I do?"

It probably won't surprise you that the short version of my answer is "network!"

But there is more to it than that.

The first step is to make sure that you can rattle off a compelling summary of your research without trouble. This is the famed "elevator talk" that networking gurus tell you to have, with the exception that you don't have to pitch it to a non-scientist. Instead, come up with a summary that is appropriate for a general science audience. This means that you can assume familiarity with basic scientific concepts (evolution, tectonic plates, the fact that proteins aren't just something in bodybuilding drinks, etc.) but you don't assume familiarity with the details and jargon of your specific field (the role of a specific protein in the cell cycle, the importance of the spotted owl in the ecology of your state, etc). Make sure you include some idea of why we should care about your research. This is usually in the first paragraph of any journal article your lab has ever published, so it should be easy to find.

Do not start networking until you can give your research summary smoothly and succinctly! Doing so may actually hurt your chances to get a job if you get incredibly lucky and stumble upon a hiring manager with an appropriate open position within the first few times you try to network. If you are now feeling terrible because you have started networking and cannot succinctly summarize your research, don't get too despondent. It is extremely unlikely that you stumbled upon a hiring manager with an appropriate open position.

The next step is to figure out what specific types of industry jobs are interesting to you. I know it is tempting to say- "I'll take any job!" but that won't help you do a search. You need to narrow it to at most 4-5 specific fields you might like to try to get into. If you don't know what someone with your degree might do in industry, you can start with some very general research. Try to find professional societies that include people with your background and read their websites. Go on LinkedIn and try searching for relevant keywords. If there are any industry networking events in your local area, go to them. Talk to people and see what they do. Do a Google search and see if you turn up any blogs- however, you'll probably notice that there are far more academic science bloggers than industry science bloggers.

Once you know what fields you are interested in pursuing, work on a short summary of those fields and why you are interested in them. This should be just a few sentences long, because you'll often want to combine it with your summary of your research, and you don't want to feel like you're telling someone your life story just to find out if they know someone who can help you.

Now you are ready to start networking in earnest. You are not at this point networking to get a job. In fact, you should never network specifically "to get a job." You are networking to plant seeds that might grow to help you get a job at some point in your career. Right now, your main interest in networking is to learn about career options in industry and to start accumulating some contacts in industry who will be able to say to a hiring manager with an appropriate job "Hey, you should check out Josephina Bloggs. I can't vouch for her science, but I had lunch with her and she seems sharp."

Representation of the industrial contacts
of the average grad student
Of course, chances are high that your current circle of friends and acquaintances are all also in academia and probably don't seem like much help. But you might be surprised. Let people know what you're interested in learning about, and they might have leads for you. Get on LinkedIn, build a network of your friends, and then search your 2nd level connections for anyone in industry. Ask your direct connection to please introduce you (via email) to this 2nd level connection, and then ask that 2nd level connection for an informational interview.

This is the step where 90% (or more) of your peers will drop out. It feels weird to reach out to someone you do not know and ask them to meet you to answer your questions. Why in the world would that person agree to do this? But I swear to you, most people in industry will say yes. Most of us remember how hard it was to make that transition from academia to industry, and are willing to help out.  Also, people like to talk about themselves. And people love to feel like an expert giving advice.

And if they don't say yes, or they blow you off, don't worry about it. Just move on to the next person. There are a lot of people working in industry, you'll find someone to talk to you.

If your immediate network turns up no leads whatsoever, try going to industry networking events, events sponsored by the relevant professional societies, or Women in Science events. Yes, you can go to most Women in Science events even if you're a man- just don't hit on anyone there. That is skeevy. Talk to the other attendees and give them your spiel about what you're interested in doing. You might meet someone who knows someone who can help- and chances are, the person you meet will offer to introduce you. If one of the speakers seems to be in a relevant field or had good advice, try to talk to him or her. The speaker may be mobbed after the talk, though, so it is often easier to talk to other attendees, and they are just as likely to be nice people with useful information or contacts.

Once you've got an informational interview set up, spend some time preparing. Do some research online so that you know the basic jargon of the field, and can ask some questions that make you sound smart. Prepare a list of questions and take it with you to the interview. You don't need an extensive list- just a few to get the conversation started. You can also always ask someone to tell you about their career path, and to describe a day in the life of someone in their job. Then let the conversation evolve and you'll probably come up with more questions on the spot.

I personally don't judge people who ask really basic questions in an informational interview. I cannot tell you the number of times I have given a basic summary of the drug discovery process, for instance. However, some people look a little askance at questions that could have been answered with a quick Google search, so do a quick Google search on the field you're interested in before the interview.

You absolutely must be prepared to give your research summary and the summary of what sorts of industry jobs you're considering. If you can't give a good research summary, your interviewee is unlikely to want to stick her neck out and tell a potential hiring manager that she thinks you are sharp. If you can't describe the information and advice you're looking for, the interviewee can't search her network for someone who can help you.

After the interview is over, you should follow up with a thank you email. If the interviewee offered to put you in touch with some other people, this is a good chance to say something like "I look forward to talking to you friends Joe Jackson and Annie Hall about opportunities in industrial underwater basketweaving." Usually, this is enough of a reminder to get someone to follow through on their offer of help. If a couple of weeks pass and you never get that introduction, though, you can reach out again with a gentle reminder. I'd say something like "I know you're very busy. I just wanted to check if you've had a chance to contact Joe Jackson, in case I missed an email." I would generally only remind someone once unless they have specifically told me to pester them until they follow through. If they don't follow through, heave a big sigh and move on to the next contact. Unless you can arrange to bump into them at an industry event, in which case your very presence is likely to remind them and trigger immense feelings of guilt in them, resulting in a belated email introduction.

You should also ask your interviewee if you can connect on LinkedIn. This will let you search their network for help in answering future questions, and may also help you out if a potential future boss is searching her LinkedIn network to see if she knows anyone who knows Josephina Bloggs, the candidate she is considering interviewing.

Those are the basic steps. I think Twitter and blogs offer some new ways to connect with people, but I also think they take more time to work. Some people (and I am one of them) will try to respond helpfully to complete strangers who send emails to their blog addresses. Other people will not, and will only respond to regular commenters. One thing I suspect might work would be to search Twitter for topics you're interested in and see if you find anyone to follow. Follow them, and maybe reply to a few tweets when you have something relevant to say. And see if that leads to a connection. I think the direct networking approach is more likely to work quickly, but if you're a year or two out from needing the connections, the Twitter approach might be worth trying.

OK, wise readers- what would you add to my advice?


There is so much more to discuss about transitioning from academia to industry. Maybe I'll write more posts in the future. But for now, here are some relevant old posts:

If you read through all of those and still have questions you'd like to ask, leave them in the comments or send me an email. I'll try to get to them in future posts.


  1. This post was incredibly timely for me! I just started the process of making the jump from my postdoc into industry. Like you said, I've heard this will probably be the hardest transition I'll make in my science career (it makes getting into grad school or getting a postdoc seem like a piece of cake, haha).

    I'm lucky in that I have a fair number of contacts in Industry already (I also live in Boston, which helps). Your post has given me that extra push to really reach out to them and schedule some "informational lunches or beers" to get their advice and opinions. Thanks again Cloud!

  2. Carolina (@braziliancakes)7:07 AM

    Excellent advice as usual. Gives me the incentive to stop worrying so much about whether people respond to informational interview requests and just hope someone will.

    Thank you!

  3. Sort-of-kinda-not-really related question...

    I left my PhD program with a masters, and I'm trying to figure out what to do next. Most of my conversation with industry people has ended with "well, network network network and you may find something eventually, but without a PhD I can't really help you."

    True or false?

    1. So false that I'm breaking my usual protocol and answering from work!

      The details depend on your field, but I have 5 direct reports and only one of them has a PhD. I'm in scientific informatics in drug discovery. We all use our science background, but a PhD is not a requirement. There are other fields like this, too- regulatory affairs, project management, and lab management come to mind in my little area of knowledge, and that's not even including all of the Research Associates and Associate Scientists who work in the labs. If your area doesn't have research associates and associate scientists or you don't want to go that route, I would suggest looking for fields in which you USE your science knowledge even if you aren't DOING science and check the education backgrounds there. It is often far more mixed. Now granted, you may run into a ceiling in some fields, but once you're in industry, it will be a heck of a lot easier to look around for other fields without that ceiling.

    2. I don't know what field you are in, but in astronomy we need staff with Master's at observatories as telescope operator, observer, data analyst etc etc. Check the AAS job register regularly and you'll find these positions - not industry, but also not research.

  4. Anonymous1:30 PM

    I concur with all of this. LinkedIn was crucial to my job hunt. I only got interviews at places where I had a connection in the company to pass on my CV. I found those connections via LinkedIn.

    The other advice I would add- when asking for 'help' BE SPECIFIC.

    I've had people email me who saw me speak on a career panel or found me via a connection on LinkedIn and they say, "Can you help me find a job?" or "Can you tell me about working in industry?"

    Don't be vague. How do you want me to help you? Give feedback on your CV? Pass your CV on in company? Put you in touch with someone at another company?

    You've contacted me out of the blue- don't make me work hard to help you!

    Also, follow-up. I mean to help people, but things come up and I forget. A follow-up, "Thanks for the info, appreciate the help." Reminds me of what I promised.

  5. I found this book helpful.

  6. Good advice for breaking into any industry.


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