Sunday, December 29, 2013

Exploring Alternatives

This week's Tungsten Hippo post is a list of 10 short ebooks to load on that new eReader you got for Christmas. Or to load up onto an old eReader if you just want to explore some new authors or subjects.

I've also been working on my annual year in review blog post. As went through my old posts to pick out my favorites for my roundup, I was struck by how the number of posts has tapered off toward the end of the year. I think the problem is that most of my spare cognitive cycles are currently going to unbloggable career-related decisions, so I am not coming up with topics I want to blog about.

Ironically, a tweet in my feed about careers has given me a topic I want to post about. @AstroKatie posted a link to her Storify about the advice grad students do (or do not) get about non-academic careers.

The details of the advice I got as a graduate student have receded into hazy memory- it was roughly 15 years ago, after all. But I do occasionally participate in career panels and other events set up to help grad students and postdocs find careers outside academia. I also recently hired for two junior-level positions in my group, positions that could have gone to new graduates (but did not- I'll talk about why later).

So I have a couple of thoughts on the transition to a non-academic career. Note that I did not say I have advice on non-academic careers. You could perhaps combine these thoughts with knowledge of an individual's specific background and interests to get some advice, but I will not try to do that.

Thought #1: Events organized to expose graduate students and postdocs to "alternative" careers tend to focus on a small subset of possible careers.

When I was in graduate school, a career in research in industry was presented as an "alternative," which struck me as a bit strange even then, since it was a career doing exactly what you'd trained to do, just in a different type of organization.

I still see industrial research represented in these career events, and I don't have a problem with that. There are indeed some great research jobs in industry. The people speaking about research jobs in industry also usually at least mention the lab-based jobs that are less like academic research, which is good, because those jobs can also be interesting and rewarding.

There are also a lot of great jobs in industry that are not lab-based. Sometimes, these are covered in career events, but I think their inclusion is spotty, depending primarily on what the people that can be found to participate in the event do for a living. I see project management covered more frequently these days. The events that include me on their panel have scientific informatics represented, since that is what I do. There are also careers to be had in regulatory affairs, manufacturing, alliance management, and business development. There are almost certainly additional careers that aren't coming to my mind right now, too.

And then there are the jobs that aren't in industry. Again, I think there are some "go to" careers that are usually represented on career panels. I generally see someone involved in patent law. University tech transfer offices are also well-represented. I don't often see science writers at the events, but someone always mentions that as an option in their remarks. They also mention the possibility of hiring on at one of the big management consulting firms, although I don't know a single science PhD who has done that (I do know some people with other backgrounds who have worked for those firms). Less frequently, the possibilities of working to develop science policy or doing public outreach in support of science are represented. Again, there are probably many additional careers that aren't coming to my mind right now.

My point is not to bash career events. There is no way that any one event could represent all of the possibilities. And that is my point. There are many, many things that people with science PhDs can go on to do. Almost all of the careers I've listed in this post benefit from a science background even if they do not require a science PhD. There are many, many more careers that would benefit from the other skills you develop while doing a PhD, such as critical thinking, problem solving, ability to direct your own work, but that is perhaps a topic for another post.

Many of these careers are things that your average graduate student or postdoctoral fellow will have no way of knowing about. However, there is a good chance that at least one person who graduated from one of the institutions with which you have been affiliated is working in each of these careers.  Most professionals are happy to talk about their career paths- particularly if they have, for instance, signed up with their alumni association and indicated that they are happy to talk about their career paths. If you are interested in pursuing a non-academic career but don't know what, exactly you want to do, you can use those alumni associations and your own LinkedIn network to find people who can tell you about a wide range of careers.

Oops, that sounded a lot like advice.

And professors who want to help your students and postdocs out, but don't know anything about non-academic careers? You can build up your LinkedIn network with people who have worked in your lab, and then link to your current students and let them search your network. Yes, I know that it is fashionable among academics to make fun of LinkedIn, but that is because academic networking is done in an entirely different way. Trust me, out in industry, LinkedIn can be a valuable tool.

Thought #2: People leaving academia tend to have no idea how to apply for a non-academic job

As I mentioned, I have recently hired two junior positions, either one of which could have gone to a recent graduate or a postdoc looking to make a transition away from the bench. In both cases, I wrote the job descriptions to require next to no experience and to emphasize my willingness to train. In neither case did I get many applications from people without industry backgrounds, and few of those that I did get could really be included in my "top ten" stack of resumes- the stack I use to set up phone interviews.

I received resumes with no cover letter and no indication of any interest in the field for which I was hiring. I received resumes with cover letters that plainly stated an interest in a different field. I received resumes that were strong in one of the areas I was looking for, but had no indication of any experience in the other areas (which I had called out specifically in the job listings) and which did not have cover letters noting an interest in growing in those areas.

I know that academic institutions don't always do a great job of explaining how to apply to a non-academic job, but you have emailed me your application. You presumably know how to use the internet. Avail yourself of the information available online and write a good cover letter!

In both cases, I ended up hiring people with industrial experience in a scientific field who were looking to transition into my field. They have been great additions to my team and I am happy I hired them, so it worked out well for me. But I worry about the people who did such a poor job of applying for my positions. I did not have the time to contact each and everyone and ask the obvious questions that their application materials failed to answer. Nor could I reach out to each one and offer personal advice.

I am interested in helping people navigate from academia into industry, and make it easy to network to me via the academic institutions that I attended. I go to career days and local networking events and issue blanket invitations to contact me for an informational interview. Very few people take me up on that, even though it is my policy to take the people who contact me for an informational interview out to lunch- and I say that!

So I do care about this issue- but when I am filling an open position in my group, I care more about finding a great candidate. I am almost by definition pressed for time, since I am usually hiring because we have more work to do than we can handle with our current team. When I am hiring is not when I can do outreach. That is perhaps unfortunate, but it is true.

Here again, is something that a professor who wants to help his or her students transition out of academia could do: make a list of links to posts like this one and other resources about how to apply for non-academic jobs, and share them with your students.

So, that ended up sounding a lot more like advice than I intended. Sadly, it is probably not specific enough to be truly useful. If any of that piques your interest, feel free to leave me a more detailed question in the comments, or reach out via email. I can't buy you lunch over the internet, but I will answer your questions.


  1. I recently started reading your blog (a recommendation from nicoleandmaggie) and this is just the type of post I was hoping to come across. I'm nearing the end of my PhD in biomedical engineering and looking to transition into an "alternative" career (non-academic, non-research-based in industry even) so this is very timely for me. I hope that I do more or less know how to write a cover letter and tailor my resume!

    I actually am going to search for jobs in San Diego but I currently live in NC. Do you have any experience with networking at a distance and how do you think it differs from local networking?

    I also am open to a lot of types of careers - almost everything that you mentioned above. It's a bit paralyzing to not have a job that I'm narrowly focused on, but I'm just not yet sure what would be the best fit though I have spent a decent amount of time learning about these careers. Should I try to do informational interviews with anyone willing? How should I balance my time between exploring careers through informational interviewing and applying for specific jobs (and networking for those positions)? I suppose I don't want to seem unfocused to the people that may have jobs to offer, yet for the purpose of adding to my network I should let people know that I'm looking at a variety of careers.

    I'm not sure if you can shed some light into how I should conduct this search but thanks for offering to answer questions!

    1. I think you can continue to do informational interviews that range widely. Maybe start trying to find the theme in what appeals to you about the range of jobs you are considering. For instance, a couple of my themes are that I like to organize information and I really enjoy getting things done. I've had a variety of positions that fit those themes, and there are quite a few others I could consider.

      If you are unsure of what the unifying themes might be, try writing a summary of past work (and work-like) experiences, and calling out what your favorite part was about each. I did that exercise with a career coach once, and found it really helpful.

      I think you can also apply to a fairly wide variety of positions, but I would not do that within one company (unless it is a huge pharma, and even then, I'd try to focus on one type of job within the company). The computerized resume handling systems that companies use let hiring managers see which jobs you've applied for, and your instinct is correct that if a hiring manager sees someone applying for a bunch of disparate jobs, that can hurt you.

      However, even in a tight knit community like biotech, we don't generally gossip outside our company about resumes we've received, so you should be safe to apply to wildly different positions at two different companies. Just make sure that your cover letters are customized and focused on the particular jobs you are applying for.

      I know some people who have a biomedical engineering background, so if you want more specific advice, send me an email with more details about your background, and I'll see what I can do.

      In terms of networking at a distance- it is definitely harder, since you can't go to local events. For San Diego in particular, you can check out the local AWIS chapter. It is quite active and good, particularly for early career people, and you might be able to find some leads there. Perhaps you can get on their email list- they post job listings from time to time. Otherwise, I think you have to rely on email fairly heavily- and also try to be strategic if you go to any conferences this year. See if you can meet people from San Diego, who might be able to help you make connections.

      I hope that helps. Feel free to post follow up questions here or in email.

  2. Great post! I realized that I am one of the people relatively far in to the academic pipeline (PhD plus postdoc) thinking about industry careers without a good idea of what a resume or cover letter should look like. I haven't found the career center all that helpful, and I'm just not sure what employers, or the automated computer filtering services, are looking for. You have such a good insight in to this process and empathy for those working through the transition. I know you do a lot of helping people for free, but would you be interested and willing to be hired to consult on this topic for resume, cover letter, LinkedIn, online profile advice?

    1. I currently have fairly tight restrictions on moonlighting given the terms of my employment, so I can't try to consult on this myself. Besides, I think there are probably more qualified folks out there.

      There are also companies that specialize in "outplacement" and cover these sorts of things- I've been sent to a couple as part of severance packages during layoffs. If you're thinking of trying to agitate to get your career center to bring in a consultant, those are the sort of companies I would suggest you point them at.

      If you're looking for advice just for you- send me an email with your current resume and the type of job you're aiming for and I'll be happy to give you some pointers, with the caveat that the industry I know best is pharma/biotech.

      I'll also see if I can summon up an Ask Cloud type post or two covering the basics of an industry job hunt.

  3. I have two questions:
    1. can you say more about the value of attending networking/AWIS events? Is the point just to meet people? I haven't gone to any local AWIS events because none of them seem directly relevant to my career goals (industry research) and are advertised talk more about getting out of research into other jobs(policy, science writing, etc--which are great, but not what I want to do), or seem too focused on biotech, or whatever--so I wonder if it's worth my time to go just to network.

    Attending these events is somewhat of a time investment because it involves taking time away from my family/friends/projects/other life interests and it's not clear to me what I will get out of them, especially since most of the interactions will probably be highly superficial. I'm not a very social person and expect this sort of thing to be a pretty big energy sink, though I'm willing to invest that energy if it will actually help me.

    But am I depriving myself of important career/networking/learning opportunities by not having attended such events? Do I need to approach these networking events differently?

    2. Once one has an alternative-to-academics job, what advice do you have on succeeding in said job? How do you get feedback, assess your job performance, figure out how to get better at your job and hopefully not lose it through incompetence? How do you figure out if you are working enough hours/being productive enough to fit in at the company/group?

    Any insights you have would be highly appreciated.

    1. The point of the networking events is not really to hear the scheduled speakers. If they are useful, that is a bonus. It is to meet people who (1) might be able to help you in your career goals and/or (2) who might know people who can help you. So no event is likely to be a complete waste, because scientists in all sorts of careers know scientists in all sorts of other careers (we tend to keep in touch with grad school and postdoc labmates, for instance). However, it is true that some events are more likely be more useful than others. Since you want to minimize your attendance at these events, you might want to look around for the events that are most relevant to the industry you are aiming for. If there is are more than one or two companies in that industry in your area, chances are there is an industry group that meets periodically- that is the group you want to join.

      If there is no such group, the next thing to look for is meetup groups for skills relevant to the industry you want to join. An example from the tech world would be a Java Users Group meeting, but there are many more.

      If there are none of those, then I'd look at the more general networking events in your area and set yourself a goal of going to one per month or one per quarter, or whatever seems right.

      If you go to a couple and they seem to be a complete waste, then maybe save your energy for relevant conferences, and network like crazy at those.

      In terms of how to approach these events: make sure you have plenty of cards with you to give out. Try to talk to several people. You don't need to work the room, but unless you get really lucky and find an amazing contact, you probably don't want to spend the entire evening talking to one person, either. Don't think of this as pure socializing- most people expect more directness at a networking event. However, it is also *extremely* poor form to flat out ask for jobs. DO NOT DO THAT.

      Instead, ask the person what they do. If they say they are a student, don't just walk away. That is rude and short-sighted. I have had people I helped as students help me later- and you remember how people treat you when you are not powerful. So instead, ask the student what he or she wants to do next, or ask about his or her current research. If the person is already in a job, ask about the job. If you're stuck for a follow up question, you can ask what the best part of the job is. Be ready to give a short spiel about what you want to do. This should be very short- just a few sentences. Then the other person can ask for more info if they are interested.

      2. Your boss should be giving you performance feedback periodically- not just at year end performance reviews. Not all bosses are good at this, though, so you may need to ask some questions, like "is there anything else I should be doing to be most effective in this position?" You can also ask for periodic 1:1 meetings with your boss to discuss your projects and get feedback.

      You can also network with other people in the next position up the chain from you, and get their advice on what you should learn, etc. However, be careful how you do this within your own company, so that it doesn't give the appearance of going around your boss.

      I hope that helps! Feel free to send follow up questions.


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