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Tooling Up: Traits of the Key Players

Many new grads and postdocs find out early in the job search that there's a wall between academia and industry. It isn't built of bricks or stone, but it is sturdy and performs its job well.

This wall exists for many reasons. It exists because of common--and incorrect--stereotypes held by many academic scientists about the nature of scientific work in industry. And in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, this hurdle also exists because industrial human resources staff and hiring managers have learned over time to be cautious. It costs a lot to make a new hire; academic scientists who couldn't hack the transition have burned these managers more than once.

As a result, they prefer to hire scientists who have already proven that they can work effectively in an industrial setting--hence, all those ads that say "1-2 years of industry experience required." But industry also needs new blood, and that means hiring new grads and postdocs. So in candidates coming directly from academia, HR staff and managers have learned to look for characteristics they have seen over time in their most successful scientific staff--their "key players."

What exactly is a key player? "Key player" is a concept that I've heard about from employers during just about every search I've conducted. I asked a client--a hiring manager involved in a recent search--to define it for me. "Every company has a handful of staff you can count on in a given area of expertise to get the job done. On my team of seven process engineers and biologists, I've got two or three whom I just couldn't live without," he says. "They are essential to my organization. And when we hire your company to recruit for us, we expect that you'll be going into other companies and finding just that: the staff that another manager will not want to see leave. We recruit only key players."

That's a pep talk intended to send headhunters into competitive companies to talk to their most experienced staff about making a change. They want to hire a "key player" from another company. Still, every one of these companies also hires from the ranks of newbies, and what they're looking for is exactly the same. "We hold them up to the standards we see from our top people. If it looks like they have these same traits, we'll place a bet on them." It's just a bit riskier.

"It's an educated guess," says my hiring manager client. Your job as a future employee is to help the hiring manager mitigate that risk. You need to help them identify you as a prospective "key player."

Trait #1: The selfless collaborator

John Fetzer, career consultant and chemist, first suggested this trait, which has already been written about a great deal. It deserves repeating because it is the single most public difference between academia and industry. "It's teamwork," says Fetzer. "The industrial environment is less lone-wolf and competitive, so signs of being collaborative and selfless stand out. You just can't succeed in an industry environment without this mindset."

Many postdocs and grad students have a tough time showing that they can make this transition because so much of their life has involved playing the independent-researcher role and outshining other young stars. You can make yourself more attractive to companies by working together with scientists from other labs and disciplines in pursuit of a common goal--and documenting the results on your CV. This approach, combined with a liberal use of the pronoun "we" and not just "I" when describing your accomplishments, can change the company's perception of you from lone wolf to selfless collaborator. Better still, develop a reputation inside your lab and with people your lab collaborates with as a person who fosters and initiates collaborations--and make sure this quality gets mentioned by those who will take those reference phone calls.

Trait #2: A sense of urgency

From the standpoint of someone working in industry, in academia things happen very, very slowly. I've heard this 1000 times when presenting to employers candidates with no industry experience: "Anyone working here requires a sense of urgency." We're not sure about this candidate is the implication.

Don Haut is a frequent contributor to the AAAS discussion forum. He is a former scientist who transitioned to industry many years ago and then on to a senior management position.Haut heads strategy and business development for a division of 3M with more than $2.4 billion in annual revenues. He is among those who value a sense of urgency.

"Business happens 24/7/365, which means that competition happens 24/7/365, as well," says Haut. "One way that companies win is by getting 'there' faster, which means that you not only have to mobilize all of the functions that support a business to move quickly, but you have to know how to decide where 'there' is! This creates a requirement not only for people who can act quickly, but [for] those who can think fast with the courage to act on their convictions. This need runs throughout an organization and is not exclusive to management."

A sense of urgency is often learned first in academia. As John Fetzer says, you may be developing a sense of urgency right now and not even recognize it. (But you should recognize it, because you'll need to talk about this at interview time.) "It's not unlike when [graduate students are] doing research and their adviser comes in with a demand for old data for a proposal--they also have a class to teach, an exam to proctor, and another student who needs a particular reagent or sample. All of these demands seek the same level of attention, so it turns out that the urgencies are a part of academia, too. The difference is that students and postdocs often separate their work into research and 'all that other stuff.' People in industry realize everything is urgent, and they become masters of prioritizing."

Trait #3: Risk tolerance

When I talk about this with groups of postdocs and grad students, they think I am describing something that is exclusive to the world of biotech start-up companies. Being OK with risk, however, is something that industry demands--not just companies with 10 employees but also large pharmaceutical and consulting firms. "A candidate needs to have demonstrated the ability to make decisions with imperfect or incomplete information. He or she must be able to embrace ambiguity and stick his or her neck out to drive to a conclusion," wrote one of my clients in a job description.

Haut agrees. "Business success is often defined by comfort with ambiguity and risk--personal, organizational, and financial. This creates a disconnect for many scientists because success in academia is really more about careful, studied research. For example, almost any paper published in Science, Nature, or Cell elegantly delivers data that can help build toward a conclusion but generally doesn't make any firm commitments about what the data means beyond what is irrefutably obvious."

Haut continues, "Further, great science is often defined by how one gets to the answer as much as by the answer itself, so scientists often fall in love with the process. In a business, you need to understand the process, but you end up falling in love with the answer and then take a risk based on what you think that answer means to your business. Putting your neck on the line like this is a skill set that all employers look for in their best people."

Of course, there can be risk in an academic career as well, as anyone knows who's ever pushed a risky piece of science past the funding hurdle and into publication.

Another important piece of risk tolerance is a candidate's degree of comfort with failure. Failure is important because it shows that you were not afraid to take chances. So companies consistently look for candidates who can be wrong and admit it. Everyone knows how to talk about successes--or they should if they're in a job search. But far fewer people are comfortable talking about failures, and fewer still know how to bring lessons and advantages back from the brink. "For my organization, a candidate needs to have comfort discussing his or her failures, and he or she needs to have real failures, not something made up for interview day. If not, that person has not taken enough risk," says Haut. "A candidate who shows excessive fear about or intolerance dealing with failure will be one who cannot act quickly," he says, tying it back to trait #2.

Whether you like it or not, you will be asked about your failures. So wise job applicants spend time analyzing the risks taken and the lessons learned from their failures. They get comfortable talking about the topic.

Trait #4: Strength in interpersonal relationships

Rick Leach is in business development for deCODE Genetics. Leach made the transition to industry recently, on the business side of things. I asked him about this key trait because in his new business role, interpersonal abilities make the difference between success and failure. "Scientists spend their lives accumulating knowledge and developing technical acumen," he says, "but working for a business requires something else entirely--people skills. The scientist who is transitioning into the business world must prioritize his or her relationship assets above their technical assets. To suddenly be valued and measured by your mastery of human relationships can be a very scary proposition for a person who has been valued and measured only by his mastery of things," says Rick.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that strong people skills are required only for businesspeople like Leach. Indeed, the key players I've met who work at the bench in industry have succeeded in great measure because they've been able to work with a broad variety of personalities, up and down the organization. This ties into the selfless collaborator role from trait #1.

Leach agrees. "While business requires constant interpersonal engagement and does not permit one to escape to the relative sequestration of a laboratory, in every position in a company you need to leverage your human resources to achieve the broader organizational goals." Rick's parting comment: Scientists working in industry need "lots of personal grit and really thick skin."

The war for talent

Science Careers readers often think that companies have an easy time filling open positions; they've seen the long lines that form at career fairs. The reality is that it's tough out there, and not just for the candidates. "There's a war out there for the best new talent," says Haut.

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