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Tooling Up: Making the Cut in 2011

Credit: Kelly Krause, AAAS

There's a lot of competition today for jobs in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, and not all of it comes from other academic labs. An increasing fraction of your competition has an unfair advantage: In 2011, record numbers of entry-level jobs -- the jobs you're applying for -- are going to scientists who already have industry experience.

It's not your father's job market -- or your older brother's, for that matter. It is very definitely an employer's market. Companies have access to more talent than they've seen in years for every job opening they announce.

A company isn't going to hire and train you when they can hire a recently laid-off scientist from now-defunct ABC Biotech with exactly the skills they need.

Employers can choose whomever they want in a market like this, and scientists with industry experience have big advantages. If you don't have experience, you have to do what you can to offset those advantages.

Competing in an employer's market

What a bunch of spoiled hiring managers we're going to be left with when this recession ends. The current abundance of interesting, experienced candidates has reinforced a trend we've seen for about a decade: employers searching for very specific skill sets instead of hiring bright people and bringing them up to speed. Converting a molecular biologist into a regulatory affairs specialist would require a training program; it's been years since employers offered that kind of support for new hires. A company isn't going to hire and train you when they can hire a recently laid-off scientist from now-defunct ABC Biotech with exactly the skills they need.

If you're still making decisions about your training, keep this in mind: You are hired for what you did last. That means that if you're choosing a Ph.D. program or a postdoc, you'd better do it carefully. Choose a lab where the work relates directly to your career objective. Choose a lab where the principal investigator is well connected in industry.

If you're already out in the market, the challenge is to present your experience so that it seems just as relevant as your competition's, even if she's already had a year or three in industry. It's hard to compete with people who have already worked in industry. There's less risk in hiring them because they've already passed through the crucial cultural transition and made it to the other side.

But really, their biggest advantage is that they know the job-seeking ropes. What does someone who has been let go from a downsizing company know about the job market that you don't know? Plenty. But if you pay attention, you can compensate.

The experienced industry job seeker

Your experienced competitor knows how important networking is. She has been managing the networking process since she was searching for her first job several years ago. She knows more people in industry than you do and knows how to identify and contact hiring managers in the companies she'd like to work for.

Here are some other advantages job hunters with industry experience have over most scientists who are making the jump to industry right now:

Industry candidate: In her marketing materials and interview style, she presents herself as a solution to an unstated need, providing a sharp focus on the benefits of hiring her.   

Academia-to-industry transferee: Presents her work as if laying it out for a poster session, without relating her experience, acquired skills, or thought processes to the company's area of interest.

Industry candidate: He considers his year or two of industry experience proof that he's had his "ticket punched"; he's an industry insider and acts like it during interviews.

Academia-to-industry transferee: He approaches the huge gulf between academia and industry with trepidation. His uncertainty reinforces the hiring manager's sense that he wouldn't quite fit in.

Industry candidate: He knows that each person he meets with over the course of an interview will have some input in the hiring process. Before interview day, he already has asked the human resources rep to provide a full agenda with names and titles, which he is using to research his interviewers.

Academia-to-industry transferee: He ends up winging it because he's afraid to rock the boat by asking HR to provide an agenda and biosketches.

Industry candidate: Panel interviews, where a number of people conduct the interview around a conference table, don't raise her level of tension because to her it feels much like a project meeting or any other gathering on the job. She confidently shares eye contact with everyone at the table.

Academia-to-industry transferee: She is intimidated by the number of eyes staring back at her. With a deer-in-the-headlights stare, she fixes her eyes on one or two friendly faces.

Avoid this monster red flag

Clearly, these generalizations don't apply to all, but they illustrate common differences between the two types of candidates. I saved the best for last, a red flag that occurs frequently and can be very damaging. It's worth more than a casual mention.

"I'm looking for an assistant professorship as well as exploring my options in an alternative career," someone told me recently. Now there's a line that falls flat when you use it in a company interview. They worked hard to get where they are. They never thought of their company as a fallback, or as some kind of alternative. Most importantly, they're not interested in being part of your plan B.

Even if you're also still seeking an academic post, when interviewing for an industry job, that's the job you want. The industry employer's greatest fear is that you won't make a successful transition to the culture of industry. Why reinforce that fear by talking about an academic job search? Hiring managers want people who are passionate about the opportunities on their side of the academia/industry divide.

2011 and beyond

I look forward to the day, hopefully soon, when those spoiled hiring managers get their comeuppance and entry-level jobs will go back to being entry level. Not that they'll mind: When that happens, the industry will be humming along again, so everyone will be happy. Until then, you need to demonstrate savvy beyond your years of experience.

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