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Customize Your Training

CREDIT: Kelly Krause, AAAS

One of the slides I use in my PowerPoint deck is a photograph of an African lion, lean and hungry looking. In front of her dangles a carrot attached to a fishing pole. It’s clear that the incentive isn’t going to work: A carrot on a stick might motivate a donkey to action, or a rabbit, but that lion would prefer a nice, juicy steak.

The slide illustrates this point: Your graduate training should be designed to be either steak or carrot, depending on the job you're seeking, and obviously it can't be both. It needs to be a strong attractor to hungry employers offering one specific kind of job. If you are targeting industry employment, you need to find out early what the “must have’s” are for the niche you want to enter and incorporate those must-haves into your training.

Your graduate training should be designed to be either steak or carrot, depending on the job you're seeking, and obviously it can't be both.

Let's say, for a moment, that industry employers are lions, the ones hungry for steak. With a few exceptions, graduate education tends to produce carrots. The mix of skills and abilities today’s academic ladder provides are very appropriate for producing professors -- rabbits -- however scarce those carrots might be (and however abundant the aspiring rabbits). But they're not very good for feeding hungry lions.

In last month’s Tooling Up column -- “The Big Disconnect” -- I described how industry managers tend to focus on a very specific mix of skills for a particular job, a phenomenon I call “pinpoint hiring.” These days, employers absolutely require the skills they think are needed to do the job. The match doesn't need to be perfect, but it does need to be very good. On-the-job training has gone out the door.

This month, I’ll discuss a variety of ways -- some quick and easy, some costly and difficult -- to get employers salivating at the thought of hiring you. The goal is to emerge with the 60% to 70% of the job specs it takes to get noticed by the employers you target. One approach is to take advantage of a new alternative degree program; other job seekers may find that similar results can be obtained by following their own, customized course of action. The former approach may well be effective, but the latter approach can work, too, and it's way cheaper.

New degrees built on industry's needs

Science Careers has written several times -- always favorably -- about the Professional Science Master’s (PSM) degree program (see here and here, for example). While everyone I've talked to about this agrees that there’s a need for a degree focused on industry, I’ve found that opinions differ about the value of this costly 2-year program. The PSM comes in many forms, most emphasizing business skills.

A PSM degree can add a nice package of attractive skills to your undergraduate science degree, along with an opportunity to work in a team environment on a project much like what you would encounter in a company. In fact, it is often marketed as an MBA for science graduates.

However, while the PSM degree has been promoted aggressively to students -- and relationships have been forged between PSM programs and certain companies -- a great majority of hiring managers of my acquaintance aren't familiar with the degree. Outside the PSM orbit, PSM-holders have to explain their degree and justify its value in interviews.

PSM degrees can cost as much as $60,000 and require 2 years to complete. Financial aid is available, and sometimes employers absorb some of the cost. Real data about the real cost -- and who pays it -- are hard to come by.

Another problem with the PSM degree is that compared with a Ph.D. -- admittedly not a fair comparison -- the science coverage is superficial. PSM programs include business-related classes, team projects, and usually an internship. There's not a lot of time left over for deep immersion in science, and there's rarely (if ever) an independent research experience. Instead, you get a little of this, a little of that, and not much to attract an employer to hire you as a scientist. That's the point of course: The balance is intentionally slanted toward a different set of skills.

A lot of PSM holders are happy. “You have to take a degree like this because it's something you want to complete for your own growth,” says Phil, a PSM graduate who is now a hiring manager. “I think it should be marketed specifically to people already working, or wanting to work, in industry, for jobs like project management, sales, technical service, or marketing.”

PSM alternatives

The main point I wish to make about the PSM, however, is that alternatives exist that are better known by employers, don't take as long, and are cheaper. They may not do everything a PSM degree will do, but they cover the most important missing elements -- and some of them leave time to do other things, like a Ph.D. Here's a tiny sample:

  • A Master’s in Regulatory Science or Regulatory Affairs: For those with regulatory affairs interest, this degree positions you nicely. Schools like the University of Washington, Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, and the University of Southern California market these programs as add-on degrees for science graduates. They generally will set you back $20,000 to $30,000, total. Such programs are a known quantity for employers and place you at the forefront of a rapidly growing field. Other specialized master's degree programs exist, like the “Masters in Management of Drug Development.” I know nothing about the value of that degree, but it's worth investigating.
  • Bioprocess Technology Certificate or Associates Degree: These are from community colleges around the country, such as the excellent program at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa. A Ph.D. may give you great research experience, but few programs give you the hands-on experience with production bioprocessing equipment you can get in a course like this one. And certificate programs can be cheap and short.

Just last week, in an article in Science Careers, Cliff Mintz described some other alternatives, including biotechnology Ph.D. programs and certificate programs all over the country.


Internships have long been available to savvy undergrads. But did you know that there are internships specifically for graduate students?

Large companies such as Genentech, Kraft Foods, and Procter & Gamble (P&G) offer internships that allow graduate students to supplement their academic education with industry exposure. Maisha Gray-Diggs, a doctoral recruiting manager at P&G who is based in Cincinnati, Ohio, believes that these internship programs are essentially hidden; they are “often one of a company’s best-kept secrets.” Gray-Diggs says that most applicants for the internships are international students. “They seem to be able to find us and get applications in, but domestic students are much rarer. ... We actually have to promote the program with professors in order to turn up applicants.” In some cases, the company will fund the master’s or Ph.D. work of their interns, provided they make a commitment to work at P&G for part of the time they're in school.

I was surprised that this seemingly traditional consumer products company, P&G, hires so many life scientists. “Seventy-five percent of our Ph.D. hires over the last year have been from the life sciences,” Gray-Diggs says.

Industry postdocs

An industry postdoc is a classic way to customize your training and add hot buttons to your CV. For the scientist, a good industry postdoc offers an excellent indoctrination to company culture and practice. It also helps you build your network of contacts at companies. It offers the employer a chance to see if a scientist can make the transition to that culture.

But before you jump into starting another postdoc, make sure you’ve given the full-time employment option your best shot. Another postdoc -- even in industry -- should never be your first choice.

While we're on the subject of postdocs: What about doing another academic postdoc? Best not to, if you can help it. “Our company would have no problem hiring a Ph.D. graduate directly from their graduate program, but the culture in the life sciences makes that difficult,” says Gray-Diggs. “It’s difficult now to hire a Ph.D. in the life sciences who hasn’t had multiple postdocs.” P&G, by the way, has an industry postdoc program.

How do you find an industry postdoc, or an internship, that works for you? Find a company you're interested in working for -- and ask them.

Doing it on the cheap

Shannon Strom, an associate director of regulatory affairs at Pearl Therapeutics in Raleigh, North Carolina, decided to pursue the Regulatory Affairs certificate offered by the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society to help her find a job in regulatory affairs. Real life intervened and she had to type “in progress” on her CV. That was good enough.

“It’s funny, but just having shown that interest on my CV was enough to catch the eye of the right people,” Strom says. Her easy transition to industry illustrates a less time-consuming and inexpensive method of separating yourself from the pack: Get a little extra training, whether it is a course on finance for the non-finance professional or coursework only (not a full certificate) from a community college program on bioprocessing. There is a huge volume of distance education available on many topics; an appropriate online course might send the right message to a prospective employer for a certain type of job.

Is a gesture like this toward an industry-specific skill going to carry the weight and credibility of a degree like the PSM or one of the other master’s programs, or even a special certificate? No, but it may be just enough to set you apart from the other academic-credentialed scientists in the pile of industry applicants. And that may be what matters most to you at this stage of your job search.

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