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Give industry managers what they want

fish jumping into a big pond
Credit: R. Tavani / iStockphoto

There are subtle but important differences in the way work proceeds in industry, compared to academia. While the two cultures share common elements (primarily centered on the science itself), there are a number of critical differences that your education—which inevitably takes place in academia—will not prepare you for.

Consequently, as you transition from academia to industry, you’ll likely experience some bumps. Most people do. Everyone has to learn what it’s like to be a part of a company project, for example, and how to participate effectively in daily or weekly team meetings. But these are small things; once you’ve found a job in industry, you’ll adjust quickly and easily.

Tomiko knows how to adapt. She has a sense for people and what they need.

There are other cultural differences, though, that are more likely to trip you up and keep you from having the opportunity to prove yourself—differences in the pace of work, the information flow, and the way people work in teams. Perhaps the most important thing, though, is the need to be tuned in to others—to figure out what they need in real time and to know how to give it to them. If you’ve got the requisite scientific skills and can learn to do this, under job interview pressure, you’re likely to do well in industry.


Rick had prepared well for this interview, his first for an industry position. He had studied the agenda and the backgrounds of the people he’d be meeting. He knew a lot about the company. He felt prepared. Furthermore, he had already aced his two morning sessions. Next up, though, was a noon meeting with Earle Finlay, his prospective boss. He was feeling good, but he was a little nervous.

As Rick approached the conference room, his human resources (HR) escort told him that the meeting with Finlay had to be kept to 45 minutes. That wasn’t a good sign, Rick thought; originally this “working lunch” had been scheduled for an hour, so he had less time with the boss than he expected. Then the director of research walked in and sat down, talking on his cellphone. They exchanged smiles.

These small details conspired to undermine Rick’s confidence and replaced it with a case of the interview jitters. Finlay motioned for Rick to take a seat.

Rick took a moment to center himself and recall his thorough preparation. He had spent a lot of time thinking about his work experiences and how they positioned him as a scientist. He was prepared to speak eloquently and at length about any of his experiences as a postdoc in the Walling Lab, for example.

After a brief introduction, Finlay asked the first questions. “Rick, please give us a snapshot of yourself and your science. And take a few minutes and tell me what makes you a good fit for my team.”

This wasn’t what Rick was expecting. Instead of asking him to describe his experiences in detail, Finlay was asking him to sum them up and connect them with the company’s needs.

So he started talking. Despite his extensive preparation, he floundered. He felt self-conscious. He was going on too long—he knew it, but he didn’t like the silences that filled the room when he stopped talking. This most important meeting of the day was headed off in the wrong direction, but he didn’t know how to bring it back.


Tomiko put a thank-you note in the mail to Dr. Walling, who had been her Ph.D. adviser 4 years earlier at Big State University. It was nice to know that Dr. Walling had thought of her when making recommendations to her former lab mate, Earle Finlay, now at ABC Biotech.

Later, reflecting on her interview, Tomiko thought about what she had done well and what she could have done better. At the beginning of the meeting, Finlay had asked for a summary of her background and experience—he called it a “snapshot”—and how it might relate to her work for ABC Biotech. He was asking her to convince him that she was a good fit for the company and the job.

As the conversation developed, Finlay asked for more, including a surprising amount of detail about her collaborators and what each person’s role was. He also wanted to know what she had learned about communicating with other scientists, especially those from other disciplines. It didn’t take Tomiko long to realize that Finlay wasn’t looking for a recitation of Tomiko’s “greatest hits.” Instead, he wanted to understand the breakdown of the work among the members of the team she was working with—not what she achieved but what the team achieved, what her contributions were, and how her work benefitted from the contributions of others.

Once she knew what he was after, she felt comfortable. She laid out each of her career experiences in a way that seemed to satisfy Finlay. The interview might not lead to a job, Tomiko decided, but it was a valuable learning experience.

Finlay’s perspective

Finlay reviewed his notes on his last two interviews for the opening. His old colleague, Susan Walling, had recommended both candidates, and Finlay had found she had a good eye for talent. One of them was with her presently as a postdoc; she’d trained the other a few years earlier.

Finlay had asked both candidates his usual kick-off questions and found, as he had often found before, that academic candidates rarely handle it well. He wondered to himself why he kept asking those questions, but he already knew the answer: It’s an effective test of how readily people can adapt, intuitively and on the fly, to his and his team’s communication style.

Finlay was used to accomplishing a lot each day, relying on his people to match his pace and provide the succinct summaries he needs to make sound decisions. He relies on them to work together with each other and communicate to get things done.

As he reviewed his notes, Finlay worried that Rick would have trouble shaking his academic roots: His kick-off response had been long, unfocused, self-centered, and driven by examples that weren’t relevant to the company’s activities or plans. Rick obviously had spent a lot of time preparing, but he had not demonstrated that he could adapt to the team’s needs. Was it an unfair test? Maybe. It certainly is possible that Rick would have caught on quickly and become a good employee. He just didn’t seem like a safe bet.

Susan’s other recommendation, though—Tomiko—was a different story. Finlay’s conversation with her went much better. She even handled his opening “snapshot” request pretty well. Tomiko managed to give Finlay the information he wanted in more or less the form he wanted it in. She intuitively picked up on how he communicated and the pace he worked at. She, too, had done her homework: She knew what was going on in his lab. But her interview reflected more than just good preparation. Tomiko knows how to adapt. She has a sense for people and what they need.

Tomiko’s potential in a multidisciplinary team environment was also clear in her descriptions of her work. She demonstrated the communication skills needed to work well on a team. She shared credit with collaborators and spoke freely about what she had learned from them. Tomiko apparently knows how to get work done through others.

Finlay pulled out Tomiko’s CV and scribbled a note to HR at the top. They had found a winner, and he wanted to make sure they didn’t waste time in making her an offer.

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