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Learn the rules of the road to land that industry job

When I give talks at universities about industry hiring, I always start out with a few “shake ‘em up” comments intended to show the audience that, in the job market, things are not always what they seem. One of my favorites is asking how they think companies fill jobs. Like the majority of audience members, you might raise your hand when I suggest “internet job applications” as the most frequent avenue.

But I go on to tell them—and you—that’s not the case. Most hiring managers I know consider the material that comes in off the internet to be chaff. The real gold comes in with some preliminary vetting, for example via employee referrals, networking, and headhunters. You can submit all the online applications you want; if you don’t also connect with people and cultivate relationships, your chances of landing that industry job are slim.

Understanding this and other “rules” of the job search game is key to success. Each sector has its own rulebook, and I can’t cover it all here. But I can provide a framework for thinking about these rulebooks and cover a few industry basics to get you started. 

Three types of rules

Years ago, I attended a lecture given by Michael Zigmond, a neuroscience professor at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. Zigmond told us that he believes there are three categories of rules we come across in our work lives. The specifics of the rules differ depending on where you work, but Zigmond’s categories hold true regardless.

“First off,” he said, “there are rules that are true and which deserve that distinction.” The example he gave for academia is that “research equals experiments plus publications.” That’s how it works, and it’s how it should work, he said.

“Another type of rule,” he continued, “is one which is true, but which shouldn’t be.” In academia, an example of this type of rule is that researchers should always have preliminary data when submitting proposals. It doesn’t necessarily make sense—how can you get preliminary data if you don’t have funding to do the research?—but it’s the way things are, and successful academics figure out how to follow it.

“Lastly,” Zigmond said, “some rules are not true but should be.” The academic example that Zigmond offered for this category is that good teaching is essential for getting promoted. I certainly agree with Zigmond—that one should be true. But, in many cases, particularly at large research institutions, it simply isn’t. So, what do you do if you’re a good teacher who wants to move up the academic ladder? You need to acknowledge that your teaching prowess may not be enough to get you where you want to be—but, with some creativity and persistence, it’s possible that you could work the system to make the rule true in your case. It’s all about knowing the rules and figuring out what you can—and can’t—do to make them work for you.

You’re probably pretty familiar with the rules of academia and could add your own examples for each of Zigmond’s category. In fact, if you’re interested in an academic career I encourage you to do just that to help provide some perspective and clarity about what the job entails and how it gets done. Those of you thinking about industry careers, on the other hand, will need to learn a whole new rulebook.

The rules of industry

Remember Zigmond’s first example for academia, “research equals experiments plus publications”? In a company, that rule has a small but crucial difference: “Research equals experiments plus products.” If you work at a well-run research organization, you will probably be able to publish your work at some point. But the much more important piece is developing research applications, usually in the form of products.

As an industry job seeker, it’s crucial that you’re aware of this difference. At a company, there is no job offer for the scientist who shows up with a primary focus on publications! To land the job, you must understand the industry rulebook—not the academic one. These industry career rules, indexed into Zigmond’s three categories, will help you on your way.

Rules that are true and should be

  • “Good communication skills are essential for success in any job.”

As I recently found myself sorting through hundreds of CVs submitted in response to a client’s job ad, I quickly came to the conclusion that the best way to sort through them was to prioritize those who could write and present themselves well. Then, after a phone screening meant to sort them out based on their science, my cut ended up once again based on how well they communicated. It’s not that technical skills don’t matter, but they pack a lot less punch when they’re not explained well. Good communication skills are mentioned in more than half of job ads, and insiders know that this is more than just standard language from human resources.

  • “Industry job success requires experience with teamwork.”

While independence rules in academia, in industry it is interdependence that is the name of the game. For example, the biologists and chemists who develop a new drug work closely with the engineers who scale it up and turn it into a product, and both those groups rely on regulatory and clinical professionals to get it to patients. “Teamwork” is more than a buzzword in industry; it’s a way of life. So, whether you are working on a job application or networking at a scientific meeting, always keep in mind that you need to present your major accomplishments from both a “We do this” and an “I do this” perspective. Talking about your accomplishments in this way will show that you function well as part of a team and give credit to others while also highlighting your personal contributions and (appropriately) tooting your own horn.

Rules that are true even though they should not be

  • “The best interviewers are the ones who get the job offer.”

No matter how good your science is, you need interviewing skills to win the job offer. Certain people play that game very well and others, well, just don’t “get” the concepts at work on interview day. If you’re a bit squeamish about interviewing, focus on preparing a really good job talk and practice it until you can give it in your sleep. These typically come first thing in the day, and there’s no better confidence booster than knowing that you impressed them with your presentation.

  • “It takes a 50-plus hour work week to be a success in science.”

In science (both academia and industry), the “normal” 40-hour week was replaced long ago by early morning meetings, evening work, and weekends in the office or lab. I don’t encourage anyone to overwork themselves, which can lead to burnout and ultimately hurt productivity. Still, it’s important to recognize that many employers will expect you to work 50 or more hours per week. Where does that leave you? When you’re applying for jobs, find out as much as you can about employees’ work-life balance and take that into account when deciding whether a potential job is right for you. A big part of your fit with an employer depends on what the company expects out of your work week and how much it values the rest of your life. Going in with your eyes open about that is a good first step.

Rules that are not true but should be

  • “Good science sells itself.”

I’ve heard this has been passed along by many well-intentioned academics: “Don’t worry about a job. It will come. Just focus on doing good science.” Sure, maybe that should be true—but in industry, you must be able to communicate your strengths and talk about what you are good at. Good science alone isn’t going to get you the job. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully it will help set you on the right course. By learning all three types of rules—and how they differ from one sector to the other—you can manage the move from the academic lab to an industry job.

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