Tips for going into a career
outside of academia

Published May 01 2017

Woman in interview

When I was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, I moved to complete my dissertation research with a co-mentor at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It was wonderful to experience another university and to see a beautiful part of the country. However, I felt isolated from career-development resources and opportunities, as I was not officially a student at UA. As I neared graduation, I was curious about careers in industry. I applied to positions but to no avail. It wasn’t until a few years later, during my postdoctoral research, that I learned much more about how to apply effectively and do a job interview.

I am now a scientist at PRA Health Sciences, a contract research organization, as well as a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education and Professional Development Committee. I have some tips that I hope fellow scientists, especially those early in their careers or without many career-planning resources, will find helpful.

Before the interview

Tip 1: Develop a strong résumé.

Before you get your dream job, you must apply! One of the most useful career seminars I attended featured a successful and well-paid science businesswoman who started as a dog-food tester. You can and should honestly and openly explain the details of your job experience at the interview. However, you must first get to the interview through word-search software programs and human resource personnel who may not have a science background. Instead of listing “dog-food tester,” the businesswoman listed the experience as “research associate” on her résumé. When all that represents you initially is words, words matter.

Another tip is to keep your résumé to no more than two pages and have someone review your résumé, such as someone in your university’s career services department or a guest speaker on resume writing. Come with your resume printed. Are you running out of room on your résumé? The C.E.O. of a huge company told me that few outside of academia focus on publications, so include only publications that are directly applicable to the job for which you’re applying.

Lastly, employ SMART goals when writing your résumé. SMART stands for specific, measureable, actionable, relevant and time-bound. Utilizing SMART goals is an excellent way to be concise and informative about your experiences. For example, you could write “designed experiments and wrote protocols during grad school.” Or, you could write, “created and implemented seven research plans about bone-marrow transplants that contributed significantly to three federally funded grants each worth over $40,000 over the course of two years.” The latter is more specific, measureable, relevant and time-bound and shows you attained something. Using SMART goals as a guide will make your résumé bullet points much stronger.

Tip 2: Get leadership experience.

There are endless leadership opportunities for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars that will help you stand out to future employers. For example, you could take a leadership role (or establish one) in your university’s postdoctoral association or graduate student organization. Or you could start a diversity and equity committee within your postdoctoral association. These are just some ideas to help your local community while gaining leadership experience.

Tip 3: Seek professional career counseling.

Career counselors give you structure to think constructively through your strengths and goals and formulate a strategy, and they also can help you to connect your job to your other life goals. They are especially helpful in preparing for career transitions, interviews and job negotiations.

Getting the interview

Tip 1: When in doubt, dress to impress.

Business formal attire, such as a black pants or dress suit, is recommended for most research position interviews in industry. Dressing appropriately shows that you take the interview seriously and can be professional.

Tip 2: Think of how you’ll answer questions.

Remember it’s not just about your technical knowledge. The company also is looking for a decent colleague and team member — someone they would want to work with.

If you are asked what your greatest weakness is, don’t say that you are too passionate, too meticulous about your work or something along those lines. Be honest and show that you have thought about how to improve. For example, you could say, “I have found it difficult to communicate with people who are indirect. I have started to repeat back in my own words what they are saying in order to clarify the communication and make sure I understand them correctly.”

If you are asked to explain a time you failed, don’t tell an extremely personal sob story. They are looking for a succinct (no more than five sentences) example of how you handled and learned from the situation. For instance, “My first graduate student seminar was not successful. I was nervous, spoke haltingly, couldn’t remember my information and had spelling mistakes on the slides. Before the next presentation, I made sure to complete it in advance, practice in front of friends and colleagues and check for grammar and spelling mistakes. I learned the value of good preparation, seeking guidance and being professional. It may be a small thing, but it has made all the difference.”

If they really throw you a curve ball and you have no idea how to answer, don’t panic. You can start an answer with, “Well, I have never been in that situation, but if I were, this is how I would handle it …”

When your interviewer asks if you have questions, make sure you do. Prepare these in advance, but don’t ask about salary just yet. The following are a few examples of good questions to ask at your interviews: 1) When is the last time an employee failed to meet a deadline, and how did you handle it? 2) What led you to work at this company? 3) If I want to transition to a position with x, y and z opportunities, is in-house training available, or do you have continuing-education benefits?

Lastly, if you have a perfect interview, you will be the first person in history to do so. Just do your best. Prepare by reading about possible questions and practicing with colleagues and the career-center staff at your university.

After the interview

Tip 1: Don’t forget to say “thank you.”

Emailing a thank-you note to the main interviewer or hiring manager after the interview will show you have good manners.

Tip 2: Bear down!

This phrase is from my Arizona days. It’s a Wildcat fight song. But it just so happens to be good life advice. There’s no stronger message you can send to yourself and others than simply working hard (bearing down) and doing your best. Sometimes, good things really do take time. Bear down in your quest for jobs with all those job applications and résumé modifications. Never give up! With a little elbow grease, your dreams will be a “when,” not an “if.”

Rita-Marie T. McFadden Rita-Marie T. McFadden is a scientist at PRA Health Sciences and a member of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee.