Industry insiders give tips on how to apply for a job in industry, what to expect during the interview and how to maximize your chances of landing a position.
When applying for a job in industry, “it’s a given that you are an expert,” says Jonathan Jacobs, a staff scientist and recent hire at MedImmune Inc. “It’s the other things that are important in the decision on a hire.” As an expert in bioinformatics and molecular genetics, Jacobs was headhunted by MedImmune for his combination of skills and knowledge. Even so, his selection for the job included several interviews and took a number of months. “Some [people] on the hiring committee were unsure of my prospects in industry,” recalls Jacobs. “Apparently I had already spent too much time in academia.” He was only partway through his second postdoctoral position.
Jacobs’ experience reflects a divide that exists between academia and industry based on a perception of the type and quality of science each produces and the type of scientist each must then attract. One important difference between academic and industry-based research is that projects are shared between collaborators within a company. “You can’t monopolize a project,” says Jacobs. “Staff scientists aren’t dependent on first authorships for their standing among peers and further funding, but they must be able to meet project milestones and move projects forward. This is where collaborations come in.”
Although working toward project milestones may sound boring and not very creative, Jacobs is very enthusiastic about the industry work culture. “You work on a number of projects – I’m currently involved in five – and you get to work with different people who bring their own specialist viewpoint to bear on the problem. It’s very dynamic.”
Getting Your Foot in the Door
According to Jacobs, an early entry into the private industry job market is important. He advises starting a job search for an entry level staff scientist position when you are tidying up your doctorate rather than at the end of your first postdoctoral fellowship. Many larger pharmaceutical and biotech companies also are now developing their own postdoctoral programs. For example, MedImmune is about to rollout a postdoctoral program for next year. “We may have up to 16 positions available,” says Jan Popp, director of project management and business operations at MedImmune.
Once you’ve identified some companies to apply for, “there are definite strategies applicants can undertake to snare an interview,” says Popp. “Do not apply for every position the company advertises – stick to those that require your specialist knowledge. Write a resume, not a CV, write it to the job description, and keep it short – three or four pages – including references. Describe, in point form, how you are able to meet the requirements of the position. Use key words, as hiring managers will use these for the initial screening, and always use active language. Where possible, incorporate management experience, whether project, financial, people, time, etc., and be certain to highlight skills involving oral and written communication, collaboration and teamwork. Don’t write about your hobbies or personal goals.”
“Also, recruiters look for industry experience,” says Popp. “Internships in industry during your undergraduate studies or having industry scientists involved in your projects or thesis can highlight connections and experience with industry.”
Another piece of advice: if the company you’re applying to is publicly-traded, call its investor relations office and ask for a copy of its prospectus – the document provides an incredible wealth of information.
“The first phone conversation is a screen that may result in an invitation to a formal interview,” says Popp. “You must be prepared for it. In the past, I have decided not to proceed with an applicant based on this first conversation. You must be clear and concise and able to think on your feet. Practice talking about yourself, but not in the sense of a biography. You need to be able to describe your skills and knowledge and how you apply them. Practice this with friends over lunch or whenever time is available. Get them to ask you questions about what you do and how you do it. This is something you should be relaxed with; it shouldn’t be presented as if by rote.”
The successful phone screen usually is followed by several one-on-one interviews with a panel. “Don’t feel weird just because you are better dressed than members of the interview panel,” says Popp. “If you don’t know what to wear, then look at what people in the public eye are wearing. News presenters and politicians are generally good role models in this respect.”
You also will be asked to give a seminar on your research work to a broader company audience. Jacobs gave a seminar in each of his interviews. “Have a polished and practiced seminar ready,” advised Popp. “And make sure you tell a story rather than just present a bunch of data. Also, do mock interviews. Practice.”
“As well as being able to express yourself, you also must show that you have good listening skills,” says Popp. “These things are important because they relate to your ability to collaborate, to work effectively with colleagues. And, lastly, have questions prepared that you can ask the panel. Being able to ask about the company and the job, rather than just the work conditions, gives you an opportunity to demonstrate some knowledge of the company and interest in the work it does.”
To increase your chances of an interview, Jacobs emphasized the importance of networking. “Prepare a professional-looking business card and introduce yourself to other delegates at conferences, workshops and industry exhibitions. Be proactive.”
When Jacobs was headhunted for his current position, a recruiter contacted him after reading his resume on LinkedIn. “My qualifications and experience matched what was required for a position at MedImmune,” explained Jacobs. “It’s a good strategy to post your experience and qualifications online using sites such as LinkedIn. Recruiters check these sites constantly. I had set up my LinkedIn page while a postdoc. Once it’s set up, it simply works in the background for you.” When asked what he placed on the LinkedIn page, he replied that it was basically his CV, minus his publications list, but with an emphasis on his technical experience and knowledge.
Starting a career in private industry can seem somewhat overwhelming without some structured guidance, but many universities and research institutions offer career and training resources.
“We alert our fellows as early as possible, at orientation, to the career training and counseling options available to them at the National Institutes of Health,” says Lori Conlan, director of postdoctoral services at the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education. “We develop new training packages and rotate our program from year to year. The workshops cover a variety of career related questions and are videocast and archived at www.training.nih.gov for the public to view. Many other academic institutions also will have career training and counseling programs, so look at your home institution as well.
“Our annual highlight is the NIH Career Symposium that offers a series of panel discussions on a variety of careers in science,” says Conlan. “More than 1,000 people attended this year’s symposium on the Bethesda campus in April. Also, every two months we bring a representative from a different company onto the campus to talk about recruitment opportunities with that company. These sessions are split between a 45-minute information session and a 45-minute networking session. This is a more intimate setting than at a career fair and gives postdocs an opportunity to ask specific questions about the company and careers there.”
With only about 8 percent of today’s postdoctoral scientists attaining tenure track academic positions, and with federal agencies now relying more on contract labor, private industry represents the future for many young scientists-in-training. Early career scientists seeking industry positions need to market themselves appropriately and highlight any professional competencies they posses that are desired by industry.
Tertius de Kluyver (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an adjunct professor of biology and environmental science at Hood College.