Science gets the interview,
but you get the job

A perspective from a hiring manager in industry
Melissa Starovasnik
By Melissa Starovasnik
Sept. 1, 2012

As a biochemist and leader of a large function at Genentech, I often am asked by graduate students and postdocs, “What are good strategies for getting jobs in industry?” Yet I am no expert. I have solicited only one industry job for myself, a postdoc position that put my foot in the door at Genentech, where I have continued my career for the past 19 years.

Nevertheless, over that time, I have been involved in the hiring for hundreds of positions at every level from research assistant to senior director. So I will offer my advice from the perspective of the hiring manager looking for top talent and share common pitfalls. As challenging as those new on the job market find it to break in and be seen, we too find it exceedingly difficult to identify and recruit great candidates, so let’s help each other!

Be seen with four C’s

Four main mechanisms are available to help you be seen by the hiring manager:

  1. curriculum vitae,
  2. cover letter,
  3. colleagues or network, and
  4. communication of your distinguishing characteristics.

The way in which you communicate how and why you are qualified for the position is of utmost importance. The goal is to convey your accomplishments to differentiate yourself from others in a compelling fashion. As your CV plays a crucial role in communicating your expertise and accomplishments, you should tailor it along with the cover letter to the specific job opening and company. While you may be open to a variety of opportunities, the manager reading through hundreds of CVs is looking for specific criteria relevant to his or her opening, so try to make that pop.

Have several colleagues review all application documents before submission to ensure they are formatted properly, read well and include no misleading information or typos. (And offer to do the same for them!) You may be surprised how often a simple mistake in your CV will be interpreted as a lack of attention to detail and put you out of the running before your application gets serious attention.

Always submit materials to the online application system, but also use your network to help identify the likely hiring manager or department head and send your CV and cover letter directly to him or her. If you are unsure who the department head is, consider sending it to the person you think may hold that position and ask him or her to pass the materials along to the appropriate hiring manager.

Baseline scientific requirements are essential

For every opening, there is the expectation of specific technical/scientific skills and experience, so make sure evidence of the necessary expertise is clear in your application. If your most important work is still in preparation or under revision for publication, include a credible description of the key findings and your role in achieving them so that your work is not immediately disregarded as a pipe dream. Ideally, your adviser will provide a quick follow-up reference to the hiring manager validating the nature of your work and contributions and the status of the impending paper(s) to ensure your application will have a chance of more serious consideration.

Alternatively, for competitive research positions, your job pursuit will be much more productive if you hold off applications until your best work is in press. As you only get your first industry job once, you should start your career trajectory on as strong a footing as possible.

Science gets the interview, but you get the job

Given that there are usually too many applicants who have the baseline requirements, the one who ultimately gets the job likely has additional soft skills: passion, flexibility, leadership potential and communication.

As managers, we look for self-motivated individuals who are passionate about what they do. Just as important, though, is a willingness to be flexible and adapt to changing environments. In most industry settings, teamwork and collaboration are critical, so evidence of good communication, leadership and people skills will be helpful in distinguishing yourself among candidates with similar training and expertise. Go after jobs that will inspire you, and many of these traits will come more naturally.

I also would caution ambitious people to avoid the pitfall of assuming they should aim only for higher titles or for the ability to rise quickly in an organization. Instead, focus more on thoroughly embracing each step. Those who relish their work each day tend to be the ones who find or, more likely, create opportunities that ultimately propel their advancement. So relax and enjoy yourself. (And, if you are not having fun, it’s better to recognize this early and change course.)

Common misperceptions

Many candidates have mistakenly confessed during interviews for research positions that they are “more interested in the business side or management.” If that is true of you, then you should not be pursuing research positions. We indeed conduct rigorous experimental science in industry! Nevertheless, there are other roles that would benefit from science-trained applicants. Thus, if never touching a pipette again is your preference, make sure you are interviewing for the right jobs! In smaller companies, you will find that nearly everyone pitches in on various aspects of research and business, making the lines more blurred. However, in major pharmaceutical companies, if you are not interested in doing science, you typically need to look beyond the research organization for job opportunities.

Beyond the bench: many science-related jobs in industry

Most are stunned by the numerous important and exciting roles outside of the research organization within a pharmaceutical company where science training is highly valued. These include jobs within product development, project management, clinical operations, commercial strategy, market planning, manufacturing, process development, regulatory affairs, patent law and business development.

In such roles, successful candidates will have sufficient understanding of the science behind their projects and business opportunities to navigate various landscapes effectively. In many cases, additional training may be required to enhance skills not emphasized during graduate school, so assess carefully the job requirements and consider additional coursework to gain the necessary skills and demonstrate your commitment to your new career.

What if you don’t know what you want to do? Go to conferences and job fairs, pursue internships or temporary work, or find other ways to interact with folks who work in various roles in industry — and ask questions!

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Melissa Starovasnik
Melissa Starovasnik

Melissa A. Starovasnik is vice president of protein sciences, overseeing the antibody engineering, protein chemistry and structural biology departments in the Genentech research organization.

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