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Looking to 2021 with industry in mind

Courtney Chandler
Dec. 11, 2020

2020 has been unprecedented in countless ways, and looking toward 2021 has been one coping mechanism I've used. Next year will bring many changes. For some, there will be dissertation defenses and graduations. For others, it will mean taking the leap and making a career transition. (Hopefully, we'll have widespread distribution of a safe, effective vaccine against SARS-CoV-2.) If your plans involve a career in industry, I hope this column will continue to serve as a source of information.

I did a lot of interviews with researchers and other professionals in industry this year, and I am glad to have been able to share their insights with you. Instead of another interview today (don’t worry, I will have more first-person accounts of industry jobs soon), below are some highlights and key takeaways from my column in 2020.

On careers in industry

I covered only a small fraction of the jobs available in the biotech, biopharma and general research industry this year. The versatility of job types, even within a single field or company, makes industry full of opportunity.

You may think of research and development (R&D) jobs as the typical jobs available to scientists in industry, and it’s important to know that they are extremely varied. If you want hands-on experience with scientific projects and data, while working with clients, a job on the development side of R&D may be for you. It involves less time at the bench and more time in a managerial role, but you’re still directly involved in project progress.

R&D roles do make up a significant portion of jobs for scientists in industry, but they are by no means the only ones out there. Industry has ample job opportunities on the business, marketing and regulatory sides as well. This year alone, I wrote about positions in regulatory affairs and profiled technology specialists and account executives about their positions and how they got there. Kendra Seckinger, associate program manager of regulatory affairs at Genentech, for example, told me about her transition from graduate school into regulatory affairs and how her first year on the job went.

The food and beverage industry also needs scientific researchers. My most colorful article this year was about the researchers who create natural colors for foods. The food and beverage industry has both job variety and stability, and the field is growing. I will cover it more next year. (Have you read Laurel Oldach’s excellent feature about the biochemistry of a burger in ASBMB Today? Yeah, the alt-meat industry has continued to grow and heavily relies on scientists.)

Lastly, remember that you don’t have to limit yourself to what’s already out there. If you have an idea for a product or technology, don’t be afraid to start your own company, like Sage Aronson did during graduate school. He’s now the CEO of startup Neurophotometrics and gave great advice for how to get your idea off the ground.

On preparing for the job market

One of the first things to do when planning to apply for an industry job is take a good hard look at your résumé. So many of the people I’ve talked to over the past year have emphasized this point — a solid résumé and cover letter combo is key to landing the industry position you want. Tailoring your résumé is a critical first step, because industry résumés don’t look like academic CVs.

Earlier this year, Michael Matrone, associate director of the Office of Career and Professional Development at the University of California, San Francisco, gave his top tips and tricks for reworking your résumé for industry. It’s a great place to start, especially if you’re still using a CV (tip No. 1: don’t) or if you want guidelines to use while sending out applications. 

When you’re applying and interviewing, it’s also important to make sure you highlight what makes you unique. Diverse backgrounds, perspectives and training yield creativity and ingenuity that are critical to driving industry forward. Cherié Butts, medical director and head of clinical assessments in digital and quantitative medicine at Biogen in Massachusetts, spoke to me earlier this year about just that. She talked about embracing diversity in industry and how important it is to have a variety of people with different backgrounds and experiences involved in decision-making processes. Not only will this help teams come up with creative solutions to problems, but it will also make sure patients or customers from all backgrounds are taken into consideration.

If you’re on the fence about whether a career in industry, I understand. It’s a hard decision to make. I recommend Brandon Anjuwon–Foster’s honest account of how time, place and pay influenced his decision to leave his postdoc at the National Institutes of Health and pursue a career in industry. Also stay tuned for future articles about internship opportunities that can help give you experience.

(Mostly) universal truths

There are some things that so many interviewees mentioned that it wouldn’t be fair to just point to one single article. These are summarized below and should be taken into consideration if you’re thinking of a career in industry. Of course, there are many different kind of jobs spread across industry, and these may not apply to all of them, so keep that caveat in mind too.

Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork: Virtually everyone talked about the importance of teamwork in industry. At the bench, in a managerial role, or outside of R&D altogether, you will likely be working with numerous other people within and possibly outside of your company. Go into industry expecting this type of highly collaborative environment. When looking at your résumé, try to identify projects during which you demonstrated your ability to work with or lead a team; these interpersonal skills will be important, and recruiters/hiring managers will probably keep an eye out for them.

Salary: Salary greatly varies between position, company and location, but it typically is higher than what you get in academia as a postdoc or early-career researcher. This isn’t true for all positions, and it’s a good idea to ask about salary during the interview process regardless. Also, your salary probably won’t depend on securing outside funding through grants or other means. However, you may be required to meet certain quotas or goals, especially if you’re in an account executive or technology specialist role. As how compensation works during the interview.

Your training isn’t everything: Don’t let your scientific background prevent you from applying for industry positions. Even if you don’t think any of your past research experience is relevant, the general skills you’ve learned (critical thinking, data analysis, organization) are still critical and marketable. You don’t need to have the exact scientific background or skill that a job description calls for, so don’t limit yourself in that regard.

It’s never too late: You can always make the transition into industry, so don’t think that you’re too far into academia or your career of choice. The skills and fields you’ve mastered throughout your career will be valuable assets in industry positions, and you don’t have to start at entry-level positions if your experience outmatches it. It’s never too late to apply!

With that, thanks for following along for all we’ve had to offer this year! See you in 2021 with more stories, interviews and advice on all things industry!

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Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a biochemist and microbiologist in Baltimore, Md., and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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