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Excerpts from ESOF 2016: get a job in industry

Sarah Blackford, Academic and science career consultant

ESOF 2016

What better way for PhD students and researchers to find out how to get a job in industry than to ask employers and careers adviser professionals directly? In a face-to-face 'Question Time' career session during the ESOF 2016 conference last July, the 'Fish Bowl' format of 'Life after a PhD' enabled participants to do just that. With a line-up of speakers from six European countries, representing large and small international companies, recruitment and career professional agencies, including ABG, the audience was in good hands.

Speakers: Dr James Brosnan, The Scotch Whisky Research Institute (UK), Jakob Wolter, Novo Nordisk (Denmark), Dr Martin C. Michel, Boehringer Ingelheim Pharma GmbH & Co. KG (Germany), Dr Tina Persson, Talent Attraction (Sweden), Bérénice Kimpe, ABG (France), Dr Laurence Theunis, Doctorate.be (Belgium). Chair: Sarah Blackford, Society for Experimental Biology (UK).

About the author: Sarah Blackford is a qualified higher education careers adviser specialising in supporting PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. See her blog for more information


How important is networking to get a job in industry? This question produced a response from our employers that came as a shock to the >100-strong audience: “Up to 90% of jobs are secured through networking”, they agreed. “Don’t rely on advertised positions as this will severely restrict your exposure to the job market, and avoid ‘send us an email’ invitations on websites”, advised Tina Persson, who once found over 6000 CVs in one of these ‘Black hole’ email boxes! According to Jakob Wolter, it’s best to avoid the CEO and target middle managers when networking or writing speculatively. This was backed up by James Brosnan, who stressed the need to develop personal connections via social media or during face-to-face meetings and events. “You should spend at least 50% of your time speaking to people during conferences”, he recommended. “Swap names and details, and make sure you follow up afterwards with a polite email to reinforce your new connections”.

Overcoming barriers

Leaving academia can be a tough decision, with many obstacles to overcome such as not knowing what the new work environment will be like, and dealing with supervisors who have a negative impression about members of their group moving into industry. How can you negotiate these hurdles and smooth your passage out of academia and into industry? Bérénice Kimpe recommended meeting professionals, including alumni from your own institution, either in person or online through networks such as LinkedIn, who have already made this transition. “Don’t be afraid to ask personal questions”, she said. “Ask them what they like and dislike most about their job, whether they have any regrets, for example”. But how do you make a successful transition? “The process can be difficult, especially at the start”, said Jakob Wolter. “You need to match up to the profile of the employer, so think in incremental steps. You may not get your ideal job to begin with, but if you think ahead to what your next move will be, you will get nearer to securing your ideal position.”

As for dealing with negative impressions from your supervisor, the speakers had some strong advice to offer, with Laurence Theunis going so far as to suggest that introducing policy guidelines and recommendations for supervisors might help to deal with sometimes difficult situations and conversations. “Communication is the key,” said Tina Persson. “You need to understand your Principal Investigator’s situation as well as your own. Their mission is to take care of their career by publishing, yours is to take care of your own career by starting your exit preparation early rather than leaving it to the last minute." This argument was supported by Martin C. Michel, reminding everyone that “Chance favours the prepared mind”, and James Brosnan, who advised them to recall that their supervisor is only human – as your "academic parent" they have your life planned out for you; some are switched on, but others are ignorant of the real science that happens outside of academia, when it’s not outside of their own lab! 

Doing it right

The question “What are the most common mistakes PhD-qualified applicants are making when they apply to industry?” was met with a keen reply from James: “Newly minted PhDs, who might be world experts in something obscure like broccoli, sometimes expect industry people to see their brilliance. However, you will be starting again. The company will be filled with all sorts of people, some of whom have been doing the job for 30 years and have seen new PhDs before – learn how to get people on your side, learn how to listen at the initial stage. Realise that your PhD is the beginning to your career, not an end.” Jakob Wolter recommended finding a mentor who’s not part of your supervisory line of command to help you to reflect on your options and decisions, saying: “your own supervisor is great for certain things but not your ‘alternative’ career as s/he may see it as a conflict of interest.” 


Is having a PhD a ‘negative’ for employers who will consider you to be over-qualified, thus leading some PhD-qualified job seekers to believe it should be left off of their CV? “It’s true that employers need to find a match between the person and the job”, commented Jakob, “and if the applicant appears to be over-qualified for, say, an administrative job, I wouldn’t hire them as their profile would not correspond to the role.” However, if you have developed specialist skills and interests during your PhD, you should highlight these over your PhD project to demonstrate your relevance to the post. One thing everyone was in agreement about though: “never leave your PhD off your CV or deny its existence!” This fact was reinforced by Bérénice, who stressed the need to use a different CV matched to each job showing that you have chosen an industry career because you want to, not because it’s a fall back, adding that a common mistake is for people to use an academic CV for an industry job.

Presenting yourself positively

“PhDs come with a whole range of specialities and soft skills, so how does one distinguish oneself when applying for jobs?” This question prompted a number of excellent tips and advice from our speakers:

  1. make sure you match your application to the job specification – do the simple things right; follow the instructions, read the job advert. Remember, the employer is putting a job advert out there because they have a problem, something that needs to be done. You should present yourself as someone who can solve that problem.
  2. if you’re asked to give a presentation as part of an interview, the panel doesn’t want someone who speaks for 45 minutes on their PhD, rather than the 15 mins specified, such as on your wider interests. “Demonstrate that you are ready to embrace the idea of moving into our industry – even if it’s just reading about it or visiting a distillery”, advised James Brosnan, who is the leading researcher at Scotch Whisky Research Institute.
  3. have a good attitude. The selection panel will ask themselves, “Do we like this person? Will they fit in?” What you know is important, but you’ve got to work in a team so they need to know that you will be someone people can work with. Jakob and Martin emphasised this further: “It’s harder to convince an employer you can do the job the further away it is from your research ‘comfort zone’, such as clinical trials management or medical writing. Every CV says I’m a great team player, communicator, etc. You need to give me specific examples, show maturity, robustness and self-awareness; for the rest we can train you”.
  4. “don’t think you can do everything,” advised Tina. “You need to fish out an area of what you want to do and them ‘package yourself’ so you can sell your qualities in a specific and focused way.” Bérénice recommended applicants use examples of competency skills from their own career history and make use of tools such as S.T.A.R. and mydocpro.org, whilst Laurence highlighted the fact that although experience and skills can be learned and developed, personality and motivation for the job will be the ultimate deal clinchers.
  5. internships, student summer vacation jobs, collaboration, industry-funded projects – all of these activities will show you have a degree of understanding and commitment towards industry. The recruiter will spend less than 10 seconds scanning your CV so you need to show proof of your qualities and experience in a succinct way. “Imagine I’m reading 100 CVs”, said Martin. “If I don’t see the information in the first page then I will not bother reading the rest. Focus on the things that matter. Leave out certain things if they don’t matter. Keep it short and sweet.”

  6. be aware of having other profiles such as LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter, Facebook, etc. You will be ‘googled’ by your prospective employer so make sure they are up to date or have appropriate privacy settings. 

To wrap it up, here are the top-notch tips from the session:

  • Bérénice Kimpe: “Be proactive and network with as many people as possible outside of your familiar environment.”
  • Jakob Wolter: “Provide proof of what you can do. Ask yourself, “What can I deliver in order to get through that first applicant screening process?” Then, when you get to interview, you can wow people with your brilliant personality!”
  • Laurence Theunis: “Know what you want and connect with people outside of academia.”
  • Martin C. Michel: “If anyone in here has a bioscience degree/PhD and you fail to get our email addresses you have failed this session!”
  • Tina Persson: “Don’t hesitate to ask for help – help someone to help you to catch your dream!”
  • James Brosnan: “All PhD projects are a great training in so many different skills and at this moment in time you have a freedom to take on the world that you will never have again, so don’t narrow yourself down at this point to some precise thing. Look at the world of work, maybe inside or outside of science – keep an open mind and find out what feels right for you.”

If you found these words of advice useful in a personal way, don't leave the page just yet and try to do this little exercise (10 minutes): write down three practical things that you will now do to progress your career, whatever your dreams may be.

ESOF  The European Science Open Forum is a biennial conference organised by Euroscience. ESOF 2016 took place in Manchester, UK and next meeting in 2018 will be held in Toulouse, France (9th-14th July)