Contributor Bianca Marcolino
“You need to beg, borrow and steal” was the advice I was given by a Pfizer medical director on how to enter the pharmaceutical industry after graduate school. The medical director also had a Ph.D., and I had met him through a common friend. He had transitioned from academia into industry, and was personally aware of the difficulty in making the switch. It is especially challenging if you’re looking for a scientific role away from the bench. Hence, the dramatic advice that you need to do whatever it takes, get as much outside experience as you can, to land the first job post-graduate school. Having a Ph.D. is one thing, knowing how to sell it in the non-academic market is another.
My undergraduate research helped me decide that I wanted to become an independent scientist. I went to graduate school to study biology, because I loved science and wanted the training that only designing and executing experiments can offer. Towards the end of my Ph.D., I had my mid-Ph.D. crisis. Am I ever going to defend? If I manage to survive, do I want to do a postdoc afterwards? These were the questions that plagued me and probably many other Ph.D. students. In the end I couldn’t see myself doing a postdoc, and wondered what do next. Were there any suitable jobs for a Ph.D. graduate without experience outside of academia?
After countless applications and hours spend steaming my interview blazers, I am now working as a medical writer for a healthcare agency. I enjoy applying my science background towards solutions for constantly changing projects.
The best advice I can give a graduate student is to start asking yourself the hard questions regarding your career aspirations as early as possible. It’s easy to get distracted by cells that won’t fluoresce, or the latest gossip of who’s-dating-who. Contemplating what you want to do after leaving the security of school is daunting, but the earlier you decide what makes you happy, what you’re good at, and what you can see yourself doing Monday through Friday – the better equipped you will be to make the jump into a satisfying career.
Gain Experience. As a Ph.D. student you will know every nook and cranny of your research. Add to this is your knowledge of the big concepts in your field, and how to do an experimental procedure perfectly despite a hangover. But, pharma and biotech companies will want even more. They will need to know that you can perform in industry as well as in academia. Most industry jobs in which a Ph.D. is required, whether it involves bench work or not, want to see some years of work experience on an applicant’s resume. Getting an internship, a freelance position or a part-time job related to the field you want to enter will make a big difference, and can tip the scales in your favor between getting a standard HR response (“thank you for applying….there were many accomplished candidates”) or securing an interview. Here is where the “beg, borrow and steal” advice matters – get an “in” to the business.
Contact HR. You’ve submitted your application and it’s been 2 weeks with no reply. The thing about job searching is YOU have to follow up. An HR person probably receives hundreds of applications; if you email them to inquire about yours, there is a chance they will sift through the application pile, and take note of it. Following up shows your interest in the position.
Fill your inbox. There seems to be a professional group or association for every industry under the sun. Join the relevant ones, and subscribe to their newsletters. Allow your inbox to fill with the email updates from these organizations. Membership in these groups can inform you of job openings – some that won’t be advertised on larger online job boards – and industry events. I added myself to the BioSpace newsletters, a life science online community, to get job and industry news alerts. Some associations have membership fees, but there are many that are free.
Network with a capital N. I thought scientists were absolved from networking, because a good CV was all we needed to land the position. The truth is that only 18% of external hires came from applications through job boards. “Recruiters are more likely to consider referred resumes, because it makes talent sourcing easier and more reliable”, said Lam Nguyen, an HR representative at a medical device company in Irvine. Go to alumni events, professional organization meetings and company happy hours. Even a friend’s birthday party can be a networking opportunity (I’ve done this in between bites of birthday cake). LinkedIn is another valuable tool in making the necessary connections to a company.
You still have a purpose if you decide academia is not your career path. Scientists are needed in all sectors of society. If you have the right attitude and strategy, you can reach a broader audience with the impact of your scientific knowledge, critical thinking and discipline. You just need to get hired first.