Making the Move from Academia to Industry

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My team at TechUSA Scientific recruits on hundreds of positions each year, and throughout the year there is an underlining requirement that most of my clients request from us; they want candidates with industry experience. I used to struggle with this because there are always dozens of technically qualified candidates coming out of academia or post docs working at NIH but my clients were never interested in interviewing them. I was frustrated and clearly so were my candidates.

As a non-scientist, but someone with 7 years of hallway knowledge and a technical curiosity, here’s what I have discovered. Academia is all about creating good science and acquiring knowledge. In academia one’s focus is on themselves, their research, their publications, and moving their science forward. Many of the most brilliant minds thrive in academia, which is an optimal environment for pushing scientific boundaries and making groundbreaking discoveries. However, the same mindset doesn’t always transfer well into an industry setting.  Working in industry isn’t just about seeking knowledge. It’s about developing a product that you can commercialize, and doing so with a budget, under strict guidelines and specific deadlines; all while collaborating with a wide range of people who are both technical and non-technical stakeholders.  It’s a much more complex and dynamic environment, which is in many ways contrary to the academic norm.  “You have to be adaptable and prepared to completely change direction if that’s what is needed.  That’s the type of attitude that we look for;” says Matt Sammons, Corporate Recruiter at United Therapeutics, “someone who sees this as a positive challenge and will say, ‘fantastic; I am ready to go after this new goal and hit the ground running’.”

Working in industry frequently requires team oriented problem solving and decision making.  This decision making will often require you to distance yourself from your work in order to make objective decisions that are best for the company, and often do so without relying on 100% of the data. There is also the political component to working on this side, which I’ve heard can be similar to some academic environments as well.  As one Process Engineer put it for me, “to work in industry you have to have the ability to tell your boss that he’s wrong, without making him feel like you’re telling him he’s wrong”. Otherwise, you need to be able to communicate effectively, pick your battles or “play the game” in order to accomplish your goals and advance your career.

I’ve realized that my client’s don’t always need industry experience; what they need is an “industry attitude”.  That’s now what I try to coach my candidates on when they are trying to make the jump to industry.  So knowing this, what will you do now to prepare yourself to obtain or portray these traits so that you too can transition effortlessly from academia into industry? My suggestions are to practice it like anything else that you do. First, practice working in groups and leading teams on both scientific and non-scientific projects. Join and lead organizations, such as the HBNWomen In BioNational Society of Black EngineersAmerican Chemical Society.  Join NIH Toastmasters to work on your communication and presentation skills.  Position yourself to mentor or teach others so that you can develop the ability to work effectively with subordinates or non-technical collaborators.  “I cannot stress on how important communication skills are,” emphasized Sammons. “We do not just hire people who will sit in the silo and do science day in and day out. We are a company that strives on open communication from top to bottom so the people we hire must show that they can thrive in this type of environment.”

Hiring managers want thinkers and problem solvers who are scientifically sound but can also collaborate effectively and accomplish tasks.  Force yourself to step away from the science from time to time to see the big picture of your work. Then, engage with a recruiter, resume writer, or mentor to convert your CV into a resume that appropriately highlights the right combination of your knowledge, skills and abilities that would be attractive to an industry hiring manager. Think about everything they are looking for, and make sure that you portray those qualities in your resume and especially in your interview.  I hope that these were some helpful tips, and that with the right preparation and practice on selling yourself the right way, you’ll be able to transition smoothly into the industry job that you’re looking for.

~Chris Frew, Tech USA Scientific

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