I am very excited to soon start an industry position after the end of my post-doc period. In this post I want to share my experience and give tips to people in a similar situation thinking as well on changing to industry.
As a bit of background, I have a MSc and PhD in computer science. The following 7 years after my PhD I have spent as post-doc in several labs working in the fields of computer vision, neuroimaging and machine learning.
Why I have decided to go to industry ? One reason is the lack of stability and long-term perspectives in academia. Since I finished the PhD, I’ve been chasing post-doc positions across different universities and countries. This was OK in the beginning but is increasingly bothering me with the time, especially since my family has grown. Adding to that is the seemingly limited career paths. It seems to me that a technical path is not possible in academia (alternative to either group leader or lecturer).
I believe PhD and post-doc communities would greatly benefit from exposure to a range of career options inside and outside of academia. This advise could be facilitated by the same research institutes through career advise centers. Otherwise, it is easy to get isolated doing your own work and lose sight of other options.
The goal of this post is to give advice for those who decide to switch from academia to industry by explaining what I went through and what I found important.
Before I start, let me summarize what are, in my opinion, the main key points for a job application:
- be open during the job search. Your skills do not need to match 100% to the advertised position
- write concise CV and cover letter with ample margins and without typos
- along with every technical skill, convey a transferrable skill and a quantifiable result. Transferrable skills show what you bring from your past experience into your new job and quantifiable results show the impact of your past work
- know your values and interests so that they can guide you all along the process from the job search to the interview
- professional recruiters are helpful. Knowing somebody at the company is also helpful
- be honest about your motivations and put them always in a light that reflects the benefit for the company
- do not worry too much about rejections. Luckily the job landscape is broad and success partially depends on your application skills (which can be learnt)
Let’s get started.
The first step is identifying the types of positions that you like and look at job offers in apps like Glassdoor and Linkedin. It is good to be creative at this step and include different roles where you think you would fit. Already by reading the job descriptions one learns what skills are required for each type of position and can get a sense of whether you like it and would be able to do it. I find it is not necessary that one meets all the requirements but one should meet a reasonable minimum, say 70%, in order to have chances. I like to look at the employee satisfaction ratings for the companies. Some job-portals like Glassdor include this feature. Other portals like kununu are exclusively dedicated to this.
Conferences are great places to meet people that can tell you about interesting jobs. You can directly introduce yourself to people from companies of your interest and ask them about potential opportunities.
The next step is to apply for the offers that you feel most excited about. This usually involves sending a CV + a cover letter.
The CV shows what you have achieved (professional experience and education) and what you are capable of doing in more general terms (skills). Additional sections may include hobbies, trainings/courses, languages, …
- professional experience: for each position include the name of the position and your most notable accomplishments. I like to use research staff associate as a name for post-doc positions. As for the accomplishments, I like the Sandwitch rule in the Resume Guide at Cheeky Scientist. For each entry, you sandwich a technical skill between a transferable skill (more on that later) and a quantifiable result. I find it is not necessary to write all the entries using this rule but I like because it conveys 3 important pieces of information.
- education: really nothing much to add. A list of academic titles, University names and years of study.
- skills: this shows what you can do and is especially important when changing job fields or sectors (eg, from academia to industry) because it shows how your previous experience may be leveraged in your future role. This typically includes technical skills (tools and techniques that you know) and transferrable skills (more general skills like communication, leadership, …). If possible include years of experience for each skill. You may also quantify your skills with some result. You can find guides of transferrable skills on the internet to use as guide.
I like to start the CV with a general statement about my professional aims. I also like to include a line or two on hobbies. During interviews, I’ve got asked about my hobbies a couple of times and find that it relaxes the conversation.
Contrary to an application for a post-doc position, for most industry positions recruiters are not looking for an exhaustive list of publications. They may be more interested on your skills and the results of your work (hence, the sandwich rule). You may highlight some of your publications as a quantifiable result of your work, but try to find other results than papers (eg, tools, methods, processes, …).
As for the layout, be concise in the content and allow for generous white spaces (lateral margins, section separations, …). Making it visually appealing may maximize the chances of getting it reviewed. Use buzzwords that match with the ones in the job description. Regarding a personal photo, I think that it does not add anything to the CV and it may actually harm more than benefit, so I don’t use it. The CV should not be more than 2 pages in length (ideally 1 for recent PhD graduates).
In the cover letter, you explain the story about why you are the ideal candidate for the job. You ellaborate on your most relevant experience and skills for the job. You also motivate why you want this job at this company in particular. You may also explain how you learned about the job (especially if it was through a contact from within the company). The cover letter is tailored for a specific job application (contrary to the CV, which you may leave almost unchanged accross different applications in the same field).
As for the style and formatting, make it concise: less than 1 page organized in 3 or 4 paragraphs. Proofread to make sure there are no typos.
submitting your application
Submission usually goes through the company site. Some positions receive a lot of applications and therefore it is important that your package looks applealing at first sight (ie buzzwords, neat, concise and without typos). If you know somebody in the company (eg, a former colleague, or via a conference) it may help to tell them that you applied so that it gets more chances of being reviewed.
An alternative to directly submitting your application is to go through professional recruiters. Linkedin provides an option to signal your profile as open to being approached by recruiters (it is only visible to recruiters). The same recruiter may be responsible for several positions in diffrent companies. The good thing about recruiters is that they have direct contact with the company, so that they get feedback about your application. Also, they know the details about the position and help you prepare your application because they are also interested in you getting hired.
Do not worry too much about rejections at this stage. Luckily the job landscape is broad and there are plenty of offers you can apply for.
If they found your application interesting they will invite you for an interview. Typically, they would offer first a telephonic and later an in-person interview.
Telephonic interviews are typically less time-consuming than on-site ones. They may be shorter and do not involving moving to the site. On-site interviews may additionally require you preparing a small presentation or doing a small test. Otherwise, I find the questions asked in telephonic and on-site interviews are quite comparable.
I find there are 2 types of questions: technical and general ones (for lack of a better term).
Technical questions want to know about your past experience and skills. Be prepared to talk about it in detail. Be honest. If there’s something that you don’t know, say it. It is OK to not know everything. In such cases, it is better to show a positive attitude and say that you are willing to learn it. When talking about your experience and your past projects, try to highlight transferrable skills and quantifiable results. Transferrable skills may be e.g., if you collaborated with people from different disciplines, or had management / leadership responsabilities. Industry professionals may have the idea (rightly or wrongly) that academic work is individualistic and limited to producing papers. Break this stereotype by highlighting the transferrable skills involved in your work (communication, management, collaboration, …). Also, highlight any quantifiable result beyond a paper (eg, a tool that may be used by other people).
General questions may be about your motivations, transferrable skills and personal qualities. Some may be tricky and quite unpredictable. Luckily, a couple of them are quite common. For example:
- why you want to change jobs. My recommendation is be honest and explain your motivation in a way that it is clear how your motivation benefits the company.
- Another question you may expect: why this specific company. Prepare to explain why you are interested in this specific company and how their line of work and values align with yours.
It helpful to know your values and interests to motivate these answers. As an example to help you identify your values, I put below different categories of values / interests. You may use the results as guide for navigating the interview:
- Practicalities: location, salary, job security, flexible working, involves travel, good work-life balance
- Environment: sociable colleagues, not office-based
- Style of work: team work, independent, short-term projects, variety, challenging, work on own ideas
- Using your background: using your subject knowledge, hands-on research, working with other researchers
- Impact: can see the impact of my work, working to improve society
- Career: career progression opportunities, leadership, recognition, further qualifications required
A list of strengths and values may also help you during the job search. For example if you are not strong in leadership skills do not apply to leadership roles.
Further questions about your personal qualities and transferrable skills may be quite unpredictable. Below I put examples of questions that I have been asked:
- give examples when I convinced others of something
- when I did something wrong and what did I learn
- an unreasonable customer request and how did I respond
- example of a very challenging project I worked on
- what things make me angry
- things that I do not like about my interpersonal skills
It is recommendable to answer something to these questions, otherwise it may give the impression that you do not have enough baggage and have not been confronted with a variety of situations (hence, reinforcing that the academic stereotype applies to you). When answering it is recommendable to put them in a light that actually reflects something good for the company. For example, a classic: tell me one thing that you do not like about yourself. An example answer could be: I am too impatient. Then you follow by saying how you cannot wait for getting things done and blah blah blah…
Lastly, prepare some questions to ask. I find it is a good opportunity to figure out the type of work you’d be doing and whether it aligns with your values and interests.
I hope this is helpful advise for people in the process of transition from academia to industry (or just looking for a job). It may take some time to put everything together in your CV but when it is done, new applications are (relatively) straightforward. Job search can be emotionally tiring because it exposes you to rejections. Do not worry too much. Success partly depends on how skilled you are at this process, and like many other things, it gets better with practice.