Over the next few months, my colleagues and I are going to be writing about the transition from being an academic scientist to working in the commercial sector. In some cases, we’ll talk about it from the standpoint of a postdoc looking for their first position in the commercial sector and, in other cases, we’ll talk about it from the perspective of specific jobs that are out there and how the expectations and skills might be different from what an academic is used to. We’re not going to sugar coat it…. This is one of the toughest career moves you’ll make. However, it is likely you’re in better shape than you might realize, and that is going to be the focus of this series. You need to look at your already considerable skills in a different light. You’ll also need to think about a career plan, since the business world doesn’t have a tenure track where all of the requirements and all of the promotions are set out before you. Instead, you’ll need to think about the kinds of things you like to do, and the kinds of things you’re good at doing. And recognizing what you can do about it if they’re not the same thing.
Probably the biggest gap between what academic scientists think businesses are looking for and what business are actually looking for occurs because of the different use of language. In academics, when someone talks about a multidisciplinary team, it probably means something like biochemists, molecular biologists and biostatisticians working together. The common theme in academic teams is that everyone is a scientist of some sort, and, generally, scientists know how to talk to other scientists. However in business, a multidisciplinary team is going to have people from project management, software development, customer support and (GASP!) even some of those people from marketing. So, when a business talks about the ability to work in a team, what they really mean is working in a team that may not have much, if any, science background. If you can’t talk to those sorts of people, then you won’t be effective. The unspoken implication here is that your science skills will not be the only skill set your employer will be evaluating, and that can be an unsettling experience for someone coming from an academic background. The good news is that if you can learn how to express your non-scientific skills in a manner potential employers can immediately understand, you will put yourself in a very competitive position relative to those who do not. So to be effective, and to land that first job, you need to understand how your current skills fit into what employers need and how you can plan to cover any potential deficiencies.
The career track in the business world is also much more flexible and open than is the case in the academic world. This means that your first job in the commercial sector is not likely to be your last job. It also means that there is no pre-defined career track to follow and the responsibility for developing one is yours and yours alone. So you really have two tasks to tackle. First, if you’re looking for a job now, you need to understand where your current skills fit best so you have the best possible chance of succeeding. Something to consider when you’ve got an offer is that getting your foot in the door in the commercial sector can be just as important as getting your ideal fit. Second, if your first job isn’t your ideal job, then you need to have a plan on how to get to that ideal job and what skills you need to either polish or acquire.
Which, of course, brings us to the overall concept of planning. Understanding how your competencies stack up against the needs of the positions you really want is critical to your success. If you’re eying a position that requires a lot of financial acumen, you need to get those skills if you don’t already have them. Some skills can be picked up relatively quickly by taking courses at your local community college, while other skills, such as aspects of communications, can take years to become proficient in. So, you really need two plans. The first plan would cover things that you could cover in a year or two and would help you along your desired career path. The second plan would look five years out and cover things that take longer to accomplish. You don’t want to ignore your long-term plan because it likely contains some skill sets that can be very beneficial to your career.
In the next blogs we’ll start talking about the specifics of what these competencies are and how they apply to your job search.