When I worked as a recruiter, I noticed something quite interesting. I had a lot of candidates who were in academia trying to break into industry and, as many of you may know, making that transition can be very difficult. The interesting part was that I had a handful of candidates that were different than the rest. While they were also recent PhD graduates or postdocs, they would get multiple offers from some of the best pharmaceutical companies in the country.
I had one candidate who received very generous offers from three different large companies at the same time, and the companies were trying to outbid each other. I had another candidate who was struggling with the decision of which top company to join, because she received offers from two of the most well-known pharmaceutical companies in the US. Meanwhile, these companies were turning down many other perfectly qualified people. Why?
Well, first of all, companies don’t want mediocre, they want the best of the best! So, your job as a PhD student and postdoc is to put yourself in the position so you ARE the best! You don’t have to be the next Nobel Prize winner, but you do have to show that you can be productive. It always helps if you have the exact experience that they are looking for, but you also have to be able to sell yourself. To do so, you need something to sell.
First, author papers in high impact journals and patents are very important. Those are some of the only ways to show productivity in academia. If you can, go to conferences. Presenting your data is important, but even more important is the opportunity to network. Get to know people in your field, pay attention to names, and know who works on the next new drug or diagnostic.
When you have an interview in industry, it is crucial that you have done your research. I know you can be very busy with your research, but that alone won’t land you a job in industry. You have to be able to discuss relevant findings, exciting new research, and have ideas of how you would solve specific problems that are relevant to industry.
Lastly, sell yourself! That is the part that a lot of scientists have a hard time doing. You need to turn off your academic mind and think about big pictures. It is not about what YOU want. It is about how you can help the company succeed. Of course, you need to be enthusiastic about your work and about joining the team. Focus less on you and more on the team and the product.
So, what do you do if you don’t have a lot of papers or patents, and you have already completed your postdoc? Well, first of all, getting into industry is not going to be impossible. You have to make the move sooner, rather than later, if that is the way you want to go.
Focus on your transferable skills, your personality, and your work ethic. Don’t make excuses, but explanations are okay. Don’t be too picky, everybody has to start somewhere. Your first job in industry may not be your dream job, you may not get the salary you expected, or even the responsibilities you feel you deserve. While you don’t want to sell yourself short, you also don’t want to let an opportunity go just because it didn’t check all your boxes. Work hard, prove yourself, and the rest will come!