Tales and Musings From A Life Sciences Job Seeker: The PhD Industry Career Gap

Posted in Career Advice

Ryan Raver, PhD author of the Grad Student Way blog and formerly of the University of Wisconsin_Madison (my alma mater) posted a piece on his blog about his personal discoveries and revelations about searching for an industrial life sciences jobs.  In my opinion, Ryan’s piece is one of the best that I have read to date that provides a reality-based road map for recently-minted PhDs who want to eschew a postdoc and enter the life sciences industry (he is now working for Sigma in St. Louis, MO)

Ryan has allowed me to reproduce his brilliant piece on BioJobBlog.  Also, I recommend that you visit his blog which is choc full of great ideas and strategies for graduate students considering careers outside of academia.

5 Ways to Gain Valuable Skills Outside of Your Academic Training

November 14, 2013 by 

The PhD Industry Career Gap

We already know that the PhD Market is saturated, and articles that “promote awareness” or point out the PhD-Industry Gap are a dime a dozen. What’s missing from the equation are the solutions.  The reality is that the first job that you obtain directly out of graduate school is the most crucial. It is also the most difficult. Therefore you need to be aware of all of your possible options.

The odds are against you. You look like a science person. You want to go into industry but they look at you as an academic with only one marketable skill: bench science.

The doom and gloom articles aren’t going to help you get anywhere. And frankly, I think we are all just tired of reading them.  Many experienced working professionals are aware of what the market looks like, but as long as they are employed, who wants to think about what they could have faced?

The newly minted PhD is experiencing the hardships right now and searching for answers. The reality is that many just don’t know how to provide real practical solutions and the attitude is that “hard work” will get you to where you need to be. And it’s “good luck” to you because you are entirely on your own.

If you could rewind and go back a few years maybe you wish you knew all this sooner rather than later. Maybe you finally decided to join the 85% club and face reality (only 15% will land a tenure-track position within 5 years). But you need to put the past behind you and move on.

The bottom line is that if you have the right personality, drive, leadership, and strong interpersonal skills and the ability to work well in a team environment, then breaking into a field of your choice is very feasible. You just need the know-how. This ‘right personality’ will be valuable as you work in a team and develop your needed skill set(s) that will carry with you into your future career. Although there is a glut of capable job seekers, do not let this discourage you.

Before we dive deeper, you need to understand that there is no set career path, and everyone’s career path is UNIQUE. Many working professionals stumble into their current career path by accident, chance, change of interests/goals, life situation, or series of occurrences. But hopefully with the advice given, you will find your calling.

If you ask, let’s say an experienced manager in industry, how they got to where they are today-many will tell you that they did not plan on jumping into their field directly from their PhD. That’s because the majority of PhDs don’t really do any career planning. You’ll jump into the postdoc only to leave after you spent X amount of years figuring out what you truly want to do. During graduate school, the focus is on getting the PhD and the attitude is that things will just unfold and work themselves out. This can continue throughout the postdoc position(s).

There is a sense of entitlement among PhD’s. Their ego takes ahold of them. “I worked this hard, therefore I deserve this position or X amount of salary.”  Guess what? You have to pay your dues just like everyone else.  The PhD doesn’t guarantee you the job, and although you may have published a Nature paper, it doesn’t add any value to a company or client (and when you hand your business card to a customer, they see your name, company, your position title, letters next to your name, and nothing else). The real question is can you work well in a team? Can you communicate effectively without putting yourself above others? Once you realize there is a bigger picture than just YOU and how you are just a piece of the puzzle, than you will finally start to see the benefits.  Be someone who under-promises and over-delivers.

There is also a backwards strategy that many PhDs take on during their career search. They focus on the position and match that up to the company. The problem with this is that it takes the focus off how you can add value to a company. It becomes more about you. The point is that if the position that you obtain within the company will add the most value based on your strengths and contributions, then it is the best fit. Therefore, when doing your job searchfocus on the company first, how you can add value, then backtrack to find the correct position. This means you should have multiple roles in mind that play on your strengths and not just one. If you haven’t figured this out yet, here is what you missed earlier.

When it comes to a resume or cover letter, there is too much emphasis placed on these two items. They are simply a tool to get you an interview and nothing else. Once you reach that interview stage, you need to get over what is written on your resume and focus on the value that you can add to a company. Not brag about what you did with your thesis work. No one really cares to hear about your thesis anymore.  A PhD is a training program to help you develop as a scientist and launch your career.

If you are banging your head against the wall that’s probably because you aren’t doing it right. Or you just lack the marketable skills to crossover (which is discussed later in this article). Or it could be a combination of both.

To quote Donald Asher who is author of Cracking the Hidden Job Market, “You get a job by talking to people: You don’t get a job by having a great resume, a good interview look, a firm handshake, or a solid education. You get a job because you get in front of somebody and they decide to add you to the payroll. Most job seekers look for jobs by talking to computer software. It’s faster to talk to people. People are more likely to pass you along than computers are. Computers are picky. People are helpful.”

You can beat the odds. Frankly, you have to beat the odds.

“The United States quit creating jobs more than a decade ago. Then the Great Recession hit, which I date from September 14, 2008, when Lehman Brothers failed. This smacked down workers even more. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1999 and 2009 the U.S. economy created only 121,000 new jobs, a growth rate of .01 percent/year. A decade to create 121,000 net new jobs! It takes 125,000 new jobs per month  to keep up with the population growth alone. It will take considerable time to create enough jobs to absorb the 30 million people who are unemployed, underemployed, or discouraged and off the market.”

The economy is exacerbating anxieties. A survey done in 2012 in Nature shows the concerns of many scientists around the world as the global recession squeezes research budgets. The shortfall in grant funding is nothing new, but many will soon realize that industry offers many attractive ‘alternative’ career options.  On the bright side, the unemployment rate for PhD’s is below 4%. But getting a PhD doesn’t mean that you are immune to economic hardships or the struggles of finding a job.

Half of PhD candidates in the life science and engineering field still requireseven years or more to complete their degree. If you have invested all this time and have decided to finish, don’t you want to see a return on your investment without ‘giving up’ even more years of your life? In other words, if you don’t plan on staying in academia, why are you spending 5+ years as a postdoc?

So the question becomes, how can you beat the odds? What can you do NOW as a PhD student or postdoc that will give you the marketable skills to crossover? And when you gain these marketable skills, how can you couple this with NETWORKING so that you are tapping into the “hidden job market”?

Solutions to Beat The Odds

Now that you are aware of the problems and what you will be faced with or are going through, there needs to be solutions that give you an edge.

If you haven’t already, make sure you read the article: “The missing piece to changing the university culture.” The biggest challenge that we are faced with today as PhD students is a culture change:

70% of life science PhDs pursue a postdoc after graduation (based on 2010 data) which means that PhDs are unsure of their careers and/or unequipped for a nonacademic career. 40% of graduate students are indifferent or unsatisfied with their graduate school experience. Current PhD programs will continue to train primarily for an academic career. But this is a ‘false hope,’ and you may be in your mid-30’s until you’ve come to realize this and decided to make a change. It is time that Universities, faculty, and professors stop looking the other way when it comes to fixing the problem.

The Biotechnology and Life Science Advising (BALSA) group was founded in 2010 by a group of dissatisfied postdocs and graduate students. The result is that through their collaborative efforts, they have developed a model where post-docs and graduate students work with startups in the form of 6 to 8 week consulting projects. The result? BALSA has worked with 37 companies and 53 projects. Graduate students and postdocs are coming out with real world business experience.

Even researchers with NO prior business knowledge are making valuable contributions to both early and late stage companies. As a PhD student or postdoc, you are trained to analyze and think critically. The best part is that BALSA’s partnership with Washington University in Saint Louis and the Office of Technology Management has provided Universities and Principal Investigators as a means to commercialize their work.

Although BALSA’s efforts look promising, we are still left with the question as to whether these efforts can be expanded on a national level. Also, are they sustainable? Will Universities and Professors push more for the adoption of these efforts? Only time will tell.

The bottom line is that you aren’t going to sit around and wait for BALSA to come along to your University. So in the meantime, you have to go create these opportunities on your own. BALSA may give you hands-on experience (via projects) with industry challenges, business concepts, competitive intelligence and market analysis, technology due diligence, regulatory affairs, project management, and licensing/business plan development. Does this sound like a checklist of wishful thinking? Well, there is nothing stopping you from gaining some or a combination of these skills and experience during your time as a graduate student/postdoc.

So here are the top 5 solutions to gain valuable skills outside of your academic training and beat the odds once you get your PhD:

1)      Consider Consulting

There are many consulting opportunities available for scientists. These many options span freelance work, working for a consulting firm or even starting your own consulting company. Whichever that may be, I would highly recommend doing freelance consulting work during your PhD. This could shuttle you into a management consulting position upon graduation.

Find a unique skill set that you are good at and offer your services to a company. If you need an example, check out how a graphic illustrator/scientific visual communicator went freelance during and out of graduate school.

Another example is self-taught SEO or social media marketing consulting. Many companies (including start-ups) are blogging and doing digital marketing, and learning the ropes of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. If you are already running a professional blog (all PhD students should!), you have already learned how to effectively run social media and marketing campaigns, and chances are you could do part-time work offering your services. You are also developing your technical writing skills in addition to sharing scientific ideas and making worldwide network contacts.

**Management consulting can be an excellent way to put your analytical and scientific training to use while you develop your business expertise. If you have the passion to innovate, drive change, and help companies be more successful, it might be the career choice for you. You will learn how to lead teams, manage people, and take on challenging and interesting problems. The connections that you make with top business professionals will also open doors to future career opportunities. And, your hard work and efforts could also have a huge impact on the future direction of the company.

Further Reading:




2)      Consider doing a summer internship during your PhD studies or during your postdoc

As mentioned in a previous article, the most practical solution for many is to obtain a paid internship (ideally) during your time in graduate school. Internships are CRUCIAL and I cannot stress enough that graduate students and post-docs should take a summer off (or balance the internship 50% and graduate school 50%) and obtain industry experience. That way you will come out with real-world industry experience and some marketable skills. You need to negotiate and leverage this in any way that you can.

A lot of companies are willing to try you out for a short 3 months. That initial spark will come from their interest in you via informational interviews (see below). Chances are if they like you at the end of the internship, you might also have an offer waiting for you upon graduation at that same company.

The first step to land an internship position is to do informational interviews and start networking. You can read more about informational interviews here. Read: How To Network and Add Value to Yourself and Others to get a good starting point. Just because internship positions aren’t posted doesn’t mean they can’t be created or they don’t exist. Ask around and you’ll be surprised what you will find.

Internships also boost Postdocs’ skills and really add to their marketability. The challenge as any might imagine, is getting your PI to agree.

3)      Consider auditing or taking business classes, participating in workshops, or leading/organizing business events on campus.

If you are a science person, then take a business class and start networking with business professors and MBA students. If not business, find a secondary interest and step out of your comfort zone. Get involved in patent law, tech transfer, computer programming, or entrepreneurial classes. This will come down solely to you and your interests. Many business professors will allow you to sit in their class even if you aren’t taking the class for credit. Entrepreneurial management classes for example, will expose you to writing business plans and doing SWOT analysis, and growing local starts-ups via group projects.

4)      Start a side business, professional blog, develop a product, or find like-minded individuals preferably with an entrepreneurial mindset or business drive.

5)      Network every week. Then network some more.

Step 1: Network to obtain an internship and gain the marketable skills that you need

Step 2: Network to obtain a job post-PhD

Did you catch that? You need to network to create opportunities. Then you network to create more opportunities beyond that. During or after PhD, it doesn’t matter. If you lack marketable skills, you’ll need to network to obtain them or find out what those specific skills are. Even with internship experience under you belt, you will need to network beyond the PhD to land an industry position. Obviously, it is MUCH easier to use the power of networking when you already have the marketable skills to find an industry job versus networking from scratch (i.e. skipping Step 1 and jumping right into Step 2). But whatever stage you are in, it is never too late to start. There is no stopping when it comes to networking and the truth is that it is a lifelong process and requires continual effort.

PhD graduate students and postdocs simply don’t network enough. How can you understand the needs of a company if you don’t speak to people? How can you know the industry, the market, and the customer? Chances are a startup company in your area has a need. What value can you add to fulfill that need?  This ties into #2 above.

There are many more examples. The reality is that it is not impossible to create opportunities, take on an internship, do consulting, and/or run a professional blog during your PhD and come out with a huge leg up upon graduation. Those that do #1-#5 or a combination thereof will stand out from the crowd and will most likely beat out other PhD students who focused on nothing else but getting their degree. Chances are you will land a job in industry and work in a fulfilling career. Gaining the marketable skills to crossover is no easy task, but with hard work, patience, and the right connections anything is possible.

Keep pushing and you will see good things come your way.

Email me with any questions. Future article will be on how to transition into Product Management, Marketing, or Sales.

Further Reading:

Internships Boost Postdocs’ Skills, Worldliness, and Marketability

The PhD Industry Gap

Life after the PhD: Re-Train Your Brain

3 Things PhDs Leaving Academia Should Know About Business

Taking Charge of Your Career

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Job Seeking!!!!!!!!!

Career Planning Advice

Posted in Career Advice

TotalJobs, one of the UK’s leading job boards asked me to share the following post with BioJobBlog readers. It offers insights and tips for jobseekers who may be embarking on a new career or simply looking for new job opportunities. Surprisingly, many jobseekers overlook these simple tips that can mean the difference between employment or not.

 Finding a Career Path That is Right for You

As many of us know from our own experiences, job hunting can be a gruelling process. The current economic climate has left many of us unemployed and desperately seeking work. With jobs few and far between, many jobseekers will jump at the first opportunity that comes along. Sadly, the idea of landing that dream job that you fantasized about during your school years may now seem like a distant memory. However, what many job seekers don’t understand is that by simply altering their job search strategies, they can dramatically increase the likelihood of landing that almost-forgotten dream job.

Ideally before your begin your job search you ought to have a general idea about the career path that you want to follow. This will help you to focus your job search. For those who don’t know or may be confused about possible career options, answering the following questions may provide some clarity

  1. What were you strongest subjects at school?  In what did you excel?
  2. What qualifications and skills do you currently possess?
  3. What are your hobbies and interests, what really gets you going and excited?
  4. Ideally, what job do you see yourself doing in the future?

Once you have answers to these questions, try to identify two or three possible career paths that feel right for you and are consistent with your background, skills and training. The next step is to determine whether or not the career paths that you have chosen are truly viable options for you. There are a variety of actions/activities that help you with this reality check.

  1. Many colleges and universities offer counselling services that are free and open to the public. Chatting with career counselling professionals can provide clarity about jobs and whether or not they are consistent with your interests and personal skills.  Career counsellors can also advise you on the coursework, qualifications and skill sets required for those jobs.
  2. Use the internet to research specific jobs or career options. This will help to improve your understanding of specific job titles and also provide insights into the-day-to-day requirements and activities of individual jobs. Also, you can determine the average salaries for specific jobs that you are interested and whether or not there are opportunities for career advancement in the jobs that you identified.
  3. Decide whether or not you are prepared and willing to do whatever is necessary to qualify you for a particular job: even if the job may require additional coursework, exams, internships etc.
  4. Determine the location of the jobs that you are interested in and see whether or not you would be able to live in those areas. For those of you considering graduate school and are interested in teaching assistant jobs you will need to determine whether or not local schools/colleges offers graduate training. If not, you may have to consider leaving home to pursue the career that you are interested in.
  5. Identify persons who previously or currently work in the industries or jobs that you are interested in. Ask whether or not they may be willing to talk with you about their experiences to help you determine that you are the right fit for a specific job that you are considering. Sometimes, these so-called informational interviews can lead to internships or possible future job leads. If nothing else, they help to build a professional network which is absolutely essential for any jobseeker.

While many of these recommendations seem obvious, you will be surprised that learn that most jobseekers do not consider many of them before they begin their job searches. 

Generally speaking, jobseekers give their career paths some thought are more apt to find jobs as compared with others who believe that landing a job is a random process and requires little more than luck!

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!!!


New Group To Examine Ways to Help Graduate Students Move Into Careers

Posted in BioEducation

According to an article that appeared in the online version of The Chronicle of Higher Education website the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service  last Thursday that they are creating a commission to study and recommend ways to help graduate students move more easily through their training and into careers.

The commission aptly named The Commission on Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers, is composed of college officials and business leaders and will examine how much graduate students know about their career options once they obtain their degrees. Further it will also look into how students learn about their professional opportunities after graduation and the role of graduate programs in guiding students in their transition to a career.  The findings uncovered by the commission will likely be reported sometime next spring.

Ironically, the impetus for creating the commission was a report released in 2010 that urged the US to make it a national priority to improve graduate education and attract more students to pursue graduate degrees to prevent the country’s decline in global competitiveness. By 2018, the report estimated about 2.5 million more jobs will require graduate degrees. I am not sure what the authors of the report were smoking at the time that they prepared it, but I for one do not think we need more people with advanced degrees; especially in the life sciences. That being said, since the PhD-producing machine will not stop until tenure is abolished, the next best thing is for graduate programs to provide incoming students with a “real-life” perspective on career opportunities and the training necessary to pursue them. At present, career development programs and career counseling services are virtually non-existent at most universities and colleges. 

While formation of the commission is laudable, I am not convinced that it will accomplish anything except possibly assuage growing graduate student and postdoc discontent at many academic institutions. The reason why my expectations are low is a comment made by Patrick Osmer, the commission chair and vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the Graduate School at Ohio State University, who said

“It is important to create a dialogue with graduate students and with employers, and to listen to the students’ concerns and expectations about career paths beyond academe.”

Personally, I don’t think that the lack of dialogue between graduate students and prospective employers is the problem. The real problem is the lack of care development discussions between graduate students and their advisors; many of whom don’t know or care about career options for the persons who they train. Until graduate programs recognize that career development counseling and training are in their bailiwick, then nothing is going to change regardless of findings of one or more “expert” commission run by individuals who are part of the problem!

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!   


Strategic Career Planning for Life Scientists

Posted in BioJobBuzz

While most successful professionals want you to believe that they “fell into” their current jobs, the truth is that they wouldn’t have made it as far as they had without thinking or divining some type of strategic career plan. The trouble is that many early career professionals buy into this assertion—and rather than chart their own career trajectories—tend to gravitate toward jobs or job titles held by these seemingly successful professionals. 

More often than not, these would-be jobseekers have little or no understanding of what their “role models” do on a day-to-day basis as part of their job responsibilities. For example, many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who I talk with at career development symposia tell me that they want to go into business development or regulatory affairs or management consulting. After they tell me this, I routinely ask “Do you know what the director of business development or a regulatory affairs manager does?” Frequently, these persons have little or no idea about the duties and responsibilities associated with the job choice that they just enunciated to me. Generally speaking, many of these career choices were based on informal discussions with people who hold the job title(s) in question or from information gleaned from career development talks offered by people like me.

The point that I am trying to make, is that it is vitally important to know what the duties and responsibilities of a particular job are and what a prospective employer will likely expect from you on a day-to-day basis. While a job title may sound important or glamorous, the actual day-to-day activities and realities of the job may be tedious, mundane or simply boring. To avoid this possibility, it may be worthwhile to set up so-called “informational interviews” with professionals who are already in the job(s) that you may be considering.

While informational interviews are increasing in popularity, many professionals simply don’t have the time to accommodate the growing number of requests for them. To that end, BioCrowd, a networking site for bioprofessionals, recently created a weekly “Day in the Life” series that will showcase articles written by various life sciences professionals ranging from scientists to CEOs. The goal of these career vignettes is to educate students and would-be job seekers about the various career opportunities available in the life sciences and to provide some insights into what these professionals actually do on a day-to-day basis while on the job.

Please visit BioCrowd to learn more!

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!!


Job Seekers: How to Plan and Launch a Successful Job Search

Posted in Career Advice

Preparing for and executing a job search can be both intimidating and overwhelming. While most job seekers approach a job search without much thought or planning, there actually is a “method to the madness” of a job search. And, if you take the time to develop a strategic plan, your likelihood of success increases almost exponentially. 

Unfortunately, the prodigious amount that has been written about conducting successful job searches suggests that reading and digesting it all may be more daunting than the job search itself! To that end, Kaitlyn Cole of Online Universities sent me a blog post entitled “100 Inspiring and Informative Blog Posts for Young Job Seekers” which may help to reduce the stress associated with job search planning. Although the title suggests that the list may be most informative for younger job seekers, I recommend that anyone looking for a job ought to take a quick look at the list!

A quick perusal of the list indicated that one or more BioJobBlog posts have been included. Read and learn!!!!

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!