It's the same problem everyone has: getting that first job when you have no previous experience. But let's face it — after slogging your way through grad school, one or more postdoc fellowships, and maybe even a research position or assistant professorship, it's tough to think of yourself as having no experience.
But that may be exactly what it feels like when you set out to land your first job in industry, where job ads may list requirements for prior industry experience. Sure, you'd like to explore a world beyond academia, but how do you get your first gig? As it turns out, industry isn't the exclusive club it may seem like — and there are lots of ways to get in the door without having a previous industry job on your CV.
First off, says Todd Smith, CEO of Geospiza, take the requirement for previous experience with a grain of salt. "Don't listen to the ads," he says. "Don't be discouraged." Smith says that when his company is hiring, a job posting lists attributes of a dream candidate — and an applicant who fits a good number of those is considered well worth an interview. Don't just send out your CV to every job listing and hope for the best, though. A good applicant may not have industry experience but has to demonstrate an understanding of the position or research experience that's directly relevant to what the company is looking for. "If you have worked in a field that's very specific, make sure your message is tuned to what they're looking for," Smith adds.
How you present yourself to a company has a significant impact on whether your lack of experience in industry is considered a drawback. For starters, consider how your own background can be helpful to a company. Kristen Stoops, senior director of strategic marketing and alliances at Merck's Rosetta Biosoftware subsidiary, says that coming from academia has tremendous benefit to industry. "The value that people who have been in academia bring to a commercial organization is their potential experience as customers and users of the products that the commercial organization markets," she says. In companies, she adds, "there is always a dearth of information about how products really will be used." If you can make the case that you know how to help guide development for a product based on your experience using certain technologies or specializing in particular applications, your background goes from a drawback to a serious advantage.
One reason a company might ask for industry experience is to make sure that applicants appreciate the difference between working in industry and academia. If you don't have the job experience, be prepared to let interviewers know that you do understand what's different about working in industry. For example, Stoops says, "What motivates you in the product design process can't be what's cool in the world of science."
Smith says that it's important to make it clear that you really want to work in industry — not just that you're unhappy in academia and looking for an alternative. It shouldn't be about getting away from something you don't like, he says; it should be about going toward something you think will be a good fit for you. And before you start interviewing, be sure to bone up on how companies work. Smith says that someone he recently interviewed asked pertinent questions and showed an understanding of where money comes from, which struck him as particularly impressive.
Part of understanding the corporate environment involves figuring out where you'd fit into a company, Stoops says. If you're coming from academia, it's a fairly smooth transition to other scientifically focused jobs such as researchers or application scientists, she says. "There are pure science jobs that segue very nicely," she adds. Stick to paths where your experience fits well and you'll be in a much stronger position to get past the lack of an industry background.
Take a pay cut
An option that may be difficult in the short term but beneficial in the long run is to get an internship at a company. The salary will almost certainly be less than you'd like to make, but if you can survive on it for a bit then it's a clear-cut way to get the one thing hiring managers are looking for: industry experience. Many companies in the life sciences offer internship programs, says Stoops. "Do the legwork — go to the [company's] website and see if there's anything posted on the career page, or call up the HR department." She also recommends spending time in the exhibit hall at conferences. Check in at the booths of companies you'd be interested in to find out whether they offer internships or if they have any other advice for how to get started there. Smith notes that some university departments have programs already set up for their grad students to intern at certain companies.
If an internship simply isn't a viable plan, try to get a consulting gig or two with some companies, says Stoops. That'll help you "gain firsthand experience that you can cite on your resume," she adds. The academic PIs you know probably already have consulting arrangements or decent connections, especially at startups. Let them know you're interested and see if they can help you get in touch with these companies to see if there's any consulting work you might be able to offer.