Congratulations! You’ve made it to the end of your non-academic job interview! Well, except for that inevitable last question: “Do you have any questions for us?” After an intense period of answering tough questions from the interviewer, it’s your turn to drive the conversation, and for some of us, it’s the scariest part. It’s very important to ask questions, to show you are as interested in learning about the position and the company as they are in learning about you. Not asking questions cuts the conversation short and can be viewed negatively by the interviewer. But your first interview isn’t the time to ask about salary, benefits, dress code, etc. – these questions will be answered when an actual offer is discussed. Instead, you want to ask questions that continue to demonstrate your qualifications for, interest in, and commitment to the position, while providing you with crucial information about the job. So what kind of questions should you ask? Here are a few examples of general questions to get you started:
What do you enjoy most about working with this company? Initiating this conversation will connect you to the interviewer on a more personal level. The answer can also give you insight into company values, as well as an idea about how satisfied employees are with their jobs – if the interviewer struggles to come up with an answer, it could be a red flag about the working conditions.
Can you tell me about the team I will be working with? By asking this question, you are demonstrating your readiness to be a team player. The answer will tell you about the people you will work with on a daily basis and give you an idea about how individuals contribute to accomplishing team goals.
What constitutes success in this position and at this company? This question shows your desire to be successful in the job, and the answer can provide useful information about whether the position is a good fit for you, as well as how to succeed and get ahead in the company.
What skills and experiences would make an ideal candidate? The answer to this question will reveal exactly what the employer is looking for, and can give you the chance to affirm how your background meets those criteria or to discuss how you plan to gain or develop the desired skills.
What is one of the most important challenges currently facing your team, and would I be in a position to help resolve this problem? This question shows you are already thinking about how you can help the company. It also encourages the employer to envision you actually working in the position.
Do you offer continuing education or professional training? This question shows your interest in expanding your knowledge, developing skills beneficial to the job, and growing with the company. The answer may give you an idea as to how new employees are trained, and the value the company places on supporting the professional development of its employees.
What is the next step in this process? This is an essential last question. It shows you are interested in moving the process along. You may also gain insight into how many other candidates are being interviewed, and will get an idea about the timeline, giving you a chance to prepare for the next step.
If possible, it’s a good idea to talk to contacts that have interviewed for or currently hold similar positions to identify questions you can ask that are specific to the job for which you are interviewing. Also, be sure to thoroughly research the company, as it may stimulate relevant questions. Type out a list of your questions and have it easily accessible when the time comes. Having a physical document shows you have put thought and effort into preparing for your interview. It’s also beneficial to practice asking your questions out loud, to ensure you can readily and clearly ask them.
Don’t be afraid of the unavoidable last question! With a little preparation, you can confidently guide the end of the interview to provide useful information about the position, the people, and the company, while simultaneously shining a last bit of light on your stellar qualifications.
Congratulations! You’ve just been asked to interview for the non-academic job of your dreams! Now it’s time to prepare. But an interview outside of academia can be very different from graduate school, postdoc, and faculty position interviews, and after years spent at the bench, it can be difficult to think of your talents and goals outside of the academic box. For a successful interview, it is crucial to talk about your skills, experiences, qualifications, and goals as applicable to the non-academic environment in which you’ll be working. Preparation of answers to some common questions can help you proceed with confidence through the interview discussion. So what kind of questions can you expect? Here are some frequently asked interview questions, with tips for thinking about your answers:
Tell us about your scientific/research background. Be able to explain your research in a clear, concise manner at a level appropriate for the audience. Think about your “elevator speech” – if you only had one or two minutes to explain your research, what would you say? Your answer might be very different if you’re in the elevator with another research scientist versus an accountant, an English teacher, a mechanic, or your grandmother (not joking: I was asked how I would explain my postdoc research to my grandma). Someone from the Human Resources department will likely want a different answer than someone working in a position more directly related to science, so make sure you can give answers accessible to multiple audiences.
Why do you want to leave the bench/academia? For most, the answer to this question is obvious. The challenge is explaining your reasons in a diplomatic manner. “I hate bench research” or “I don’t want to be a PI” may be the simple answers, but what are the deeper reasons for wanting a different career? Perhaps you’re leaving the bench because you feel your strongest scientific talents, like writing or teaching, would be better utilized in a different environment. Maybe you don’t want to be a PI because you want a career that will allow you to spend more time at the bench than many PIs are able. Rather than focus only on what you don’t like about the bench or academia, explain how your strengths and passions are better fit for an alternative career and the position for which you are interviewing.
Why are you interested in [position]? It’s important to emphasize that you are not applying for this position simply because you can’t get a job in or are desperate to leave academia (even if that is the case). What aspects of this career do you think will be most fulfilling for you? How do your talents and background make this position a good fit for you, and vice versa?
What are your strengths/what can you bring to this company? The answer to this question may be more difficult for those applying for non-research positions. As graduate students and postdocs, we don’t often think about the skills we are developing other than the technical skills that make us successful at the bench. Reflect on the non-technical aspects of research at which you excel, and relevant experiences away from the bench. Are you a great writer or a stellar presenter? Have you mentored undergraduate and graduate students in the lab that have gone on to be successful in their own research? Did you design a new assay or come up with a novel approach to solve a difficult research question? Think of specific examples of experiences that demonstrate your expertise in qualities essential or beneficial to the position to which you are applying.
What are you weaknesses? The trick to answering this question is to be honest without being negative. A good suggestion is to frame the negative with a positive on either side. For example, perhaps you have trouble speaking up in large group meetings. You might say something like, “I’m a good listener, which allows me to synthesize the ideas and opinions put forth in a group discussion, but in taking into account everyone else’s comments attentively and in detail, I can forget to or have trouble speaking up and providing my own input. In most cases, however, I am able to find an appropriate time to provide my input to help move the project forward.” But again, be honest – we all have weaknesses, and the interviewers want to see that you can critically evaluate your own performance, so “I don’t have any weaknesses” isn’t an appropriate answer.
How do you handle multiple projects and deadlines? This question should be one of the easiest. As grad students and postdocs, we balance multiple projects all the time. As a grad student, how did you balance classes, studying, and time in the lab? How do you plan for multiple experiments in a day or week to efficiently utilize your time? How do you keep track of multiple research projects? With a bit of reflection, you should be able to come up with some specific examples that show off your time management skills.
After working as an individual/alone, how will you adapt to working on a team? Many people outside of research have the misconception that scientists work alone, isolated from others at the bench, mired in their own projects. It’s important to (kindly) dissolve this stereotype. Scientists collaborate within their labs, their departments, their institutions, and with outside institutions. We participate in lab meetings, seminars, and conferences to get feedback on our research and provide insight and ideas to others. Discuss with the interviewers your experiences working with other scientists and how these experiences have prepared you for working in a team-oriented environment.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years/what are your long-term career goals? Your answer to this question should show your enthusiasm for the position and suggest your commitment to growing and developing your career with the company. Why is this position a good next step for you? What skills are you hoping to develop and what experiences are you hoping to gain? You might express interest in taking on management responsibilities or getting involved in certain areas or projects. Show motivation and realistic ambition in this career path.
It’s beneficial to talk to other people who have recently applied or currently work in jobs similar to the position you are applying for to get an idea of potential questions specific to the position. Take some time to really reflect on your answers to come up with specific, concise, and sincere answers. Most importantly, practice answering these questions out loud, perhaps with people from a variety of backgrounds – a coworker, a scientist from a different field, someone who works in the career you are pursuing, your grandmother – to ensure you can quickly and efficiently verbalize your thoughts. With preparation and practice, you can ace your non-academic interview and get the job to put you on your way to a fulfilling career.
It has been almost a year since I started my journey as an entrepreneur, after being a scientist for almost a decade. Such a change in my career path felt a bit unusual in the beginning, but soon I found a lot of similarities between the two paths. I quickly noticed that I am actually still continuing the same path, only exploring different aspects of it. A path I initially feared to step in soon became a joyful journey I now cherish every day. Through interacting with a lot of scientists and entrepreneurs, I came to realize that the entrepreneurial spirit adds an enriching dimension to a scientist’s world.
As a scientist, one has a passion for uncovering the mysteries of nature and discovering the truth (mechanisms underlying events) through scientific methodology. This methodology famously relies on testing hypotheses, and developing new tools to do it accurately. Over the centuries, this methodology has become a steadfast tradition. As such, everyday work as a scientist becomes a routine job very quickly. This limits the freedom, flexibility and independent thinking of a scientist. However, I always thought of science not as a job, but as a lifestyle. Science, through critical thinking, changes how one views the world, questions everyday life events, and addresses them by gathering evidence and applying them towards gaining a higher wisdom. These skills are invaluable assets in the entrepreneurial world.
The entrepreneurial mind, very much like the scientific mind, functions by questioning, hypothesizing and testing. The coordinate system of the two is identical and the valuation of ideas is reflected through vigorous testing of the initial hypotheses. What is different is the human component, which is much more prominent in the entrepreneurial world. In the end, people are the users of our products. They should see the value of our work and be willing to use it in their everyday life. If you are a scientist with good interpersonal and communication skills who also likes to promote scientific innovation through people and for people, you are already an entrepreneur.
Exploring the world as a passionate, dedicated scientist is like driving around in nature while listening to music and having brainy conversations with friends riding in the car with you. Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, is like stopping by the roadside, getting out of the car, getting some fresh air, hearing the ocean waves, walking to the woods, and exploring, first-hand, all that life has to offer. Life as an entrepreneur is much more flexible and creative than that of a scientist in the modern world. The entrepreneurial journey modifies itself every step of the way and never becomes routine. As an entrepreneur, you learn things from everyone, not just people around you or in your particular field of research. As a scientist, you find yourself constantly zooming in on a highly specialized and narrowed down subject, while as an entrepreneur you zoom out and see things from above, you see the big picture, and you focus on the impact your work can have on the world. No matter how long or how short, entrepreneurship is a fulfilling, growing experience of a lifetime.
This is the first in a series of posts by Rudy Bellani and Zach Marks, former recruiters and co-founders of Oystir, a new free service helping STEM PhDs find non-academic jobs.
You pour your heart and soul into years of research all for this one document. It is how your time in grad school will be judged and it will play a significant role in determining your future. PhD candidates dread it more than anything. Not the thesis. The resume.
You have to summarize yourself, your accomplishments, your transferable skills, and what makes you stand out into one page. We’ve been in your shoes. We know it’s hard. But it’s important. Are you going to let years of hard work in the lab, applying to fellowships, and succeeding in extracurriculars go to waste by not investing time into your resume?
A senior HR executive at a top consulting firm told us, “PhDs are the hardest group of individuals to evaluate from their resumes. They’re terribly written.” Take this as encouraging news. It means that if you take the time to write a stellar resume you will stand out from the pack.
We’re former recruiters and have read thousands of resumes. As co-founders of Oystir, we are currently helping hundreds of PhDs get non-academic jobs. We know what works and what doesn’t. In a series of exclusive posts for Scizzle, we will share our job market-tested, hiring manager-approved resume strategies for PhDs.
1) Resumes matter
[box style=”rounded”]Unless you have a major connection to help you get an interview, you’re going to need an awesome resume.[/box]
Let’s kick things off by making one point clear: your resume is the key to getting an interview. A biotech hiring manager told us, “We’ve probably interviewed and ultimately hired less qualified candidates at times simply because they wrote a better resume.”
The average recruiter reads about 200 resumes a week. Of those, 50 will get a second review and 15 will get a phone screen. Your goal is to write the resume that makes you one of those 15.
2) Resumes aren’t CVs
[box style=”rounded”]1 page for every 10 years of work experience. If you’re a 5th year postdoc, that means 1 page.[/box]
A resume is not a curriculum vitae (CV). The biggest difference is length: a resume is a 1-2 page summary of your experience, education and most relevant skills; a CV lists everything, including publications, presentations, honors, awards and affiliations. You might put some of that in a resume, but only the information that is directly relevant to the job you are applying for.
A CV is used for applying to academic jobs. A resume is what you need to transition out of academia and apply for industry jobs.
3) Mind the ATS: use relevant keywords
[box style=”rounded”]Use keywords from the job description and keep formatting simple to get past Applicant Tracking Software.[/box]
The first screen of your resume will most likely be done by a computer. Most companies use Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) to do the first review of resumes. ATS systems typically eliminate 75% of resumes before passing them on to a hiring manager. So before you can impress a human with your resume; you have to impress a machine.
ATS systems parse resumes looking for keywords relevant to the job, so be sure to include keywords from the job description in your resume. If the job requires experience with SPSS or R, don’t just write “statistics” – list those specific skills. If the job requires project management experience, explicitly list “project management” – don’t let that skill get lost in a long sentence about working with a team in a lab for your thesis research.
Also keep structure and formatting in mind to get past ATS systems. The resume is not the place to get creative with design. Don’t include any images or logos. That is the best way to “break” the ATS’ parsing mechanism and disqualify yourself before your resume even gets reviewed.
Have clearly separate headings for each section and be conservative with formatting. Use standard fonts (e.g., Times, Arial, Helvetica). Try not to go smaller than 12 pt and stick with black ink. This is important beyond the ATS: you don’t want to get passed because you made the hiring manager squint to read your accomplishments or confused him with arbitrarily blue text.
4) Make one for every role
[box style=”rounded”]Tailor a resume for each type of role you’re applying to.[/box]
Every job requires a resume specifically tailored for it. Emphasize the skills, attributes and keywords required for a particular role – for guidance, read the exact keywords listed in the job description and make sure to include them up front in your resume. For example:
If you’re applying to a consulting position that will require you to lead others, play up your project management skills (e.g., managing an undergrad) and entrepreneurial experiences (e.g., starting a student organization).
If you’re applying to a medical science liaison job that will require you to interact with clients, play up your communications skills and list any science outreach you’ve done.
If you’re applying to a research scientist or data analyst job, make sure you list the specific research techniques or statistical skills included in the job description.
5) Win with structure
[box style=”rounded”] Give your resume structure with clearly demarcated sections.[/box]
A study tracking where recruiters looked at resumes show they spent nearly 80% of their time on six points: name; current and previous position’s title, company, start and end dates; and education. After that, they’re skimming for relevant keywords to the job.
Put that information where hiring managers are expecting to see it.
List your name and contact information up top followed by an executive summary (more on how to write an executive summary in a future post), your experience, then your education. Separate each section with clear headings. Bold each position on your resume so the hiring manager can easily skim and see all the roles you have held.
Recruiters spend more time on highly structured resumes; without that structure, the person reviewing your resume will throw his hands up and move to the next one. Look at this heat map tracking recruiters’ gaze as they reviewed two resumes: one structured, one not. There is simply more “heat” on the structured one: the recruiter reads the summary then scans each of the individual’s titles and spends time reading bullet points from each experience. In the unstructured resume, the recruiter doesn’t even make it all the way through.
6) Prioritize information
[box style=”rounded”]The information in your resume should be ordered by relevance to the job.[/box]
After you write each line of your resume, consider what would happen if the hiring manager stopped reading then. Would they walk away with the most important points?
That is a very real hypothetical. Recruiters spend an average of 5-7 seconds on your resume. Every piece of information on your resume should be important. Prioritize it ruthlessly to make sure the most important information is at top. Apply this principle to your whole resume and to each section. Put the most important information up top in an executive summary. Within each section, list your bullet points in order of importance.
Make sure you are prioritizing what the hiring manager wants to see, not what you want to tell. The most important pieces of information to a recruiter are the skills and attributes needed for the job, which don’t always line up with your proudest achievements.
7) Less is more
[box style=”rounded”]Be brief. Pack it in.[/box]
As PhDs, we are taught the more data the better, so we are often tempted to include as much information as possible: all our publications, all our posters, all the projects we have contributed to in lab. On your resume, less is more. For each experience, ask yourself: “Is this relevant to the job?” If it’s not, cut it. Treat every centimeter on your resume as precious real estate and be sure to leave some white space.
If you are not applying for a research scientist job, your exact publications are not very important. If you have a first-author publication in a high-impact journal, it’s fine to list it in a section showing selected publications, but don’t list all of them. Better to have a punchy bullet point that says, “Co-authored 7 publications, including in Nature, PLoS Biology, and Journal of Neuroscience.”
Tangibly this means you might have to cut 70% of your most prized accomplishments so you can really zone in on the 30% that are relevant to the job. We know this is hard. Trust us, it’s for your own good!
8) Avoid the most common killer
[box style=”rounded”] Have others proofread your resume.[/box]
We’ve reviewed thousands of resumes and most have typos. Our most recent favorite: “Professonal experiences.”
Don’t do this. Have friends read your resume – often it takes someone else to find hidden typos. This is particularly important if English is not your first language.
A life sciences recruiter told us: “A flawless, well-written resume tells me something about a candidate. They can communicate. They’re attentive to detail. They put in the extra bit of effort on even tedious tasks because that’s the kind of person they are.”
9) If you only remember one point: Be results-oriented
[box style=”rounded”]Write bullet points that describe and quantify what you did, beginning with an action verb.[/box]
Write punchy bullet points that describe your experiences in concise, results-oriented language. Make each bullet a single sentence and lead with an action verb (e.g., developed, launched, managed) and include a result. Hiring managers want to know what you have achieved, not your job duties. Avoid bullets like “responsibilities included” or a list of roles. Instead, include tangible achievements. To make them tangible, quantify them. For example, if you helped secure funding for your lab, list how much; if you managed lab technicians, say how many. Here are some examples to illustrate the point:
A wasted bullet: Nathanson, C., Jensen, R., & Bender, Y. (2002). Nature.
A boring bullet: I was part of a team that published a paper in Nature, which was cited by over 50 other researchers.
A great bullet: Led the development of a multi-national collaboration, coordinating 3 research groups across 2 time zones, resulting in a Nature publication cited by 50 researchers, all within 6 months after work began.
This was the first in a series of posts on winning resume strategies for PhDs. Stay tuned to Scizzle for future pieces including writing an executive summary, making your skills and achievements stand out from the crowd and samples of “before” and “after” resume success stories.
Rudy Bellani and Zach Marks are co-founders of Oystir, a new free service helping PhDs find non-academic jobs. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org. To begin exploring what jobs match your skills, sign up at www.oystir.com.
I always thought I was meant to be scientist, even if I did not entirely understand what a scientist was as a kid. I loved to create, design, and understand how things worked. I also aspired to invent something; if I was not making some invisible potion to cure laughitis, I was imagining some kind of creation to make the bad monsters go away that were haunting my room.
Today, as I think about my next experiments in the lab (i.e., how can I selectively eliminate the cancer monsters?), I also wonder how much longer I can last as a scientist. If I continue along the academic path, do I have a sustainable future? Grants are hard to come by and tenure-track positions are few. Moreover, the amount of time you put into the work is not always rewarded sufficiently. As many postdoctoral researchers know, our salaries are often less than our peers who have bachelor’s degrees. Essentially, we invested lots of research time and got little return on our investment.
This dissatisfaction with academia is common feeling among many scientists in the academic world. This is apparent in the numerous blogs or articles by PhD graduates, postdoctoral researchers, and those who are lucky enough to begin tenure-track positions.
Although there is obviously a problem in academia right now, I do not think we have to stop being the scientists we once aspired to become. It is always good to know when to quit a specific job; however I think we can also adapt to the situation and evolve as a scientist either inside or outside of academia. Being a scientist today is not the same as being a scientist 20 years ago. There may be more PhDs to compete with than in the past, as well as more funding issues, but we also have new technology (e.g. the internet) that we can use to our advantage.
My experiences as a graduate student and postdoctoral researcher have made me view science much differently than I did as a kid or even since I began graduate school. There are several things that I have learned that may help academic scientists evolve and adapt to the current scientific environment.
1. Think outside the box
There are more than just government grants out there. If you are applying for such grants you have to realize that being smart and a good scientist is not always enough. What makes you special from the rest? You need to find that and emphasize that. I know my diverse scientific background has helped me obtain several grants. Find your niche. Explore unique types of grants.
2. Look beyond academia
Academia is not for everyone. A study by the American Institute of Research has shown that 61% of STEM PhDs pursue non-academic careers. There are jobs in science communication, science outreach, science education, science policy, industry, and the list goes on. There are many resources out there that explore life beyond academia. It may take a while but I have seen many people procure these kinds of jobs even after a long stint as a postdoctoral researcher. It is also possible that some people may even return to academia (one of my collaborators did this) or partner up with academic institutions after their experience outside academia.
3. Advertise your research
Get yourself connected and network with people at science events and even non-science events. Get the word out there. You never know who may be interested. This may not only make you feel good about your work, but it may also be beneficial to you in the future, whether you stay in academia or not. This may be one useful resource.
Start your own projects with other people you would like to collaborate with either at your institution or elsewhere. If your PI resists then explain how this could strengthen your research proposal and help you get funded. In fact, many grants require collaborations. Moreover, collaborations with industry or within academia may also lead you to other jobs in the future.
5. Continue your education
Gain expertise in a new field that might help you expand upon your research ideas. Ultimately, this may help you obtain more grants or find new job opportunities. You can do this by using tuition allowances you receive from grants or your institution. There are also online courses or MOOCs such as coursera or workshops available at various institutions that you can take for minimal costs.
6. Start something new
Whether you start a bakery, a brewery, a science start-up, or anything that you are passionate about — you can still be a scientist. Many of the skills you acquired as a scientist (e.g., management, writing, etc.) will come in handy, and you can always use Scizzle to keep up with the science you care about.
Overall, I think if we want to continue to be scientists we can, but we need to utilize the technology that is available to us, keep our options open, and be mindful of both the current state of academia and what is beyond the academic world. Whatever we choose we have to continue to evolve.