How to Market Yourself for Industry
We asked our readers to submit a career question and someone asked us, "How do I prepare myself for a position in microbiology with a different focus than what I was trained in? For example, I would like to work in industry, but my thesis work has been in basic research." We asked Paul Dunman, Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry for his insights. In summary, he says that talent is a currency accepted everywhere, and an educated and well-rounded microbiologist is a valuable commodity no matter the work sector.
Dr. Dunman elaborated:
A common misconception is that trainees with purely basic research experience do not have the proper skill-sets and therefore, are not qualified for industrial positions. That could not be farther from the truth, particularly if one considers that virtually every industrial project is predicated by a basic understanding of the system of interest. For instance, members of "translational" research teams are actually conducting basic studies on a daily basis, whether it's validating a particular target, defining the kinetics of an enzyme, designing an assay, or problem-solving a reagent issue. Success in each of these examples requires basic research skills to quickly devise an appropriate experimental plan.
The challenge for basic scientists in transitioning to industry is finding job opportunities. Most basic researchers probably do not attend the same meetings frequented by industrial scientists or collaborate with private groups. Consequently, they lack the connections needed to learn about jobs available in big-pharma or biotechnology companies. It may be possible to find an advisor or departmental member with industry ties to get you started, but like any job search, the simple truth is that one must be aggressive, original, and persistent.
To that end, begin the search very early. Make business cards and attend meetings that you know industry personnel frequent. Strike up conversations, hand out those cards, and let people know you will be on the job market. Publish your work in a timely manner - the number/impact of your publications does matter. A Chief Scientific Officer that I know, uses an applicant's publication record as the strongest predictor of productivity and won't consider someone with less than 3 publications. Read literature published by the companies and if appropriate, follow-up with the corresponding author of studies. Consider internships for Ph.D. level trainees. Also, the sales representatives that you may interact with (or try to avoid) sell for companies that you might be interested in so make contacts within that group.
Once you get that interview, be prepared to be judged on your science, as well as your presentation skills - your ability to describe your hypothesis, experimental plan, delivery, and to answer questions. Much of industrial life is scientific presentations so you will be asked to provide a formal seminar on your work. Since you will likely meet one-on-one with other team members during the interview day, read their past work so you can drive the conversation and convey your thoughts about the work. Most likely, you haven't signed a Confidential Disclosure Agreement (CDA) so your interviewer can't tell you about their current project - but pivoting the conversation to their past work offers you the opportunity to engage in a productive dialog where you can share your thoughts. While you will certainly be nervous during the interviewing process, enjoy yourself. One of the main goals of any company hire is to ensure that they are investing in a bright talent who will fit well with the team.
Big-pharma and biotechnology companies are most interested in building scientific teams comprised of energetic, productive, innovative, and well-trained personnel that work well in a collaborative manner. Young scientists who display the ability to think through a problem and engineer a highly focused and well controlled experimental plan to test their hypotheses are the most highly sought after. At the end of the day, industrial jobs are available (and you are qualified), but just as in science, you must carefully research what opportunities exist and carefully plan how to obtain the results you seek.
Paul Dunman is currently an Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in 1999 and subsequently obtained post-doctoral training then as a Scientist and Sr. Scientist positions in the antibacterial and bacterial vaccines groups at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. Dr. Dunman transitioned to a faculty appointment at University of Nebraska Medical Center prior to joining the University of Rochester in 2010.