Ways to improve your chances of getting a job in industry

Alexis Cocozaki

I remember a moment in high school when I truly believed that I would become a scientist working on discovering medicines to save people’s lives. Come graduation, I learned that I was too much of an average student with average grades to be accepted into biology or chemistry programs in my home country. I had to choose a major with a more practical career track that didn’t require high grades in math, physics, or chemistry. I told myself that my dream of working on discovering medicines was just that, a dream. I ended up joining a Medical Laboratory Technology major with the goal of becoming a medical technician in a hospital and I was going to try to make the best of it. However, as I was finishing my Bachelor’s Degree, I made the realization that I didn’t enjoy performing diagnostic tests in the lab as much as I enjoyed thinking about and analyzing scientific research. It was the first time (of many times) that I realized that my career was not going to go as I initially planned. I wasn’t going to be happy in a diagnostic laboratory. If I wanted to follow my interest in basic scientific research, I was going to have to join a research lab, continue my studies and ultimately become a professor in a university where I taught classes and ran my own lab. That plan did not materialize either, and I’m very happy that it didn’t. Luckily, my bachelor’s degree still provided me with training in Biology, I was able to pursue a Masters in Biology, and then a PhD in Molecular Biophysics. When I had to choose between a lab that worked on RNAi in fruit flies and a lab that studied RNA-protein interactions through X-ray crystallography, I chose the latter. As with my bachelor’s, I wanted my PhD to also open as many doors for me as possible. With structural biology, I could continue in either academia or industry, even though I was 99.9% sure at the time that I was going to become a professor. Where am I right now? Fifteen years after I had completely given up on my original plan, I found myself in a biotech company, working on discovering medicines for cancer that save people’s lives. The take home message from all this is the following: you can’t absolutely control your future, so try to keep your options open as much as you can! Many graduate students in the midst of their candidacy make the terrifying realization that the chances of becoming a professor these days are extremely low. Meanwhile, industry posts hundreds of jobs daily but it is still notoriously tough to break through. So how do you increase your chances of making it into industry? Note that I wrote “increase”. That means that even if all the factors described here are absent, there may be situations where a person can make into industry.

Which lab should I join?

Let’s start at the very beginning of your graduate career, when you are selecting a laboratory to join. As you enter graduate schools, you are bombarded with reasons why you should join one lab over the other: Is the research exciting to you? Is the professor just starting a lab or are they tenured? Is the professor well-funded? Will you have to teach to supplement a grant? Is the professor well-published? Many other factors contribute to your choice of professor to work with and research to pursue. What type of research/professor would increase your chances of catching the eye of an industry hiring manager? The most obvious situation is if the professor has connections and collaborations with industry. If that’s the case, it is likely that your research may be directly related to drug discovery or the understanding of a disease. You may perform the types of experiments that are conducted in industry and may acquire a skillset that is needed in industry. Your professor might be well known in the biotech and pharmaceutical networks. Alumni from this lab might have gone on to join multiple companies and may serve as connections for you. When a hiring manager sees your CV, they may hear about you from an alumnus from your lab or they may have heard of the professor. They may also notice that your research is related to drug discovery and you’ve had collaborations with a company. These are all factors that will work in your favor. Not everybody gets a chance to work in a lab that collaborates with industry, but many professors conduct research that is related to disease or to drug discovery. Graduates from these labs will probably have a higher chance of getting into industry than students who have done research that is unrelated or remotely related to biotechnology. Finally, such situations may not exist at the time you are choosing a professor. In that case, it may help to at least choose a lab that uses techniques used in industry. In my case, for example, I chose a lab that does X-ray crystallography because I know that both academics and industry use the technique. It’s also a technique that requires a long time to master. Depending on the graduate program you join, you may or may not be able to find all the types of labs listed above. If you are already midway through graduate school, consider incorporating techniques used in industry into your research. If you try to stay close to industry through the type of research or the techniques, you might have better chances to be accepted into industry.

How do I find a job in industry?

Walking around a dining hall alone at lunchtime during a conference is one of the most terrifying moments of my life. With my plate filled with buffet food in hand, I scan the room looking for a table that has a few people on it that don’t look like they’re all from the same group. At this age, I’m too old to sit with graduate students so my best bet is a table with either postdocs or professors. I find a table and it’s a mix of postdocs and graduate students. I sit down, introduce myself, and we engage in small talk and some discussions about the conference. I try to be as nice and friendly as I can – something that is typical of people in industry. My name tag clearly says that I’m from a biotech company, but none of the graduate students or postdocs ask me anything about industry. That was a missed opportunity for them and a situation that happens to me almost all the time. You shouldn’t be scared of introducing yourself to a professional at a conference and asking them questions about their career. They are generally nice, friendly people who will enjoy talking to you about how they made it into industry. They may even remember your name or add you to their LinkedIn network. They might remember you when they see a job posting at their company. At the very least, you may learn about what it’s like to work in industry and whether it is a place for you. If you don’t get a chance to meet someone in industry then well… there’s LinkedIn and there’s Google. Through LinkedIn, you can check out people’s profiles and know their career paths. You can also find job postings that describe the techniques being sought out by companies. With google, you can look up articles and forum discussions that describe how and where to find industry jobs. Find advice on how to ask for informational interviews and other ways to make connections with professionals on LinkedIn and other platforms. Simply googling “how to make it into biotech” will result in many pages that describe the process of breaking into industry.

How to apply for industry positions

The easiest way to find positions is to look at job posting websites. Since I joined industry in 2013, every entry-level position that was filled at my company was posted online. People used to say that the majority of jobs are not posted online, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think that it’s become standard protocol to post jobs online to cast as wide a net as possible. That’s great news for you. You can go online to one of many websites and find a position that matches your skills. Except the position lists a whole bunch of additional skills that you don’t have. Apply anyway! The worst that could happen is that you don’t hear back. The best that could happen is that you get an interview. So you’ve found a job posting that matches your skills, there’s a link to an online application, you click it, it asks you to upload your resume and a cover letter. Can you just upload the CV you used to apply for a postdoc or professor position and skip the cover letter? Yes, if you want to be completely ignored! Not all industry managers are the same or look for the same characteristics in a job candidate, but here are some do’s and don’ts about an application that make it more likely for you to be considered. These are based on my experience on hiring committees for scientist jobs in pharma and biotech.

  • The CV should be short. Longer than 3 pages becomes too much. Typical is 2 pages. Sections should include: summary (describe interest in industry), education, work experience, technical skills, publications. You can add sections like presentations and awards, which can help.
  • The CV should contain terminology that is used in the job description. Your CV will likely be read by someone from HR before being seen by a scientist. The HR person will compare your CV to the job post and look for similar language. Incorporate key words and phrases in the job post into your CV and prioritize the parts of your experience that fit with the job. If you’re applying for a position in Cryo-EM, don’t have Cryo-EM as the last tiny bullet point in your list of skills and don’t use other phrases like “structural biology methods”. Have “Cryo-EM” as the first skill listed and include details about the particular machines and software you used.
  • The CV should emphasize your accomplishments. In the descriptions of your work experiences, you should mention the problems you solved, the questions you answered. For example, instead of saying “worked on the structure and function of protein X” you can say “solved the structure of protein X and revealed its enzymatic mechanism”.
  • Avoid business-y buzzwords. Focus on describing yourself as a promising scientist. Phrases like “leadership-oriented”, “results-focused”, or “value-added” on a scientist’s CV are more likely to be turn-offs.
  • Write a cover letter. It’s not always essential and you might get away with not writing one, but it can help. This is especially the case if you need to justify why you are interested in the position. The cover letter is your chance to describe in more detail how you fit the position and to convey to the hiring manager how enthusiastic you are about the position. Again, the cover letter should also mirror some of the language of the job posting. You’re more likely to be considered if you already sound like someone in industry.

When you apply for jobs in industry, you’re more likely to get ignored than to hear back from the hiring manager or HR. Don’t let that discourage you. This is not a reflection of how you were evaluated as a scientist. Maybe they were looking for someone local that could start as soon as possible, maybe they already filled the position, maybe they decided to not hire anyone… There are a lot of reasons to not hire someone that have nothing to do with the strength of their CV. So keep trying. And if you can, ask for advice, talk to someone in industry, read the articles and forums about industry jobs and how to get in and don’t lose hope; being ignored by most companies you apply to is normal.

Dr. Alexis Cocozaki is a Principal Scientist, Lead Discovery at Epizyme

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