Monday, June 22, 2015

The two biggest obstacles to science Ph.D's getting a job in industry

Over the past few years I have been watching with interest a number of postdocs transitioning from academia to industry. From my very limited experience, reading, and some discussions I think there are two obstacles that need to be faced head on. Both involve wrong perceptions and misunderstandings.

1. Industry is not interested in me because my highly specialised technical skills are not relevant.
This is true. Industry could not care less about spinons, lattice gauge theory, Bell's theorem, synchrotrons, femtosecond spectroscopy, cosmology, ....
However, industry is VERY interested in some of the skills you do have and probably take for grant: problem solving, critical thinking, analyse complex data, ability to learn new technical skills quite, write and debug large computer code, not being scared of big data, technical communication [written and verbal], work in teams.... Furthermore, it is important to appreciate that the vast majority of people, including many with MBAs, finance and law degrees, can really struggle to do some of these things at the most basic level.
So, do not underestimate what you have to offer.
There are actually head hunting firms who have people working full time trying to "poach" people from academia for jobs in industry. An Australian example is here.

2. I should use the same CV and cover letter for academic and industry positions.
No! No! No!
Industry could not care about how many papers you have, journal impact factors, citations, invited talks at "prestigious" conferences, ...
You need to rewrite your CV from scratch. Make it short and emphasise the skills above. Find someone you know who recently got a job in industry and ask them for a copy of their CV and cover letter.

Many of these issues are no doubt covered in depth by two books I recently recommended.

I welcome comments and suggestions from people who have made the transition and know much more about this than me.


  1. As someone who left a 'permanent' industry position to enter the non-permanent academic trail of jobs, I can readily testify to your second point. The two CVs indeed need to be very different: the CV for industry should be at most one page; spill over into the second page and you lose audience.

    I am encouraged that things between industry and academia are ceasing to be either-or scenarios, particularly in theoretical sciences. Even as early as 1900 when modern theoretical physics was taking shape with Planck, he began studying cavity radiation largely because the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt wanted to establish a zero-point standard for rating new electric lamps that the industries were producing (the cavity radiation would be the worst possible illumination for the most possible heating).

    However I am discouraged when the transition between the one and the other is implied --- not necessarily by this post --- to be a final one, with no looking back; when people refer to the move from one to the other as 'leaving' or 'quitting', readers often interpret such a statement to have an undertone of resignation or disillusionment. I would like to point out that this is simply not true.

    1. Thanks for the helpful comment.

      I agree with your concern about some negative characterisations of the transition from academia to industry. Unfortunately, some still see this as the second best option. Some also naively think that in industry they are going to liberated from all the frustrations of academia, rather than being confronted with a whole new set of challenges and stresses.

    2. I still feel the horrible (pride-seeded) compulsion to explain that I left academia by choice, and that I still had time on my contract, etc. It's an awful feeling. People in the real world don't even think about it. They change jobs all the time. But I still feel it!

  2. I left academia after 4 years of postdoc-ing, and have found that this all rings very true, comments included.

    I think getting that first job is tricky. People don't know what to make of you coming from academia, and they want you to hit the ground running (if you're going for a mid-level job). Knowing the key concepts of the job, ahead of time, is really important. Reading up on basic concepts, so you can talk the talk, I think is important. I don't know how many potential employers would take you on just for those more general skills. I think they should, but they probably won't. So demonstrable knowledge of their broad field is important, I think. But this is just what you should always do: be familiar with a job before the interview.

    But anyway, I really think this post is heaps helpful.

    My first job, post-academia, was in value chain optimisation - an area I didn't know existed until I applied for the job - as well as full-stack development (UI design, implementation, backend, networking etc).

    What I found, very quickly, was that 7 years of condensed matter theory goes a long way. You can stand at a white board and formalise anything. You can read up on something new, whether it's abstract math or some web technology, and pretty quickly become an expert. The vast majority of initially overwhelming new concepts and acronyms turned out be really simple little things.

    I was lucky to get the job, because my CV sucked. I didn't fall prey to trap #2 but, rather, trap #1. I didn't have enough confidence in what I'd achieved and could do. Like you say, Ross, I didn't realise I was comfortable with big data, I didn't realise I was a debugging expert, I didn't even think to say that complex tasks are my bread and butter. And I was definitely not sufficiently concrete. Concrete skills with concrete examples. The industry CV looks a little silly to me, but it must include a list of skills with qualifying and supporting statements. I am good at collaborating, because I have collaborated at these times, across time zones, working to deadlines, meeting people's expectations. It all should go without saying, but it doesn't. Just making people aware that you know these are actual things, that can really cause problems, goes so far.

    So I think self awareness, and articulating that, goes a long way.

    Another one which I think we tend not to emphasise is presentation skills. Academics present complex topics to everyone from world leading specialists, to school students. I keep meeting 35 year olds who are terrified because they're giving a presentation next week. We don't realise what the rest of the working world are doing with their time.

    Whenever someone asks a theoretical physicist "can you do this {technical task}", the real answer is "well, I don't know how to do that, but I'll read up and do it really quickly... I promise". But this won't do. The correct answer, in industry, is "Yes", or "Of course".

    I think that first step into industry is really tough, because I agree whole-heartedly with this post, you don't realise quite how much you have to offer, and you don't know how to convey that in your CV.

    1. Tony,

      Thanks for the positive and concrete feedback.
      It is very important to have the views and experience of someone who as actually made the transition.