The Way Out: Part 1 Preparation & Informational Interviews
August 26, 2016
This series of posts is my own personal reflection on my job application process to transition out of my postdoc in Academia.
I recently applied for Field Application Scientist positions and the following few posts reflect my experience. However much of this is applicable to many of the other jobs PhD scientists can transition into.
This piece is written into several parts:
Preparation: What to do before you apply Other parts to follow soon:
The application process
What do you mean I need to prepare to apply??
If you are looking for a postdoc (or any academic position), you do a level of research - you read the papers a lab has published, maybe chat to the people in the lab at a conference and get the opinion of colleagues who may know the group. Why would moving to an industry job be any different?!?
Firstly, you need to do some soul searching and WORK OUT WHAT YOU WANT! Yes, this means some hard thinking about where you really want to head and the kind of environment you will be happy in. Perhaps most importantly, you need to decide what kind of career path suits you best and the type of company you are looking for. The problem with having a PhD, is that it does open up a lot of doors so you almost have too much to choose from. I have written before about one of the tools you can use to try to identify your ideal career tracks, however one of the most effective methods is to network with people and conduct informational interviews.
Why do I NEED to decide? Can't I aim for both academia and industry tracks and pick whichever works out?
I just want to clarify - you absolutely can aim for multiple tracks, but the requirements for different tracks (even within industry positions) can be incredibly diverse. Thus, it would be very difficult to manage multiple tracks that you should be networking in AND working towards the requirements of that job. For example, for an academic job, publications are king, so you will spend a lot of time at the bench trying to get science to work. In industry (depending on the job and company), they may not assign as high a value on a larger number of publications, as required in academia, rather industry often views publications as a sign of work output. Thus, HUGE Cell/Science/Nature papers (which can often take 5+ years), although recognized, may not get you as far in industry vs. academia.
Another difference in the type of networking you will be engaged with. While academics generally network at conferences - and it is absolutely a vital (though often overlooked) portion of an academic job search, you may be hard pressed to find many industry professionals from non-academic type job at a conference aimed for academics. Therefore, if you should pursue both tracks, you should be attending both events. This then means you are spread thin on your work at the bench and likely not participating in more targeted networking opportunities.
What is an informational interview?
It is an opportunity for you to talk to someone who may have had a similar career transition as you, or is now working in your desired industry and/or company. It is your opportunity to do research to collect information on different career paths (and companies) to collect the data to make an educated decision on what your next step should be. There are 1:1 conversations, often over coffee or lunch, and it is what I consider to be a "targeted networking opportunity" as you have access to someone who is directly connected to where you think you may want to go. The next sentence is intentionally in bold:
An informational interview is never, ever, EVER an opportunity to ask anyone for a job.
If, after your conversation, they suggest you apply for a particular position or ask for your resume, great! Definitely take that opportunity up! However, you should NEVER assume or expect that an informational interview will get you hired. That is not it's purpose. It is intended to gather information, thus it is an informational interview.
How do I find people to interview?
I have already covered why networking is so crucial (70% of ALL new hires within the USA are estimated to be through some sort of networking interaction!!) and some tips to start of networking on a broader level. While I believe attending either specific or generalized networking events can be incredibly fruitful, it should primarily serve to get you connected to people you can then do informational interviews with. The day after an event, send them a follow-up email (or use the LinkedIn "connect" feature - always connect with a personalized message!!). Use this email to ask them out for coffee or lunch at a time convenient for them so you can continue your conversation further and get some career advice. While not everyone will accept your invitation, I have found the vast majority of people do. Most people want to help others as they themselves had help with their careers and they would like to "give back". I have also made some great friends some these connections.
Here is a sample message you can use:
Subject: Lovely meeting you last night at XX event!
Message: Dear [NAME],
It was really lovely chatting with you last night about your career path into [Place career path here]. I am considering a similar career path and would love to have lunch or coffee with you to get some advice as to how to best position myself to do so.
I am available [insert days/times within the next week or two] and I would be happy to come up to [Near where they work/Easy location for them to go to] to meet you.
[Include a link to your linkedin profile so they can jog their memory as to who you are!]
Obviously you should amend the above message to suit the conversation you may have had. Did you talk about how adorable their new puppy is? Add that in!
You want to make it as easy for them to meet with you - they are doing you a favor after all! I absolutely offer to pay for coffee/food if that is what you have invited them for. It is only courteous and shows you are cognizant and grateful that they are giving their time to help you.
What do I talk about?
Firstly, you need to make sure you have a good story about yourself. What motivates you? How did you end up here? Everyone is interested in commonalities - did you happen to go to the same college? You want to end with why are you looking at that particular career? company? path?
Your answer can't be: "well my lab ran out of funding" "I couldn't get a faculty position" "I don't know what else to do..."
..... and I need a job. No.
WHY do you want that career path? You want to help your interviewee to help you. What do you really want to know?
One note: Keep your introductory story to only a minute or two. You don't want to bore your interviewee from the beginning of the meeting. If they are interested in more details, they will definitely ask - thus it becomes what you ideally want: a conversation!
The beauty of informational interviews is that they can be whatever you want them to be. Do you want to know about the culture of the company? How they transitioned out of academia? How did they settle into working outside of the academic environment (which is incredibly insular!). Did they have any advice on resumes or navigating the interview process? There are many more questions (see page 8 of this document! [pdf]). This is where you are doing your research. I can't tell you what you should ask - you really need to think about what this person has done and how you can learn from their experiences.
At the end of the interview, ensure you thank the individual and feel free to ask if they know anyone else who might be helpful. This is fairly standard practice, so don't feel awkward asking!
On following up:
The day after you have had your meeting, make sure you send a thank you email for their time and to tell them that you found it very useful. Perhaps even mention some "action items" that came from the discussion? Things you will look into? It will show that you were listening and took their advice to heart. It can also be nice to send a card to them (if you know their business address) to show your appreciation.
Keeping in touch:
One of the hardest things in networking is keeping up with your contacts. The easiest method I have found, which I consider cheating a little, is to leverage my connection to the numerous events that the Postdoctoral community organized, either through my institutional Postdoctoral Association or the Boston-wide PDA. By inviting the people I have met with as panelists or networking guests, it re-affirms that I found their advice valuable and want to broaden their reach to others and enables me to re-connect with them. Obviously you don't want to invite them same people to events (and some people simply cannot attend events for whatever reason), but it is a great way to keep in touch.
Okay, what now?!
Unfortunately this is just the beginning! If you are actively looking for a job, you should be conducting 2-3 informational interviews a week. Remember, your main goal is to identify:
Where you would fit in best (both job and company wise)
What life is on the other side - what will you actually be doing in this new job? What will the learning curve be like (and there will always be a learning curve!).
How best to position yourself to apply, once a job comes up!
The great benefit of conducting these interviews is that at the same time as gathering this knowledge, you are also expanding your network and making yourself known to all of these people. If you left a good impression and they have a job they need filled, they are more likely to ask you to apply (a known person is always better than an unknown person!). However - as stated above, NEVER ask for a job in any way, through an informational interview.
You may be thinking that all of this information is not necessary - in my next post, I will explain how all of this research you gather will make a world of difference when it comes to actually applying and interviewing for a position!
Check back in (hopefully) two weeks or so - for part two in the Way Out Series: Applying for a job!