non-academic job search: alumni networking event recap

My colleagues Karen Clothier, Brittney Boublil, Tammy Tran, and David Ottenheimer recently organized an alumni networking event – an opportunity to learn more about transitioning from academic research to research-focused positions across a variety of industries. The invited alumni included Amy Spiegel, Jeff Mayse and Sarah Stamper who got their PhDs from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Emma Gregory and Erin Zaroukian from Cognitive Science, my home department, and Dan Pham and Emily Kuehn from Neuroscience.

This was an incredibly uplifting event, packed with useful information and practical tips. The alumni were really delightful to talk to, and they spoke with the empathy of someone who understood the struggles and anxieties of academic job search. I wrote a recap of the Q&A part of the event, which Karen moderated.

Dan Pham, Emily Kuehn, Emma Gregory, Sarah Stamper, Amy Spiegel, Erin Zaroukian, Jeff Mayse, and Karen Clothier

Dan Pham, Emily Kuehn, Emma Gregory, Sarah Stamper, Amy Spiegel, Erin Zaroukian, Jeff Mayse, and Karen Clothier

How do you start preparing for a transition into industry?

1) The earlier you start thinking about it, the better. Even if you want a career in academic research, but are open to other options if things don’t work out, it’s good to start exploring/preparing for those options now. 2) Start learning new skills. Your PhD will open doors for you, but that’s it – you’ll need to show you have the necessary skills for your new career. This means you have to prioritize your professional development and make time for taking online courses, volunteering opportunities, etc. Of course, this sounds daunting when you’re a PhD student already overwhelmed with work, but start slow and don’t try to do everything by yourself – reach out to recent PhD grads who’ve been there, talk to your advisor if you think they will understand. 3) Seek out information – go to career panels and informational interviews with the people in careers you’re interested in. Be prepared that your advisor or PI won’t have a lot of knowledge about pursuing a career outside of academia – instead, talk to career counselors and reach out to different parts of your network. The more people you talk to, the more you will understand the jobs you’re interested in. 4) Keep track of your experience. Mentored a student? Judged a robotics competition? Managed a project and a team of people (yep, if you worked on a big research project with multiple collaborators, then you probably did)? Put it on your resume! 5) Track job ads to learn the parlance the industry uses. Pick on buzz words – can you use this language to describe your experience? 5) Start using LinkedIn to track your experience and accomplishments. It’s also a great tool to make yourself available to recruiters – there’s a box you can tick to show you’re actively looking for a job! 6) Don’t interview for your dream job the first time. You will probably bomb your first interview. That’s nothing to be ashamed of – it’s all a learning process.

How to craft a resume? What to leave out from your CV?

1) In the first three to seven lines, make it clear why someone should hire you. 2) Aside from your official resume, keep a document just for yourself where you dump all of your experience and accomplishments – you’ll need it to craft resumes and cover letters that are specific to the job you’re applying for. 3) This follows from the previous point: don’t submit the same resume for every job, tailor it to each application. It will only take you 2-3 hours, but it will already put you in the top 5% of applicants. 4) Bring a copy of your resume to informational interviews to get feedback. 5) What’s often lacking from resumes is a list of things you’ve accomplished – use wording like “I led this many teams”, “I made something more efficient”, “I organized a committee”, etc. 6) Quantify what you can. “Teaching assistant for course X” won’t give recruiters a clear picture of what your role was. Did you teach lectures? How many students have you taught? Have you developed a syllabus? 7) This is tough to hear for academics, who spend years constantly writing, editing, and publishing papers, but if you’re applying for an industry job, chances are no one will care that much about your publications. Recruiters will care that you have written papers, not what you have written, so just wrap your pubs into one line on your resume: N publications, N citations. Then make yourself a nice cup of tea and sit in the dark for a bit. Hey, but it’s the knowledge you gained while writing these papers that really counts, right?

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Do you regret getting your PhD?

The general consensus was that this depends on the field, but most panelists said they would not have got the jobs they have now if they hadn’t done a PhD.

Were you afraid about feeling unfulfilled in a non-academic job?

One of the most compelling reasons to work in academia is getting to answer really interesting and important questions for a living, while surrounded by bright people. But this doesn’t mean that if you leave academia you will automatically settle for a mundane job with colleagues you can barely tolerate. There are interesting problems and people everywhere. And with some non-academic research jobs, you get to see the impact of your work right away, which is incredibly rewarding.

So is the grass greener on the non-academic lawn?

Academia and industry have very different stressors. Working for a company means you can leave work at 5 and won’t have to worry about it until you step into the office the next morning. But – budget cuts happen, and you can be laid off pretty much at any moment. (But you can also get a new job.) You have to deal with occasional crappy parts in any job or field – so make sure to do some self-searching to identify what you can put up with and what you’re not willing to sacrifice. Remember that no job will ever be 100% perfect. If you like 70% of your job and can live with the other 30%, you’re already in a great position.

Some general advice:

Start by doing research about yourself. Assess your needs and happiness. They are really important. Identify your values – they will help you stay grounded. Keep interviewing – it keeps you sharp and you will make connections that will help you if/when you’re ready to leave academia. Don’t approach the job search as planning the rest of your life. Instead, ask yourself what you’re interested in right now, and start exploring.

Some resources for JHU students:

Informational interviews organized by the university are a low commitment way to discover what you are interested in, realize the connections you already have and build new ones, learn about volunteering opportunities, etc.

The BCI (Biomedical Careers Initiative) is a fund that pays for 3-month internships, and any JHU PhD student can apply. The fund’s name makes it sound medical-specific but it’s really open to everyone! If you find an internship you want to do, they will fund it, and it won’t count on your degree clock. Talk to the people in the Career Center – they know about it too.