Thursday, November 5, 2015

How to nail your dream job outside academia straight after your PhD

After an increasing demand on career advice from my friends and colleagues I have decided to write this article that I hope can be useful for some of the people who wish to transition after completion of their PhD straight to the non-academic world. In this article I would like to describe my own personal experience in the search for a dream job. I would like to state right away that I was not interested in working as a scientist in the industry (start-ups included), neither to pursue an academic career or create my own company. So I have tried to make a summary of my activities and the steps I undertook to nail a position of Innovation and Development Manager for a non-profit organization.

1.       Identify what you want to do after your PhD. This is the hardest and the most crucial step among all of them. You have to know exactly what position you want to apply to, because once you have that figured out, you will need to develop the skills required for that job. But how can you find out about multiple career opportunities out there? That is an easy one. There are multiple career events organized on campus all the time: career fairs, seminars organized by pharmaceutical or consulting companies. Find something that inspires you. Go to all of these meeitngs, meet people, ask questions and try to learn as much as you can about their jobs. Learn about pros and cons of their jobs and identify what would you like to do after your PhD. When I still had 2 years left of my PhD I have decided that I am absolutely not interested in quality control, clinical trials, regulatory affairs or everything linked to intellectual property. However I was interested in marketing, scientific communication, project management, business intelligence and consulting. That is still a very big list which I managed to narrow down further on. However I had a clear idea of the things I did not want to do and that was already something.

2.       Acquire the necessary skills and education. Unless you want to continue a scientific career, skills developed during your PhD are not enough for any job outside academia. Therefore after you have identified what job you would like to apply to, learn about the required skills. You can either read about them on the internet or simply look for the job adverts. If this is really something you want, you will have to invest in your education, and not only time, but money. It is hard to combine additional webinars and courses with a PhD, but this is something you will have to do. Go to a project management course, learn how to work with SAP software, subscribe to a course on intellectual property, scientific writing, regulatory affairs or clinical trials (most of them you can find on-line), learn new languages or prepare for the interviews in consulting companies. It is a very tough world out there, the desired qualifications are often extremely high and keep in mind that you are competing with people who already have a business degree and work experience, which makes it even harder. There are a lot of courses on campus or seminars organized for PhD students for a reduced price. Profit from them while you are here! As for myself, I have obtained a degree in management and attended seminars on drug discovery and intellectual property while doing my PhD. I went to workshops and seminars organized by McKinsey, Roche and other companies all over Europe and participated in different scientific communication campaigns. I have learnt many useful things and connected with a lot of people. As I was interested in scientific communication, I have also started a blog. This is a great way to improve your writing and learn to communicate scientific topics to wide public. Do not forget to notify your social network about current updates on your blog in case you start one. Another very important point is finding out how you can enter a desired field. For instance, there are existing training programs in pharmaceutical companies in intellectual property or regulatory affairs. On the other hand, you can nail a position in consulting straight after your PhD. There are many options and your goal is to learn about the ones that are interesting for you. 

3.       Be professional. You might find this point unnecessary, but it is crucial how people perceive you. When I had a CV check with a friend who was a CEO of one very successful start-up, the first thing he did was striking out the title “student” from my resume. As long as you act as a PhD “student”, you will be perceived this way. You are not a student, not anymore, you are a scientist, a PhD candidate if you wish. So when you go to career and networking events, wear smart clothes (no more jeans and t-shirts, you are not working with bacteria in the lab), order business cards, get a LinkedIn  page and spend some time filling the information about your professional milestones there. Your LinkedIn page is very important. I was offered career opportunities multiple times via Linked In. So make your page detailed, with a nice professional photo (go to a photographer and get a business photo). Ask your friends and colleagues to recommend you on LinkedIn. It makes a very good impression. Another useful thing is creating your own website and additionally your own professional e-mail. It is a good opportunity to learn how to make a website with the help of available on-line tools (relative skill for your CV by the way), additionally you can use this occasion to tell about yourself, your interests in terms of career, your achievements and future goals. There are multiple tools for creating a personal website (, readymag, wix). When your website is ready, add it on your business card, your CV and LinkedIn profile. Nowadays you can easily create a QR code that allows to scan your business card and go directly to your blog or website. However some argue that the QR code is "very 2009". Up to you whether to put it or not.

4.       Ask for help. You are trying to accomplish a challenging task. You will need help and don’t be afraid to ask for it. Fortunately, Universities have career advice services. Try to profit as much as you can from them, get your CV checked. Your CV is essential. You will not believe how many seminars and workshop exist on writing CVs and motivation letters. If you are applying for different positions, such as marketing and communications, you need to have different CVs for those. Upload your CV on websites that offer jobs in industry and to the HR databases of big companies. Be active on the social media and communicate your career achievements and non-profit activities. Contact head hunters. Ask people who already work in the industry for advices. Another thing that I did and found very helpful was practicing job interviews. Ask your friends (preferably someone much senior and experienced) to do a mock interview with you. Make it real and ask him or her to make it challenging. Be prepared to answer all those questions: “Why should we hire you?”, “Tell us about your previous experience”, “What are your salary expectations?”, “How well do you know the industry?”, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”. One of the first interviews I have practiced was in French and presumably it was for a marketing position in a watch company. It was scary and challenging, but I have put myself together and developed a marketing strategy on a sheet of paper in 15 seconds when I was asked to do so. I can tell you that after that a phone interview with a consulting company was not scary at all. 

5.       Network until you drop. You are trying to enter a completely new world where you most likely do not know anybody. So put on that smart clothes, take a bunch of business cards and go to all the networking events involving industry, consulting companies and whatever you are interested in. Attend the alumni events at your University, go to the events organized by different associations, even if you have to go to another city and pay for your entrance. You will regret lost opportunities. Don’t be lazy  and make some additional effort. But do not just go there, listen to the talks and profit from the buffet. Go there, meet and talk to people, this is what these events are for! If I knew that at the event that I am attending will be a CTO of one company or the chairman of another one, I would not leave without his business card in my pocket. Find an excuse to approach and talk to these people. Be pushy if needed and build your network. Find out from the people who already work in the industry about the relevant meetings and try to attend them. Go to the meetings involving start-ups, meet people and try to find out about potential career opportunities. It is also relatively easy to find out about the start-up’s financial situation as all their financial rounds are communicated. Once you have your network, try to find about existing or emerging career opportunities from them. If you know someone working in the company, where you are sending your CV, try to send your CV to the director of the department rather than to the HR. Big companies receive hundreds of CVs every day, your file will take a lot of time to be proceeded. Sometimes you will need to create a job for yourself. Talk to people and see whether there is something you can help them with, whether there is a career opportunity for you there. My first consulting client was someone that I have met at a party. Turned out he was looking for someone with the expertise in diabetes and there I was. Another time I have convinced a famous musician that he needed a manager. Opportunities are everywhere around you.

6.       Build work experience.  During my PhD I got involved in several international non-profit associations of young professionals and even co-founded one of them. It was an amazing experience. First of all, I have discovered that I am capable of so many things: strategy, recruitment, marketing, event coordination, and fundraising. I have met passionate and like-minded people. In addition, you will expand your professional network and will have more excuses to contact people from the industry and government and even to work with them while organizing some events. During your PhD it is crucial to acquire some work experience if your plan to stop your research activities. There are multiple free-lance projects all around you and why not to start your own small business? In addition, a lot of companies are looking for ambassadors and this can also be a useful experience. Build up a list of your free-lance and non-profit activities which will make you stand out among other candidates. However be careful and do not let people abuse you. It is ok to conduct one pro-bono project, but don’t turn it into a habit. If you work for free, people are not going to value your time and effort. This is not how the world you are trying to enter works like. Conducting free-lance projects and working in a non-profit association will help you to discover in yourself and develop skills that you had no idea about. You are capable of much more than you ever suspected.

     Start early and never give up. You have to start identifying what you want to do with your future career as soon as possible. Two years before the end of your PhD is a good point to know what you would like to do next with your life. Do not be focused only on your next step, try to think a few steps ahead. You will get a lot of rejections and that is normal. Do not let them put you down! You are about to complete a PhD. You have mastered the literature, learnt new methodologies, taught and supervised students, you have experience in project management, you have worked in constantly changing environment, you have worked long hours and you have worked under stress. You have wrote and reviewed scientific papers and grant proposals, you have verified scientific hypothesizes, produced and analyzed large amounts of data, communicated your research at the scientific meetings all over the world, even got grant money for your research and secured international collaborations! Sadly, all of this might not be enough for your future employer and you will have to obtain new experience and new skills, but don’t forget that you have already accomplished a lot. This is just a new goal, a challenging one. But you will make it. 

   Photo credit: Ksenia Tugay, Carlos Ciller, Endre Horvath, Carmelo Bisognano


  1. I quite agree with your suggestions. Especially "start early and never give up. I'm now working in the biotech field. I think it's my dream job.

    1. Hi, Caroline. Really happy to hear that you landed your dream job!