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Jul 6 / Sarah Sheesley

SciPhD Bootcamp at Wayne State Shows Scientists the (Business and Social Savvy) Paths to Industry – Part I

by Lauren Tanabe

On May 22-23, Wayne State hosted an intensive bootcamp for nearly 75 doctoral trainees and postdocs aspiring to careers in industry. Conducted by SciPhD, the comprehensive training event strives to teach attendees how to weave scientific skills together with business and social skills in order to stand out from the rest of the applicant pool.

One attendee, Ethan Brock, a graduate student in cancer biology, was eager to learn how to do this. “Wayne State … show[s] proficiency in training their graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to do good science, but few establishments focus on training us how to market ourselves,” he says.

Ph.D. student, Ethan Brock attending the SciPhd bootcamp. Photo by Lauren Tanabe.

Over two days, SciPhD founders Randall Ribaudo, PhD, and Larry Petcovic walked participants through several scenarios that ran the gamut from strategically dissecting job postings and tailoring resumes to how to prepare for the interview and negotiate the total compensation package.

Last fall at the NIH-BEST conference in Bethesda, Maryland, a graduate student expressed to me her exasperation in trying to leave academia.  She summed it up in one sentence: “You don’t know what you don’t know!” Ribaudo and Petcovic made it abundantly clear at the bootcamp that there is a lot academics don’t know (or take for granted), to their own detriment. “People very much self-limit their capability … [But] with your degrees, you can go out and do anything you want,” Ribaudo told students at the start of the program.

Ribaudo completed a PhD in immunology and went on to run a lab at the NIH. He decided to transition out of academia and worked as a scientific application specialist, but he was laid off when the biotech bubble burst. Through his experiences, he quickly realized that industry scientists communicate and interact differently with each other than academic scientists do. He and the co-founders of SciPhD thought that some of their observations about these differences could help academics struggling to find employment.

Ribaudo and Petcovic’s overarching message in the bootcamp was this: Those looking to leave academia soon need to learn how to reframe experiences to make them appealing to the industry sector. Those who have a longer time frame have the opportunity to learn what industry wants and can begin to integrate those desired experiences into their academic routine.

The Myth of the Over-Qualified and the Under-Experienced

You may have heard about this problem PhDs face: They are simultaneously “over-qualified,” meaning that a PhD degree isn’t necessary for the task, or they are “under-experienced,” meaning that they don’t have the requisite experience necessary. Ribaudo says this is a myth.

As you read through job listings, you may notice something of a conundrum. Nearly all require prior experience in industry. But how do you get into industry when you need to have already spent time in industry?

According to the experts at SciPhD, the onus is on you to show that although you have not spent time in industry, you have skills and expertise that are the equivalent of what would be gained by spending time in industry. That means you need to demonstrate not only technical skills (every qualified applicant has those) but also business and social skills. In other words, you need to effectively define your brand.

The “What” & the “How” Parts of Your Brand

As Randy Ribaudo explained, your brand is made up of three components – the technical, business, and social. Your scientific or technical identity is what you do; it is your education, training, publications, etc. Your business identity is how you do it. These are some of transferable skills jobs require and relate to how you lead a group, work independently with minimal supervision, develop creative solutions, and engage in problem-solving.

The third component that you may be less familiar with is your social identity, which concerns how you interact with others. Just like when you were graded in elementary school for how well you played with others, this is one of the most important aspects of your brand that companies want to know about.

Phrases in job descriptions often allude to social identity skills, such as passion, ability to communicate well, team participation. You need to be able to read other people’s backgrounds (e.g., scientist, human resources, project manager) and interact appropriately, highlighting what they might feel is important.

You may be tempted to gloss over this because you have an impressive scientific record — Don’t. A study reported in Forbes tracking 20,000 new hires across a variety of industries found that 46% were fired or let go in the first 18 months. A whopping 89% of those failed due to “attitudinal reasons,” such as lack of “coachability,” low levels of motivation, or low levels of “appropriate temperament.”

Those numbers are why companies want someone who has already succeeded in industry. It costs a lot of money to hire someone new who doesn’t last more than two years. It’s a bad investment. But Ribaudo and Petcovic say that you can convince them that you already have the equivalent experience, even if you are straight out of academia. They urged jobseekers to develop a resume that targets the job they want, the most important tactic for convincing recruiters and HR managers that an applicant has the skills they want (the subject of my next post).

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