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3 Factors PhDs Must Consider When Deciding Company Fit

If you recently started your job search, you probably feel the pressure of proving that you’re a good fit for the industry roles you’re applying to. 

You have to carefully craft your cover letter, resume, and LinkedIn profile, and prepare for countless interviews just to prove you’re  qualified for a position. 

This pressure can make you feel that employers hold all the power, and the only thing that matters is convincing them that you’re the best candidate for the role.

Don’t let this pressure make you neglect other key components of a successful career, like company fit. 

You’ll likely accept a position because you’re drawn to the work, but you’ll stay because you like the work environment.

Here’s what one of our members had to say about company fit after a their first transition:

In my first industry job search, I was so focused on what kind of career I wanted that I failed to thoroughly assess what kind of work environment was most aligned with my ideal professional lifestyle. 

Before I even finished my PhD, I received a job offer. I was so thrilled that I accepted immediately with resounding enthusiasm. 

After 8 months, I left the position. Not only was the company not a good fit, but the job itself did not align with my talents or my work style, leaving me unfulfilled and unproductive.  

My advice to other PhDs entering industry: have a clear idea of the kind of work environment you want and take your time with the job search. 

Don’t undersell your talents and jump at the first opportunity that comes along. You might regret it in the long-term.

Company Fit(ness) Matters More Than You Think

Most employees rate the work environment – type of company and organizational culture – as one of the top reasons they stay or leave a given position. 

And for good reason. Being in an environment that nurtures your talents and allows you to perform at your best is crucial to succeeding in any career.

While this may seem self-evident, the recent pandemic has shed further light on how problematic a poor work environment actually is, and has empowered many, particularly those in academia, to reassess their working conditions.  

We spend most of our waking hours at work. So, why do we overlook the importance of enjoying our work environment? 

Would you live in a home that caused you undue stress, made you anxious, or diminished your joy? I doubt it. Which is why most people take home-buying very seriously, carefully weighing their options. 

Deciding which company you call “home” is also a big decision and you should treat it as such. If you make the right choice, your next career move won’t be a mere stepping-stone, but the start of a long and prosperous career.

3 Company Characteristics You Should Consider To Find The Right Fit

Identifying your best company fit begins with self-assessment.  

Think of a time when you were highly productive – what was unique about that situation? Were you in a work environment that nurtured innovation or had explicit methodologies in place? Was your work independent or team-oriented? Were you working as part of a large, highly structured organization or a small group that lacked a formal chain of command? 

The answer to these questions will allow you to assess how and where you do your best work. A company that offers a worked environment that aligns with your answers is likely your best fit.

Below, I will take a look at three major attributes you should consider when assessing company fit. 

1. Size

You may not think that the size of the company you work for is a big deal – but think again. 

In academia, lab size is intrinsically limited and even the largest academic labs barely equate to the size of a small company. In industry, company size ranges from a hundred to tens of thousands of employees.

The size of a company impacts the flow of production and communication and, in turn, how people work. 

Larger companies are more likely to have well-defined divisions of labor and reporting structures. Employees’ responsibilities closely adhere to a specific job description, and careers follow a predefined path. 

If you enjoy a highly structured environment, want a defined role where you can hone a desired skill set, or you breathe easier having an established route for upward mobility, a large company might be a good fit. 

However, if you thrived in a small startup lab where you were required to wear many hats and enjoyed a close-knit group of colleagues during your time in academia, a small company may be the place for you.

2. Hierarchy

If you’ve never had an industry job, the concept of hierarchy or power structure, might be new to you. 

After all, hierarchy is almost nonexistent in academia – there’s a PI and then there’s everyone else below them. 

However, in industry, there are different hierarchical structures. Some may be organized by division or department based on function, geographical location, and/or project type while others are more fluid or flat.

In general, hierarchy is highly intertwined with the size of the company with equally sized companies often adopting similar company structures.

Large companies often follow a strict hierarchy that includes multiple layers of management (senior, junior, middle). 

In this type of hierarchy, lines of communication flow from top to bottom (or vice versa) and each employee has an assigned reporting manager. In a strict hierarchy, each employee has a clearly defined role. 

If you prefer structure, distinct levels of seniority, and a clearly defined role, a company with a strict hierarchy may be your winning option. 

Small companies are likely to adopt a more fluid or flat structure where the lines between roles and management levels are less distinct. 

In this type of structure, communication is more fluid, employees may take on a broader range of responsibilities and may experience more frequent operational changes. 

If you yawn at the notion of rigid processes, love the idea of taking on new and unknown challenges, and want to have many options for career progression, look for companies with more fluid or flat hierarchies.

Keep in mind that not all large companies will have a strict hierarchy and not all small companies will have a fluid structure. This is something you should research beforehand.

3. Culture

The term company culture refers to the personality of an organization: its values, attitudes, goals, and overall ideology. 

In essence, it defines the company’s objectives and establishes how these objectives will be met. 

It’s possible that when you think of company culture images of office parties, ping-pong tables, and the occasional casual Friday come to mind. 

But these are only the surface, true company culture lies in the intangibles. 

Three distinct features will provide you with insight into a company’s culture: behavior, symbols, and systems.

Behavior is how the organization and its employees act, speak, and carry themselves. 

During a job interview, observe how the employees communicate. Their tone. Their words of choice. Their engagement in the conversation. 

An engaged  employee who chooses words that align closely with the company’s core values is more likely to be satisfied with their job than one who seems disengaged and uses words with a negative connotation.

Symbols are subtle features of a work environment – company logos, wall hangings, personal workspaces, seating arrangements – that communicate what a company values and prioritizes. 

Is the workspace sterile and devoid of decor? Are employees working in an open space or behind closed doors? Is the hierarchy within the company evident based on seating arrangements or space allocation? 

Taking note of these seemingly irrelevant features will help you to determine whether you would be comfortable working in that environment. 

Systems are the processes a business puts in place to achieve its objectives. These can include anything from organizational structure and infrastructure to employee recognition and performance management. 

To gain insight into how a company operates, you can inquire about the process the company uses to take a project from inception to market. This will give you an opening to discuss the company structure in more detail. 

You may think gaining insight into company culture before getting hired is difficult, but the information is out there if you take the time to look for it.

Most businesses have a company website and a presence in social media like Twitter or LinkedIn. You can also go deeper by looking at review sites like GlassDoor. 

The company’s website can give you a broad overview of its immediate goals and where the company is headed in the future. 

Social media and online reviews can also provide you with information on their priorities, how they posture in the public eye, and how both current and previous employees rate their experience. 

These resources are helpful, but keep in mind that many companies are guilty of virtue signaling (making statements not backed by action for the sole purpose of improving their public standing) and that those most apt to leave a review are current or former employees who are dissatisfied with their experience.

You can also learn a lot about the inner workings of a company by performing informational interviews with current and former employees. 

Finally, take full advantage of your interview process. While the primary aim of an interview is to assess your fitness for a particular position, this is also your chance to better understand the company’s organizational behavior and decide if it’s a good fit for you.

Ask questions that promote engagement with the interviewer. For example, instead of asking “How is the company culture?”, you could ask “If a newspaper wanted to write an article about the company’s culture, what would it have to include?” 

Asking more pointed and creative questions will increase the likelihood of a candid response while simultaneously demonstrating your knowledge of industry etiquette.You can also get some intel on business behavior by showing up early to a site visit. This will allow you to observe people’s behavior and determine if the environment matches your desired professional lifestyle.

Concluding Remarks

Success and long-term fulfillment require more than doing a job you enjoy or receiving a good paycheck. It’s also not as simple as working for a Fortune 500 company or a rapidly growing startup. Your ability to advance in a field depends largely on how well your goals, values, and workstyle align with the company that employs you. To identify your company fit, you should consider the characteristics of a company that impact how you perform your work, such as its size, its hierarchy, and its culture, and compare them to your desired professional lifestyle. This will allow you to craft a more conscientious job search strategy and, ultimately, to land not only your ideal job, but your ideal workplace.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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