Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
One of the graduate students two years ahead of me went to an interview with Genenetech and it was a big deal. I remember everyone talking about it because most of the other students just went right into an academic postdoc.
Very few ever interviewed with a big company. Sure, a lot of students sent resumes to big companies, but that was all they did. They’d post their resumes on a few company websites and then give up after not hearing back.
Academia Or Industry, Are There Only Two Options?
I had no idea how to get a job my last year of graduate school. No idea. The entire process was like a black box to me. I remember asking my advisor for suggestions and getting turned down cold. He told me he didn’t have any business contacts. Which was true. He’d worked in academia his whole life. But then he told me that leaving academia meant I was a failure. This wasn’t true. Still, it made me feel even more lost. It also made me feel insecure. As a result, I shrunk back and never asked for his help again. Instead of resolving the conflict, I hid from it.
Looking back, I can see my biggest problem was that I didn’t know what I wanted. In my mind, there were only two career options: academia or industry. These options were too broad and cumbersome for me to really understand. Since I didn’t understand my options, I didn’t understand where I would be a good fit. This made me feel like I didn’t have anything to offer. So, of course, I acted like the scientist I was and just researched career options obsessively online. I didn’t build a network. I stopped at every “no” I heard. And I limited my options over and over again.
Eventually I learned that there are many types of PhD jobs in academia and industry. I also learned that the most important things you can do to get one of those jobs is to know what you want, who you are, and where you fit. This is especially true at big companies. More than anything else, big companies want to hire confident people who understand the system. The problem is that the system in question is different than what most graduate students and postdocs are used to. But this system, like any other, can be mastered. Here are 15 things PhDs can do to make themselves better job candidates for big corporations.
1. Know what you want.
In research, you’re supposed to keep an open mind. You’re supposed to guard yourself against jumping to conclusions or wanting an outcome so bad that you miss opposite trends in the data. This perspective is valuable in science, but useless when it comes to getting the job you want. To get the job of your dreams, you have to know exactly what you want and you have to do whatever it takes to get it. You can’t just kind of go after it. Let’s face it, getting a great job in today’s economy is not easy. Especially when you’ve spent your entire life in academia. The only way to get what you want is to really want it. This means figuring out what you want first.
2. Know who you are.
A lot of PhDs believe in themselves too much. They think that they can do everything well and are entitled to a great job at a big company just because they have an advanced degree. Others don’t believe in themselves at all. These PhDs have no confidence and don’t feel like they can do anything well. The truth is most PhDs are in the middle. There are some things they can do really well, and some things they can’t do well. They key to getting a great job is knowing who you are—knowing both your strengths and your weaknesses.
3. Know where you fit.
Being honest with yourself about your strengths and your weaknesses is only the first step. The second step is forgetting your weaknesses and focusing on where your strengths can be leveraged. Do you like to work alone and love pushing a pipette? Think R&D. Are you a great communicator and presenter? Think Applications or Sales. Are you good at managing people? Think Management. Don’t go against your strengths and pretend to be someone you’re not. Large corporations will smell this kind of self-deceit on you the moment you walk into an interview so don’t try it. Big companies, unlike small companies, don’t want people wearing a lots of different hats. They want people who will fit well into an already established system. They want round blocks in round holes and square blocks in square holes. This isn’t a bad thing. You just need to prepare for it.
4. Show teamwork.
I’m not a big fan of company retreats and other events built around corny, kumbaya team building exercises. But I am a fan of getting things done as efficiently and effectively as possible. The only way to make this happen in a big company is to work as a team. Teamwork is a skill, and a lot of people don’t have it. Big companies want to know if you have it. And, because of your degree, they’re going to doubt you have it until you prove otherwise. From the beginning to the end of your job search, do whatever it takes to show you know what it means to work as a team. This doesn’t just mean using the word “we” in your application or CV. It means talking about specific examples of when you solved problems and resolved conflict in a group setting.
5. Show problem solving.
Big companies list problem solving as one of the most important skills for both interviewees and employees to have. They’re not interested in personal problems or any cool technical problems you solved on your own. They want to know if you can solve large problems using other people’s help. What’s a big problem you’ve confronted in the past? How did you solve it? How did you get other people to help you solve it?
6. Show conflict resolution.
Problems are stressful. Working with other people is stressful. This means conflicts will happen. Big companies want to know you aren’t afraid of conflict and that you can resolve conflict when it comes up. Sure, people play politics and passive-aggressive games at any job. The question is, can you handle the game and still get your job done without creating drama in other people’s lives.
7. Hit deadlines.
The PhD who stretches out a project for years and years and goes way over budget because he or she needs to get everything just right before taking a product to market. This is every hiring manager’s biggest fear. If you want to get a job outside of academia, you need to show you understand the importance of hitting deadlines. In academia, knowledge (I mean, getting published and funded) is the goal. In business, selling a product is the goal. And to sell, you have to ship. You have to go-to-market before your competitors do. Missing deadlines in business is like getting scooped in academia—it’s death.
8. Have options.
Whoever has the most options, wins. Every time you talk to an employer, whether it’s on the phone or at an interview or after getting an initial offer, you’re negotiating. And the people on the other side can always sense how many options you have. Are you desperate for the job? Is this the only company that called you for an interview? They’ll know. Instead of trying to hide it, fix it. Go out, follow these networking tips, and get yourself some more options.
9. Be connected.
Big companies thrive on connection. This is because connection is proportional to communication. Without high levels of connection and communication, any company would fall apart, let alone large corporations with thousands of people. If you want to separate yourself from other PhDs, grow your network. The best time to do this is while you’re still in graduate school. This is because no one sees you as a threat. You’re not in the job market yet so people are more likely to connect with you openly instead of keeping their walls up. If you didn’t network in graduate school, that’s too bad. But it’s not too late. Spend time learning how to network. It’s one of the best investments you can make if you want to work for a big company.
10. Be confident.
In business, confidence is an equalizer. At one time or another, you’ve probably read a job posting that said experience was required for the position—experience you didn’t have. When most people see this, they give up. The end. They don’t even apply. But confident people still apply. To many employers, being very confident in your ability to learn something quickly is the same as already being able to do it. The truth is most employers want to train you themselves. They don’t want to retrain you. Retraining someone who learned something incorrectly takes twice as long as just training them. If you have a PhD, you have many transferable skills and, most importantly, you’ve learned how to learn. Be confident in your ability to learn new skills and don’t let some obtuse experience requirement keep you from going after the job you want.
11. Be patient.
This is not what it seems. You’re probably thinking, “But I went to graduate school for years and years to get my PhD, of course I know how to be patient.” True. You know how to be patient with a few people, like the five people on your thesis committee, or the three reviewers commenting on your paper. But do you know how to be patient with thousands of people while they all work together around the world, sometimes very inefficiently, to execute a project you don’t have direct control over. If not, you’ll have to learn this kind of patience. You’ll have to find small things you can directly control to create small wins that will keep you motivated.
12. Don’t take “no” for an answer.
Yes, you’ll have to be patient. But you’ll also have to be relentless. The bigger a company is, the more inertia it has. This is good and bad. It’s good because it protects the integrity of the system. It’s bad because it means it can take very long to make changes to the system, no matter how good the change is for the system. If you give up every time you hear the word “no”, you’ll never get anything done.
13. Make others feel important.
Remember that feeling you had every waking hour in graduate school (or every waking minute as a postdoc)—the feeling that no one appreciated you? Everyone feels that way, especially in big companies where big, personal wins are few and far between. A lot of PhDs funnel their frustrations into whining and complaining. Employees do this too. If you want to go far in a business—if you want to go far in life—you have to learn how to channel your frustrations into making others feel good about themselves and the work they do.
14. Understand the system.
Most labs operate as small independent units. They’re independently funded, they buy their own equipment, they hire their own team, and, as a result, they function under the power of a few loose systems. For example, every lab has a little system for making LB, scheduling time in the hood, ordering new antibodies, etc. These systems are always changing because new PIs, new postdocs, new students, and new money are always flowing through the lab. In business, the systems are much bigger and much more tightly controlled. And some of these systems have been around for 20, 30, or even 40 years. Creating larger and better systems is not just a job at these companies—it’s a department. If you want to work for a large corporation, start studying systems. Learn how they work. Learn how they can be improved. And learn where you fit into them.
15. Have emotional intelligence.
The number one reason some academics fail to get hired by big businesses is because they don’t have emotional intelligence. These PhDs are smart and have the experience they need, but they don’t know how to deal with people. They have IQ but no EQ, hard skills but no soft skills. If you want to get start a career in business, you need to increase your emotional intelligence. The number one skill that large corporations, including Fortune 500 companies, seek in all potential employees is interpersonal skills. In other words, they want people who know how to deal with other people. They don’t want people who go to an interview and sit awkwardly behind the hiring manager’s desk while the manager struggles to have a normal conversation. They don’t want people who sit in the back of every meeting and hide, or people that sit in front and annoy everyone with their look-at-me questions. The only way to increase your EQ is to communicate with people in the real world and pay attention to silent and not-so-silent feedback you get from them. This means growing your network and taking every opportunity you can to express yourself both online and offline.
Big companies want to hire PhDs who stand out and the best way to stand out as a PhD is to know yourself and your audience. Your audience, in this case, is a large corporation and their clients. Spend time understanding what they want—what they’re looking for. The more you do this, the more these companies will want you on their team.
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Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
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