If You Have A Rare PhD Background, You Must Know These 8 Facts To Get Hired Into R&D

Most PhDs who join the Cheeky Scientist Association want to become R&D professionals or industry research scientists.

There is nothing wrong about that. 

After all, the best science and the best research is done in industry. So it’s only normal that PhDs who want to stay close to science are at least considering this career path. 

However, after working with PhDs for years, I realized that most PhDs want to become research scientists because they think that they will get to do the same thing they do in academia, so they are more valuable in these positions.

If this is you, you are up for a great disappointment.

One of our associates, who is now working as a research scientist at Sanofi, recently discussed this misconception – “working in industry is not just about pipetting. It is about understanding the business aspect, what project management is.”

My first six months in industry were difficult because I didn’t know any industry jargon or how things get done in a big company.

But over time, I realized that working in industry is very rewarding. They constantly notice how scientifically sound you are and they give you the opportunities you need to grow.

You’ll be hired in industry for your mind. Not just because you’re a pair of hands at the pipette. You will need to combine your research skills with business knowledge to succeed.

The Reality Of Industry R&D Positions For PhDs With Rare Backgrounds

I’ve been telling PhDs for some time now, that if they want to innovate, they should transition into industry instead of staying in academia.

Currently, 80% of the most relevant scientific breakthroughs are done in industry.

Companies across all sectors are committed to innovate constantly and this means developing a strong R&D department. This offers a lot of opportunities for skilled PhDs who want to push the boundaries of their fields.

However, your academic knowledge won’t be enough to succeed in these positions. 

As a PhD, you have a lot of experience doing research – that’s the ‘R’ in ‘R&D.’ However, that’s only half the equation. 

In industry, you also need to know about development – The ‘D’ in ‘R&D.’ 

This includes understanding how companies operate as a business, how distribution and commercialization affect what gets done in the R&D department.

These are the types of questions you will find during interviews for R&D positions. Industry hiring managers need to know that you are not just an academic PhD and you understand the reality behind developing a product, a treatment, or a drug.

To achieve that, you need to network with industry professionals and understand the trends that are shaping the R&D sector right now, not 20 years ago or last year. 

8 Facts That PhDs With Rare Backgrounds Need To Understand Before Applying For R&D Positions

You probably know that to become a successful R&D professional, you need more than the will to push a field forward. 

You need to understand what industry R&D looks like.

This includes understanding how different companies approach R&D, as well as how to position yourself as a top candidate. 

Here are 8 facts that will help you set up a successful R&D job search strategy.

1. More industries than just biotech and pharma invest in R&D (and are hiring PhDs)

Innovation is the introduction of new ideas, products, or methods. Innovating allows corporations to penetrate new markets and access new opportunities. 

Having a long-term vision and strategy for investing in innovation is of considerable importance to the success of any company. No matter the industry.

By supporting the development of knowledge and technology, R&D plays a crucial role in the innovation strategy of a company. 

Many PhDs think that only pharma and biotech companies invest in R&D, but in reality, companies across all sectors are investing heavily in this sector.

Industries like telecom, automotive, gaming, tourism, cosmetics, food & beverages, and health and food spend considerable amounts of their budgets in R&D.

If this sounds counterintuitive, think of companies like Estee Lauder and Tesla – we have even had PhDs hired in the R&D department of Hilton hotels after joining our programs.

As you can see, PhDs from all backgrounds can find rewarding opportunities in the R&D sector.

2. There is a fundamental difference between academia and industry R&D

Most research being conducted in academia is exploratory. It focuses on generating more knowledge, but there isn’t a clear structure of what the final goal is.

How many labs do you know that are using funding from one grant for something completely different? 

How many PIs are just focused on generating data without knowing if that information will have an application in the future?

This model doesn’t work in industry. 

Industry focuses on applied research. All the knowledge that you generate needs to be translated into a product that helps people, that solves a problem.

Industry research scientists understand that you can’t spend years just building knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Otherwise you get stuck.

This is why academia is becoming less and less relevant everyday. 

3. R&D in industry is part of a larger process

You already know that you want to innovate and contribute to launching new products, such as drugs and treatments. But did you know that developing and commercializing a product is just a little part of the R&D process in industry?

The R&D process starts with ideation. Many academics think that ideation and innovation are the same thing, but this is not true.

Before you innovate on something, you need to develop it.

So the process starts with ideation, followed by research, then development, and only once something is developed, can you innovate.

As you can see this is a large process and all steps serve a function.

In industry, you innovate with the purpose of scaling up, to get more market share, bring something to market faster, or to improve the user experience.

4. R&D goes beyond research scientist positions

I have seen many PhDs who wonder what their options are if they pursue a career in R&D.

They tend to think that they can only transition into research scientist or similar positions where they will continue doing research in their niche background.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. As we have seen, industry R&D spans different industries and is part of a bigger process. 

As a consequence, it involves different positions, including customer-facing roles like application scientist and user experience researcher, as well as management positions like R&D project manager and business development manager.

In fact, there are more than 10 PhD-level positions within R&D. If you explore their day to day, you will likely find at least one that fits your desired lifestyle. 

5. Your technical skills are not what will get you hired in R&D (no one cares that you can do HPLC)

When PhDs start writing their industry resumes, they highlight what they think is more impressive about them – their technical skills. So, they end up with crowded resumes, filled with technical jargon that nobody outside their academic niche can understand.

If you have been applying to dozens of positions with a technical resume and hearing no response, it’s time to consider that your technical skills are not as impressive.

Most of the bench-related tasks in industry are performed by people with bachelors, or even by robots. Industry hiring managers are not willing to pay a PhD salary to someone who will do the job of a technician. 

They will hire you for your mind, your ability to learn quickly on the job, to work autonomously, and to manage robots and/or technicians. 

On top of that, the gatekeepers in industry don’t have PhDs. They don’t even recognize most of the technical words you are adding to your resume. 

It’s time to realize that your technical skills are not impressing anyone and change your approach to increase your impact.

6. Increase your perceived impact with more transferable skills and measurable results

You might be wondering, if your technical skills are not relevant in industry what should you add to your resume?

The answer is transferable skills.

We have discussed some of the most relevant transferable skills that employers are looking for already: research, analysis, innovation, flexibility, ability to learn, and project management.

If you don’t have these six transferable skills on your resume, you won’t get an industry R&D position.

Many times, PhDs don’t add transferable skills to their resumes because they take them as a given. They assume anyone can do that. That transferable skills are not impressive. 

Last year McKenzie and company, the largest management consulting firm in the world, said there was a 20% deficit in the job market for people who can do research and analysis. Something that all PhDs excel at.

The best way to illustrate the relevance of your transferable skills is to pair them with measurable results.

Industry hiring managers want employees who can make an impact. Employees who can achieve results.

By pairing your transferable skills with a measurable result, you show hiring managers that you not only understand the relevance of that skill, but that you can use it to create an impact in their organization.

7. Your network is your net worth in your job search.

Deciding that you want to transition into industry is a great step, but it’s not enough. To make that transition happen, you need to create connections with industry employees.

The number one problem that PhDs wanting to transition into R&D positions face is lack of an industry network, lack of exposure to industry decision makers. If you don’t work on your network, having the best industry resume and LinkedIn profile won’t make any difference.

Less than half of all industry jobs are posted online and many of those that are posted are filled internally or through referrals. This means that if you are applying through online portals, you are not even being considered for most jobs available.

A total of 60 to 70% of PhD-level roles are filled through referrals. Yet, only 7% of applicants get referrals.

These statistics alone should convenience you to work hard to get a referral everytime you apply for a new position.

But how do you get a referral? By connecting and building relationships with people already working in industry.

Add value first and nurture those relationships so they know your value and are willing to refer you to a job at their company.

8. Company culture will determine if you’re successful.

What companies are you targeting? Are you going for a big company or a small company? For profit or non-for-profit? What sector or industry? What are the opportunities for growth in your target companies?

You may think these questions are not as important, or that they won’t make much of a difference as long as you get an industry job and can stop being miserable in academia. 

But knowing what companies to target will make a big difference in terms of job satisfaction and career progression.

Even if you are just focusing your job search on research and development. There are some differences that you have to consider.

There are companies that focus more on the research part (R&d) and invest in launching new products and filling gaps in the market. Mid-sized biotech and pharmaceutical companies are part of this group.

In contrast, established companies invest heavily in developing and improving existing products rather than creating new ones (R&D).

The day to day tasks and options for career progression will look different in a R&d vs an r&D company and this is something you should consider from the beginning of your job search. 

Concluding Remarks

R&D offers a lot of opportunities to PhDs from all backgrounds and across different industries, but if you want to secure a satisfying position, you need to understand what R&D looks like in industry when compared to academia. Industry R&D is part of a process that relies on different positions. You should understand how the position you are targeting fits in that process and what employers are looking for. Focus on your transferable skills and measurable results instead of your technical skills. Invest on your network to increase your value and understand company culture to ensure a high job satisfaction once you get hired.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the waitlist for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Isaiah Hankel, PhD Chief Executive Officer at Cheeky Scientist

Isaiah Hankel holds a PhD in Anatomy and Cell Biology. An expert in the biotechnology industry, he specializes in helping other PhDs transition into cutting-edge industry career tracks.

Isaiah believes--from personal experience--that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life, it’s a clear sign that you need to 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.

Isaiah is an internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant, CEO of Cheeky Scientist, and author of the straight-talk bestsellers Black Hole Focus and The Science of Intelligent Achievement.

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