Cheeky Logo
Ready To Transition Into Industry?
Apply To Book A Free Call With Our Transition Specialist Team

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.

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.

Book a Transition Call
Get Free Job Search Content Weekly



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

Similar Articles

Does Your PhD Resume Spell A Bad Culture Fit?

Does Your PhD Resume Spell A Bad Culture Fit?

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

One of the biggest reasons that I left academia was the constant negativity.  Instead of collaboration, I was pitted against my fellow PhDs. The system forced us to compete against one another. I couldn’t look to my advisors for support either. It was more trouble than it was worth to even get them to make time, and in the end, their “advice” was little more than common sense. And that’s to say nothing of the wrath I’d face if I picked the wrong time to speak up or advocate for my research. I persisted, though, and looked forward to applying…

3 Entry-Level PhD Jobs Pay Six Figures A Year

3 Entry-Level PhD Jobs Pay Six Figures A Year

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I was determined to stay in academia… until I wasn’t.  It took almost six years for me to reach the conclusion that academia just wasn’t for me.  My PhD defense was just a few months away, and I can’t lie: I was literally willing myself to stick it out. But what about after that? Professorship had been the goal for me before I ever even enrolled in college. It had been my dream. I had absolutely no idea what to do if it wasn’t going to teach. I knew what I didn’t want: I didn’t want to be tethered to…

Your Professional Brand Is Academia. 5 Questions To Change It

Your Professional Brand Is Academia. 5 Questions To Change It

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

What’s your professional brand?  As a researcher, my conclusions are based on proven facts and quantifiable results. The concept of something as subjective as brand or image had never felt particularly relevant to me.  I’d heard the question, of course. When you’ve been looking for a job for over a year, you’re bound to come across the idea.  But now, face to face with a recruiter who had turned me down for a job, I was really trying to come up with an intelligent answer.  “What’s my brand?” I asked. I guess feigning ignorance was one way to go.  “Yes,…

Robots Ate Your Precious Technical Skills. Focus On These Transferable Skills Instead

Robots Ate Your Precious Technical Skills. Focus On These Transferable Skills Instead

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I haven’t even graduated yet and my career is already being phased out by AI. Am I going to need a separate degree in machine learning to stand out from the competition?  How can I compete in a data-focused industry when software can do most of my job faster and for far less? Messages like these come to me every day. ChatGPT sent shockwaves through every industry when developer OpenAI unveiled the software to the general public in 2022. Within 5 days of launch, it had already seen 1 million users. I work closely with PhDs on a daily basis.…

The Power Of The Functional Resume: A Game-Changer for PhDs Seeking Industry Roles

The Power Of The Functional Resume: A Game-Changer for PhDs Seeking Industry Roles

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Sometimes you’re too close to a situation to really understand it. That was definitely the case for me when it came to my industry resume.  As a PhD leaving academia, it took me a long time to understand that I was wasting my time submitting an academic CV to industry employers. It wasn’t until I was hired in an industry role that I understood there was a specific resume format for people like me. When I had a chance to shadow an industry recruiter, that’s when I really understood the goal of a resume – the zoomed-out view that I…

5 Positions In Biopharma Perfect For Any PhD

5 Positions In Biopharma Perfect For Any PhD

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

It was by chance that I even considered a career in biopharma.  As far as I was concerned, academia was all there was. The world of industry was a big question mark to me, and that was fine. I found myself working on a postdoc, waiting for a tenure-track position to open up.  At first, it was exciting: a real, paying job as a PhD-level scientist. I showed up early, stayed late, and was happy to do it.  But a change happened, gradually. There was so much repetition in my day, and so much emphasis on performing tasks that required…

Don’t Ignore These 6 Powerful PhD Job Search Trends

Don’t Ignore These 6 Powerful PhD Job Search Trends

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

What does your job search strategy look like?  If you had to describe it in 2 or 3 sentences, what would you say?  I ask because, if you’re reading this, you’re in the market for a job. Working with PhDs for more than 10 years, I’ve learned one thing is true above all others: The right job strategy is what’s going to get you hired. That’s right: I’m saying that a concrete job search methodology is more important than anything else in your job search.  It’s more important than your skills, your degree, your personality – more important than you,…

Top 5 Industry Career Tracks For PhDs

Top 5 Industry Career Tracks For PhDs

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

From the time I started graduate school, there was only one point in the future that I could focus on: the finish line. I was swept up in my own expectations and also caught up in what I thought was expected of me. But something I hadn’t given much thought to was what I actually wanted to do. I was about six months away from defending my thesis. That’s when I started to give some serious thought to what would happen after I added the “Dr.” to my name. It’s when I began to admit to myself that academia was…

How Long Does It Take To Get Hired As A PhD?

How Long Does It Take To Get Hired As A PhD?

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I spent a lot of time being disappointed during my job search; things were taking longer than they should have.  At least, that’s what I thought. The longer I didn’t hear back from a recruiter or hiring manager for a job I really wanted, the more jobs I’d apply to and the more confused my job search would become.  I also didn’t realize that recruiters and hiring managers would trade notes and become confused by my frantic frequent applications to as many jobs as I could find.  What I didn’t know was that my impatience was costing me potential jobs…

Top Industry Career eBooks

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD & Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Learn about the best 63 industry careers for PhDs (regardless of your academic background). In this eBook, you will gain insight into the most popular, highest-paying jobs for PhDs – all of which will allow you to do meaningful work AND get paid well for it.

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel

The LinkedIn tips & strategies within have helped PhDs from every background get hired into top industry careers.

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Learn how to craft the perfect industry resume to attract employers. In this eBook for PhDs, you will get access to proven resume templates, learn how to structure your bullet points, and discover which keywords industry employers want to see most on PhD resumes.