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5 Strategies Life Science PhDs Use To Get Hired

How life science PhDs are getting hired

Written by Catherine Sorbara, PhD

Most people fail to come to terms with the amount of effort that is needed to find a job.

In fact, searching for a job can feel a lot like a full-time job in itself.

If you don’t have a strategy in place, you can be putting in a lot more overtime hours than you need.

That was me, when I first started looking for alternative careers outside academia.

For one, I procrastinated.

I mean, I thought about looking for a new career.

But really, I wasn’t even trying.

I was too locked into finishing my thesis and graduating.

Planning and executing a career strategy seemed like just one more thing to do, and I was already maxed out.

Plus, I thought I had time.

It wasn’t until my thesis was defended that I really gave it an honest effort.

That was mistake number one.

I had not built a network and, at that time, had moved to a new country where I did not know anyone.

I panicked more than I strategized.

When I wasn’t panicking, I was avoiding.

I sent out resumes and trolled the Internet, wondering where all the job openings were.

I had no idea where to find companies to target and how to market myself.

It’s not like I didn’t know how to be organized.

As a Life Science PhD, I had strong organizational skills.

There were multiple experiments to plan, papers to write, and data to decipher.

I had the ability to prioritize my projects and execute a plan which made the best use of time while yielding the best results.

So why didn’t I translate that into my job search?

That was my ‘eureka’ moment.

All I needed to do was apply the same skills I learned as a PhD to execute my transition.

To create a system to organize which careers and companies were of interest to me, who I connected with, and which jobs I had applied to.

I began to leverage industry-relevant skills and started marketing myself as industry-ready.

Not only did it take away a lot of stress and frustration, but it made me a better job candidate.

Life Science scientists are leaving academia for industry jobs

Why Life Science PhDs Are Leaving Academia

A recent Life Science Salary Survey reported that, even though 80% of academic scientists feel stimulated by their work, fewer feel that their job allows for an adequate work/life balance.

It gets worse.

Less than half of these scientists are happy with their salary and benefits.

As a result of this, nearly half of respondents reported having looked for new jobs within the past year.

That’s a high rate of dissatisfaction.

Of course, most of these scientists who decide to look for a new job do nothing more than browse job postings online.

They upload a few resumes in the morning, scroll through LinkedIn in the middle of an antibody incubation, and hope for the best.

Then these scientists wonder why they’re still in academia, or still stuck in an entry level position in industry.

The only way to get into a job where you can do meaningful, stimulating work while being paid well and while being allowed a positive work/life balance is to execute a better job search strategy.

This means cataloguing your technical and transferable skills better.

It also means investing in your network and looking at your academic accomplishments from a business perspective, not an academic perspective.

5 Strategies For Getting Hired Into Life Science Positions

Successfully completing a PhD in the Life Sciences requires strategic thinking.

Which experiments should you perform, how many n’s do you need to obtain a reliable result, and when is it time to wrap up the project and submit your work to an academic journal?

Life Science PhDs are constantly thinking strategically to maximize data output and minimize time spent unnecessarily repeating experiments.

Applying this same approach to a job search will also lead to success.

Blindly sending out thousands of resumes to online job sites, on the other hand, will not lead to success.

This kind of tactical thinking is a waste of time and resources.

Here are 5 strategies Life Science PhDs must employ to get into top Life Science positions in industry…

Use your results oriented accomplishments on your job resume

1. Think of your academic accomplishments from a business perspective.

If you want to get hired in industry, the first step is to start looking at your experiences through a business lens.

This is one of the most challenging things to do as an academic.

You’ve spent years looking at yourself through the filter of academia.

As a result, the world of business seems like a whole new world.

But really, academia has primed you with some transferable skills that, when viewed from an industry perspective, set you apart as a solid candidate.

Initially, any academic asked to create a list of their accomplishments will provide you with all of their publications, poster presentations, conference attendances, and travel awards.

While credible, these accomplishments do not translate into anything of relevance for a company.

These kinds of academic accomplishments will not impress anyone in industry.

Instead, you have to put yourself in their position and ask, “What matters to the company?”

What are they looking for and what has value for them?

Now, align your answers to these questions with your accomplishments.

Look at accomplishments that speak to transferable skills, such as: cost reduction, productivity, sales, staff turnover, budgets, innovation, customer satisfaction, and competition.

Your goal is to find results-oriented accomplishments related to what Life Science companies need.

For example, if you negotiated the price of lab supplies, you have saved the lab money.

If you have simplified an existing protocol, you have increased lab productivity.

Creating protocols, writing grants, and mentoring graduate students can all translate into increasing effectiveness, sales, and employee satisfaction, respectively.

Use general business jargon to describe your accomplishments, both in your resume and during an interview.

This shows hiring managers that you have the business acumen to see beyond a publication and truly know what it takes to maintain a successful company.

2. Rely on your network to get a direct referral for a job.

Life Science PhDs regularly get hired in industry without having any industry experience.

In fact, it happens all the time.

So, how do they do it?

One of the reasons this happens is because they are able to connect with industry professionals and show they can provide value through their unique combination of technical and transferable skills.

Your value is exponentially more difficult to explain if you’re relying on your resume alone, no matter how well-crafted it is.

But PhDs know that having connections in industry to vouch for their potential speaks volumes.

It unlocks the hidden job market and allows them to find open positions that were never advertised online.

It allows them to reach out for informational interviews and get insider knowledge about a company, the application process, and the day-to-day aspects of a particular career.

You might have been hiding from this essential strategy altogether.

Everyone knows networking is important, but it’s so uncomfortable that many avoid it at all costs.

The key to building a network that will work for you is to start early, and practice often.

Do not be bullied by your fellow academics into hiding the fact that you are interested in alternative careers.

Have the confidence, or fake it, to make it publicly known that you are interested in industry, and you will be connected to more industry professionals faster.

Think about collaborations that you can create from your own research that will benefit the lab, while also establishing a connection with a biopharma/biotech company of interest.

Organize networking events as part of your graduate department, which allow you to invite keynote speakers from industry.

See who you already have in your network that could have connections with industry: alumni, relatives, colleagues, and even your hairdresser may be your golden ticket.

Make time to attend events where you can speak to people outside your lab circle.

Learn networking skills, attend networking events, and utilize networking opportunities until it’s more comfortable.

Continue learning and building future job skills

3. Build remarkable credibility outside of the lab.

Hiring managers need to see past the white lab coat and safety goggle-exterior to the well-rounded, amicable employee that you are.

And they won’t be able to see beyond the stereotype unless you show it to them.

In order to do this, you have to be strategic in how you spend your time outside of the lab.

To begin with, you actually have to make an effort to get out of the lab, beyond eating and sleeping.

If you have difficulty committing to events or activities outside of work, find ways to prioritize this and incorporate accountability.

Choose your time wisely and make attending important events or committing to non-academic pursuits non-negotiable.

Have someone keep you accountable so you don’t bail out or chicken out at the last minute.

Find ways to use your time out of the lab that align with your values so you’re incorporating personal satisfaction while adding credibility.

Volunteer for a science outreach program at local schools or assist in a charity event.

Join a recreational sports team to show that you are a team player.

This is a crucial skill that hiring managers look for in research scientists.

Consider any skills that your future career might value, that you might be missing, and plan a way outside of the lab to fill that gap.

Your industry resume should always include a ‘Hobbies’ section.

If you need to make space, delete the ‘Publications’ section.

Hobbies will set you apart from everyone else by further accentuating the transferable skills that companies are looking for.

It can also build an immediate rapport with your interviewer.

They’ll be reminded you aren’t just a walking lab coat — you’re an interesting, personable, well-rounded person that would be an asset to their team.

There is no better sign in an interview than going ‘off-topic’ to discuss common interests.

4. Look past the company home page for job interview content.

When stepping into an industry interview with a biotech/biopharm company, one of the most critical factors will be to showcase your knowledge of the business.

This helps you to understand the company from a strategic standpoint and shows you are interested in them and not just obtaining any job.

Let’s take a well-known company such as Pfizer.

First take a look at the company’s mission statement.

What is the goal of the company and what is their vision for the future?

You should be asking this for your preparation and research for each individual company.

A typical interview question is: why do you want to work for us?

By aligning your goals to that of the company mission statement, it shows you share the same motivating factors and hence, are a perfect fit.

Be creative as you prepare for these interviews so you don’t just sound like you’re reciting their web content, though.

Stretch yourself and come up with your own words and phrases to show congruence with their corporate culture.

If you go to their website, you can easily find links to financial reports, including performance reports and annual reviews.

You can then go to their press release page and learn about the status of their current clinical trials and quarterly reports.

From this information, you can pose questions to the interviewer, such as:

“I read that the overall growth of the company has doubled in the last five years with good stock shares, thus making this an opportune time to work for X, however in your opinion how has R&D been affected in this process?”

This makes you look well-prepared, engaged, and invested in not just the interview or the job, but the discussion about industry and business in general.

Finally, take a look at the company’s major competitors.

Research all competitors and any other outside factors that can or will affect the company, such as increased regulatory demands, the rise of biosimilars, or patent expiration.

Resources such as BioSpace, FierceBiotech or BioPharm International can be helpful.

Arm yourself with knowledge to show that you’re relevant and set apart from all other applicants.

Ask for feedback from the job interviewer

5. Organize your job search and site visits like a lab experiment.

When competition is fierce, the one who lands the job is often the most organized and the most persistent.

Being organized is pivotal.

Let’s compare your job search to executing a lab experiment.

Before you head to the lab bench, you spend time deliberating about your protocol and best course of action.

If an experiment fails, you go back to your protocol and see what you can change, and how you can improve.

You keep track of everything you have tried, which reagents you used, and which companies have the most reliable antibodies.

Your lab notebook is sacred, and perfecting a protocol is an iterative process.

When it’s time to show off your data at a congress, conference, or even some lab meetings, you spend hours and hours preparing a presentation and delivery.

You must have a similar mindset for your job search.

Set up an Excel sheet and keep track of your network, companies of interest, and job applications.

Set reminders to follow up with recruiters regarding potential new openings once a week.

Reach out to hiring managers to ask about your job application status.

Reach out to your network once a month to keep in touch and build rapport.

Regularly send articles of interest, or other resources or contacts, to individual hiring managers that you’ve met, asking nothing in return.

Be invested in this process of developing relationships and creating rapport, whether you get an interview or a job offer, or not.

When you are unsuccessful in an application, ask for feedback from the interviewer.

Optimize your protocol and streamline your system so you can be consistent and efficient.

Most importantly, when you finally get in front of a decision-maker, whether during a site visit or even an informational interview, prepare as if your life depended on it.


Because your professional life just might depend on it.

Many people neglect this in their job search, but it can be crucial for improving your candidacy for the next opening and lets the company know you have a vested interest in working for them.

Life Science PhDs that follow a job search strategy will land top industry positions. As an important turning point in their life, they are willing to give it the time and effort necessary to ensure it is successful. Think of it as a project that must be organized and executed in a timely manner. You already have the technical and transferable skills to qualify for industry, all you need is the right plan. Start building your network and your industry credibility early, arm yourself with industry insider information, and learn to translate your skills into something that is business relevant. Adopt these strategies early on for a smoother, faster, successful transition.

To learn more about how Life Science PhDs are getting hired for industry jobs, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and is COO of the Cheeky Scientist Association. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry positions. She is Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology. She has also been selected to take part in Homeward Bound 2018, an all-female voyage to Antarctica aimed to heighten the influence of women in leadership positions and bring awareness to climate change.
Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.
  • Shawn Lyons

    Thanks, Cathy. This is just the kind of info I need. I can really identify with that feeling of getting started on the job search too late. I`m trying to make up for lost time now, but I`ve learned not to beat up on myself too badly for taking the time to do good job in academia on my defense and dotting all the i`s.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Absolutely Shawn! I did the same thing as you. Now that you have the time to dedicate to your job search, make it count. From all of your comments I can tell you have the tools to succeed and do so quickly.

  • Kathy Azalea

    At first I resisted looking for a job at all because time is short when trying to complete the academic requirements. But at this point, I can squeeze in some networking time and that is my focus right now. The prospect of spending so much time looking is daunting, but your encouragement is really helpful. 🙂

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Kathy! Yes it’s important to prioritise your job search. It does not have to mean hours and hours but fitting in one networking event per week can make a huge difference. What positions are you interested in?

  • Julian Holst

    There are a lot of reasons to just take the plunge and start that search. Personally, I find it a bit fun to try to mix in at an event now that I went to a few of them. Yes, it can be uncomfortable at first, but it will never be as uncomfortable as a cold interview! I try to look at it that way and also tell myself not to feel on trial.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Great point Julian! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Madeline Rosemary

    Anyone trying to find a new job is going to feel nervous. But just feel how much better it will be if you take the time to do your research. If you have no job, you have nothing better to do.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Exactly Madeleine. Put your energy into what’s important and you will feel more confident about your next steps.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    Cathy, it seems to me that you did something very interesting when you started changing your attitude toward job hunting. Instead of getting swallowed in the emotionality of the process, you just looked at it logically and realized that you could apply the very same skills you developed for achieving a PhD to your search. That’s a step that very few people take, as they worry and fret about the process instead of looking at it clearly and reducing it down to doable chunks. I love the way that you’re able to share your process and make it accessible to others.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Matthew! You are spot on with your synopsis – I am glad to see you were able to pick up on this point. Looking forward to hearing your similar transition story 🙂

  • Sree Niranjanaa Bose.S

    Cathy, Thanks for the information you have shared. I am in the middle of my Phd. Do you think that I should start right away with the job search. Though I went through the type of job offered in my area, I m still not confident that I will fit into it. and how should we look for networking events. People in academia network through conferences. In what type of networking events should we look into?

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Hi Sree! Excellent question! If you are in the middle of your PhD, now is the perfect time to start networking and building industry contacts. Look beyond the academic conferences and find events in your area that are of interest to you – they can be biotech/biopharm related or completely random like a museum opening. You never know who you will meet and who they are connected with. and are great places to start to look for events. You also want to start to build online credibility by building you LinkedIn profile. What types of positions are you interested in?

      • Sree Niranjanaa Bose.S

        I work in areas like biomedical signal and image processing, machine learning and algorithm development, data analytics. Positions like research associates/scientist in R&D, project manager are the positions that Im interested.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    I think that too many new PhDs fall into the trap of flailing around and trying to find “just any job” as soon as they can. That, in my mind, is a big mistake. Where you start out has more to do with your success in career than almost any other factor. If you’re willing to sell yourself short for your first position, you’re liable to keep up that pattern, and others are likely to hold you to it.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Precisely Carlie! Too many PhDs don’t realise the value they can offer industry. The same is true for salary negotiation – most PhDs feel they shouldn’t do it but it is expected and not doing it will hurt you down the road.

  • Harvey Delano

    Just the act of keeping a written record of your search can make a big difference. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve started doing just that, and I can tell you that it makes a big difference in my level of awareness. Getting a good position is really nothing mystical, and keeping good records is a habit that will serve you well the rest of your life.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Exactly Harvey. How is your job hunt going? Any roadblocks?

  • Sonja Luther

    It’s great to think that basic organizational skills can help so much with a job search. I know that I tend to have a lot more faith in my skills than I do in myself, if that makes any sense, and learning to keep my eyes on the prize (what I have to offer) will help me tremendously as I move forward. As usual, you’ve done wonderful work here, Cathy!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Sonja! I appreciate all your positive feedback!

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    These are great suggestions for finding congruencies with prospective companies, Cathy. Thank you!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Marvin!

  • Theo

    I like the idea of having a “hobbies” section. Sticking with a hobby over the long term never occurred to me as a strategy to demonstrate consistency and commitment. Especially if you’re the kind of person who enjoys volunteering, this should be easy.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Exactly Theo! It speaks to many transferable skills that companies would find valuable to see.

  • ff6790 .

    Excellent article! I understand the idea of working your way into industry through networking, but who do I need to connect with: hiring managers, talent acquisition specialists, research scientists, research associates, project managers?
    These are all industry professionals, but who is more likely to help by putting your resume in the right stack.
    Any advice on this? I’m applying for research scientist position.