Are you looking for your first industry job after leaving academia? Because it may not be as easy as you think…
When I left astrophysics I thought that finding a data science job in industry would be easy. After all, I was already quite good with both data and science. But the truth is that going over to the dark si… I mean finding my first industry job was actually much harder than I expected.
The job application processes in industry and academia differ significantly. And more importantly, there are a few fundamental differences in what makes a candidate successful. In this post, I’ll guide you through the 5 typical steps of the recruitment process in industry, and give you some personal advice.
1. CV and cover letter
The first step is to work on your CV. Adapting an academic CV to be up to industry standard is not easy. But fortunately you don’t have to do it for each job application: You can have a default CV and just tweak it slightly depending on the job.
When you apply to work for a company, keep in mind that they may have dozens or even hundreds of other applications to look through, only a small fraction of which will make it to the next step. And the first thing they’ll see from you is your resume (also, statistically, that’s probably the only thing they’ll see). Since there are plenty of guides out there on how to write a killer resume, I’ll give you just a few key recommendations:
- Make it 2 pages long. Some people say 1 page is best, but that probably means either omitting valuable information or cramming the formatting. Others say 3 – 4 pages is still fine, but I disagree, and here’s why: The HR person is on a tight schedule to reduce a list of candidates from ~100 to ~10. A candidate with a 4-page resume implies double the amount of reading, so they may not prioritise yours.
- Make it visually appealing. I used to be very happy with my academic resume (in LaTeX, of course). Luckily, I was told early on that it was rubbish. Make sure you put some colours and design into it, and use the spaces wisely. Spend as long as it takes to make sure it looks neat and stylish. And no, don’t use LaTeX!
- Highlight keywords. Some recruiters may not even read the text properly, but rather skim through looking out for keywords. Make sure their eyes are quickly drawn to the most important points on your CV.
- Include links. For example, your LinkedIn and GitHub profiles or to a YouTube link of that amazing TED-X talk you gave. The recruiter probably won’t click on any of them (especially if they print out your resume), but it shows you have some proof of what you are talking about.
- Extract the relevant skills out of your scientific achievements. The recruiter probably isn’t interested in the goal of your work in some scientific collaboration, trying to measure the mass of the neutrino. Instead, it’s worth mentioning that you used Git to develop collaborative code, that you were storing your results in a PostgreSQL database and that you had to present results on a weekly basis.
The last point is actually the hardest: You feel like you’re deleting years of work and achievements from your resume, which stings. But what the recruiter needs to know is how you can be useful in their company, so you have to be ruthless with the scientific content.
Sometimes a cover letter is also required. To me, a cover letter is just a 1-page, more verbose extension of the CV, with one important difference: While you will probably have just one CV, the cover letter should be targeted to the specific company you are applying to. You can still have a template with common key phrases, but make sure you read the job description carefully and show how you are the perfect fit.
2. Phone interview
If you have been invited to a phone interview, congratulations! That means you survived the biggest culling stage. Here’s some advice:
- If it’s a video call, prepare yourself and the background. Make a test call before starting and check what you see in your window – it should look like a Masterclass ad. A book shelf behind you is preferable to a plain background. It shouldn’t be distracting, but it should show that you are organised and educated. Don’t forget to have proper lighting. And even if they can’t see the lower half of your body, try to dress smartly from top to bottom.
- Predict potential questions, and rehearse the answers out loud. The job description will provide plenty of clues.
- Be polite and friendly. In an industry job you have to fit in a team, and often be able to communicate with other teams (including business people with limited scientific knowledge). Therefore, your social skills tend to be more valuable than in academia, where it’s possible to be successful working completely on your own.
- Don’t get too technical unless they ask. If you lose the interviewer’s attention with jargon, they may interpret that you are bad at communicating, and that you don’t understand “real world problems”. The amount of technical jargon shouldn’t be much larger than what’s written in the job description.
Here again, the last point is the hardest. If the interview is conducted by a HR person, they may only vaguely understand the technical aspects of the job, or may have a list of keywords they expect you to mention. As with the resume, you need to extract the relevant skills out of your previous experiences. This also is something you can rehearse before the interview.
If the interview is a technical call, it’s okay to go deeper into the details. But again, if they ask technical questions about your previous work, it’s not necessarily because they have the slightest interest in your field of research. They may simply need to confirm that you are able to solve statistical problems or handle big data sets.
3. Personal interview
So, you’ve made it to the personal interview? You’re almost there! In fact, in the midst of the current pandemic, the “personal” interview may be just another video call… Either way, some of the recommendations in the previous step apply here too. And here are some other tips:
- Check the interviewers’ LinkedIn profiles before the meeting. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, it’s good to know your audience. You will have a better idea on how technical you can get with your explanations. Secondly, you can confidently tell your interviewer “I noticed that you worked on [insert topic] – that’s interesting!”. It’s a great way to break the ice and find some common ground.
- Prepare some questions for them. The main goal here is to show your interest in helping them solve practical problems, e.g. “Are you considering using Cloud alternatives?” Of course, it should be a question on a topic you know something about, don’t put yourself in a trap!
- Give everyone a good first impression. If someone approaches you, offer a smile and a handshake. Repeat out loud the name of the person you are greeting (“Nice to meet you, Peter”). That will not only help you memorize their name, but it also shows that you care about getting to know them.
It goes without saying that as long as the pandemic lasts, you obviously shouldn’t shake anyone’s hand, nor will they see your dazzling smile behind the mask. Then again, you probably wouldn’t be meeting face-to-face in the first place. So my final advice is: Don’t forget to click ‘unmute’!
4. Technical test
You are close to the end, and you have already destroyed all the horcruxes but one: The snake (usually a Python).
Not all companies ask for a technical test, and sometimes a technical call will suffice. But they might ask you to send them the solution to one or more problems (which you may have to present afterwards). And as a good academic, you may be thinking: “Easy peasy, I’m awesome at solving problems. I’ll send them the most accurate result they’ve ever seen!” However, I’m going to say something now that may shock you: The results of the test don’t matter all that much.
- Instead of what the solution to the problem is, they are more interested in how you solved it. If you send them a piece of code, they may not even run it, but instead read through it. Therefore a clean, understandable solution, returning a somewhat inaccurate result, is better than a messy, hyper-complicated solution, returning an optimal result.
That actually brings up one of the biggest differences between academic and industry work. While in academia you often seek the optimal result, in industry you often seek the “good enough” one. As long as the requirements are fulfilled, any solution is valid. In fact, a simpler solution may be easier to interpret (and to translate into business terms) and safer to implement in a production environment.
Didn’t I say there were 5 steps?
I did indeed. The last step in the process is:
Negotiating your sala… Whoa, not so fast.
Accepting rejection. You thought you smashed that interview! And you’re sure you convinced them about your strong statistics and programming skills… But they wanted someone familiar with [enter fancy word you have never heard of before]. This could be agile methodology, test-driven development, AWS, PowerBI, DevOps... Or they simply wanted someone with at least 5 years of proven industry experience.
If you just left academia and have no experience in industry, I’m afraid you have a technical gap to fill. Sure, you may only need a few months to fill it. But companies aren’t always so keen on hiring someone who can’t hit the ground running.
You learn more from failed applications than from successful ones.
Unsuccessful applications (especially interviews and technical tests) are a very effective way to learn what you are missing. In fact, you actually learn more from failed applications than from successful ones. And while waiting for the first successful job offer, you can learn what those fancy terms are.
The recruiting process in industry usually goes through 4 steps: Resume/cover letter, phone interview, personal interview, and technical test. Sometimes not all of them are necessary, and sometimes there are even more. A few times I had to do some sort of psychological test, and even once an IQ test. It often boils down to the creativity of the recruiters.
But the most important is the often unspoken step number 5: Accepting rejection. Even if you are highly skilled, moving from academia to industry requires a period of learning and adaptation. But don’t be discouraged if you get rejected. Instead, try to learn from the experience, and keep improving on the previous 4 steps. After all, moving from academia to industry is still much easier than the other way around.
In a nutshell, getting your first job in industry may not be easy. And it probably won’t be your dream job. But I’ll end with some good news:
Applying for jobs in industry is still way less involved than in academia. Writing a cover letter, attending some interviews and solving a technical test is still a lot easier than writing a research proposal. And finally, there are far more opportunities in industry than in academia. Surprise! You may not have to move to a different country to get a job!