Changing sector

In the current challenging economic environment, many physicists are finding they need to step out of their comfort zone to move ahead in their careers.

For some, this means making a whole change of sector, from government to business or from academia to industry. This is a big shift, and if you are thinking of making it, there are some distinct cultural differences between the sectors that are well worth bearing in mind.

Combat the preconceptions
First of all, you should be aware that there could be something of a stigma against you. Many outside the public sector see those within as relatively unproductive and risk-averse. In many cases – including yours, of course - this will be completely unfair. But remember that your recruiter might need some extra convincing of what you have to offer.

Right from the start, you will need to dispel any prejudices. In your CV and covering letter, show that you have a genuine insight into the market in which your prospective new employer operates.  Demonstrate that you can handle pressure, hit challenging targets, and show entrepreneurialism in unexpected ways.

Explain, explain, explain
Bear in mind that a private sector recruiter might not actually understand your job title, and may struggle with a lot of the jargon you find second-nature. Spell out exactly what you do to make sure it is comprehensible.

If you are currently working in academia, ask someone from outside your sector to read over your CV for a sense check. To banish any visions of ivory towers, emphasise the business aspects of your job, such as successful bids for funding. And rather than having a long list of publications on your CV, you could consider putting: “Publications available on request”.

There are other cultural differences to be aware of, at interview and afterwards:

  • A different pace
    Many people entering the private sector from outside are taken aback by the sheer speed at which things happen. Decisions tend to be made quicker and there can be less emphasis on processes. You will need to show that you can fit into this culture, and work to deadlines in a high pressure environment
  • Profit comes first
    The private sector, naturally enough, is profit-driven, and as an aspirant private-sector worker, you will need your prospective employer to feel confident that you will make them money - either through the sourcing of new business or by cutting costs. Look back on your experience and bring those achievements to the fore
  • Less structure
    In the public sector, there is much more emphasis on controls, protocols and procedures which need to be followed correctly. Private sector employers often have much less structure and are less risk-averse and there is more of an ethos of promotion on merit rather than seniority

Private to public
And what if the boot is on the other foot, and you are a private sector employee looking to make the transition into the public sector or academia?

Once you have identified roles you are interested in, you will also need to get your head around application forms. This may sound straightforward, but application forms require a very different approach to CVs.

You no longer have the individuality of a CV layout to play around with, and you will need to be much more comprehensive in your answers. However, don’t take this as a licence to be boring. The actual content of your answers will need to be all the stronger to catch the reader’s eye in the anonymity of a form.

Your employer might also be worried that you will be something of a loose cannon, so emphasise that you can be collegiate, think of examples where you have created a consensus and driven it through. Also play up your understanding of protocols and risk management, and your ability to implement procedures.

If you make the switch and adapt to the new culture successfully, it will hugely broaden your experience and could turn you into the sort of all-rounder who is greatly valued, especially at senior management level. Good luck!

last edited: December 17, 2012