On the inside track
Industrial scientist Brent Neal explains what physics graduates and PhD students can do to make themselves stand out to recruiters.
One of the things I enjoy most about my job as an industrial scientist is recruiting new talent. It is a great opportunity for me to look at the work of the best and brightest students and, in some cases, to dig into their work as I interview them. Sadly, a lot of academic advisers and supervisors seem to view industrial research as a fall-back option for students who can't get faculty positions. This is an unfortunate attitude that results in many students having little idea of what it takes to land an industrial job. I have therefore compiled a few tips for people who are wondering about careers in industrial research and what it takes to land a good position outside of academia.
Building an industry CV
Your CV or résumé is a record of your academic career and is the first thing about you that a hiring manager will consider. What we look for when we read a CV are your accomplishments, so tailor it accordingly. Although you should spend some time on your cover letter, don't worry about writing an objective statement: your hiring manager already knows that you want a job. Instead, concentrate on highlighting occasions when you showed leadership and the things you did to make your project successful, using action words and an active voice.
If you are applying for positions that require a bachelor or master's degree, we want to see evidence of productive contribution, such as publications (particularly for a master's student), poster awards, or demonstrated technical skills. For doctoral-level scientists, we also want evidence of your technical leadership, especially your publications, which should be the centrepiece of your CV. Be exhaustive and upfront in listing them and be prepared to send any potential interviewer a copy of one of your papers to discuss. I look primarily at the quality of the publications and where your name shows up in the author list. A bullet list of accomplishments will then tell me something about the work you did to get those publications. You should have made substantial contributions to the direction of your research, be able to identify key pieces of your work and convince me that they wouldn't have happened without you. Make sure that every experiment or theoretical project you do has your mark on it.
Like other hiring managers, I also look for things that set you apart. For undergraduates, that might mean taking the opportunity to work with a research group, even if you have to volunteer, and earning your independence by being a productive contributor. Having a publication record as an undergraduate is a signal to most hiring managers that you may be a high performer. And it does not have to limit you to a particular field: it is fine to change direction after your undergraduate degree, so don't feel that your research experience locks you in to one particular area.
If you are a PhD student, things that set you apart might involve taking responsibility for training or supervising a junior postgraduate student, undergraduate or perhaps a small team. You should also consider taking on extra research tasks such as assisting your adviser with grant writing or doing preliminary work for a new grant. Writing a review article or a book chapter clearly demonstrates technical mastery. Your adviser can help you find these kinds of opportunities.
Another great way to convince me that you have the ability to be a technical leader is to tell me about your top-secret hush-hush project. You know the one that your adviser absolutely forbade you to work on, but you did anyway, and that has just now been published in Macromolecular Rapid Communications (with your boss' name in the prestige position, of course). The ability to keep your boss happy while doing the research that you think is important and that will shape your field is a skill that good industrial scientists should cultivate. When I'm looking to hire someone, I look carefully for that kind of initiative.
The other piece of CV advice that I give undergraduate students can be a little controversial. In talking through the material for this article with some of my peers from other firms, I have found that many major companies have key universities from which they recruit, and they do not always cast their nets much further. That may not seem fair, but you don't have to play guessing games about it, since these "key universities" are often in the top 10 for a particular field. So if you are looking for places to do a PhD, I advise you to choose good universities, good programmes and good professors. You can also look at where graduates of particular programmes end up, since the better programmes will be able to tell you where their students have found jobs. If a department places four to five students at a company every year, then you can assume that the company actively recruits there. If you're already writing your dissertation, though, all hope is not lost. Start looking for postdoctoral positions at a select group of universities and with top professors. A productive postdoctoral position can jazz up a CV.
Cultivating and using networks
Building a robust network of colleagues can be invaluable in your job search. Set up a LinkedIn profile if you don't have one, then populate it. When you go to meetings and conferences, talk to academics with whom you might want to take a PhD or postdoctoral position. Talk to industrial researchers who might be there. I guarantee that all of us who are at a conference are looking at the students and sizing them up as potential new hires. Ask us questions about what we do and what we think you should do to get hired down the road.
If your adviser or supervisor has been around for a while, check in with some former group members who have gone into industry. They will often give you a good inside scoop on when positions will be available. I like to go back to the same groups for recruiting, because the senior members will know what I'm looking for in a new hire and I can get an honest opinion about any candidate from their group.
Internships and industrially sponsored research projects are great opportunities not only to gain useful experience and skills (plus a high-impact bullet-point on your CV), but also to network with your contacts at the sponsoring company. Be upfront with them about your interest in industrial research and ask for advice and mentoring on some of the skills that will make you irresistible to their hiring managers.
There are many good reasons to make a career in industry your first choice. But both academia and industry have their pros and cons, so as you start thinking about career paths as an undergraduate or junior postgraduate student, make sure you find people to talk to who will give you good perspectives on the different choices.
Brent Neal has degrees in materials science and physics and has worked in a variety of fields, including computational physics, software development and polymer science. He currently leads the central analytical facility at Milliken & Company in South Carolina, US, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org