Careers intelligence: how postdocs can find jobs outside the academy

Most postdoctoral researchers will end up working outside universities – postdoc adviser Emma Williams has some advice on the tricky business of applying for jobs in different sectors

November 21, 2019
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I sigh inwardly as I’m handed the CV while the postdoc opposite me cheerfully explains that they want to move into industry. Don’t get me wrong, this postdoc has a wealth of skills and experience to offer “industry”. But industry isn’t going to know it from this document.

Here are some key issues for postdocs to think about when applying for jobs beyond universities.

Do you want this job?
Academic CVs should scream achievement and potential. A publication list is shorthand for several years’ blood, sweat and tears.

But handing this document to a potential industry employer is useless. In fact, it is harmful.

Nothing screams “failed postdoc” like handing in an academic CV. There is also a certain arrogance associated with that act. You are expecting the employer to do the heavy lifting here. They won’t.

As a postdoc you have a great many talents. Choosing a career direction should be because you want it. This is not a second prize situation. Taking an active, positive choice towards an employer should be reflected in the paperwork.

There is no such thing as an industry CV
Another common experience I have is being presented with two CVs: one “academic” and one “industry”. The generic industry CVs are often shorter than their academic counterparts. Why on earth would these employers want to know less about you?

There is a lot to be said about making your CV fit the specific industry or national culture you are applying to.

Luckily for you, you are a researcher! Use your network and search engine of your choice to find the right format. Length, amount of personal information and presence of smiley photograph all vary. 

But format is not enough. Have you written your CV according to the employer’s rubric?

It’s all about them
Fortunately, we have ready access to the employer’s scoring system. It’s the job advert. They have told us what they want. Now you have to address this.

So why not lead with a skills section on your CV? It disrupts the academic appearance of the document and makes it simple for the employer to see what skills you have so that they can shortlist you quickly. You have done the heavy lifting for them.

For each skill they are looking for, you need to evidence your expertise. You would not assert something in a paper without evidence, but I am constantly surprised that postdocs write "good communication skills" and expect that to be enough. Draw this evidence from across your career so far. Use numbers (people taught, talks given, audience size) where possible.

Don’t forget that employers beyond universities don’t speak academese. Unpack what “first-author paper in Nature” really means. Much of your experience can be spun in different ways, so make sure you use the evidence to cover the whole job description. 

A word of caution. Job descriptions sometimes include a list of desirables which your average superhero would struggle to meet. Concentrate on the essentials initially.

Why you? And what else do you bring?
There are two key things that postdocs miss at this point.

First, have you actually sold your skills? Talked about your strengths? Our scientific training doesn’t help us here. We are too used to writing in the third person.

But you need to own your skills. Underline your evidence with positive language choices. If this is a struggle, co-opt a good friend or mentor to help craft your message. Invest time in your CV because you won’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

Then, to profile or not to profile, that is the question. On an academic CV, I think the profile section is often redundant. “I am a passionate biochemist with excellent attention to detail” does not make you a tall poppy in the academic world.

But when it comes to moving on out, I think a short (two or three sentences) profile at the top of your CV can really help set the scene. Here you can set out, as an actor would say, your motivation. Here you can communicate why you really want the job and how your life has been building to this exact point.

Even if that sounds like overkill, you are aiming for “proactive postdoc” rather than “pity me, I’m a postdoc”!

The CV’s job is to get you an interview. You need to start owning your strengths and explaining your career choices on paper because, when you get face to face with an employer, they are certain to ask about these.

Emma Williams is an independent trainer providing advice for early career researchers. A former postdoc, she is also a former head of academic practice at the University of Cambridge and co-author of What Every Postdoc Needs to Know, with Liz Elvidge and Carol Spencely.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Do the heavy lifting, flaunt your skills, be proactive

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