Advice from the Job Search


Welcome back to the blog! In this week’s post, we speak with a recent graduate in Materials Science and Engineering who was able to make professional connections at last year’s conference. After going through the job process, they got back in touch with us to share their insights.


BA: What would your main piece of advice be for someone beginning the job search?

My main piece of advice (based only on my personal experience) has to do with a common misconception that “less is more” with regards to listing publications, conference presentations, and other things that are believed to be more geared towards an academic position (i.e., what you would have on a CV) on your resume. I don’t believe emphasizing translatable skills to a non-research position and showing a strong academic research record are mutually exclusive. In fact, many employers were impressed with my strong publication, conference presentation, and academic record (even though most had not the slightest understanding of my research).


BA: How did you present your academic achievements to non-academic employers?

The key is to discuss your academic achievements in the context of what you can offer in a non-academic position. In applications (personal statement, cover letter, interview, etc.), I found it best to focus on the skills I developed and the tools I used to carry out the research, as opposed to focusing on the research findings themselves. Chances are, as it was in my case, that the hiring managers/interviewers have no clue what your research means. What they will understand and digest, however, is the tools you used in conducting the research, such as what statistical software packages you used, what equipment you used, what challenges/hurdles you had to overcome in the process, how you met deadlines and produced deliverables, and your ability to multi-task projects. They’re also interested in hearing about collaboration and teamwork, if you mentored undergraduate students, and other examples of interpersonal interactions.

Don’t be afraid to show off your academic achievements, just make sure to focus on the translatable skills you developed in your cover letters, personal statements, and interviews.


BA: How did you decide where to apply?

I knew I wanted to move away from the lab bench (or in my case, a super-computer as I was performing quantum mechanical simulations), so I looked at articles online that talked about alternative careers for PhDs. This is how I came across the patent law and nonprofit jobs. I found the tech industry job from a job posting on LinkedIn. The defense contract job I found out about through a family friend who works there.


BA: You mentioned applying to multiple industries. How did you pitch your doctoral work to appeal to different sectors?

Two of them were fairly straightforward, while the other two required more preparation and explanation. For the tech industry job, the job requirements were in close alignment with my thesis work, so it was a straightforward pitch. For the nonprofit job, I emphasized examples of my analytical skills (e.g., data analysis) as I knew this was critical for the position.

For the patent law technical advisor job, the key in my phone interview was to articulate how my PhD experience has led me to become interested in patent law (it seems like half the battle is convincing them that you are passionate about patent law, as apparently many people are not). More specifically, I told them how experiences in my PhD career translated to my interests in patent law. For example, one of my favorite aspects of the PhD is digging through the literature and reading about the current state of the art for my particular subject area.

For the defense contractor job (the job for which I ended up accepting an offer), the key in my interview was to explain how my PhD experiences prepared me for this position. For example, I was asked whether I had ever been in a high-pressure situation where I had to defend something in front of my superiors – so I talked about my thesis proposal defense.


BA: Could you tell us about your interview preparation strategies and experiences?

For the tech industry job, because it was in line with my thesis work, the interview was mostly getting a feel for my technical background, but also convincing them that I was content with moving from a slower paced publication-driven academic setting to a faster paced results-driven industry setting. For the patent law job, my main strategy was to show the interviewer that I was passionate about patent law. For the nonprofit job, my strategy was to highlight my data analysis skillset.

For the defense contractor job, this was a more traditional interview (e.g., where do you see yourself in 5 years?) so I prepared for these types of questions leading up to the interview. Overall my experiences went well and my biggest piece of advice on this matter is be prepared to convince the interviewers why you want to leave the “ivory tower” (as some industry folks refer to it) and enter their line of work, whether it be patent law, nonprofit, defense contractor, etc., especially when the employer is not used to hiring people who have PhDs.


BA: After all those interviews, how did you decide which job to ultimately take?

I decided on the defense contract job because I knew I wanted to get industry experience. I am still interested in the nonprofit and patent law options, but know that those are also careers I can choose to pursue down the road.


BA: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us!