If you’re considering transitioning from academia into an industry career, it might be difficult to know where to start. Given the diversity among industry jobs and career paths (as discussed in my previous essay, Research in Industry or Academic?) and the limited amount of information available in a job description, how might you find the right fit?
There are many ways to take a considered look at industry careers. I’m sharing a handful of methods to help you gather information and learn the job landscape for those with your training. From there, you can then create a taxonomy of relevant job options based on important features (rather than job titles) and use this structure to guide your search.
If you’re just starting your job search, you might be eager to get started, perhaps feeling that you cannot be choosey about your first job. However, a bit of front-end investment can build your network, improve your understanding of job ads, and give you more confidence in what you want to prioritize in your career (and the earlier you start, the better!). In fact, these activities will likely increase your chances of landing a job and – more importantly – increase the probability of being satisfied once there.
Learn the Job Landscape for those with your Training
Given that industry research is a less prescribed career path and has more diversity in roles, you’ll want to collect a broad sample to get an accurate picture of what a career in industry could look like for you. To that end, I recommend: (1), finding talks and panel discussions about industry research in your field, (2) attending conferences where industry researcher present (or, if cost prohibitive, look through the conference proceedings to understand the types of work), (3) reading tech blogs and professional social network posts, and, finally, (4) carrying out the invaluable informational interview.
Talks and Panel Discussions
Some academic departments host talks by industry researchers to expose their trainees to the broader set of career options. You might also find these talks at research conferences. If these are available, take advantage! When I first started exploring industry options, I attended a couple of talks from various industry researchers and they were very useful. They exposed me to the language that I needed to deepen my exploration and job search. Additionally, one of the talks was given by a Facebook data scientist and at a later stage in my job search I was able to reach out to her to ask her some questions about working at Facebook, so these talks can be useful for networking too.
To further expose yourself to industry research jobs, you can also attend conferences where industry researchers share their work. Industry researchers sometimes present at academic conferences, and there are also many interdisciplinary and applied conferences where you can find industry research (e.g., ACM’s conferences or IEEE conferences). These might not be conferences that you’d normally attend, but they are great opportunities to expand your knowledge and consider how your theoretical/academic work might apply to practical problems.
Tech Blogs and Professional Social Network Posts
Not all industry researchers have a public-facing presence (i.e., talks, publications, conference attendance). Researchers might not share the work publically to protect the company’s intellectual property in a competitive field, or they might not publish because it is not incentivized by their company or required for their career progression. To learn about certain job types, you might have to dig a bit deeper. Here, you can take advantage of professional social networks, such as LinkedIn and Twitter. You can learn a lot about skills and requirements by taking a look at people’s training background and reading the types of posts they share. Some companies will also have a tech blog, where they post about recent research and the researchers behind the work.
Lastly, informational interviews might be the most useful resource you’ll have in this process, but they are also a big ask, so don’t go in underprepared. If you’ve never done informational interviews before, read up on them before starting. In short, you should spend only a brief amount of time introducing yourself, come prepared with thoughtful questions, and show consideration for the person’s time. The goal is to understand what this person’s job is like by asking a set of interview questions (e.g., What does a workday look like for you? What do you like the most about your job? The least? What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a job like yours?). At least some of these questions should be tailored to your career “must haves”.
The primary goal of an informational interview is not to get a referral or an invite to interview, but those can be side benefits. Informational interviews are a good way to build your network and to place you in the mind of a potential hiring manager. When you follow up via email/message afterward, you might note that you are on the market and invite the individual to keep you in mind if the right fit comes along.
Create a Taxonomy of Relevant Job Options
When I was making the transition to industry research, I built a rough taxonomy of different categories of jobs while carrying out informational interviews and surveying job postings. This taxonomy wasn’t built strictly on job titles, but instead reflected important features of various types of jobs (note that job titles for the same type of work will vary from company to company, and the same title might have very different functions in different teams or companies). For example, during informational interviews and job phone screens, it became clear to me that research roles for people with my background differed based on whether they were focused on product or on longer-term R&D. They also varied in the degree to which they required domain expertise versus transferable skills (e.g., experimental design, statistical analysis). I was also able to derive some understanding of important features of various jobs from reading many job descriptions.
As you map out this set of possible job options, be sure to take note of the required skills and accomplishments for obtaining a particular class of jobs, which will help you determine whether you are competitive and whether there are any skill gaps that you should address. At this point, you’ve hopefully identified some paths that are particularly appealing and that you would be competitive for. Using my taxonomy, I identified the job categories that appealed most to me, and I gave myself an allotted number of months to go after my most preferred jobs before moving down the list.
And Move Forward!
This process can help you gather a lot of information to set yourself on a good trajectory. However, you will never know the exact best direction. Life is a journey and a lot of it can’t be known ahead of time. All you can do is diligently collect relevant information and then trust your gut. In my experience with industry, one of the biggest perks is flexibility and mobility — if something isn’t working or if you desire a new challenge, you can move around within company or across – you can make and remake your path.
So, don’t get stuck. Do your research, trust your newly informed gut, and then move forward confidently and enjoy the grand adventure that is your career!
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