Making the Leap from Academia to Industry: How to Set Yourself Apart from Other Candidates

I have been working in industry for a few years now, and students ask me the same question that I was struggling with during my job search: “How can I get a job in industry if I don’t have industry experience?” Like many other students, I had my heart set on an academic career path when I was in college.

I spent my undergraduate summers working in the labs of a Nobel Laureate, and I went straight to graduate school after my Bachelors. As an enthusiastic first-year student I set out to learn everything I could about my field to prepare myself for a faculty position. Within a few years, however, it became clear that the academic job market was, to put it mildly, saturated. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies were springing up in my area looking to hire bright young minds. There was only one problem: all job descriptions required prior industry experience. 

The reality is that employers prefer that you have industry experience, but if you have the right skills for the job, you have a good chance of getting an interview, and maybe even an offer. I was a postdoc for three and a half years.

I did not have any industry experience, but towards the end of my postdoc I received several phone calls from recruiters. I was also active in professional societies, and I followed up over email with potential employers a few times a year. My networking efforts paid off and I got calls from my industry contacts for recent job openings. When there is an opening in industry, employers need someone fast. Timelines and budgets are tight, and the sooner they can hire someone the faster they can meet their goals.

Even more important, they need the right person. The right person does not only know science well, but he or she has leadership qualities. If you are a PhD in industry, there is a good chance you will have direct reports, so employers will screen for candidates who have demonstrated that they can lead research projects. If you have not held leadership positions in research, be sure to emphasize in your application how you contributed intellectually to the development of your thesis, any mentoring experience (e.g. teaching assistant, training younger graduate students) as well as any officer positions in student organizations. 

Whether you are just out of academia, or you have been out of the workforce for some time, here are some ways you can set yourself apart from other candidates:

  • Attend networking events, especially within your professional organization
  • Follow up with potential employers after the event (do not send your CV just a “it was a pleasure to meet you”. If you are looking for a job already, ask if you may send them your CV).
  • Contact recruiters (they frequently attend career fairs and networking events), and follow up with them a few times a year.
  • Update your LinkedIn profile, and add relevant contacts to your network. If you know professionals from networking events or recent graduates from your department, be sure to add them too.
  • Join LinkedIn groups within your field. Increase your visibility in these groups by contributing to the discussions, or starting your own thread.
  • Check out the following group if you are looking for alternate careers:http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Alternative-PHD-Careers-3404777/about
  • Make your own website (e.g. www.yourname.com, or as similar to your name as possible), which includes details about professional experience, publications and leadership roles. This site will be key to your professional image, especially during your job search (make sure you continue to update it after you get your job).
  • Polish your Facebook profile if needed (I know people who did not get jobs because of embarrassing photos on Facebook, or they got fired because of them).


Yes, getting a job is a full-time job. If you have the right skills, by all means apply to jobs even if you do not have industry experience. Most importantly, tailor your CV and cover letters to the employer, and emphasize what value you are bringing to the company. Why are you the solution to their problem? Think like the hiring manager: if you had 30 seconds to look over the CV, what would you want to see? Important information has to be easily visible.  Applications can take days to put together. If you cookie-cut them, they will end up in the recycling bin. In your cover letter (and any email correspondence you have with potential employers and networking contacts), focus on what the company needs and how you can help them. 

The following excellent books have even more ideas for landing a job in this tough market:

  • Guerilla Marketing for Job Hunters 2.0 by Jay Conrad Levinson and David Perry
  • Career Distinction by William Arruda and Kirsten Dixson
  • Get the Job You Want Even When No One’s Hiring by Ford Myers

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  • On May 06, 2013