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5 Tips for PhD Students and Postdocs to Help Land
That Non-Academic Job

When I started my PhD in 2012, I knew from the very beginning that I didn’t want to be in academia. However, I had no clue what else was out there beyond working in pharma, and I didn’t have any sort of road map to help figure things out.

As years went by, I started to realize that there was a whole world of opportunities for PhDs beyond the bench – careers that were just as intellectually stimulating and still scratched that scientific itch without ever having to pick up a pipette. However, the road to reach these careers was a bit foggier compared to academia. Did I need to do a postdoc? How important are publications? How do I make myself stand out?

This August will mark my 5-year anniversary of having finished my PhD and starting my somewhat windy career in science communication. With that in mind, I wanted to provide some reflections and (hopefully) helpful tips for others who are navigating the murky waters of preparing for a non-academic career.

1) Network early and often

No matter if you’re well into your postdoc or you’re a first-year PhD student, it’s never too early or too late to start networking.

And I don’t mean just networking at scientific conferences.

Looking back on my PhD journey, I can confidently say that networking within the BioHealth Capital Region community was single-handedly one of the most influential things I did as a graduate student, and it continues to serve me well years later.

Networking might seem scary, but I assure you that it’s not as painful and daunting as it may seem. Similar to learning any new lab technique, with enough practice it’ll start to feel like second nature. Below are just a few of the ways you can network – some of which you might already be doing and not even realize!

Networking Events – Although most in-person networking events are on hold due to the persnickety and persistent pandemic, most organizations by now have pivoted and found ways to still hold events virtually. While Zoom meetings certainly can’t replace the experience of meeting in-person, it’s certainly better than nothing.

And hey…there’s something to be said about getting to network in your lounge pants.

As for outlets to tap into, Women In Bio is one of my personal favorite resources for networking and has always been an extremely welcoming community (yes, men are more than welcome as well!).

And, of course, there’s also BioBuzz-hosted networking events! Although we’ve largely been on a COVID hiatus, we’re looking to kick things back up in 2022. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter so that you’re in the know.

LinkedIn – Definitely a no-brainer for virtual networking!  If you don’t already have an account, I’d for sure recommend signing up. And, if you have an account, make sure that it’s up-to-date.

Of course, a LinkedIn account isn’t helpful if it’s sitting there collecting virtual dust. To get the most value, you need to engage with your contacts and with your community. Follow companies and pages that you’re interested in, and be sure to like/share/comment with content that others are putting out. Even something as simple as congratulating someone for starting a new position can help you gain visibility and traction.

Another key value of LinkedIn is to be able to direct message those you are interested in connecting with. Believe me – I used to be super hesitant to cold-message somebody as a student. But now, having been on the other side of the spectrum for a few years, I can confidently say that most people would be thrilled to talk to you about their careers for 15-30 minutes, if not more.

One key piece of advice to increase your chances of getting a response to a cold message is to tailor your message to the individual and make it unique. Take a look at their profile and make note of any common interests – you’re more likely to nab someone’s attention this was rather than through a generic copy-and-paste template.

Twitter – Yes, yes, Twitter might often be a pit of arguments and bad opinions, but if you tap into the right communities, it can actually be a rich resource to meet and engage with scientists and professionals in a more informal setting. This is especially true for those who are interested in science communication!

Twitter often takes a bit longer to break into than LinkedIn because of the quick-fire nature of the platform, but stay persistent and you’ll start to find more and more value. I recommend checking out the #scicomm and #biotech hashtags as a starting place for who to follow, and also tapping into different curated Twitter lists (such as this biotech list that I curated through my own account).

From here, the tips are generally the same as LinkedIn – engage with different kinds of posts through liking/retweeting, and don’t be afraid to comment as well. As a grad student, I found it particularly cathartic to vent about my various failed experiments and lab woes, which surprisingly helped to connect me with others.

No matter how you do it, networking is an important part of your career path, and one that is certainly worth the time investment.

2) Become knowledgeable about the landscape

Having very general background knowledge about the biotech/biopharma landscape is extremely helpful in many regards, and it shows to potential employers that you’re serious about pursuing this career path.

No need to fret – we’re not talking about opening up a textbook and memorizing how to set up a clinical trial here. As a student, one of the most helpful things for me was signing up for various newsletters from different organizations and skimming through them in between experiment timepoints (here’s looking at you, western blots…).

I’d also encourage you to keep tabs on various trade media outlets – STAT News, Fierce Biotech, and Endpoints are fantastic in covering what biotech and biopharma companies are up to as well as covering industry trends. Make note of some of the words and terminology you don’t know and Google them later.

And, again, I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t also put in the plug for BioBuzz, both for reading up on life science news and also for our weekly newsletter.

Once you begin to have an idea of what type of career path you’d like to pursue, I’d encourage you to reach out to folks in your network and ask them to point you to additional resources that are more tailored toward your area of interest. Remember – no need to be an expert, but showing a baseline knowledge can be a huge advantage in landing and smashing that job interview down the road.

3) Build and nurture your circle

Too often, I see graduate students and postdocs putting all of their eggs into their advisor’s basket when it comes to career growth. Your PI can undoubtedly be an important resource in your career trajectory, but they can also be a huge detriment if your relationship with them starts to turn south.

And, unfortunately, the latter can indeed happen…

Over the years I’ve talked to many students and postdocs who thought that their chances at a good career were at risk because of a rocky relationship with their PI. They were under the impression that they needed their advisor’s letter of recommendation to be taken seriously in the job market.

Fortunately, with non-academic careers this is not necessarily the case.

If you put effort into Tip #1 above, you’ll likely find that you’ll gain additional mentors who can advocate for you, your skillset, and your potential. Even if you have a great relationship with your PI, it can’t hurt to have other references in your court. Think of it this way – best-case scenario, you’ll have plenty of references to pick from when the time comes. Worst case scenario, you have a safety net that can catch you and keep you moving forward if your relationship with your PI has turned sour.

4) No, you don’t need that expensive certification right now

A question I commonly get in informational interviews is whether or not it would be worth it to spend money on a specialized certification. This is an especially common question I get from folks who are interested in fields such as project management (PMP certification) and medical writing (AMWA certification).

While being certified certainly looks nice on your resume, it’s not necessarily a golden ticket that will automatically land you a job in a particular field. Furthermore, many of these certifications or memberships can be quite pricey on a student budget.

Again, I point up to Tip #1 above – see a theme here? Many job opportunities will come about through networking, even if you don’t realize it at the time. If you do want to pursue additional career development opportunities, there are many short courses out there that either offer great discounts for students/postdocs or are free altogether. BioTrain, for example, was an amazing resource for me as a graduate student to learn some of the ropes of project management, quality assurance, and other relevant topics, and the only thing I had to pay for was the gas to drive from College Park to Frederick, MD.

Overall, these certifications make more sense to pursue once you’ve become a bit more settled into your job – that’s where you’ll get the biggest value. Some companies will even help to offset the cost!

5) Know your worth

This is a big one.

When you’re spending your days at the bench, it’s easy to become bogged down and shrouded with imposter syndrome. Experiment after experiment fails, you never get any positive data, you feel pressured by wanting to impress your PI, your committee, and your peers….the list goes on. And on. And on.

I remember the first networking event I went to back in 2013. I was a first-year graduate student who had just picked her thesis lab after finishing rotations. It was a Women In Bio sponsored event, and while everyone was so nice and welcoming, at the time I much rather have gotten a root canal.

Here I was, in the presence of so many amazing professionals, and I was with nothing to add to a conversation. Whenever someone introduced themselves I immediately went to self-deprecation, introducing myself as “just” a graduate student. I had no business cards to swap, nothing.

It felt scary and uncomfortable and weird, but I forced myself to keep going to events. I printed myself my own business cards from VistaPrint. I made myself an Excel spreadsheet listing out all the contacts that I had exchanged cards with on any particular night with information on what job role they were in and what we talked about.

Gradually, as time went on, those once-intimidating professionals became acquaintances and some even invaluable mentors. People started to recognize me at events, and I started to actually look forward to attending. During the particularly hard and depressing period of graduate school, it helped me to know that my community had my back.

Now, whenever I talk to a graduate student who introduces themselves as “just” a graduate student, I make it a point to gently correct them. No, you’re not JUST a student or JUST a postdoc – you are intelligent, you have grit, and you have invaluable skills to bring to the table. I want to learn more about you.

And, like the many others who helped me along the way, it’s my job to leave the ladder down and help you see YOUR worth and potential.

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Sarah Ellinwood

Managing Editor at BioBuzz | Workforce Genetics
Sarah Ellinwood is BioBuzz's Managing Editor. A scientist by training and a science communicator at heart, Sarah specializes in making complex concepts understandable, engaging, and exciting. She received her Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology with a focus in infectious disease immunology from the University of Maryland and is passionate about all things related to scicomm, peer mentorship, and women in STEM.