Plan to leave the Ivory Tower: Read

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Plan to leave the Ivory Tower: Read

Postby D.X. » Fri Jan 05, 2007 5:34 pm

Recently I had the opportunity to be part of a panel discussion that focused on alternative career paths, focusing on on the medical affairs side of pharmaceutical companies, not research. All companies present, mine too, were collecting resumes as they all had available positions. The audience consisted of graduate students and post-docs, with equal number of native english speakers and non-native english speakers.

Well after having met with a number of attendees and reviewing the resumes I collected, I was left at a few thoughts that I would like to share with you all.


1. After reviewing the resumes, I can tell that 90% of the folks that I received resumes from did not write a thought out resume for the positions they were seeking, that is a position not bench science research-focused but rather clinically oriented, with strong emphasis on critical thinking skills, independence, and strong collaborative and team-working personalities. The resumes were either:

A. a CV, with all positions listed, either with or without very scientifically detailed explanations of their research projects. No objective, no personal summary

B. A CV that wants to be resume, so the previously held and current position(s) are listed but again, a very scientifically detailed description are given for each position, without any descriptions of skill sets that can be translated to the job they are seeking, most had a blah/BORING/Generic/Cliché objective. I personally don’t care if a “yeast two hybid screen for interacting aba1 proteins” has been done. Boring. Irrelevant.

C. A resume that just shouts “I have no creativity, no translatable skills, I’m just the plain old run of the mill lab geek, and I hope that my thorough description of science projects, no one outside my field will understand, and that I have a PhD….will get me the position”. This resume goes no where, at least with me.


1. I’m sure at some point in your careers you have heard that “first impressions are the most lasting impressions”? That is, within the first 5 seconds of meeting someone, your impressions are pretty much laid in stone and from then on, you have to work to change that. I have always felt that as long as you are in an environment, where you are handing a resume to someone, that is a PROFESSIONAL setting and thus, behavior should be adjusted accordingly.

OK Weak hand shakes, and introductions in sub-audible voice=BAD. A number of folks approached me and I had to ask them to repeat their names! NOT GOOD. Some folks kept their head down. No eye contact. There were a couple folks who knew what they were doing, the shook my hand, strongly, and introduced themselves with confidence, “hi I’m Joe Bag-o-Donuts, nice to meet you, I was wondering if……” These are the folks I remember and within the first 5 seconds, I knew I could take these folks seriously and cared enough to look at their resume. They maintained eye contact with me at all times.


A. A number of folks that approached me were non-native English speakers. If English is not the first language, then these folks have a challenge of being viewed as “incompetent at communication”, both writing and oral skills. This is a sad reality. I try to avoid that perception, however, it is hard when I receive a resume that has grammar mistakes.

I should stress that out side of academia, communication skills are essential! There are no PIs to re-write a grammatically-challenged paper, there are no PIs to critique and listen to you practice a talk or help you develop presentations, i.e. sentences. A number of folks came up to me were non-native English speakers with poor grammar (after being in the US for years!! NO EXCUSE). That, combined with low voices, and lack of confidence, well, it does not paint a pretty picture.


A. The resumes that I flagged for further action were:

1. Well written and had a personal summary at the top that gave me a short, yet encompassing overview and good impression of the person, within 5 to 10 seconds of starting to read the resume. They made me want to continue on.

2. They highlighted translatable skills and provided evidence to show those skills were translatable.

3. Showed that they had interpersonal skills and, most importantly, not lab geeks. These folks tended to be actively involved in some form of community service or hobby and obviously not ashamed in anyway to share that information.

4. Well written. Good language and those that were formatted to look appealing. Eye appeal is big, especially when only 3 to 10 seconds is given when skimming a resume.

5. The folks themselves were confident, had strong hand shakes, maintained eye contact and engaged me in peer to peer type conversation.

Fortunately all resumes are going to be looked at again at the company. However, few of them will have my yellow sticky on them. I’ll leave that for interpretation.

PART V: ADVICE for others to remedy some of the red-flags I saw

1. Spend time with the resume. Be creative. Highlight translatable skills and be able to account for all items listed on the resume, clearly and consisely. Tailor the resume for the position that is being applied for. I probably have 50 versions of my resume on my hard drive, ranging from different CV styles, to different levels of creativity, to highlighting different skill sets, and I’m not kidding here. This means that I tailored my resumes for the jobs I was applying for. I heard people say “spend 2 weeks on your resume”. I say..spend 6 months. Especially when a resume is going to be given in seminar type setting. In this setting, there is no coverletter to back up the resume.

Also, understand that a resume is not is list of what you’ve done. A resume, in fact is who you are! It’s a living document subject to constant revision (unless folks have a cushy Gov-job and can retire in 20 years with pension). Let it reflect what has been done, what can be provided, who the person writing the resume is! Let it be a mini-biography..really that what it is!

For example, I got one resume from a post-doc. Years of experience, which was amazingly placed on one page and awesomely it highlighted the translatable skills this person had to offer and “demonstrated” how those skills were transferable all on one page, 14 point font!! This resume, although only one page, must have taking lots of time to develop lots of thought went into that I’m sure! There is a yellow tag with big exclamation marks on it. Obviously this person is banking on creativity to get the foot in the door. It worked for me! Also goes to some that some risk must be taken.

continued in sub post
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Plan to leave the Ivory Tower: Read II

Postby D.X. » Fri Jan 05, 2007 5:38 pm

I think writing a resume also allows the writer to learn who s/he is and what they can provide. Writing a resume, in my opinion can also help build character. It did for me. So from what I’ve said here, resume writing is not an easy task, especially in today’s competitive environment. Ask for help too! Especially from readers who are outside of science.

Science, if its on the resume, explain it like you would to an old lady on the bus (hopefully the old lady is not a scientist!). THAT takes talent and creativity. Especially verbally!! It will be noticed.

Tailor the resume for the job that is being sought. Since its outside the Ivory tower, not industry research, then, stay away from hardcore science descriptions. Hardcore science will be a turn off and not an advantage.

Now, I haven’t even mention cover letters. Not necessary for networking seminars or rather does not come into this post, but they’re another beast to spend A LOT of time on. I probably have 100 different cover letters on my drive. NOT Kidding.

2. Confidence. Show it, speak it. Be proud. ALWAYS. Eye contact. Good hand-shake. Everyone is a peer! Enough said.

3. Non-native english speakers. They have a hurdle to cross. Demonstrate on the resume that English can be written, perhaps provide samples that you have exclusively written without the help of a PI. Outside of academia, companies are administering their own written and oral presentation tests (especially in consulting and medical communications), bone up on these skill.
If there is a heavy accent, BE PROUD OF IT and speak confidently. I have a teammate who is from the EU. Heavy accent, sometimes, there are grammatical mistakes, but is still an MSL. Why? This person is proud, confident and knows the material and has no issues getting up in front of a crowd and delivering a super presentation. The accent/non-native English speaker status is non-issue given the confidence this person shows. Although this person has only been in the US 4 years, they can write better English than me, or any other person in my team for that matter . So can my girlfriend (citizen of the EU non-native English speaker) who only started to write English 5 years ago. She has passed all written and oral tests given to her at the varied consulting firms she has interviewed in the past. NO EXCUSE for poor communication skills after being in the US for 4 to 5 years...especially if seeking to leave the Ivory tower and pursue a non-industry research job.

That’s it guys! You guys are lucky to have a forum like this with people like dave and the moderators. This forum has good advice and obviously if you’re here, you’re benefiting. So good for you!
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Plan to leave the Ivory Tower: Read

Postby WY » Fri Jan 05, 2007 5:43 pm

I enjoyed reading your analyses. Thanks for taking the time to summarize (and type!) your thoughts.

I strongly feel that being confident and personable places one head and shoulders above the "competition."
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Plan to leave the Ivory Tower: Read

Postby Rich Lemert » Fri Jan 05, 2007 6:29 pm

I think these two posts should be considered for an FAQ of their own. They're an excellent summary of what hiring managers are looking for, coming directly from "the horses mouth".

Just to reinforce one of the key points: One of the biggest criticisms I received about my resume when I was last job hunting was that it was too academic. It wasn't a CV, but it wasn't a good resume either. Academics are too often focussed on "credentials" - this is who I worked for, these are the techniques I used. Industry could care less - what they want to know is if you can use this background to solve problems for them. After all, if they wanted your adviser to do the work they'd be talking to him about the job, and they can always hire technicians to do the various techniques.
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In defense of "Lab Geeks".

Postby John B. » Fri Jan 05, 2007 6:40 pm

D.X. Very useful information for job seekers but it sort of highlights some of what I view as a current problem in science--you have to be a prototype CEO to be "successful". You poke fun at lab geeks as though they are a worthless bunch who should be avoided. My contention is that lab geeks make their contributions also since science wouldn't get very far with a room full of CEOs. It is very common for successful researchers to rise to a level where they become separated from the daily grind of science. Let's not be too hard on the geeks.
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Who's a "lab geek"?

Postby N.R. » Fri Jan 05, 2007 6:50 pm

From reading the original post, I got the impression that "lab geeks" are people who just talk about their projects and research without any "big picture" stuff. You know, why is this project exciting, why should anyone care about this, what breakthroughs could this lead to, future potential etc.

I've seen plenty of academic presentations where the techniques were really impressive but the speaker was so into the details that I never really understood why I should care. So in that sense, I think it's very important to be able to express to the average person why your work is worth their attention. I've noticed that successful academics do this very well. I'm a grad student, so this is a strictly academic perspective!
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Plan to leave the Ivory Tower: Read

Postby Dave Jensen » Fri Jan 05, 2007 6:58 pm

I agree this is an excellent series of posts . . . DX, you've done it again. Nice job! We'll see about incorporating much of this into the FAQ or at least setup a link in the FAQ so that it can be found in the archives on a more frequent basis.

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Plan to leave the Ivory Tower: Read

Postby Ale » Fri Jan 05, 2007 8:25 pm

Wow! Thank you D.X.

CVs and resumes... it is just a different world. If you have been trained to excel in academia, you really have troubles to produce a resume. You have been all your career not only writing a CV but BUILDING a CV. When you talk about doing activities out of the lab (community service or hobby) and not being ashamed of saying that in a resume... well, if your previous definition of professional success was to produce as many (and higher) papers as you can, you may very well have dedicated you full time to research. And by this I mean lot of bench, planing, analysis, conferences... just no community service (when???). I am not a "bad person", but I can tell you that I have spend my full PhD in the lab, and produced a cool CV, but a partial resume, if you look at those other activities. So the first thing to understand is that it is a different world, with a different mentality, adn the learn it.

Anyway, thank you very much for your post.
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Plan to leave the Ivory Tower: Read

Postby Emil Chuck » Sat Jan 06, 2007 9:41 am

DX and DJ: in addition to an FAQ entry (how not to get a job), I'd say this is another "Tooling Up" article. :) Maybe many of these items make a lot of common sense to me, and I've seen my fair share of it for people getting into graduate school (when such statements aren't as well-defined because what really do you do in undergrad?). I think the "this worked when I was an undergrad" mentality as well as the years of being in a relaxed academic environment results in the less than stellar resumes from students who may even know how to write A resume instead of THEIR resume.

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Academic, i.e. Lab Geek and Extracuric Activites (Ale's post)

Postby D.X. » Sat Jan 06, 2007 10:38 am

Thanks for the comments.

I just wanted to address John B. and Ale's post. I don't wish to insult lab personnel who are dedicated to their work, obviously science, medicine, and society as a whole should be grateful for such individual.
However, by using the term "lab geek" I'm really refering to "perception of scientist" by those who are out of the Ivory Tower. In general, the perception is not good and can underlie negative bias an employer may have towards an interviewee (or applicant).

I think the idea of "lab geek perception" is important to grasp, because I had to directly address those perceptions (or rather concerns) when I was interviewed! Even for my current position! NOT KIDDING.

Negative Perceptions of Lab geeks include: (and these tend to trump the good qualities a scientist may have)

1. Poor interpersonal skills.
2. Poor team working ability.
3. Lack of willingness to share work on a project (think about a grad student you probably got upset when a post-doc started to work on a part of YOUR project!).
4. Too focused, can only see the small picture, can not think outside the box
5. Not capable of working/functioning in a fast-paced, rapid response, fast thinking coporate environment.
6. Desire to take exclusive credit for work done and not share credit (relates to team work).
7. Unable to deal with difficult people.

Now all of you know that these perceptions are mostly untrue for the majority of scientist, but that is the perception! (has it changed a bit now? I 'd like to hear). As mentioned I've had to address these perceptions, and I did so by demonstrating (or providing examples) of how I was NOT that perception.

Now, this relates to Ale's post. I'm not saying that a person who is dedicated to lab work is a "bad person". But, I am saying that outside activities CAN HELP folks who are interested in leaving the Ivory Tower. Extracurricular activities can provide ammunition to help blow negative perceptions about scientist out of the water during an interview and on the resume. I too was dedicated to the lab, but I was actively engaged in community service. I found something that allowed me to dedicate time after 7:00PM, one night a week (for 3 hours). I MADE the time to do it. I still finished grad school with 7 publications, 3 first authors.

Summary: If folks are looking to leave the Ivory Tower, its important to overcome the "lab geek" perceptions by DEMONSTRATING good team work and interpersonal skills as well as DEMONSTRATING excellent communciation skills, and so and so on. And by DEMONSTRATING I mean backing up those claims with evidence, both on the resume (SELLING) and in interviews.

Remember, for an interviewer, "prior sucesses is an indicator of future success " and somehow related "you're as only as good as your last project".

One more thing: About not being ashamed to put experiences on a resume..I know of a female who was a RA in college. She put that in the resume. Her interview er happened to be an RA as well in college. She got the job. The interviewer said that she was highered by cause she associates certain postive personality traits with people who were RAs in college, and was thus hired. Never know!
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