Cartoon of a hand posting a CV through a curtain, directly into a shredder.

Illustration: David Parkins

The problem

Dear Nature,

I’m a postdoc reaching the end of my second two-year contract at a European university. I want to transfer from academia to industry so that I can find some stability and a better work–life balance.

My area of academic expertise means I have something to offer in the agricultural industry, so I’ve been looking for a research project-management or data-analysis position in that field. But I keep receiving impersonal, early-stage rejections (or no response at all) even for positions for which I was sure I had a chance. I’m worried that my CV is getting filtered out by scanning software because of my lack of industry experience, and that it never even gets to a real person.

What can I do to get noticed for these positions? How can I transition out of academia if all the industry jobs want industry experience? Am I doing something wrong? — An overlooked biologist

The advice

Nature spoke to three experts to help answer your question, and they said that what you’re experiencing is a common frustration when trying to make the leap from academia to industry. If you feel as if you’re shooting your CV into a black hole again and again without a meaningful response, you should shift your approach. The specialists Nature spoke to agreed that you are off to the right start: you have identified some roles that you’d be interested in and an industry that would fit you well.

Theresa D’Aquila, who helps to design and assess the feasibility of clinical trials for Takeda Pharmaceuticals and is based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, recommends further narrowing the focus of your search. “Make sure that you are applying to the right companies, the right positions, and that your résumé is well-crafted to get the attention of the hiring team,” says D’Aquila. “That includes the software often used to scan applications.” These applicant tracking systems (ATS) include Workday, SuccessFactors and Taleo, which are used to process the overwhelming number of applications that large companies receive for any job posting.

Instead of applying for every possible position that crosses your newsfeed, identify one or two companies that are well-aligned with your interests and experience, D’Aquila suggests. Then dig deep. Explore the company’s website. Learn all you can about its business goals, company culture and areas of development. “As you’re putting out your résumé,” D’Aquila says, “it should be apparent to the reader that you’ve done a lot of research on why this company is right for you and you are right for the company.”

Find companies in their growth phase, that are developing new technology or expanding into new areas of research. “Think about how you can help support that company in their new endeavour,” says D’Aquila.

Instead of thinking of an application as a personal sales pitch to a faceless crowd of potential employers, think of it as a dialogue with a particular company. “Imagine a job ad as a call for help,” says Anne Grewlich-Gercke, who leads career development and business relations at the Max Planck Society, based in Munich, Germany. The company is hiring because it has a problem, or a gap in its abilities. “You want to identify what you can do to help solve that problem.” This personalized approach takes time, but it is worth the investment, she adds.

You’ve probably already heard that you should tailor your CV to each application; those who Nature spoke to agree with that suggestion. Grewlich-Gercke calls this “buzzword bingo”. Go line-by-line through the job ad and make sure there is as much of a match as possible, down to the language they use to describe certain activities. Pick out the terms they use to describe their ideal candidate and work them into your CV and cover letter: that might sate an application-scanning algorithm or AI tool, and get your CV in front of a real person.

It can be difficult to stand out from the crowd, especially if you’re coming directly from academic research, in which people tend to have similar sets of transferable skills. “That’s where doing some extracurricular activities helps a lot,” says D’Aquila. You don’t need to spend months re-training, but taking an online course or attending a seminar shows that you’re interested in going into industry and are taking active steps to make the transition. These can also be great networking opportunities. Sitara Chauhan agrees that networking will help you get noticed by potential employers. “The person you really want to get your CV to is a hiring manager,” says Chauhan, a technical sales specialist for Thermo Fisher Scientific, based in College Park, Maryland. “Even if you don’t know them well, if there’s someone who can vouch for you and get your CV directly in their e-mail, that’s how you’re going to get those interviews.”

As well as networking to develop new contacts, Chauhan says it’s important to approach existing ones. “If there are people you’ve worked with in your lab who have gone on to work in industry, reach out to them.”

It’s possible that your current employer has connections to industry that you could take advantage of, Chauhan suggests. “If your lab research involves using some instrumentation or reagents, that is a product sold by a company. You might have a sales rep for that, or an engineer who comes to the lab. Those are great people to talk to.” Let them know that you are looking for a position. “They might be connected to companies that are looking to hire,” says Chauhan, “maybe even their own company.”

Career-focused social platforms can be a good place to find old connections and start making new ones. “Messages on LinkedIn actually have a pretty good success rate,” says D’Aquila, especially if the message shows curiosity and enthusiasm, and highlights a connection between you, such as a common interest. Once you have identified someone with a role you are interested in, a connection at your target company or a former colleague who has made the switch to industry, ask for a few minutes of their time to talk about their job. These informational interviews can help you to gather information on a company and confirm that you’re applying to a position that matches your skill set, while building your professional network.

“Everybody’s a little bit afraid of doing it that way,” says Grewlich-Gercke. “But there’s a big resonance. People are often eager to share what they are doing and how they did it.”

The good news is that there are resources out there for scientists like you who want to make this transition. Your research institution might offer career-development seminars, like the Planck Academy’s industry track, at which Grewlich-Gercke helps support researchers who want to shift from academia to industry or the public sector.

Everyone Nature spoke to agreed that making this transition is a challenge — one that involves a daunting amount of time, effort and emotional turmoil. It’s easy to doubt yourself or feel disheartened after repeated rejection, but don’t give up hope. Rely on your network of friends and colleagues, and don’t be afraid to reach out to those who have gone before you. You might be surprised how willing people are to help.