Written by Sabina Vejzovic

From the very beginning, right after deciding to study science, the academic career seems to be fixed: bachelor’s, master’s, PhD, and probably a series of post-docs afterwards. But this path is not made for everyone. It’s a field, full of ups and downs, that often results in high frustration levels. Besides a deep personal interest and an immense sense of curiosity, a career in science requires an enormous amount of luck and mental resilience to attain success, which is often defined as becoming a professor at a well-known university.

During my 5 years of studies, I met a lot of students who far from possessed all these required attributes. Nevertheless, they continued their studies despite their obvious dissatisfaction. Why did they do that? From my point of view, the university does not offer enough information about paths outside of academia. These alternatives are often not easy to find, especially if you do not know what to focus on. Continuing a PhD, on the other hand, is often much more comfortable. If you stay in an familiar institute, sometimes an informal chat with a PI is all that is required. PhD students are sought after in quite high numbers and with the university as an employer, the students remain in their known environment. Going down this road only because it is the most traveled is definitively the wrong reason to pursue a PhD. It results in frustration, regret, and makes you feel like you wasted years of your life when finding a job afterwards turns out to be much harder than expected. Nowadays, a PhD in the life sciences does not open all doors to big companies like it did in the past. Job openings at these companies are quite rare and often require years of industry experience.

I knew from the get-go that my academic career would end with my masters. I never saw myself as the scientist seeking answers to questions that no one has asked before. Truth be told, I always wanted to become some sort of manager as I love to organize and coordinate. However, I did not want to work in any random company; for me it was of utmost importance to enter into a business that aims to improve the world, even if only a little. Medical research was the area I wanted to participate in so that I could help improve living conditions all around the world. The advice I got in high school was that if you want to become a manager, it is better to focus on your field of interest rather than on management alone.  The thought goes, “It’s easier to obtain management skills than the other way around.” So I went for biochemistry and I have yet to regret it.

After finishing my biochemistry studies, I continued with neuroscience for reasons of personal interest. During this time, people already started asking me, “Where do you plan to continue your PhD?” Upon hearing that I would not do a PhD, people’s reactions were varied: some were stunned, some were intrigued by my alternative plan, and once I heard the response, “Why did you study biochemistry at all if you’re not doing a PhD?”

Choosing an alternative career takes months of planning. I had already started to search for suitable biotech companies that might offer positions for newcomers a year before finishing my master’s.  The job search is terribly frustrating as the number of entry-level jobs is small, and for each job opening there were criteria that I was unable to fulfill. Nevertheless, I was able to secure an entry-level position with only a master’s degree. Here’s a short guideline on how to approach the search for your first non-academic job:

1. Make a list of companies that sound interesting to you.

2. Get an idea of what your perfect job would look like. Read through job listings and highlight all of the descriptions that fit your personal idea of the perfect job.

3. Be realistic. You cannot aim for a leadership position without any work experience. Figure out how you might come one step closer to the job of your dreams by focusing on related entry-level positions.

4. Don’t be frustrated if you do not fulfill all of the required skills that the job description asks for. If you cover about 80%, it is definitely enough for an application, especially when it comes to the requirement of ‘x years of experience in the industry.’ If you can show you are motivated, you might still be invited for an interview.

5. Create an application strategy. Highlight job related experiences in your motivation letter and CV. Use the motivation letter to give some good examples as to why you fulfill their requirements. Add recommendation letters from previous internships or jobs and never underestimate the importance of soft skills!

6. Apply for every position that looks interesting to you. It is better to apply to one too many than not enough! With each application you will gain a lot of experience. The interviews are especially helpful to improve your application strategy.

7. Be prepared for your interview! Read everything that you can find about the company and try to understand it. Write down why you are applying exactly for this position in this exact company. Go through the 100 most asked questions in job interviews. You can find them with a google search. They cover questions asked by the human resources department and often have nothing to do with your technical skills or knowledge. You might hear questions like, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” or “What are your strengths?”. It’s often not about giving the correct answer, but rather showing your future employer that you have prepared yourself well enough and that you have already thought about the answers to those questions. It does not leave a good impression if you need five minutes to think about an answer or if you provide an unstructured response.

8. Figure out what income you deserve! I felt uncomfortable with this issue, and I can imagine that I am not the only one. For your first job interview, you have to find out what kind of salary you can ask for. My google search for “income project coordinator” did not help a lot as it is such a specific job description and there are many things to consider: no work experience, only a master’s degree, not all job requirements were covered. My approach was to ask my friends and family members what their income is, which of course is a delicate question, so only ask people who will not be offended. By explaining why you need this information, you might get their support. After having income information from five different people (it is important to ask people with different levels of education and years of work experience), start thinking about where you see yourself and what you might deserve with your level of education. Do not forget to include your lack of work experience in your calculation, and keep in mind that an entry-level position in life science is not compensated as much as an entry-level position in engineering. When you have defined your potential range of income, identify the upper limit. In your interview, you should not answer the question about your desired income by providing a range. If you do so, your potential employers will keep the lower value in mind. Instead, tell them the upper value and expect to get about 10-15 % less.

9. Think about questions you want to ask the company. There is nothing worse than not having questions after they offer you the opportunity to ask some. For my interview, I prepared a sheet with 15 questions and in the end we spent about 10 minutes going through the ones that weren’t already covered. Everyone’s list is personal but here are a few of mine:

  • How is this job related to science?
  • What are the strengths of the company?
  • What does a typical day as project coordinator look like?
  • My favorite one: What was the main reason you invited me to this job interview?

10. It is all about the look. It is nice to have an individual fashion style, but when applying for a job in industry, you should follow the standard rules of business dress. This means a suit and a well-kept appearance. Academia is certainly different in this regard.

11. If you receive a positive answer to your application, congratulations! If not, see it as training. Think about what you could have done better, and improve! Talk about your interview and your application with some friends, as they might give you good advice. No one is perfect, especially when it comes to interviews. Try to avoid the same mistakes for your next interview and reflect on what you have learned. Often it is not about you personally, but rather that there were some better qualified applicants. If you had to decide between someone with little experience and someone with years of experience in that field, you would probably decide against yourself as well. There is nothing harder than finding your first job, but once you have it, every future application will be much easier!

In many ways, I was lucky. I got my position as a project coordinator quite quickly, but I was also well-prepared and I had several unsuccessful interviews before. I learned a great deal from each of them and I am sure I would not have gotten my current position if I did not reflect on these previous interviews and try to improve for the future ones. Being a project coordinator is not the same as being a project manager, but it is a related entry-level position and I am learning a lot so that one day I can become a project manager. Good luck with your search!

Sabina graduated from the GTC with a master’s degree in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience and is currently working as a Project Coordinator at CureVac in Tübingen, Germany.

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