Lisa Bertolo • Posted: March 1, 2019
If I had been asked ten years ago what I thought my future would hold, I’m not sure that I could have imagined I would be working in industry rather than academia. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t imaginative, but I thought for sure that, like many of my cohorts, my future lay in teaching and research rather than industrial pursuits.
It was an easy conclusion to reach, after all—everyone with whom I interacted was in academia already. I didn’t have any close contacts or relatives who had gone through my career path. My views on my future were supremely biased by my environment, and I had yet to realize it.
As my degree approached its end, I was stressing not only over my defense (which was I was steadily hurtling toward) but also over what I was going to do when it all came to an end. I applied to several openings in my field of study first—further graduate studies, postdoctoral positions, internship programs—with very little luck.
How could that be? A lot of these programs asked for years of experience, which I didn’t have as a new graduate. (As a brief aside, the oddity of expecting a lot of experience out of a new graduate continues to mystify me). So, I turned to the university’s job board to try and find a job, ANY JOB, that would hold me over until I could figure out my next move. And that’s how I chanced upon my first job opportunity in industry.
Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything about the path I’ve taken so far. I’ve had amazing opportunities, worked for and with incredible people, expanded my skillsets and my perspective, and grown both personally and professionally.
However, as luck favours the prepared, I would have liked to have been better equipped to hit the ground running. I offer the following pointers that could help you to be (or, in the very least, feel) more prepared if you were to choose to take the plunge into the sea of industry.
START CURATING YOUR RESUME EARLY
I’m not saying that you must have an absolutely awesome resumé before you even get started. I’m suggesting instead just to have one. If you’ve been working during the summer, no matter what the job, chances are that you already do. If you don’t have one, start with a simple template and get all your hard work and experience on paper. Having a resumé of some kind as a base upon which you can build a more comprehensive curriculum vitae (CV) will reduce a lot of stress that you may feel later. In a nutshell, starting from something is better than starting from a blank Word document with a blinking text cursor. I would posit that having an online version of your experience is also useful.
It may be unlikely that you will always have a paper copy on hand (resumé or CV) should you be asked for it casually. In this instance, it’s easier to refer someone to a digital version. In my case, I chose to go with LinkedIn over curating my own webpage/blog because it required less overall maintenance on my part (full disclosure: I’m not sponsored by them). LinkedIn allows you to list your education and experience like your resumé, but you can also link your profile to other projects, publications, awards, and certifications. In my opinion, a LinkedIn profile is everything your paper copy can be, and more. (Plus: it doesn’t have to be completed in one go – you can continue to work on it). LinkedIn will also give you some exposure to individuals who work in industry as there are recruiters and employers present on the site.
NETWORKING LIKE A PRO
It is one of those things that everyone says you should do… and I’m also saying it. There will be many people with whom you can chat, work with closely, or meet in one way or another. Sometimes these meetings may not happen in a workplace setting; I’ve met a couple of contacts in my network through personal interest events and through volunteering.
When networking, you’ll likely receive a business card or two. In this case, make sure to receive these happily and put them in a safe place; I recommend the breast pocket of a jacket or a secure pocket in a bag.
When you have a private moment, take out a small stack of Post-Its and write down the date and two to three points that will jog your memory about this person later.
Alternatively, you may be asked to exchange LinkedIn information. You won’t be able to make notes to remind yourself in the future, so I’d recommend adding their name with the date on your Post-It (or on your phone).
People with whom you network are like long-distance, professional friends or acquaintances, but maintaining these relationships can seem tricky. I’ve often struggled with finding the balance between maintenance and coming across as overbearing, but I’ve found sending a quick note from time to time to congratulate them on an accomplishment or simply to wish them happy holidays can go a long way. The only pointer I’d offer for these messages is to avoid using slang; these are individuals you know professionally at the end of the day.
At the end of all of this, you’ll have a group of people that you can ask for advice when you start your job search. Are you looking at a job with a company you’re not sure about? Chances are you may be able to find someone in your network who currently works there, has worked there in the past, or knows someone who has worked there (with the exception, perhaps, of smaller companies and start-ups). Is there someone you’d like to talk to about the position they hold? Perhaps someone in your network can make the introduction for you.
Building and maintaining your network will help support you when you make career decisions.
Industry. Is. Different. You knew it. I thought I knew it, but knowing it and living it are two completely different flavours (like marmite and marmalade).
If there’s one thing that I noticed immediately about industry, it is the change in pace. Instead of a deadline being a year (or more) away, you have timelines on the order of weeks or months with goals to achieve along the way. In many ways, this approach is more straight-forward and the road you are walking is very clearly charted out. That doesn’t mean the road is easy. More than likely, you’ll still come across a problem or two that need to be solved. It is an exciting road to walk, but it does take some adjustment from chartering out the path as you walked it.
It might also happen that you don’t end up working on projects that are direct extensions of the research you did in the university. At first glance, this seems incredibly depressing—you’ve spent so much time and effort expanding your knowledge but are now unable to use it?
I’m here to tell you, you’re more than your thesis or degree.
Beyond the knowledge you’ve been collecting, your whole time was spent developing skills that you can apply in other contexts. Can you love your topic and work in a different area? Yes, you most certainly can. I loved (and still love) the research that I did during my Ph.D. even though I now work in another area entirely. What I’ve come to appreciate in the years following graduation is that changing areas of research meant that I could keep learning. Without a change, I wouldn’t have been exposed to new analytical techniques and new chemistry that I hadn’t previously used. I constantly have more to read, more to understand, and more to overcome. In changing directions, I really do feel as though I continue to grow. And I love it.
Like I said earlier, industry is different, but it isn’t a path that you should be afraid to take. Prepare as best you can, build a network upon which you can rely, and then enjoy the ride.
Lisa Bertolo is a Ph. D. Chemistry graduate from the University of Guelph. With four years of experience in industry, Lisa currently works as a research scientist at EIDCA Specialty Products Co. in Kingston, ON.
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