S2BN Ottawa: Transitioning from Academia to Industry

On February 5th, the Ottawa Chapter of the Science to Business Network hosted a Panel Discussion focused on addressing key topics in transitioning from academia to industry, followed by an evening of networking. Panelists engaged in lively discussion based on questions asked by the event facilitator (Donna D’souza, Communications Associate, Ottawa S2BN) and several members of the audience.

The panel consisted of 5 young professionals who have recently transitioned from academia to various organizations within industry, including:

  1. Megan Mahoney, PhD - Manager of Training Programs, BioCanRx

  2. Kasey Hemington, PhD - Data Scientist, Canada Post

  3. Liam Crapper, PhD – Peer Review Officer, CIHR

  4. Nikta Fay, PhD - Account Manager, StemCell Technologies

  5. Jane McBride, MSc - Clinical Research Associate, Abbott Point of Care

Key Points from the Panel Discussion

Note: The answers below are paraphrased based on the information provided by each Discussion Panel participant.

Q1. What is your single piece of take-home advice for transitioning from academia to industry?

Megan: Meeting people once is not the same as networking - foster the relationships you develop.

Kasey: Network with everyone – everyone knows someone who knows someone.

Jane: Develop and use your soft skills to set yourself apart from other candidates who may have the same academic qualifications.

Liam: Your schedule will never be more flexible than it is in grad school – use this time to get involved and figure out what you like and what you want.

Nikta: Put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes – do their thinking for them by spelling out what sets yourself apart in your letter and resume.

Q2. What is your favourite part about your position?

Megan: Variety of tasks, ownership of responsibilities, the office culture, and working in an innovative scientific area.

Liam: Being outside the lab, interacting with various people, and being a part of Canada’s science program.

Jane: Interacting with various people, helping them solve their technical problems, and having access to many opportunities as part of a large corporation.

Kasey: Current role is very similar to grad school, but now with more variety and implications.

Nikta: Variety of roles – involved with clinical trials, business development, and working for a company that is driven to further science in Canada.

Q3. How did you obtain your current position?

Megan: I met my current supervisor through a previous employer and reached out to let her know that I was looking for new opportunities. When my current position became available, she asked me if I was interested and the rest is history.

Liam: Since this is a government position, I had to look great on paper and complete all applications as instructed. I also got involved in extracurricular activities during grad school (started a podcast, volunteered with Science Policy Exchange), which helped differentiate me during the interview process. If you’re interested in government positions, start looking early - the hiring process moves very slowly.

Jane: I was a summer student (during undergrad) at their company and reached out to the contacts I made after completing my MSc. Networking, getting involved in social events, and being friendly!

Kasey: I was recommended to apply for the job by someone who knew someone in HR, all after applying for a different position that I felt more qualified for. I created the networking opportunity for myself.

Nikta: Made sure to look good on paper, then contacted the recruiter on LinkedIn, and networked with people at the company until I got on the hiring team’s radar. I’m in favour of cold calling, but it has to be done properly!

Q4. How did you grow your network outside of academia?

Megan: I went to as many networking events as possible, and used LinkedIn to reach out to interesting people in many different professions. In particular, I “learned the language” and did “dress rehearsals” by speaking with interesting people from cities/companies I wasn’t specifically interested in. In doing so, I sounded more practiced when speaking with individuals I wanted to impress. Additionally, it is important to gain mentors and connect with people who will advocate for you.

Liam: Make friends at conferences and maintain those relationships. Do something, anything you’re comfortable with, to get out and into the world to meet people. Be yourself!

Jane: Network everywhere with everyone.

Kasey: You don’t have to connect with the hiring manager first. I formed a network of job seekers and we were able to help each other out.

Nikta: You have to know yourself first and be genuine when you are networking.

Q5. How much help was your graduate supervisor in helping you find a position outside of academia?

Donna: I created my own network by becoming actively involved in my graduate school community where I met peers and faculty members who could vouch for me.

Q6. What helped you succeed in the interview process?

Megan: I was well-prepared; I compared what was on the job description with my CV and was able to identify position-specific questions they would ask. You have to be professional, on time, clean, engaged in conversation, and have good body language. You should try to fit your best life experiences into answers to behavioural questions.

Liam: The wording of government job postings is taken very seriously. You have to meet all their requirements for the hiring manager to be authorized to hire you. It’s a good idea to have prepared answers to typical behavioural questions

Jane: It takes practice! I was very nervous during my first interview and bombed the question “What do you know about our company?”. Have practiced answers to behavioural questions and give examples of how you will fit into the team or role.

Kasey: I used my life highlights to answer the behavioural questions in the traditional STAR format. Use your good stories to answer these questions, and know what these stories/experiences actually say about yourself.

Nikta: I had 20 interviews - practice, practice, practice! Set up mock interviews with family and friends, dress the part, and learn about the company.

Q7. Have you ever considered returning back to academia?

Megan: Not in my case, but it depends on the position.

Liam: If you want to be an independent researcher, you have to make sure to publish during your time away.

Nikta: I don’t see myself doing this, but some do and they are very successful.

Donna: You need to stay up-to-date on the literature and techniques to be competitive if you want to return to academia.

Q8. What has been your biggest challenge entering a sector outside of academia?

Megan: I have a hard time balancing my desire to do important and high-impact work with my desire to live in a small city; some opportunities, such as those in biotech, are more difficult to find in smaller cities.

Jane: I knew I wanted to work outside of academia after having spent 3 summers working for the company as an undergrad. I did my MSc with the intention of going back.

Kasey: Knowing if I even wanted to do it! My advice is that if you are thinking about it, try it out for a year and as long as you don’t burn any bridges, you can easily transition back.

Q9. Do you think post-graduate certificates are useful in finding a position outside of academia? (e.g. Regulatory Affairs)

Jane: Most of the people who work in my team are working towards formal professional certification. Many new hires have post-grad training and we find that they have a great foundation of knowledge. I think it is a ‘nice to have’ as opposed to a requirement, but that may depend on the company you are interested in working for. Obtaining your CCRP (Certified Clinical Research Professional) requires work experience, but having the post-grad certificate reduces the amount of work experience required to write the exam.

Donna: The internships/co-ops offered through these programs are a great way to get your foot in the door. If you are thinking of enrolling in one of these types of programs, make sure they have a work placement portion!

Panel speakers, from left to right: Nikta Fay, Liam Crapper, Jane McBride, Megan Mahoney, Kasey Hemington

Panel participants, from left to right: Nikta Fay, Liam Crapper, Jane McBride, Megan Mahoney, Kasey Hemington.

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