Whatever the job, employers have a common set of questions in mind when evaluating applicants. Are you capable of doing this job? Will you work hard? Will we work well with you and enjoy having you around? Do you share our priorities and values? Are you one of us?
If you’re moving on from academia, that last question is perhaps the most critical. The good news is that employers in other sectors typically see researchers as being highly skilled in critical thinking, problem solving, independent working and project management. We know this because we ask senior managers and HR reps at our Careers Fairs what attracts them to postdoc candidates and what, if anything, might put them off. Their responses reveal certain stereotypes of academic working life that are extremely useful to bear in mind when preparing an application. Here are a few examples:
“The broad analytical and managerial skills developed during an advanced research degree are very attractive to us, as are people who are comfortable working across disciplines and cultural backgrounds. But we’d have to be convinced that researchers have understood our mission and share our values – these are non-negotiable. Every member represents the whole force so there’s no place for independent interpretations.” (The Police)
“We want people who approach complex issues by applying various solutions, evaluating each then moving on. Researchers tend to do this whereas others do not. Customer empathy is also very important because we need people to build the right thing not just something right. Do researchers always have this? No. That’s why we look for evidence of commercial awareness, communication skills and teamwork.” (Software development company)
“A love of learning and deep knowledge of how to analyse data are qualities we prize in researchers. But we have to ask ourselves whether they can cope with our fast-paced environment and could adjust to our organisational culture.” (Data analytics for finance company)
The CRAC/Vitae 2009 study on “Recruiting researchers” found that many employers did not expect to find leadership qualities or commercial awareness in researchers they were considering recruiting. Just think what a difference it could make if you could demonstrate these…
Let’s break down leadership into three tangible processes. First, employers may argue that researchers rarely have a problem envisioning a way forward, or several alternatives, but may do so without a clear understanding of the goal posts and pitch boundaries (where ‘off-side’ begins?). Secondly, enrolling others in the project not only requires collaborative planning and action, but an understanding of how to build human momentum around an idea. This is very different to the independent boundary-pushing typically rewarded within academia. Lastly, when it comes to execution, researchers tend to be utterly dedicated and tenacious in their pursuit of a solution. But employers often don’t have time to iterate painstakingly towards perfection; they’ll be asking whether researchers can deliver what is needed quickly, in a collaborative manner.
Popular stereotypes portray academics as intellectual to the point of being unable to relate to the ‘real world’ or as closeted in labs or libraries and lacking social skills. Whether you agree with these stereotypes is irrelevant. They persist because they have a small foothold in the truth. Note that the employers quoted above are talking from prior experience of working with researchers; they’re not simply speculating.
So how do you get someone to put aside a stereotype? You need evidence. Robust evidence to demonstrate that you’ve already been doing the things the employer cares about, and doing them successfully. The more research you do on a particular employer, the more you will be able to identify what they genuinely care about. (N.B. Don’t just assume that you know, which is tantamount to applying your own stereotypes in reverse!) When you know what their concerns are, you can build your cover letter and interview responses around them, rather than just rehashing your own well-worn autobiography. Sharing someone else’s values and concerns is the best way to sound like ‘one of them’.