Industry Careers by Sheila Kannappan

There are a lot of questions about careers in industry. What kinds of opportunities are there, either paid or unpaid? How should you go about finding an internship? How should you write your CV or resume for this audience? Can you be involved in both industry and academia? Everyone who has either answers or more questions, chime in!


  1. Posted December 10, 2015 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    An internship is an excellent opportunity to try out a new area of the country, a particular company, and an area of work to see if they are a good fit for you. It may be the only time in your life when you can take a job, learn all about it, and then leave with everyone being happy about it. I’ve seen several (maybe most) internships turn into job offers.

  2. Sheila Kannappan
    Posted December 13, 2015 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    That’s really interesting Russ — I know my husband’s company, Liquidia Technologies, also seems to hire a large fraction of interns permanently. So my question is, what is the best way to find internships — how/where should people start?

  3. Padraic Finnerty
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    [writing this quickly, please forgive any typos]

    Sheila asked me to kick things off discussing how my transition into industry went and how I got started. First, a brief overview of myself:
    * B.S. – Penn State (2006)
    * M.S, Ph.D. – UNC (2008,2013) working for Reyco Henning & John Wilkerson (experimental nuclear physics)
    * Right after my defense, I started working for a defense contractor in the Raleigh area (Applied Research Associates – ARA).

    General info:
    The timeline for applying for and accepting an offer in industry and academia differ (most of the time). Postdoc opportunities will be posted well in advance of the start date. Industry jobs, however, will typically want you to start ASAP. So, you should really get your industry job hunting going in full swing ~2-4 months before you graduate. [Some people may disagree with this]

    How I did it:
    I started applying for postdocs and industry jobs in September 2012, well in advance of my anticipated April 2013 defense date. I probably applied for 10-15 times as many industry jobs as postdocs. Strangely, I received more offers for postdocs and only one job offer in industry (which I ended up taking). I think that this was because I started applying way too early for industry jobs.

    The whole interview process at ARA took about 3 weeks, between initial phone screening and job offer. During that time, I was contacted regarding several other industry job applications I submitted (I went months without hearing anything back at all from industry, but then as soon as I got one callback – it’s like they all started calling). Several of those went past the phone screening (sometimes a Skype interview follows a phone screen) and I was scheduled to travel to their headquarters for an in-person interview. But, I only had a limited time to accept the offer from ARA – so I just skipped out on the other interviews and accepted the job here at ARA. So, in summary, I had one in-person interview in industry, was offered the job and took it.

    Accepting a job offer:
    From my limited experience in industry, most companies will low-ball you on their first offer [I wish I knew this at the time]. So, don’t be afraid to negotiate, but don’t be overly pushy. I learned this when I started at ARA and several other STEM PhDs had higher salaries than me – I asked my boss why that was (in a nice way), and he said, ‘well, they negotiated their offer and you just the first offer’. I appreciated his honesty, and took that as a lesson learned. I chalk that up to seeing a number that was way higher than what I was being paid as a grad student at UNC and thinking, ‘heck yeah, I’ll take it!’

    General advice:
    * Use LinkedIn to grow your network and also search for jobs
    * is also a good job board
    * Use sites like glassdoor to search what companies typically pay people for jobs your applying for – and sometimes, if you’re lucky, they have potential interview questions on there as well
    * Keep your resume up to date and clean. A typo on a resume is a sure fire way to get it thrown in the garbage.
    * Always, always, always tailor your resume and cover letter to the job you’re applying for. I know it takes extra time, but it’s worth it.
    * When you’re interviewing for a company – know all the details about that company, i.e. number of employees, what their agenda is, who their main customers are, etc.

  4. Laura Miller
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Hi all,
    I am including some advice I heard from my former student, Austin Baird. Hopefully he will be able to make a longer post here soon.

    General advice
    1) Go to the job fairs at your university and network. In general, network whenever possible.
    2) Use your university’s career services to craft a resume.
    3) Get really good at programming in at least one language (Python is a great choice)
    4) Try to do an internship over the summer while you are a student. Even if you don’t ultimately accept the position, you may build contacts by simply applying.
    5) Use linked in.
    6) Post your code on github. Build a github website.
    7) Sometimes an interview can actually feel like an exam. You may be handed a computer and told to code something or use a piece of software right then and there.
    8) Many interviewers like to hear certain phrases that describe your skill set, like “I wrote a program to do __”, “I made a website”, etc. They are less interested in the scientific complexities of your particular research project.

  5. Zane Beckwith
    Posted December 23, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Here’s my two cents:
    – About me: PhD from UNC in May 2014, moved to Chicago right after, got a job writing C++ for a brokerage firm about 3 months later.

    – Transitioning from academia to industry (well, to the one job I’ve had since graduating): I think the combination of physics and computer science commands a lot of respect, and allows you to transition into a lot of careers you wouldn’t immediately think you’re qualified to do. The combination of being a physicist (being used to solving problems and thinking on your feet), having a high level of math knowledge (having a solid understanding of the fundamentals for when you need to learn a new domain-specific field’s theory), and computer skills (even my grandparents know how important those are to succeeding in the job market today) make you highly desirable. Physicists have a reputation for thinking (over-confidently) they can work in any technical field, and the reputation is well-earned (for both good and bad). This is to say, if there’s a field of work outside of your classroom you think you’d like to work in, start talking with people, and reading books and articles, and playing around with relevant code; it’s probably easier than you think to get involved.

    Other people’s points I’ll agree with:
    – Linked In and Github are definitely helpful. Put up some random code you’re working on to Github, if it’s clean and you think it shows your skills. People in charge of hiring are looking at it.
    – Use Glassdoor to learn about a company, but also use the company’s website (they’ll be putting things there that they feel are important, so that at least tells you how they want to be perceived).
    – Can’t emphasize enough the importance of networking. But, just because you’re going into a new field or a new geographical location and you don’t have the connections yet, don’t be discouraged from putting yourself out there and cold-contacting people.
    – Academia definitely works on a very different schedule from most other fields, as far as hiring. Looking for a job in industry is more of a continual process (you’re going to lose a lot before you finally win, so just keep trying).
    – I had the same experience as Paddy with salary. When you stop being a student, you can be a bit dazzled by real-world salaries, so remember that they expect you to negotiate. Be prepared to know what things you want and what things are less important.

    Specific advice on transitioning into a computer-science-heavy position:
    – People in comp sci don’t expect us physicists to know the important fundamentals of their field, but those will be required to get a job. So learn them! Data structures and algorithms is hands-down the most important thing to learn; not only is it a useful branch of comp sci, basically every single interview you get will at least start with some data structures and algorithms questions (and may be nothing but that). I really liked Steve Skiena’s book for that. In addition, learn at least a little about how programs are turned into computer instructions (interpreters vs virtual machines vs compilers, the layout of a program in memory, the memory hierarchy, etc.). Patterson and Hennessey is the standard for this, but can be a bit daunting, so Bryant and O’Hallaron is a good intro.
    – In addition to honing your comp sci skills, you may want to learn some of the fundamentals of statistics and probability theory. I was a little surprised when I came out to see how pervasive these fields are right now. Big Data and Data Scientist are buzzy terms, with a lot of jobs available, but many technical fields assume/like some familiarity with basic regression and analysis of variance, as well as machine learning (another buzzy field).

    Hope some amount of this may help someone. Just thought I’d chip in with a few things I wish I’d known while I was still in school. Sorry for the sloppy stream-of-consciousness.

    Good luck!

  6. Zane Beckwith
    Posted December 23, 2015 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Self comment:

    I meant to recommend Kachigan’s book (Multivariate Statistical Analysis) as a really great intro to basic statistics. It helped me get up to speed enough to converse intelligently with co-workers.

  7. Jared Compiano
    Posted January 12, 2016 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    After I graduated from UNC with my physics and math degree, I started working for Cisco Systems. Cisco is a very large IT company that does business with many companies all over the world.

    I was primarily interested in IT jobs because, as I am sure is the case with anybody reading this, I like figuring out how things work, and I didn’t know anything about internetworking. Also, I felt that internetworking was one of the most ubiquitous and growing technologies that currently exists today. That means there is a lot to learn, and there is a lot of career opportunity and positive financial prospects in the IT industry. Those were the main things I was looking for in a job. A job isn’t fun if you aren’t continuously learning, its nice to know that you are not limited in where you take your career, and it’s not bad having money.

    The reason I was able to land the job that I did is because they were hiring people with troubleshooting and problem solving experience as well as communication skills, not 3-5 years of prior networking experience. There where quite a few companies that followed this mode. These are the companies you want to look out for.

    I applied for many positions where experience was what companies were looking for. I found out that I could pretty much get through the first and/or second rounds of most three round interviews, but then my experience would be the reason I didn’t get hired. A physics degree and research and/or teaching background interests a lot of companies, but after the initial intrigue, they really want to know that you can start your job as soon as possible. A lot of the jobs I applied for were programming and other development type jobs. Many of the companies told me that they weren’t going to move forward with me due to the fact that I didn’t have many years of experience with Openstack or designing networks or developing android applications or knowing many other programming languages. It seemed really silly to me that so many entry level jobs required non-entry level experience.

    I found much better success with companies that had entry-level college graduate programs. Companies like Cisco, SAS, MetLife, and Fidelity had college recruiting programs specifically designed to train college new-hires. They looked for people that could be trained and could work/communicate easily with others. This was a godsend for me because I felt that given some time, I could have learned any skills I needed to succeed in the jobs that I was turned away from. That is essentially what a physics background does to you. It forces you to learn new skills, whether it’s programming, math, CAD/FEA design, teaching, electronics skills, or anything else you picked up to solve physics problems. This is an advantage physics majors have. I recommend marketing yourself as someone that can learn anything if you are applying for these type of programs. Market all of the various skills you have learned to solve research and other physics problems AND especially market that you can continue learning new skills.

    Many applications and interviews later, I finally landed a job at Cisco. I entered the Services Academy Program (SAP). After I completed my training in the program, I was placed into the business on the Contact Center Express team.

    There are a few differences between doing school work and working in a corporate environment. There are pros and cons for each.

    In college, you can take breaks whenever you want and generally organize your day however you like so long as you go to class. In a work environment, your day is densely compacted between 9am-5pm or 8am-5pm. This can be pretty exhausting if you are used to small breaks in between classes, but at least your weekends are completely free. All of your colleagues and customers will be working in this timeframe, so long lunches or Frisbee breaks don’t really happen. Another difference is that you are concerned with pleasing customers instead of getting grades, so the work mindset is a little different. You have more of a focus on people than you did in the classroom. The next big difference is that you are getting paychecks, so that carries its own hosts of benefits and stresses.

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