Dear Lexi

Since I started at the Gates Foundation, I’ve had a fairly steady stream of people asking for advice on how to get into public health or how to move out of the lab. I remember doing easily 50 or 60 informational interviews when I was in graduate school and feeling like I didn’t get a lot of concrete advice, which I now know isn’t really the point of informational interviews, but regardless, I felt a little defeated. I’ve gotten better at collecting advice over the years so here is my advice column so to speak on moving out of the lab or changing career fields.

  1. Develop an elevator pitch – If you are going to do informational interviews or ask anyone for help in your job search then you should be ready to talk briefly about yourself and where you are looking to go next. If you can compare what you want with a position the person is already familiar with, even better. Help them help you.
  2. Do informational interviews – Informational interviews are a great way to find out more about a career that you might be interested in. People love to talk about themselves so I’ve gotten great responses from cold emails to people in my network or in a contact’s network. The key thing with informational interviews is to have a good list of questions for your interviewee and remember the point is to find out about that job and what it’s like and what it takes to get there.
  3. Consider a human voiced resume – This type of resume has been big in the business world for a few years now but oddly hasn’t translated into the sciences. Human voiced resumes are more narrative, which allows for a more thorough explanation of your skills. They are great for career transitions in science since they are still somewhat novel and will stand out and the narrative style means you can provide more context around your skill sets. More information here:
  4. Write a cover letter – Please, please, please. I have hired three people so far and the resumes without cover letters are just question marks to me, no information about why the individual wants the job or why they think they would be a good candidate. This is especially important if you are switching career tracks because your resume may not immediately reflect why you would be good in the position. Another version is called a pain letter and is equally effective.
  5. Highlight your soft skills – As scientists we get used to sticking our publications and assays we’ve developed, etc. If you are looking to move off the bench then you will have to translate your research experiences into some “soft” skills such as project management, negotiation, team leadership and even budgeting. In doing so, make sure to use active verbs like “implement”, “plan”, “execute”.
  6. Don’t be afraid of fellowships – No one bats an eye about doing a post-doc fellowship but that doesn’t translate as much to moving away from the bench or switching careers. Fellowships can be a great way to gain skills outside of your existing skill set and broaden your network so you can land the perfect next job.
  7. Apply to everything – You may not think you have the qualifications for a position but apply anyway. Make the case for why your unique skills can get the job done. Maybe the hiring manager already tried the usual candidates and it didn’t work out. You never know. This goes doubly so for women. Women are much less likely to apply for jobs if they don’t meet every one of the criteria. Just apply if you really want the job!
  8. Volunteer for opportunities that are a little out of the ordinary – During my graduate school research, I also volunteered for a start-up science policy organization. That opportunity gave me the ability to add things to my resume that were different from the “normal” grad student resume. Always look for opportunities to strengthen your profile.
  9. In interviews be clear about not just what value you bring to the organization but also about how you would take the position and make it something they didn’t envision. – In so many interviews I’ve heard candidate regurgitate their resume and that’s fine but what I’m really interested in is how will you take this position and make it your own?
  10. Do your research! – I know everyone tells candidates this before an interview but I was astounded by how many candidates I interviewed recently who clearly hadn’t done their research on our organization. Make sure you know who is interviewing you (LinkedIn is good for this), what the organization’s goals are, their financial situation, their key partners and then bring good questions to the interview. You can even find good interview questions on-line so no excuses.

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