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To get a nonacademic job, you need to learn the jargon

“What have you been up to?” Sara asks, holding the phone to her ear as she prepares her dinner.

“I had a job interview today,” Ellen replies from the other end of the line, dropping onto the sofa.

Sara and Ellen have been friends since grad school, where they shared a bench and a supervisor. One year ago, Sara finished her Ph.D. and started her first industry job as a quality assurance manager. Ellen, who just submitted her thesis a few days ago, has eagerly listened to Sara’s stories of her new office, the labs with fancy equipment, and the various personalities she works with. Ellen enjoys these glimpses into a world she has not yet visited herself but hopes to soon: the world of paid work outside of academia.

“Oh yeah!” Sara exclaims. “Sorry, I thought it was tomorrow. That’s much more interesting than the company drama over here. How was it?”

“It’s not so interesting, really. Or maybe it was, because it was so embarrassing.”

“What happened? Did you spill coffee all over yourself or something?”

“Nothing like that—but they won’t make me an offer,” Ellen sighs.  

“Rubbish! You’re an amazing scientist. They would be crazy not to make you an offer.”

“Funny fact: We didn’t say a word about science. Or maybe they did. I don’t know.”

“Didn’t you apply for a research position?”

“I thought so. But after the interview, I have no idea what the job is all about.”   

“Didn’t they tell you?”

“They tried, but I didn’t understand it. I think they said something about CMOs, communicating with KOLs, and direct reports to the CSO, but I had no idea what they were talking about.”

The interviewers had used so many confusing acronyms that Ellen got lost within the first few minutes. She couldn’t even decode whether the job was supposed to be managing people or working at the bench herself. She had felt just like when she was an undergrad, attending her first seminar by a visiting scientist about their research. Ellen had sat there, dumbfounded, not understanding a word and just hoping that one day she would be able to follow such a talk.

“Seriously, every syllable coming out of their mouths sounded like gibberish!” Ellen cries. “I felt so stupid.”

“Could you not just ask them?”

“I probably could have interrupted. I didn’t. I thought the puzzle would come together, but that didn’t happen. After a while it felt like too much time had passed to ask.”

At the end of the interview, the panelists had invited Ellen to ask questions, but she didn’t know what to ask. “I couldn’t say at that point, ‘Hey, dude, can we rewind and redo the last 20 minutes—this time in plain language for dummies like me?’ So, they all stared at me. I stayed silent. And after a few grim seconds, they thanked me for coming. I’m sure I’ll never hear from them again.”

“It must have felt bleak, but it’s easy to fix for next time around,” Sara offers supportively. “Just learn some of the jargon. I was lucky in my interview for this job; they explained all the terms to me. But during the first week on the job I felt so ignorant! The people here manage to squeeze so many acronyms and buzzwords into a single sentence. ‘Hey Sara, can you ask the QM about the report from the latest audit they did with the CRO concerning the batch release issues?’ Now I know what that means, and I’ve even started to talk that way myself. It’s just easier—like when we use jargon to talk about our research. But it took a while to learn. I Googled and asked my colleagues until I figured it out.”    

“We didn’t learn any of it in grad school, did we?”

“No—but we’ve cracked harder nuts in the past.”

The moral of the story

As a scientist, you are familiar with jargon and how confusing it can be. That extends beyond scientific details. Each industry has its own jargon. In biotech, for example, IP means “intellectual property,” SOP means “standard operating procedure,” and QC means “quality control.” In management consulting, a “bucket” is a specific category and “deliverables” are the final products you give to your clients.

Another element of this jargon is job titles and organizational structure. There are product managers, project managers, quality control directors, quality assurance managers, compliance associates, analysts, advisers, researchers, lab managers, editors, and more—and what these positions entail and how they fit into the organization’s work can vary. Then there are different departments—research and development, production, quality control, compliance, marketing, business development, sales, legal, to name just a few. Understanding organizational structures, including who reports to whom and which department is responsible for what, is essential to figuring out what specific positions are all about.

When going on a job hunt, you don’t need to master all jargon and organizational structures in your area of interest. But learning a bit is worth the effort. Get in the habit of looking up terminology and buzzwords used in the job ads that catch your interest. Specific company structures can be harder to find, but Googling similar companies can offer some hints. Add a few informational interviews with experts who are already working in that field, and you will be savvy enough to ask properly phrased questions during your interviews and convey to your future employer that you are well-informed about their industry and field. Learning the jargon will require a bit of digging, but it will make sense in the end—usually much more quickly than the complex science you deciphered before.

Philipp Gramlich (NaturalScience.Careers) and David Giltner (TurningScience) contributed to this article. Philipp combines industry and academic experience in his workshops and talks for scientists. David teaches scientists how to design and build rewarding careers in industry.

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