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Applying for Positions in Research and Development

BY Sabine Olschner

Commercial enterprises from a whole host of industries are seeking junior executives for their research and development departments. The way into industrial research is easier for academics and doctoral candidates when they are well prepared - the application must always be tailored to the future employer. We consider what aspects are important to personnel managers in industry, and research and development in the application and interview.

Applying for positions in research and development© Bayer Technology ServicesSwantje Behnken knew early on that she wanted to move into research in industry after completing her doctorate
Swantje Behnken has been working as leading employee at the department of Technology Development Biochemistry & Biocatalysis at Bayer Technology Services in Leverkusen for three months now. Prior to this, the biochemist spent over three years working on her doctorate at the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology in Jena. "I focused on antibiotic active substances, and now apply the methods learned to other molecular biology aspects at Bayer," tells the 29-year-old, who decided early on that she wanted to move into the industry after completing her doctorate. "I enjoy the work in interdisciplinary teams and the target-oriented mindset at commercial enterprises." She discussed the opportunities for researchers within industry with company representatives long before the application phase. "This allowed me to establish whether my wishes and expectations tallied with reality," explains Swantje Behnken. She began preparing applications about six months before submitting her doctoral thesis. Her experience: "If you already know exactly which area you want to work in, six months is time enough. If you do not have a clear direction yet, you should allow yourself a little more time." The good preparation paid off: she was able to start her new job just one day after submitting her doctoral thesis; she also turned down an offer from another company. The decision for the Leverkusen-based company was ultimately down to a conversation with a senior expert, who has pursued a career in research at the company. "He has spent his entire life researching and is still brimming with ideas. He allayed my fears that industry might not have sufficient contact with research any more."

Applying for positions in research and development Hans Stratmann, Personnel Manager at Boehringer Ingelheim, also values scientists' experience in research and development
Many academics wishing to make the leap from university into research and development within a commercial enterprise find themselves in a similar position to Swantje Behnken: the prospects are good with a doctorate under your belt. "We value the experience of scientists, who have investigated the latest trends at the universities," confirms Hans Stratmann, who is responsible for personnel for the fields of research, development and medicine at Boehringer Ingelheim. The pharmaceutical company is primarily seeking young researchers from the fields of diabetology and toxicology - research fields in which it is not easy to find sufficient new recruits. "That's why we are also recruiting internationally," Hans Stratmann reveals.

How to successfully embark on a career in research and development?

In principle, a career in research and development can be accessed via one of two routes: by applying to an advertised position, or by submitting a speculative application. The application should be approached differently depending on the route, the personnel manager advises. "When responding to a job advertisement, you should first review the desired profile and consider which of your qualities fit particularly well with the company requirements." Submitting a speculative application involves explaining what the candidates have researched to date and how well their fields of research fit with those of the company. "You should have a clear idea of your personal aims: do I want to diversify or to go into my field in greater depth? What aspects interest me the most?" The same applies for the cover letters for both: short and concise is most certainly better than long and drawn out. The personnel manager must be able to establish at a glance whether the candidate fits with the company.

10 tips for applying for positions in research and development

  • Establish your aims and expectations
  • Take a targeted approach: seek companies matching your personal aims
  • Find out whether the company prefers to receive applications online or by post
  • Submit a full application portfolio: cover letter, CV, certificates, proof of other qualifications where applicable (references and a list of publications)
  • Keep the cover letter short and concise, outlining why you would be a good fit with the company
  • Structure the CV clearly and logically
  • Mention extracurricular activities highlighting your soft skills
  • Prepare for the interview well, ask questions about the company
  • Practice delivering speeches/presentations beforehand
  • Attend application training at graduate schools

Tips for the application: the cover letter, curriculum vitae and publications

Besides the cover letter and curriculum vitae, which should also be kept short and concise, academics are advised to also include a list of their publications with their application. However, in doing so, they should ensure that the publications fit with the company's research focus and show that the candidate is well-versed in their potential employer's specific fields of activity. It is not the quantity of the publications that counts, but rather the actual content. "We can immediately discern from the publications which areas the candidate is best suited for. It is not a problem if their research topics do not fit entirely with those of the company though," reassures Dr. Franca Tiarks from BASF. "Most new recruits must adjust to a
Applying for positions in research and development Dr. Franca Tiarks from BASF pays particular attention to very good marks and the "overall package" in applicants in research and development
new field of research anyway." The postgraduate chemist, who today is responsible for personnel marketing for natural scientists, joined BASF's research and development department herself eleven years ago. "We are primarily seeking chemists, but also biologists, physicists, mathematicians, biochemists and pharmacists." Around half of the applicants start working at the Ludwigshafen-based chemical company immediately after obtaining their doctorate; the other half come to the company from postdoctoral positions. "At the age of 30, you are not yet too old to switch to industry," emphasises Franca Tiarks. "However, those who remain at university too long may find the transition more difficult." People should be aware of the fact that research in industry is different to research at universities. "Our company attaches great importance to the entrepreneurial approach and transferring research results into business." In applications, the personnel manager pays particular attention to above average marks on the one hand and to the "overall package" on the other. "Our employees must be able to work in a team and be interested in other cultures, as they work in international teams. English is the common language. Those who have spent time abroad, completed industrial placements, or switched universities demonstrate their flexibility."

Applying for positions in research and development © Carl Zeiss Franz Donner, Head of Personnel at Carl Zeiss, finds soft skills and thorough preparation for the interview important

Team players with personality are in demand

For Franz Donner, soft skills are also an important consideration in applications. "Besides a sound technical basis, we particularly value strong personalities. We seek team players who are open to innovation, have a backbone and their heart in the right place," confides the Head of Personnel at Carl Zeiss, a company active in the optics and optoelectronics industry. Among others, the personal qualities are also assessed during the interview. Franz Donner's tip for interviews with personnel managers and department representatives: "The applicants should be well prepared - technically and rhetorically. They should gather information about the company in advance and thereby show that they have a goal in sight." Applicants can also score points with dynamism, professionalism and a natural demeanour. "We seek people, who can reach for the stars and yet still remain firmly grounded," he says, summing up the requirements profile. A series of interviews is standard for applicants wishing to land one of the challenging positions in research and development. At BASF, for example, the interview partner changes every hour on interview day, and applicants also deliver a short presentation on their doctoral thesis. At Boehringer Ingelheim, applicants can expect two to three meetings during which the applicants' behaviour and demeanour are assessed in discussions and presentations are the norm. Franca Tiarks for example has noticed that academics often use the "We" form, rather than singling out their personal accomplishments. From the cover letter to the interview, applicants should always prepare thoroughly. According to Swantje Behnken from Bayer: "Only those who go into themselves and know what they want and where they want to go will be successful in their application."

academics :: July 2012