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Making the Leap: Jumping Off the Ivory Tower

Making the Leap: Jumping Off the Ivory Tower
Reported by
Jennifer L. DeLeon

Posted February 25, 2013

Presented By

Presented by Science Alliance


The interview process for private-sector jobs is significantly different from the interview process for academia. The academic interview emphasizes past experiences and accomplishments in the scientific community, such as peer-reviewed publication and grantsmanship record. Private-sector interviews often involve behavioral interviewing, which aims to give employers a sense of how you will act on the job. On December 1, 2012, the second day of the Making the Leap: A Non-Academic Career Planning & Job Search Boot Camp, presented at the Academy by Science Alliance, Sharon Belden Castonguay of Baruch College outlined tips for successful interviewing. She offered advice for answering behavioral questions, pre-interview preparation, the "tell me about yourself" pitch, questions for the interviewer, and how to follow up.

The first step in the interview process includes both self-assessment and market assessment. You must understand yourself as a personal brand: Castonguay explained that, "before you can sell yourself to someone else, you need to understand your product"—the unique skills you bring to the field. Castonguay noted that scientists may lack specific experience or skills for some non-academic careers and therefore need to highlight transferable skills like communication, writing, and organization. Scientists should avoid highlighting a "research-focused" skill set.

Castonguay emphasized that it is important to know the company's brand: how it defines itself, its mission and goals, and skills and experiences that it values. In addition, understand the industry in which it operates: research its competitors, clients, and press appearances. Start on the company's website, where recent news is often highlighted, and find reports from other sources to gain a wider perspective. This research may take some time, but it is vital to interview success; you are more likely to be viewed as a qualified candidate if you demonstrate knowledge of the company and industry. Be prepared to discuss your strengths and weaknesses and be able to identify gaps in your training and education, particularly those an interviewer might identify.

The day of the interview can be stressful, but professionalism and strong preparation can set the tone for success. Castonguay highlighted a few tips: update your LinkedIn profile, prepare a "tell me about yourself" pitch, leave enough time for travel and arrive 15 minutes early, dress professionally and bring resumes and business cards, observe your surroundings and take note of employees' dispositions.

An interview often begins with, "Tell me about yourself"; you should prepare a two-minute pitch to answer this question. This is an opportunity to highlight your skills and explain your interest in the position. The pitch should include clear explanations for decisions you made at key moments in your academic or professional career. Castonguay suggested focusing on your choice of college or university and research area. If you are seeking to change professions, talk about why this position is a better fit and how your skills can be applied to this new field. Show that you are confident in your abilities and can utilize your strengths for personal success and the success of the organization. If your work has been primarily scientific research, adapt the pitch to suit your audience, drawing on your research into the organization's missions and goals. The pitch should be tailored for each individual interview.

When preparing a "tell me about yourself" pitch, include answers to questions like this to highlight major educational or professional accomplishments. (Image courtesy of Sharon Belden Castonguay)

What is a behavioral question? Behavior-based interviewing focuses on discovering how the interviewee might act in a specific employment situation. This technique aims to uncover tactics you have used to manage different educational and professional challenges. Behavioral questions are more pointed and specific than traditional questions: Describe a time you showed an ability to work in a team setting. How would your co-workers describe you? What is the toughest challenge you have faced, and how did you overcome it? Castonguay advised thinking in advance about possible answers. Prepare a few experiences from your career that exemplify particular skills, such as teamwork and leadership; illustrate your strengths, or even your weaknesses; and demonstrate challenges you have faced and overcome. Choose experiences that demonstrate several strengths and thus may be applicable to multiple questions. A lack of experience may be viewed as a weakness; you can turn this around by marketing transferable skills. Giving concrete examples will make your answers more compelling and will likely leave a lasting impression.

You can expect to be asked other types of questions based on the industry and skills required. In-depth research on field-related current events, business trends, competitors, and publications is essential. A thorough answer to a question like, "Where do you see this industry going in five years?" requires background research on industry trends and knowledge of the company's short- and long-term goals. Informational interviewing with current employees is helpful when preparing for industry-specific or skill-based questions. Similarly, be aware of typical salary ranges for the position and know which points can be negotiated. Finally, stay alert for inappropriate or illegal questions; labor laws prohibit discrimination in hiring based on age, sex, religion, and other demographics. Prepare to answer professionally if such questions are asked. For example, international interviewees may be asked about where they are from or were born. Assess the situation and decide if the intention is discriminatory or simply inquisitive. You are not obligated to reply and can graciously decline to answer.

What are the best questions to ask an interviewer? Interviewers use the questions you ask to discover whether you are good fit for their organization. Likewise, you can use this time to interview the organization to determine whether it is a good fit for you. It can be helpful to turn the interviewer's own questions around to gain a sense of their expectations. You can ask about everyday duties, previous employees in the position, and what the company is looking for in a candidate. This can stimulate dialogue about how you fit their expectations and provide another opportunity to market yourself. Ask about the challenges faced by the organization and the industry: What have been the department's biggest challenges? How do you think the industry will develop over the next few years? Use this time to gather information to help you to make an informed decision about whether you would like to work for this organization.

Before leaving the interview, ask about the timeline of the employer's search. Ask for business cards from the interviewers and follow up with a thank you email within 24 hours. If you do not hear back within the indicated time, follow up with another email.

The interview process is the employer's opportunity to determine whether you are a good fit for the position; it is also your opportunity to find out whether it's right for you. If you are thinking about switching careers and transitioning away from a scientific or academic path, be prepared to sell your unique skill set and do your research before making the leap.

Use the tab above to find multimedia from this event.

Presentation available from:
Sharon Belden Castonguay, EdD (Baruch College)

Jumping Off the Ivory Tower

Sharon Belden Castonguay (Baruch College)



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Chronicle of Higher Education

Harvard University Office of Career Service (Faculty of Arts and Sciences)

MBA Career Services Council

SBC Career Consulting

United States Department of Labor: Career Guide To Industries

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Sharon Belden Castonguay, EdD

Baruch College
e-mail | website

Sharon Belden Castonguay is a career consultant with over a decade of experience working with PhDs and MBAs. She is the director of the Graduate Career Management Center at Baruch College's Zicklin School of Business. Previously, she served as an assistant director for PhD career services at Harvard. She first became known for her expertise in negotiating compensation when teaching a course in career development and serving as a career counselor at Boston University School of Management. She received her doctorate in human development from Harvard, where her research focused on career decision making within the business world.

Jennifer L. DeLeon

Jennifer L. DeLeon is a PhD student in the department of molecular and cellular biology at Stony Brook University. Her research focuses on understanding the cellular mechanisms of kinase signaling pathways in cell death, metabolism, and cancer biology.