Taking the Leap
How to get a research job out of grad school
At Airbnb we hire researchers with a wide diversity of profiles—from experienced industry veterans to new graduates of every stripe. Unsurprisingly, the folks with the least amount of experience navigating the realities of getting hired tend to be graduate students. The following advice reflects my direct experience interviewing hundreds and hiring dozens of grad students. I hope it will be useful specifically to grad students but also to anyone trying to get a Research job in any industry.
Hello, brilliant grad students! Wherever you are on your current path—nearing the end of your Masters or Ph.D. program, applying for internships, considering whether to go the academic or research industry job route—you’re probably looking for all the information you can find about how to get hired as a researcher.
The thing is, there just isn’t a lot of advice out there, and what little is out there is too often, well, bad advice. You can’t know you’re doing something wrong during the application and interview process if you’ve never been taught what an employer is looking for—or how they approach their hiring practices. As that potential employer, it feels lousy to ding an applicant because they don’t know what they don’t know.
So here are four things for you to think about when you’re seeking industry research gigs. I want you to do these things so that a potential employer can evaluate you on how well you do them. Focus on them, put your own spin on them, and then make them reflect your experience. It will make the process better for you—and your potential new employer.
Be Clear and Concise When You Communicate
In school we’re taught that an idea expressed clearly and concisely can’t be all that smart; genius hides in the impenetrable, or so we’re told. Academia rarely trains you to communicate succinctly, whether it’s oral or written. But that’s exactly what you need to do. Your potential employer will be paying special attention to how clearly and concisely you communicate.
Your interviewers are looking for people who can answer research questions efficiently. No more, no less. They want to know what you know and what it means. But, if you ramble, if you go on for too long, if you present data with no narrative, if you repeat yourself, or—if you don’t answer questions directly—you’re more likely to be passed over for another candidate. Of course, failing to share key details or leaving steps out of your narrative can be just as bad. (So don’t do that!) As you present yourself, think about these questions:
- How do you build narrative arcs around research findings?
- How do you present the right level of detail for your audience, and effectively convey the implications of your findings?
- How do you do the above with an economy of language and time?
Be clear and concise. Be specific and avoid jargon. Be ready to tell what your research means (rather than committing the rookie mistake of presenting your work in the order you happened to do it). We should all be able to easily follow the arguments you’re making. Tell us what it means. Show us you know how to put a visual presentation together. Lead us on a journey of discovery. Give us all the details we need and none that we don’t.
Be Relentlessly Practical
In academia, you can focus on foundational knowledge—adding to our basic understanding of the world is the main way to have impact. In industry, research that’s conducted purely out of interest doesn’t really happen—your work has to land somewhere. You might have experience writing implications for design in your CHI paper, but if you want an industry research job you’d better do even more than that.
You might be brilliant at research, but can you make that it land? Does it have a purpose? Your research eventually has to have a practical application. Communicating what you found without telling us what it means or why it matters isn’t useful in the end. The people who interview you might be inclined to see you as still residing in that ivory tower, stuck in the clouds. Shift your whole perspective to think like an applied researcher.
Show us that you can make that shift away from pure academia. Adapt your findings in your presentation to meet the business needs of the company where you’re presenting. Talk about what your discoveries could mean. Of course, show us the details of your work. But your interviewers want to know that you’ve thought about applying what you’ve learned. Include comments about how you would follow up in your research to help you (and everyone) understand more. Presenting work that’s abstract, high-level, or at the base of the pyramid is okay, but if that’s all you present, you’re playing a risky game!
Have a POV on Working in Design and on Product—Even if You Don’t Have One
At Airbnb the two pillars of our research organization are known as “World Class” and “Perfectly Positioned.” On one hand is best-in-class, rigorous research; on the other is the researcher who is well-situated for strategic and tactical impact—someone who has built strong, trusting relationships with their cross-functional partners. We could go back and forth about which of the two pillars is more important, but on most days I come down on the side of Perfectly Positioned. If you can’t form and maintain strong collaborative relationships with other members of the product team, even your best research won’t matter.
You may have had some experiences working with folks who are not researchers, either on student projects or in internships. Or it may be brand new to you. Coming out of a graduate program, we assume you have a leg up on World Class. So your real challenge is to convince us that you can be Perfectly Positioned.
Whether you draw from experience or it’s more speculative, you have to have a point of view about what makes for good working partnerships with other people. Think about good design and good design process. What makes for a successful collaboration? What do you need from others to make sure your research lands?
You need to have thoughts about products and product strategy. What do you think about the product strategy and design of the company with whom you’re interviewing? What are they doing well and what can they do better? (And how do you position your suggestions for improvement so they land?)
You’ll be asked questions like these, and the worst possible way to answer is to stop at “I don’t know” and not continue with possibilities. Of course there are things you won’t know, and it’s important to be honest about recognizing that. Humility is key. But having a POV and a set of ideas to discuss is also key. Show us that you can think through these and come to some conclusions.
Don’t Stop Presenting Yourself When You Get an Offer
Now here’s an area where you’ll find lots of bad advice floating around. One of the dominant messages is that tech companies are very selective, so once a company has extended an offer, it’s so invested in you that you will have the upper hand. This is true to a degree. To get to an offer is a difficult and relatively rare thing. By the time we’re making that offer to you, it does mean that we really want to work with you. But the process isn’t over.
You should negotiate and advocate for yourself. We expect that. But don’t forget that everything that happens up to the day you start work with us—actually up to the day you stop work with us—is still part of how you present yourself as a colleague and professional. What are the messages you’re sending to your potential future employer? What you choose to push on, how many things you choose to push on, and how you choose to push reflects your judgment, your outlook, and your priorities. Your potential future employer is still watching to see what you’re signaling about yourself.
To that end, a few concrete pieces of advice:
We expect you to negotiate and advocate for yourself—but pick your battles. Choose the things that are most important to you, just maybe not all the things. What does a constant stream of requests, demands, pushback, or negotiation on every point signal about you? There is a balance you need to feel out.
Consider when you make requests and ask questions. For example, let’s say you’ve got an offer and you’re in a “sell call” with your potential employer. One of the first things you ask about is whether you can work remotely for long periods of time. You’ve never discussed this before, and it isn’t a remote organization. This might be how you’ve structured your life during your Ph.D. phase, and that’s fantastic. And from one perspective, you’re just asking, right? But what’s the signal you’re sending by leading with that question?
Consider how you make requests and ask questions. Maybe you get an offer, and during the negotiation you’re very specific about what you want to work on. Maybe you’re really opinionated about how we should use your specific skills, or you’re adamant that you should continue to do the same type of work you did in grad school. But of course your potential employer has their own needs. And they probably know a lot better than you do where you might fit in their organization. How does it come off if you approach it as a set of specific requirements rather than a two-way conversation about your placement or work area? You’ve got to think carefully about how you two (that’s you and the company) will work together.
You can do this!
Here’s your take-away. Be clear and concise when presenting yourself (and you never really stop presenting yourself professionally), make sure your World Class research has a practical application for the company, and have a point of view that is Perfectly Positioned to enable all members of your team to succeed. Be sensitive to the balance of advocating for yourself (which you should absolutely do!) while also presenting yourself well. If you learn to listen well, you’ll discover the right opportunities to contribute by asking the thoughtful questions that can lead to everyone’s success.
Above all, don’t worry. You are great. We want to work with you. You might lack industry experience, but you can make up for that with top-notch research chops. It might be your first time negotiating the offer process. That’s fine. As long as you are considerate and put your best foot forward, chances are you’re going to do great. We look forward to working with you!