Proprietary R&D makes terrible resume-filler.
October 31, 2012 4:48 PM   Subscribe

How does a scientist doing R&D work in industry maintain a Linked-in profile or have a great resume, when the work in question is company-confidential or proprietary?

We don't publish much in peer-reviewed journals or go to a lot of conferences because there's a long process to get the legal department to clear anything for external presentation. I've seen interview talks by applicants who presented old grad-school work because they couldn't present on their current industry job; so I know it's kind of an issue.

I'd like to update my professional profiles and my resume to say what I've been doing with my time, but I really don't know where the boundary is for proprietary information.

To use a ridiculous analogy: I spend every day doing experiments to optimize the perceived cuteness of kitten photos by adjusting their ear size. Every document I've ever written for work is stamped "proprietary"; clearly I'm not supposed to talk about my research. I know I can say I'm an expert in Photoshop and in statistical analysis of preference-based data sets. But so are a lot of people, so I'd like to be more specific. Is it revealing too much to say
(a) In the 10 years I was with the company, I studied kitten, puppies, and dolphins. (OMG dolphins? KittnPuppLabs worked with dolphins? who knew?)
(b) I was project leader for the Kitten Cuteness project in 2010 (i.e. admitting that cuteness is something the company cares about enough to put a research team on it 2 years ago)
(c) I developed a metric to accurately calibrate the ear size of kittens based on the ear-to-head measurement ratio (i.e. describing the technique used but not the purpose of the project)
(d) I improved perceived kitten cuteness by 10% through survey-based optimization techniques (the overall accomplishments of the project but not revealing technical information)

If one of c/d is allowable, could it become not-allowed in the presence of the other? (i.e. I can talk about techniques OR big-picture accomplishments but not both)

Or are all these pretty much okay because seriously everybody knows the internet demands cute kittens and anybody who's thought about it would guess ear size is a factor? So I can say both those things because I will never disclose the all-important ratio of 6.2 that optimized cuteness?

(note, if you answer this, please tell me whether it's an educated guess or just a guess)

I can look on the web for examples of other scientists' resumes, but I don't know how to tell if it's a good example, or an example of somebody being clueless. Google searches involving "confidentiality" and "resume" revolve around "how to keep HR from knowing I'm looking for another job"; I'd welcome better search terms.

Asking HR is kind of out of the question - not only are they unfamiliar with the intricacies of the R&D department, it's the type of culture that they'd assume I was about to quit if I mentioned keeping my resume current.

Asking legal has been very unhelpful in the past; their default answer is "say nothing" (or "document everything" depending on what the question was).

Asking my more-senior coworkers is a possibility, but it's something I'd have to wait for the right time and place to do, as I anticipate it being a kind of awkward question (hey, help me with my resume, so I can get out of here, please?) and it's quite possible they won't really know either.

So, I'm asking the internet. I realize that nobody knows how things are done in the particular company I work for, but I think there's probably a general answer. I'd be interested in anecdata or any form of info on what might be a standard expectation for an appropriate level of technical secrecy in any context. Ideally an article discussing this. Stories about how you handled it that one time. Examples of good resumes? Example of someone who got in trouble for saying too much? Anything you've got, really.
posted by aimedwander to Work & Money (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Consult an outside employment attorney.
posted by kavasa at 4:53 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there a professional association for kitten cuteness assessors? Or one for ear photo manipulators? Perhaps one or more of them has a forum where such a question might be appropriate, or a job market SIG with articles that address the subject?
posted by gnomeloaf at 5:14 PM on October 31, 2012

Sometimes, a scientist will need a CV (or resume) for membership in a professional organization or something like that. All I'm saying is there are lots of reasons you might need a CV that aren't a job search....
posted by JMOZ at 5:32 PM on October 31, 2012

(IANAL, but this comes up a LOT in the IT workplace).

Quick and dirty - Do you have an NDA on you, or not?

If you do - See a lawyer. Simple as that. S/he will tell you exactly what the NDA allows or doesn't, and more importantly, what it disallows that they can't legally disallow - Not uncommon for the whole damned thing to have as much legal enforceability as your Great Aunt Edna shouting at Judge Judy's stupid decisions.

If you don't have an NDA - Put whatever the hell you want in your CV/resume, and just keep in mind that your current employer probably has much more elaborate ideas regarding how much control they have over your free speech rights than they really do - They do, however, almost always have the right to fire you for pretty much no reason, so, keep it on the down-low.
posted by pla at 7:12 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Suggestions based on your language above:

(a) In the 10 years I was with the company, I studied/measured/assayed/developed study methods for a variety of cute animals.
(b) I was project leader for a proprietary Animal Characteristic Project that was successful in meeting all proscribed milestones/was profitable/led to the receipt of a grant,contract, or opened a new line of investigation/accomplished something.
(c) I developed a novel metric to accurately calibrate a kitten/animal anatomy characteristic
(d) I improved the sensitivity level for detection of a proprietary animal characteristc by 10% through survey-based optimization techniques

PLUS, use specific verbatim jargon within job descriptions that you are going on after, as they pertain to you. You can leave them vague enough not to give away private company info, and since you will be using the new company's language, no one can say you claimed something specific to the Kitten company.

At the end of the day, the new company will care that you have a wide background, have been a project leader, can develop new ways to do things and optimize ways that are already used. Unless you're a very special snowflake, you will be very lucky if your exact skills and techniques used at your current job will be exactly replaced in your new job, but a good new company isn't going to expect that -- they're going to expect you to use your basic science skills (investigation, innovation, optimization, etc.) for whatever specific technique they've got going.

I got my latest job by presenting my three-year old thesis work (although with three years to think about it, I was able to polish it up to make it sound much better than it had when I was bummed about all the things I hadn't accomplished), but I also used that sort of generic phrasing above for my then-current, proprietary work. I understand it's a little nervewracking and definitely err on the side of non-specificity, and maybe seek some legal advice, but that's my practical, how-I-did-it advice.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:16 PM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I was a software engineer at a big company on a secret project, I said just that in my LinkedIn profile: "Software Engineer at BigCorp". Later, when the secret project shipped, but most of the details of the secret project were still secret, I updated my LinkedIn to say "Software Engineer working on NoLongerSecretProject at BigCorp."

Recruiters contacted me all the time, despite giving almost no information about what I was doing.

One of the interesting things about the secret project I worked on was that there were a bunch of leaks. As far as I know, all of them were due to innocent mistakes. That didn't prevent some of upper management from seeing ghosts everywhere and acting paranoid. So even if your external legal guidance says you can say stuff about what you work on, your best bet is probably to say as little as possible.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:58 PM on October 31, 2012

So I worked in the biggest of big pharma and the issue we found was that legal A) took forever no matter what and B) would sometimes balk at the strangest of things. (Things like our shareholders report is going on about all these exciting new monoclonal antibodies and where they are in our pipeline, and then legal makes a guy change the icon representing our compound into something other than a Y shape lest our competitors come to the conclusion we're working on monoclonal antibodies and that some of them are at a fairly late stage in our pipeline.)

It's hard to know what kitten cuteness or ear size might be analogous to, so it's hard to say where to draw the line, but my rule of thumb has been to never talk about targets and to especially never talk about specific hypotheses. But the types of measurements you're making and a vague description of the method you're using should be fair game, unless your measuring something no one has ever thought to measure before or you're using a super secret bespoke instrument of some sort.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:37 AM on November 1, 2012

Be careful, your NDA my be called something like a Proprietary Information and Inventions Agreement. Basically look at whatever you signed when you were hired. In general you're not doing yourself any favors getting into a legal debate with your employer about what their agreement means. Especially after you've disclosed something they wanted kept secret.

My advice is only disclose what your company has already disclosed. Patent applications often disclose a lot of technical detail that's public. What b1tr0t said.

Keeping secrets is an important job skill and it's something that employers look for.
posted by Long Way To Go at 10:20 PM on November 1, 2012

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