Recently, when discussing how to make the transition from academia to industry, someone asked me if you need high impact factor papers to get a job in industry. I started the answer by saying that I am no expert on this. I am just one person who got one job in industry, so I do not pretend at all to know how things work. But, after talking to people involved in hiring other people, I gave the following answer:
Just like having a PhD shows that you can bring a multi-year research project to a successful end, having a first author high impact factor paper also implicitly shows some things – even to recruiters or hiring managers who do not necessarily know much about academia. It shows that you have worked on an important scientific topic, usually with other people from other disciplines, and that you have been very persistent in getting your work written in a persuasive way and fought the battle to get it published.*But at the same time, we all know that there’s a whole bunch of luck involved in getting a high impact factor paper. There are plenty of people who work just as hard, but happen to not show that hypothesis hold true. Or that p-values are lower than 0.05. Or have the ability to do all the experiments that reviewer 3 asks for. Those people may have worked just as hard and have exactly the same experience that is valued outside academia- if not more.
So in that sense, getting to a high impact factor papers is like climbing a mountain, where the getting the paper accepted in that high journal is like the picture taken at the summit. If you show the picture to people, it is immediately clear what you have done to get to the top. But some people were less lucky and they climb the mountain when it is so cloudy that on the picture you can’t even see that they are on top of the mountain. They climbed the same route and may even have had a harder time due to the clouds, but it’s not as easy for them to prove it.
My answer to the person who asked this, was that it you do not have high impact factor papers, you may have to work a bit harder in your CV to point out all the things that you have done in academia. To compare it to the mountain, you may add a map of the trail you took to the top, or you have to explain more about who you climbed the mountain with.
*Alternatively, it shows that you were at the right place at the right time and the grad student who was working on the project decided to leave so you only had to pick up the pieces, massage the data to get to put some stars on your graphs, give them to your BSD advisor who writes a persuasive cover letter and gets the paper right into Nature. That shit happens too, I hear.