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3 Networking Blunders Every Unemployed PhD Makes

how unemployed phds can network for jobs | Cheeky Scientist | best way to find a job for unemployed phds
Written By: Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Ok, I get it.

I have to network if I want to transition into industry.

Every reference website made a point of mentioning this again and again during my job search.

But I hated even the thought of networking.

I was a typical PhD introvert.

I also suffered from imposter syndrome all through graduate school, which made networking even more challenging.

I always understated my experiences and skills, especially when talking to others I perceived as experts in the field.

Like a meek little lamb.

I made myself invisible before I even showed up.

The thought of walking into a room full of industry professionals and convincing them I belonged in their company riddled me with anxiety.

I would sign up for events and then on the day of, I would make a sorry excuse to not go.

I was too tired.

Too busy.

Too afraid.

I was holding myself back from everything I wanted by being a chicken.

When I did actually make it to a networking event, I ended up talking to people I already knew.

Like, people who came with me from my lab.

Or other PhDs who were looking for the same job as I was.

Occasionally, I would force myself to talk to someone new, but when I did, all that came out of my mouth was a minute-by-minute history lesson of my academic experience.

I’d blather on about my thesis work, my postdoc work, and all my amazing technical skills… until the other person excused themselves to go to the bathroom.

One day, I decided to try something different.

I decided to volunteer at a regional science center.

This involved teaching children how to build a rocket out of a film canister and why magnets attract iron.

Coincidentally, I would start up conversations with their parents and grandparents and we would casually chat about my job search.

This was a light bulb moment for me.

Many of these parents were scientists who had jobs in industry.

Several of these parents reciprocated my generosity to volunteer by sharing their industry insights and even providing job referrals.

Learning to network like this — in unconventional locations — was the key element in my transition out of academia.

Why Most PhDs End Up Unemployed Or In Postdocs

Finding work is hard work.

Many graduate students and postdocs say they are serious about transitioning into industry.

Then they spend their days and nights at a computer, filling out online applications, and writing cover letters — applying, applying, and applying online.

This so-called job search strategy is redundant and wasteful.

According to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, the length of a typical job search is over 3 months.

A PhD-level job search can take between 6-12 months on average.

Meanwhile, major job boards boast a measly 1-4% average response rate.

NOT 1-4% odds of getting a job.

1-4% odds of getting a reply.

Think of all the time you’re spending on those job boards.

And for what?

1-4% odds of someone actually messaging you back.

How pathetic.

If you want to increase your success rate, you need to have face-to-face meetings.

80% of today’s jobs are landed through networking.

The problem is most PhDs have no idea how to network effectively.

Instead, they consistently make the same mistakes over and over again.

As a result, many PhDs end up settling for low-paying postdocs or even for unemployment.

how to network for a job as an unemployed phd | Cheeky Scientist | tips for networking

3 Networking Mistakes Every Unemployed PhD Makes

Industry careers are not built sitting in front on the computer and applying endlessly to jobs.

(Remember the 1-4% response rate?)

The only way to get hired is to get in front of real people.

You need to network.

But you need to network correctly.

This means skipping PhD-only events and getting in front of some new people.

It means learning how to effectively communicate your transferable skills, not just your technical skills.

It also means learning how to build rapport with people — learning how to talk about other people’s passions and interests outside of science.

Here are 3 common networking blunders every unemployed PhD makes and how to avoid them…

1. Only networking at designated networking events.

Networking is NOT restricted to only defined settings at defined time points.

You should be conscious of how you present yourself and the impressions you make wherever you go.

Serious job hunting is a round-the-clock job.

Random conversations that you strike up with your hairdresser, yoga teacher, or local grocer can lead to unexpected leads.


We’ve had hundreds of Cheeky Scientist Associates get hired through these types of conversations.

You have already built rapport with them by being a dedicated customer or a friendly neighbor and they might be more than willing to extend their network to you.

You never know who knows someone at Pfizer or who is married to someone at Merck.

The key is to allow yourself to converse with others and always be approachable.

Change your body language so that you’re more approachable.

Change your habits so that you are more approachable.

Avoid always wearing your headphones in public settings and giving the impression that you would rather be left alone.

Don’t walk around with a wad of gum in your mouth or wearing your pajamas because you were too lazy to put on proper clothes.

You can’t get an industry job by acting like you plan on staying in academia forever.

A word of caution — networking anywhere at any time does not mean asking random strangers for job referrals.

It means being friendly and approachable and giving value when and if you can.

This will allow you to build up professional relationships which will in turn lead to more referrals.

2. Only networking to get a job.

What are you passionate about?

If you are having difficulty making meaningful connections at mundane networking events, maybe you need to find a setting that’s aligned with something you actually care about.

Maybe you need to stop seeing networking as a job and start seeing it as a ‘cause’.

Maybe you need to stop faking it.

Showing up to a networking event you don’t care about just because you think it will lead to a job referral is a poor strategy.

A better strategy is to find events and causes you care about.

Start showing up to places and functions that naturally excite you.

Other people will be attracted to your excitement.

You’ll be surrounded by like-minded people.

Conversations will flow easily.

Pressure will decrease.

You’ll be engaged.

When you’re involved in something you’re passionate about you won’t feel like a fake and, as a result, you’ll have a much easier time building rapport.

Volunteering is a great way to do this, which is why volunteering is a very common source of job referrals.

Volunteering builds industry credibility by showing you have a diverse background that extends beyond technical skills.

It shows you care about something beyond just yourself and things that only benefit you.

Volunteering will allow you to increase your network while improving your interpersonal and communication skills.

Prove that you care about more than your tiny PhD bubble and extend your network to your community.

3. Only going to networking events that others host.

You’ve scoured the Internet, your institution’s events board, and the local newspapers.


You can’t find any networking events.

Perhaps you work in a small university city with few networking events available.

Or the ones that exist are poorly attended, dry, and void of any real opportunity.

It’s time to change your strategy.

It’s time to show some initiative.

It’s time to start your own networking event.

The advantage of this is three-fold.

First, setting up an event allows you to develop your leadership skills and other transferable skills.

Second, setting up an event helps you build credibility as an expert and as a ‘super-connector’.

Third, setting up an event helps you build your network.

Starting your own Meetup group or promoting events on Eventbrite or through other social media takes minutes and you can do it from your phone.

Or, you can invite industry professionals to give a talk at your university on alternative careers for PhDs.

Or, create an event outside of your academic circle.

For example, you can start a book club, a foreign language learners group, or beginner’s photography group.

Either way, your fellow academics will respect what you’re doing, as will potential future employers.

You don’t need hundreds of people in attendance for it to be a ‘real networking’ event.

Even meeting with one other person is a networking event.

Starting your own networking event (or event series) will often lead to referrals from unexpected sources.

By inviting others to your own event, you’ll become well-known and will place yourself at the top of other people’s minds.

If you want to get a job referral and maximize your job hunting efforts, you need to stop making common networking mistakes. You need to start networking in unconventional locations and in unconventional ways. You also need to start communicating your transferable skills, not just your technical skills. Remember — no matter where you are, there is always opportunity to strike up a conversation and you never know where these kinds of conversations might lead to. By starting your own networking event or volunteering for something you’re passionate about, you can start getting job referrals in unexpected places.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and is COO of the Cheeky Scientist Association. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry positions. She is Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology. She has also been selected to take part in Homeward Bound 2018, an all-female voyage to Antarctica aimed to heighten the influence of women in leadership positions and bring awareness to climate change.
Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.
  • Vijayendra Agrawal

    Great Great 3 points on Networking Cathy! I really enjoyed going through. Will try to adapt the same in practice as well.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thanks Vijayendra! If you try them out, let me know how you get on – I love the feedback 🙂

  • Willow Sampson

    I’m getting really exciting! This is the first time I’ve thought that networking can be fun, and that makes a huge difference. I can see where starting your own events or going to events that are naturally exciting can make a huge difference! Thank you, Cathy!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Willow! I am happy that it struck a chord with you – networking can and should be fun!

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    I can really identify with all three of these mistakes when I first defended and was terrified of stepping out of my comfort zone to get an industry position. And that impostor syndrome can really be tough, I can tell you! This is really awesome advice, whether you’re seeking that critical first position or simply looking to improve your situation.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Carlie!

  • Harvey Delano

    Wow, I never would have thought of all three of these suggestions. Well, I do make a point not to listen with earphones — that’s just rude. But especially the idea of hosting my own event. That would never have occurred to me.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Hosting an event is a lot of fun – even something small like a dinner gathering with people outside your close circle of friends can start to open your network.

  • Julian Holst

    I think that networking for other reasons than getting a job is a really good idea. Last year, I actually helped give out toys at Christmas at a local mission, and it was one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had. But no matter what you like to do, any group activity is a great opportunity to network. And if there’s no way to get a job through the activity, at least you can practice your elevator pitch! 😉

    • Cathy Sorbara

      I love this idea Julian – not only are you networking but you are giving back to the community as well – win-win in my books!

  • Kathy Azalea

    I really want to get this right! I’m more comfortable on the bench or with animals, so it’s probably going to be a little tough to step out of my comfort zone, but I know I can. Thanks so much for your help, Cathy.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re most welcome Kathy. Start small and start with something that will be fun for you so it does not have to be labelled as networking. I know you can too 🙂

  • Madeline Rosemary

    I like the strategy of going to a lot of Meetup groups and meeting tons of people who are interested in the same things I’m interested in. That sounds awesome!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Yes! It is so much fun Madeline! My favourite is our local ‘Chaos Cooking’ meetup group – just a bunch of foodies, cooking and laughing together 🙂

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    All great strategies. I was thinking of starting a Meetup group for undergrads considering a graduate program, and could invite speakers from industry. What do you think?

    • Matthew Smithson PhD

      Great idea.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Oh I think that’s a fantastic idea Marvin! Great opportunity to add value to your fellow undergrads and networking with industry professionals. Nice work!

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I think it’s like anything else. You have to look at the facts, and the stats are really clearly explained in this article, and then look to your intuition and gut-level hunches to be even more creative, figure out various strategies, and make those follow-up calls when you really have the urge to do it. Cathy, you’ve done a great job of offering really practical advice. There is nothing like some down-to-earth elbow grease to get any job done, and networking is no exception.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Matthew! I always appreciate your feedback.

  • Theo

    I got to visit that Reuben Fleet Science Museum for kids in San Diego one time. It was massive and kids were going wild in there. The volunteering is a great idea, and not just places like that, but any place kids can learn science. Fun for us and a chance to network behind the scenes, because you might run into bosses, donors, Board members, etc., away from the crowds in the back offices. And the atmosphere makes everyone happy – what a great place to visit people. Good call, Cathy.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thanks Theo! I love volunteering at the Science Centre – it never feels like work and I speak to so many lovely people, young and old. Thanks for sharing your story!

  • Sonja Luther

    Now I feel like a dummy. First, I can recognize right off the bat that I’ve made those stupid excuses not to get out there and network when I’d planned to. But, I can also see where your philosophy allows us to have fun and network at the same time, like we would if we went to events that we would love to go to anyway. I got it!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      I have made the same excuses Sonja so don’t feel dumb! It is one of those ‘I wish I knew then what I know now’ scenarios. Now you can get out there and network 🙂