7 Career Killing Mistakes PhDs Make That Keep Them Poor And Unhappy

Career Mistakes PhD Graduate Students | Cheeky Scientist | Unemployed PhD Graduate

Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

I wasted the first four years of graduate school focusing on nothing but my research.

I thought that if I worked hard in the lab and made my advisor happy that I would have plenty of jobs lined up by the time I graduated.

I was wrong.

As the last year of my graduate school career inched closer, I slowly realized that I was facing a dead end with zero options. Soon…

Panic set in.

I quickly wrote up an industry resume and started sending it blindly to every biotech and biopharmaceutical job opening I could find online.

I uploaded my resume over 200 times and heard back from exactly zero companies.

Zero.

I guess I just assumed that scientific companies would fall all over themselves trying to hire me once I had a PhD.
No so much.

After I defended my thesis, I realized that getting my PhD was just the beginning of an even bigger challenge—getting my first industry job. 

The problem as I didn’t have any training for this challenge.

I’d never taken any classes in business, industry, job training, or professional development.

I’d never had a business lunch or made any real industry connections whatsoever.

I was lost.

How could I possibly not have a job lined up after getting my PhD?

The Hard Truth About Your Academic Career

According to a report by the Atlantic, greater than 60% of PhDs and greater than 80% of Life Science PhDs will NOT have a paying job at graduation.

Another report by the Royal Society showed that less than 1% of PhDs will go on to be tenured professors.

There’s a myth in academia, perpetuated by other (mostly unhappy) academics that says you can only be a successful PhD if you become a tenured professor and continue to publish in academic journals.

This myth survives by encouraging young PhDs to look down on anyone who expresses a desire to leave academia.

As a result…

A negative feedback loop exists in academia.

Once you’re in the system, the system keeps you there by refusing to prepare you for anything else, including an industry job.

You’re told over and over again that nothing else but staying in academia is respected.

You’re told over and over again that you can’t do anything else—that there is nothing else.

The academic system makes you so dependent that you get used to being treated poorly.

You also become helpless.

Instead of developing the skills you need to get a real job industry, you start developing negative traits.

You become self-entitled.

You become scared.

You become lazy.

This may sound harsh but it’s reality.

Jobs for PhD Students After Graduation | Cheeky Scientist | Job Guide For PhDs

7 Career Mistakes To Avoid That Keep PhD Students Jobless

If you’re waiting for someone to come save you from academia and line up a great industry job for you, you’re going to be waiting a long time.

The only way to get your career back on track is to take matters into your own hands.

You must realize that the biggest obstacle between you and getting the industry job of your dreams is yourself.

It’s your own bad attitude and bad habits that will keep you as an unemployed PhD after graduation, nothing else.

Stop blaming other people for your situation and start blaming yourself.

Take responsibility.

Make a decision today to quit making the following 7 career killing mistakes that keep PhD students jobless at graduation….

Mistake #1 – Spending extensive amounts of time writing a thesis.

Your thesis is a means to an end, it’s not a work of art.

Too many PhD students turn the molehill of writing a 100+ page summary of their research into a mountain of publishing the next A Brief History of Time.

Don’t do this. 

Instead, see your thesis for what it really is—a stepping stone to getting your first industry job.

Your goal should be to get your thesis done as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality.

No matter who you are or what your research entails, this document should take no more than 2-4 weeks once you have your data collated at 4-5 hours a day of writing.

The rest of your time should be spent on wrapping up experiments and, most importantly, networking and applying to industry jobs.

Mistake #2 – Writing a bloated, self-indulgent resume that no one will ever read.

Most PhD students have no idea how to write a quality resume for recruiters or hiring managers.

So, they do what PhDs do best—research.

They Google “how to write a resume” online and read a few academic blogs and then start putting their skills down on paper.

The problem is that most of the people writing these academic blogs are lifetime academics or journal editors who have never had an industry job and certainly don’t know how to write a proper industry resume.

As a result, these PhD students squeeze thousands of words about everything they’ve ever done in the lab onto 3-5 pages and start uploading these pages to job sites.

Not surprisingly, no one responds.

The truth is employers don’t care about your daily duties in the lab, your publications, or the name of the protein you’re characterizing.

All they care about is the results you’ve achieved.

Most industry resumes are read in 5-7 seconds.

They’re skimmed.

This means that you need to write a resume that can be easily skimmed from top to bottom (not left to right) in a very short amount of time.

Mistake #3 – Believing your cherished publications will mean something in the real world.

Your publications don’t mean anything in the real world.

I know, it hurts. But it’s the truth.

Your publications don’t even matter for industry R&D positions.

Sure, there might be one or two hiring managers out there who will swear until they’re blue in the face that they care about your publications, but these hiring managers are part of a very outdated minority.

Do you really think your first author Journal of Who Cares paper is going to get you an industry job?

How? What do you think is going to happen?

Do you imagine the hiring manager sitting across from you at the table, looking at your resume, and saying, “Wow, I didn’t realize you were published in this journal! You’re hired!”

Keep dreaming.

If you want to have a job when you graduate, stop obsessing over getting that last publication out and start focusing on networking with the right people. 

Mistake #4 – Being too self-entitled to create and execute a real networking strategy.

“I have a PhD. I shouldn’t have to network to get an industry job.”

Unfortunately, this is the attitude of most PhD students.

Too many PhDs have been told for far too long how important and noble it is to work in an academic lab.

The truth is academic lab work is nearly worthless in the real world.

Don’t believe me?

Then why do 7th year postdoc gets paid less than average librarians ($55,272 versus $56,370, respectively).

It’s simple supply and demand.

There are way to many academic PhDs for the amount of academic lab work that needs to be done.

Stop feeling special. Stop waiting to be chosen.

Instead, get to work.

Start creating a real networking strategy that will get you the industry job of your choice.

First, use sites like Meetup.com and Eventbrite.com to find both PhD and non-PhD networking events in your area.

Aim to go to 2-3 live networking events a week and log these events in your calendar ahead of time.

Second, email or call the host of each networking event beforehand so you have at least one new connection before you arrive.

Third, set one goal to walk out of each event with the contact details of 3 new connections and set a second goal follow-up with each of these connections within 24 hours of the event.

Mistake #5 – Never leaving the lab to go to seminars, conferences, job fairs, and daytime networking events.

One of the biggest mistakes PhD students can make, especially during their last year of graduate school, is working overtime in the lab.

It’s easy to feel like working extra hard during this time will help you graduate faster.

It’s easy to feel like working overtime will please your academic advisor so he or she will support you during your defense and give you a glowing letter of recommendation afterwards.

It’s also easy to stick to the same old routine of chasing publications and playing politics.

The problem is that every minute you spend in the lab is one less minute you have to spend on lining up an industry job.

You’ve been trained to care about nothing but doing experiments.

Your advisor has conditioned you to feel guilty for any time you spend not doing experiments.

Now, you feel like a bad person whenever you’re not in the lab working.

Stop feeling this way. Stop feeling obligated to advance your academic advisor’s career and not your own.

Instead, start going to as many internal and external seminars, conferences, job fairs, and daytime networking events as you can find.

If you’re advisor gives you a hard time for it, create a schedule of the career related events you want to attend and hold a meeting with your advisor and your department to explain why going to these events is important for your career.

Realize that your advisor cannot stop you from networking and going to career-related events.

Sure, he or she can threaten you and make your life uncomfortable in the lab, but there’s nothing else they can do to hold you back.

The key is to be open and transparent about the events you want to attend and to lean on your department and other graduate school’s administrators for support.

Mistake #6 – Kissing up to an academic advisor to secure a letter of recommendation.

By the time you enter your last year of graduate school, your academic advisor becomes ultimately powerless in terms of advancing your career.

This can be both a good and a bad thing.

It’s a good thing because it means your advisor can do very little to hold your career back.

It’s a bad thing because it means your advisor can do very little to move your career forward.

Your advisor is likely a lifelong academic, which means he or she has very few (if any) industry connections.

Depending on your University and program, you’ve likely passed your comprehensive exam or other qualifying exam by your last year of graduate school.

This further limits your advisor’s power over you.

Now, the most your advisor can do is play passive aggressive games.

He or she might try withholding support, making you look incompetent, or alienating you from other members of the lab.

These efforts are both sad and showing.

If you come up against this, simply keep a record of everything that’s happening and schedule a meeting with your department, dean, and graduate school counselor.

This will put your advisor on his or her heels and give you room to wrap up your work and apply to industry jobs.

During your last year of graduate school, or whenever you decide to leave academia, your relationship with your advisor will likely become stressed.

The biggest cause of this stress is you wanting to leave the lab and keep your advisor happy at the same time.

This is nearly impossible.

For one reason or another, most advisors will not be happy to see you go.

Accept it.

Don’t rely on your advisor to advance your career. Instead, cut the cord and take matters into your own hands.

Realize that you are going to have to get an industry job all by yourself.

Mistake #7 – Being too much of a coward to cold call recruiters and hiring managers. 

PhD’s are more capable of dealing with failure than any other professionals on the planet.

PhD’s are also very skilled at working hard under high amounts of pressure.

They have to meet hard deadlines, manage multiple projects at once, and present their findings in front of other intelligent doctors who are trained to find holes in their logic.

Yet, most PhD’s are afraid of stepping outside of their specific domain of knowledge. 

They’re afraid of looking stupid to anyone outside of academia.

As a result, most PhD’s have never picked up the phone to cold call a recruiter or hiring manager to inquire about an industry position.

This is nonsense.

If you can handle the pressure of having your data and logic ridiculed by reviewers, professors, and your peers, you can certainly get on the phone and introduce yourself to a stranger.

Especially a stranger whose job it is to find candidates for open industry job positions.

If you refuse to cold call someone to ask about open job position, you deserve to stay stuck in academia.

You deserve it because you’re refusing to step outside of your comfort zone and improve your interpersonal skills. 

You deserve it because you’re refusing to try.

If you try and fail—that’s okay.

But…

To not try at all is unacceptable.

The next time you see an industry position that might be a good fit for you, get on Google or LinkedIn and find out who the hiring manager or recruiter is for that position.

Then, get on the phone and make the call.

Most PhD’s will be unemployed at graduation. You do not have to be one of these PhD’s. Instead you can be the PhD who successfully transitions into industry by creating a strong networking strategy and executing it during your last year of graduate school. The key is to stop relying on your advisor and start relying on yourself. Take time to craft a succinct and results-oriented industry resume that hiring managers and recruiters will actually read. Then, step outside of your comfort zone and give these people a call.

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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Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.
  • Bao Lin

    I really like your thought about not spending much time in writing a thesis. Instead, we all should spend a few hours to build the network and contacts in the industry that will help us to get the job once we complete our PhD. I see many of my PhD friends, spending excessive time on writing their thesis and once they completed PhD, they don’t know what to do next.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Thanks, Bao. Glad it resonated.

  • Garnet

    Thesis is useless, research publications are useless, and even PhDs are useless. Hell, why PhDs system still exist? Why dont just let the “industry” train their workers?

    • Sunny Rafi

      If you thought like that … you may find that life is useless. But if you thought like this “Ph.D should be industrial based” then it’s fine. Some university follow nowadays.

    • Morgan

      Industry is not interested in training you; just making $$$ out of you. Grad school teaches you to think critically, you’re not gonna get that being a useful code-monkey.

      • Bee

        What if you got into the grad school that does not educate you yet charging you $$$? Then better not get in there from the first place.

        • Morgan

          When you’re in Grad school you get a scholarship that covers fees… but of course you’d know this if you were in Grad school…

  • Linda T

    I’ve been through the stress of leaving the lab and keep your advisor happy. It is the most likely situation that comes in the life of almost all PhD graduates. So it is better not to depend on your academic advisor and build yourself to get a well paid industry job. Don’t be depressed or demotivate by your advisor, he is not the one who has actual scenario of the industry. BTW, I learn a lot of things from this article, thank you.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Agreed, Linda. Glad you liked the article, thanks for commenting!

  • Steven Garcia

    This is a story of most of the PhD grads out there. They all take a deep interest in doing research and writing a good thesis. But they don’t know that it’s not enough to get a job in the industry or to be successful in real life. That’s just one part of the process, another whole part (i.e. networking, connections) is being left out. They have to work on that,too.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Very true, Steven: an all too familiar story. Your network is your net worth.

  • Debra Hill

    That’s a solid thing you pointed over here in Mistake#2 , Dr.Hankel. Most of the job applicants underestimate the power of a good resume. They just take a ready-made template of their respective industry and fill in their information. Obviously it won’t work. If they could just highlight their key-skills by a boldface font of somewhat bigger font, It will get attention, raising the chances to be called for an interview.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Very true, Debra!

  • Morgan

    The first mistake is to believe that your degree is a goal… it’s not… just like getting a good mark is not a goal… all these other mistakes listed here build on this basic wrong assumption. The goal is to learn skills to solve real problems that make $$$. Grad school is a great place to learn those skills (better than getting pigeon-holed into being a code-monkey as a bachelor), but that’s all. Probably the best skill I got out of grad school was that I could solve any problem I wanted; eventually.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Great mindset, Morgan. Agreed.

  • Lauren Ritchie

    Thank you cheekyscientist for writing an article on what I have been preaching for years. Although my opinion is slightly different in regards to publications, I agree with all points regarding networking and hope that others heed your advice. I had to deal with a grumpy advisor and dissatisfied committee and been questioned continually for doing these exact things in my career path. Frankly, I haven’t regretted for one second working in a totally different industry as a means to building applicable resume bullets and not being paid like a pauper. Looking forward to joining the Association and reading additional content. Cheers!

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Lauren! I look forward to seeing you in the Association.

  • Evan Ross

    The Network is the king. Your thesis is just a bunch of papers in real life,just a crap. Growing network is the only thing that is useful in survival. Better if industry persons are in your network because many companies hire persons on referral basis. This can be your chance. So roam around meet as many industry people as you can.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Absolutely, Evan! Thanks for reading.

  • Jonathan Bib

    I saw many PhDs doing personal work of their advisor to impress them and make them happy so that they will grant you the recommendation letter. But trust me, you won’t need any recommendation letter to get a job in industry. For that first thing you need is the skills and knowledge about the trend and technologies used in industry. Above that you need a strong network and connection to people who either work for industry or have connection with industry. This blog helped me a lot to pursue my career in the industry. So it is my humble duty to share my experience with you guys.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Thank you for sharing your experience, Jonathan. Glad the blog has helped you 🙂

  • Paul Lindon

    Nice Article and great compilation of mistakes that almost all PhD grads make.I think it’s the most useful article a PhD grad can find on the internet.It gives the insights about the mistakes nobody’s ever thought of.If a PhD grad avoid these mistakes, I think he/she won’t have any problem throughout his/her career.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Thanks for commenting, Paul. Glad you found the article useful!

  • Vicky M

    I agree with you here Dr. Hankel. The academic system plant the thought in our mind that you can only be a successful PhD if you become a tenured professor and continue to publish papers. They make you dependent and this will prevent you from learning skills that can help you to get an industry job. These are some good advice for how you can avoid these mistakes and don’t be jobless after your PhD. Career transforming article.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Thanks for commenting, Vicky. I’m glad you found the article useful.

  • Vicky M

    I agree with you here Dr. Hankel. The academic system plant the thought in our mind that you can only be a successful PhD if you become a tenured professor and continue to publish papers. They make you dependent and this will prevent you from learning skills that can help you to get an industry job. These are some good advice for how you can avoid these mistakes and don’t be jobless after your PhD. Career transforming article.

  • Thal

    Very important thoughts. I will forward it to all my PhD colleagues that fear going out of the lab to create opportunities for their next job.

    The only thing I don’t completly follow you on, is the importance of finding a position right after the PhD.
    In my opinion it is also okay to take a few months of transition (if one can afford it of course). Not a full year but … Don’t you think we all diserve a small break ? 😉

  • Ronald Allen

    Hi Dr. Hankel, I’m pursuing my PhD. I want to thank you for this life changing article. It really is very useful for PhD grads like me. I wouldn’t think of these things if I hadn’t read this article and that would be like suicidal thing. I didn’t know that networking and growing a social circle are more important than being just a lab rat.
    I’ll share this article as many times as I can so that other grads like me can also be benefited.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      So glad you learned so much from the article, Ronald. Thanks for reading and I appreciate you sharing it with other grads.

  • Margo Beil

    I know the pain and stress because I already experienced all these stuff during my postdoc. Thanks to some of my friends who are working in the industry for a quite good time and helped me to leave academia and finding a good job in the industry. And yes, this blog helped me equally throughout this. Now my advice to all grads and PhDs that please focus on one or two other branches and gain expertise in that with your academic. It will be very helpful to you if you want to switch your career to the industry. And it is way better than academics.

  • RK

    Hello Dr. Hankel,
    Thank you very much for giving these insightful suggestions. I am totally agree with you about all the situations/concerns you have correctly explained.

  • Bee

    Thank you, Dr. Hankel! Your article has really saved me from my own stubbornness. When I realized my supervisors are bullies, I began to take appropriate measures to save my own career, including plans to give up my PhD and look for industrial job. However, deep down, I wasn’t willing to leave without a PhD. Perhaps it was out of ego that I need to even the score with them. How did a rising star became the pain the neck and worthless dust? It was hard to believe. After reading your article, I know that it was due to lack of confidence. You understand how they brainwash you to make you think you are literally worthless. And the fact that I am the only one being treated that way makes me question myself if I am really the victim. Now, I no longer want to immense myself in my misery and thank them for their mental tortures, which indeed makes me more prepared in this dog-eat-dog world.

    To anyone else who is also facing the same problem and reading this comment, this will give you some consolation. Most of my supervisors’ students had left or graduated, and no more new meat willing to enter their meat grinder. My direct supervisor failed his board for promotion to full professor third time in a roll, probably due to lack of good recent publications and PhD students. The other co-supervisor is planning his escape route because his big private grant supporter is facing major financial crisis. Of course, he would not leave without squeezing the last drop of ‘juice’ (papers) out of his dwindling herd, which cannot get out unscathed because they have scholarships. I guessed I knew something was fishy about 2 years ago and therefore did not apply the scholarship.

    Getting a PhD is not that important after all, considered that the PhDs in Malaysia, especially chemistry, are destined (if there is any openings for PhDs) to teach, at most, pre-college courses. On the other hand, industries in Malaysia prefer to hire Bachelor degree holder with experience.

    Thanks again! I’m glad that I’ve read your article and please keep on helping the other postdocs and grad students.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      You’re welcome Bee. Thanks for sharing here.

  • Sergio Loyola Clavijo

    Hi !, i’m a student of biotechnology engineering, i’m not a PhD student just a bachelor i’m from Chile and i found this article awesome (mostly for people who are recently started this path). i mean on my first year of college i started to go to some networking events and things like that and i meet lot of people who face that problem so for one side i’m working on my skills at the lab and for the other side i’m making this necessarily connection for the future, also i recently started to read some things like this and make me look so aggressive the world of the academic system

  • kaitlyn

    What would you say about humanities PhDs where there isn’t really a direct “industry” to get into?