Two Biggest Reasons Science PhDs Stay Stuck In Academia

Stuck In Academia
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

I ran back to the lab right after the seminar.

I didn’t wait for the presenter to take questions. I took off as soon as I saw his thank you slide. Asking questions wasn’t important to me. Getting back to the lab to do more experiments was important.

Besides, I could just read the presenter’s paper if I wanted to know more. 

Do as many experiments as possible. Read as many papers as possible. Go to just enough seminars to be seen and stay just long enough not to cause a stir as I left.

Write papers. Write grants. Write thesis.

This was my life in graduate school. This was my foolproof plan for being a successful PhD. I realized much later that this plan wasn’t foolproof, it was foolish.

Foolproof Plan Or Foolish Plan?

I was defending my thesis in three months. It was time to start looking for jobs.

I didn’t want to be a professor anymore. I wanted a PhD job in industry. Piece of cake I thought. After all, I have a PhD. I’m a doctor. Companies are going to fall all over themselves to hire me.

Write resume. Send resume. Get a job.

This simple sequence was the job search process as I knew it. It was simple but not simple enough. I was kind of appalled that I even had to send a resume. Shouldn’t these companies be looking for me? Shouldn’t my University send out my resume for me? I had more important things to do.

My time is more important.

I had experiments to run and papers to read. I’m a scientist. A doctor. An intellectual. Okay, I’ll send out a resume. But I’m certainly not going to put on a suit and get all dressed up for any interviews. I’m not some corporate robot.

I’m above all that.

I never said these things out loud of course. I never really thought about them consciously either. These self-entitled thoughts just kind of sat in the deeper parts of my mind. I just felt like I shouldn’t have to try hard to get a job. I wasn’t sure why I felt that way, I just did.

Why Nobody Wants You

I sent out one resume. No response. I sent out a second one. No response. Another. Nothing. Twenty resumes later, I still hadn’t received one single response.

Reality came crashing down.

Wait… am I going to have to try? Like really try? I couldn’t believe that I was going to have to put effort into getting an industry job. At first, I refused. I blamed the system. I blamed other people’s ignorance. I blamed other people for not helping me.

I blamed the economy.

Then I quit. I decided to do a postdoc. I was laying in bed one morning trying to accept the fact that I was going to spend another 4-5 years (at least) in academia getting paid less than a librarian or high school teacher with worse benefits than I had in graduate school while some of my undergrad friends who had C-averages were making six figures. No. Enough is enough.

I’m not going to accept this for my life.

These words—like someone else talking to me—rang in my head that morning. I decided to put all of my preconceived notions aside and get real about getting an industry job. I decided to let go of my academic mindset once and for all.

Your Academic Mindset Is Killing Your Career 

Imagine you’re an astronaut planning to land on Mars and set up a colony.

How would you prepare?

Would you just show up on launch day and hope for the best? Would you spend all day and night reading about how bad it is to live on Earth? Would you act like you were entitled to live on Mars? Would you expect the terrain and atmosphere of Mars to be the same as on Earth?

Once you landed on Mars, would you take off your space helmet and expect to breath the same way you breathed on Earth? Would you expect any aliens you met on Mars to help you survive and thrive on the new planet?

Would you even expect them to have your best interests at heart?

Of course, this all seems ridiculous. You might even think this is a ridiculous example. But this is exactly what most PhDs do in preparation for an industry job.

They don’t prepare. They hope for the best.

They get to their thesis defense of their fifth year of doing a postdoc and just expect a path to industry to be laid out for them. They sit in lab and read about how bad things are in academia without making any real plans for transitioning out of academia.

Worst of all, they expect things that are important in academia to also be important in industry. They put all their hopes and dreams into their perfectly crafted CVs, publication records, and letters of recommendation.

Then they expect hiring managers, recruiters, and people who already have industry jobs to drop everything and help them get a job too.

If you ever want to get a job in industry, you’re going to have to get rid of your academic mindset. What made you successful in academia will not make you successful in industry. It won’t help you get an industry job either.

Imagine you’re going to Mars again.

If you were smart—if you really wanted to survive the trip and thrive on the planet once you got there—you would spend days, weeks, and months simulating the launch and learning everything you could about what it would be like to live there.

You would learn the names of every element on your new planet. You would talk to everyone who has ever been to Mars and you would listen intently. In short, you would expect things to be totally different there compared to where you are now and you would prepare completely.

Science PhD

A PhD Entitles You To Exactly Nothing 

I’m not here to lie to you or fill your head with fairy tales about how valuable you are to industry employers.

You’re not.

If you’re a lifetime academic like most newly minted PhDs and postdocs, you’re useless in industry. You’re like an infant that has to be weaned off of a bottle and taught how to eat solid foods. You’ve never sold anything. You’ve never developed or marketed a product for the purpose of selling it.

You have no real business experience whatsoever.

This is how industry hiring managers and recruiters see you. Now that you know this, the fact that no one will read your resume or respond to your LinkedIn request should no longer being a surprise.

But don’t worry. Not all hope is lost.

PhDs do have enormous advantages over other job candidates. PhDs know how to find answers better than most professionals. They’re know how to deal with failure and negative bosses better too. They’re innovative, collaborative, and more comfortable with uncertainty than the average job candidate.

The problem is that very few PhDs fully develop or leverage these advantages. Very few identify or make use of their transferable skills. Instead, they sit back and wait for success to fall in their laps.

Two Reasons PhDs Stay Stuck In Academia

If you want a non-academic job, stop thinking like an academic. PhDs stay stuck in academia, not because they are incapable of transitioning quickly and successfully into industry, but because they refuse to trade in their outdated academic mindset for a new, industry-trained mindset.

These are the two biggest reasons some PhDs never trade in their academic mindset and, as a result, never transition into industry:

1. They would rather impress others than progress their careers.

In academia, it’s cool to not care about money. It’s cool to act aloof, pretending to disdain dirty words like business, profit, or people skills. Instead, most academics become obsessed with impressing others.

They want to be seen as important—as significant.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this. Everyone should want their work and lives to be significant. The problem is when academics sacrifice their industry goals to acting cool.

Getting published might be cool in academia, but it doesn’t mean anything in industry. Getting a beautifully crafted letter from your advisor might be a big deal where you are now, but it counts for nothing in industry. Most industry employers do not care if your academic advisor hates you.

Publications, author order, and letters of recommendation can seem like the world in academia, but they mean zilch in industry.

If you want to get an industry job, you’re going to have to change your values. You’re going to have to start valuing your network over your publication record. You’re going to have to start valuing things like product development, sales, and marketing, not just the pursuit of knowledge.

You’re going to have to start valuing action over words.

No one is going to just give you a great job. No one is going to personally sift through a thousand resumes just to find the one you uploaded to their job posting online and say “Yes! This is the person I’ve been waiting my whole life for.” Nope. You’re going to have to fight for a good industry job. You’re going to have to try very, very hard.

Start learning now. If you don’t know where to start, find people who do. Don’t be afraid to ask. If you don’t ask, you will stay stuck.

2. They fail to separate critical thinking from cynical thinking. 

Academia has a way of turning you into a perpetual cynic. 10,000 hours of pouring over terabytes of data and publication figures is enough to make anyone hate the world.

PhDs don’t just create and analyze data—they scrutinize it.

They attack the data for errors. The better scientists are at finding errors in data and errors in logic, the better scientists they become. The problem is that this kind critical thinking can bleed over into a PhD’s entire professional and personal life.

Many happy and energetic souls have been lost in the dark chambers of the ivory tower.

After a few years at the bench, it’s easy to lose your confidence in anything, especially yourself. It’s easy to start focusing only on problems and not on solutions.

You want a high-paying industry job where you can do meaningful work but–you think–that will never happen because money and meaning can’t really coexist together. Or, you think it will never happen because you don’t have any industry experience, or you’re the wrong nationality, or your advisor hates you, on and on.

If you want an industry job, you have to get rid of your cynical mindset.

You have to reignite the optimistic, can-do mindset that got you into graduate school in the first. You have to remember the joy of discovery and the thrill of trying new things and taking on challenges.

If you’re a PhD, you have these things inside of you. You also have more intelligence and tenacity than most other professionals. It’s time for you to reawaken these traits and start using them to get the industry job of your choice.

To learn more about transitioning into a non-academic career, 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.
  • Dora Farkas

    Isaiah, it is fantastic that you emphasize all the personal qualities (thrill of discovery, enthusiasm, tenacity) that drive people to graduate school in the first place. Unfortunately as the years go on many students forget why they went to graduate school in the first place, and they lose their self-confidence after repeated frustrations.Once you get to industry you realize how much you learned as a PhD student – persistence, creativity, commitment – these qualities all pay off big time in an industry career.

  • ScienceAnyways

    It seems like the author on the other hand is far out of academia, and maybe slightly angry with it? Yes, poor scientists walk off early from seminars, don’t network, don’t prepare for interview, feel entitled because they managed to put PhD after their surname. Poor scientists deseprately try to impress others and are cynical other than critical.

    Good scientists try to network and be social, they ask good questions at the seminars and stay for the drinks. They know it’s not about the labwork, but your output in the end. And output does not count in the number of experiments done. It’s what you do with your data that matters. Good scientists will prepare for that industry interview, do their homework and learn about the company, and activate their network to get more inside info on industry jobs, if they go for it (after all, they’re well-trained doing research).

    Yes, good scientists try to impress others, in order to be noticed and collaborate. But the truly good scientists I’ve seen certainly have this DOER attitude the author denies them. Yes, bad scientists are cynical. I’ve met them, I’ve had them for supervisors. Good ones, are critical, in the way that identifies REAL problems and provides SOLUTIONS, so that the project can successfully go on. In the end, runnign a truly successful lab is not that different from running a small business, is it?

    If you do your PhD or your science the right way, then yes, you are well prepared for other jobs too.

    Self-pitying people with a feeling of entitlement probably aren’t, no matter if they hold a PhD or not!

    For more musings on career in science (or not) drop by: 🙂