3 Steps To Taking Back Control Of Your Career

Academia takes away all of your control.

You probably started your PhD as a confident student, knowing exactly who you were and what you wanted. 

But after years facing lack of support, lack of structure, and lack of clear deadlines, you have probably lost a lot of that initial motivation. You probably are not sure of what the next steps are. You feel that you lost all the control of your future career.

Something similar happened to me when I was trying to get out of graduate school. I was in a very unique situation, where my PI was the chair of my thesis committee.

This created a massive conflict of interest because it wasn’t in PI’s interest to let me graduate because I was at a point where I was very good at getting data and advancing my PI’s career. 

So, at the end of every committee, he would find a reason for why I wasn’t ready to defend my thesis. Mere excuses, the reality is that he didn’t want me to go because I was cheap labor.

I remember thinking, what can I do? How can I convince him to let me graduate? My first strategy was to work harder, show more results. But soon I realized that I was just working for my own destruction. I was working to advance my advisor’s career, but nothing was happening for my career. And the harder I worked, the more my PI wanted to keep me in the lab. 

Since hard work wasn’t working, I decided to go the other way and do nothing. I actively tried to be less productive. And I got lost in the fog of academia, but didn’t get any close to graduation. 

Finally I said, you know what? Academia values weakness. I need to become pitiful. I’m using stronger words here, but looking back, this is exactly what was happening. I felt that I needed to showcase how poor I was, how little my stipend was. So that my PI would see me as human and give me some sort of indication that I could get out of graduate school.

This didn’t work either. My PI didn’t value weakness.  He just looked down on it.

It took some time to realize that the ticket out of academia was to take back control and develop a tough mentality. I’m telling you this story in the hopes that it will save you some precious time. That it will motivate you to take action to gain back control of your career.

I started applying for industry positions, expanding my network. At some point, I got job offers for top companies, and I used those as leverage to convenience my thesis committee to let me graduate.

If you feel lost in academia, it is time to take control back and start prioritizing your transition

It’s Not Human Nature To Value Mental Weakness

It is not in our nature to value mental weakness. This doesn’t mean that being authentic or hardworking is intrinsically bad, but you are not likely to get many positive results just by showing weakness.

Why am I speaking so directly on this topic? 

Because strategies based on a lack of control not only don’t work in academia, they also don’t work in industry. 

Employers are not going to take pity on you. They’re not going to go out of their way to do more than they should to hire you. They won’t feel bad for your situation in academia. They’re not going to say, “I know you’re getting a low paid stipend, let me give you this great salary, no need to negotiate.”

Instead, they might use your stipend and lack of experience to pay you less. This is why you need to take back control, be ready to show your value, to negotiate your salary, and to ask for your worth. 

Many industry professionals will be willing to help you if you follow professional etiquette and show that you are committed to transition out of academia. Many industry hiring managers will be willing to hire you and show you professional respect if you let them know that you know your value.

But if you base your job search strategy on mental weakness, you will fail.

The Three Keys To Develop Mental Toughness

Now, how do I develop mental toughness to take back control and achieve results? I will discuss three attitudes that you can adopt right now. 

These might need some practice, but once you interioze them, they will become second nature and will help you not only get out of academia, but progress in your industry career. 

1. Adopt a can-do mindset

The first step is to take initiative. This might sound difficult to do if you have spent months or even years having no control in academia, but it is a simple exercise that you can do everyday.

You can make a decision that will better your situation at any time. And making that decision can be very powerful. 

Everyday ask yourself, What are the decisions I need to make to improve my situation? What actions do I need to take right away? How quickly can I move from decision to action?

At the same time, focus on reducing the time you spend waiting for others to take care of things. Instead, take the initiative, that is what a can-do mindset means.

Industry employers value a can-do or action-oriented mindset. This is why they look for quantified results on your resume. It’s why they especially value PhDs who can synthesize research results into an actionable solution and make a recommendation on what to do.

You need to start developing this mindset right now. 

Make the conscious choice of spending less time playing out scenarios in your head, pondering, thinking, evaluating, critiquing. Instead, spend more time taking action.

You need to get to the point where you will listen to a podcast, or read a blog or a book and think “I got to do something right now.” And then, act on it quickly. 

Once I see a PhD making that mentality switch, it’s just a matter of time until they transition.

2. Take ownership

Many things can happen to you. You will face unfair situations, you might be in one right now.

You are not responsible for all the situations you find yourself in, but you are responsible for how you respond to it. And you have to take full responsibility for your reactions. 

This is why the word ‘I’ is so important in industry.  The word ‘I’ has been all but abolished in academia. 

But industry hiring managers just want to know what you can do and whether or not you can take responsibility for your actions.

This is the bottom line of every behavioral question.

Every time you answer a behavioural question, make sure you take ownership for your actions and show what you can do. Don’t blame others, don’t focus on what the other person did, don’t talk bad about this other person. This will only hurt you. 

Instead, take responsibility and show how you react to difficult situations. You’ll be tested on this time a time again. 

3. Focus on what you can control

Bottom line, you need not only take action and responsibility, you need to seize control.

Consider this, you don’t just want any job, you want a PhD-level job. This is important for setting the right expectations for what you’re going to go through in your job search.

If you’re looking to transition into positions like research scientist, medical science liaison, R&D engineer, or user experience researcher, you are looking at the top 0.5% of the available jobs in the world.

They don’t just hand those jobs out. There might be demand for them, but industry employers don’t hire just anyone in these positions. They want people who can take control in difficult situations.

Always ask yourself, what can I control in this situation? Even if you can’t control everything, identify the things that you can control and focus on those.

This will keep you from sitting in limbo. It will help you deal with uncertainty and rejection. 

Academia will try to take away all of your control, so you have to fight back and find some leverage. 

Take control over yourself and your job search. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some leverage? To come to your thesis committee with a couple of industry offers to force their hand. So, they have no other choice but to let you graduate?

This is what I did to finally break free and you can do the same. 

Concluding Remarks

Academia will take away all your control. This might lead you to succumb to mental weakness and rely on others to advance your career. This will lead you nowhere. It is not human nature to value mental weakness. Instead, develop mental toughness. 

Adopt a can-do attitude, take ownership for your actions, and focus on what you can control to gain some leverage and advance your career. You must know your value if you want others to see it.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Isaiah Hankel, PhD is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, DOW Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Isaiah Hankel received his doctorate in Anatomy & Cell Biology with a focus in immunology and is an expert on biotechnology recruitment and career development.

Isaiah has published two bestselling books with Wiley and his methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

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