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3 Things PhDs Obsess Over That Employers Give Zero F’s About

If you’re lucky to work in industry long enough, you’ll get to be someone else’s lifeline. 

That’s what happened to me in my third position. 

A friend of mine, a PhD named Rupali, was doing all the right things: 

He reached out to me on LinkedIn.

We exchanged messages a few times, reestablishing our rapport. 

When the conversation turned to what we’re doing now, he mentioned he was interested in the company I was working at. 

So we picked a time to sit down for a call where Rupali could ask me a few questions about the company. 

Confident that he was genuinely interested, well-qualified, and would reflect well on me if he was hired, I offered to give him a referral

And voila – he and I were on the same team before long. He was in R&D, and I had recently transferred to Marketing, but we saw each other at weekly and monthly meetings. 

This is how I realized that he was sabotaging his new job.

Rupali, eager to impress and make a difference in his new role, kept interjecting in what were otherwise productive meetings. 

Why? To bring up complicated academic concepts that, judging from their faces, my industry colleagues didn’t see the significance of. 

Stuck in his academic mindset, he was alienating himself from the rest of the team.

A PhD Has Value In Industry, But PhDs Are More Than Just A Degree

As a PhD, your projects had a variety of aims.

But the bottom line at any given company is revenue.

Every move in industry is made with profitability in mind.

In order to succeed in industry, you need to realize that this is how things work.

You need to learn how to make and understand decisions through this context of profit and loss.

Projects are quickly cut if it’s clear they aren’t going to produce the desired result.

In academia, things are different. It’s not uncommon to work on a project you know will be a dead-end for five or six years. Why? Simply because that’s what the grant funding was for.

That’s why you may have heard me say before that a research lab is nothing but a poorly managed business. This sort of resource-wasting, time-draining exercise in futility would never happen in industry.

Instead, companies undertake projects strategically,  with their long-term success in mind. Backing is given to projects and ideas that produce results.

Contrary to what academia has taught you, niche skills aren’t the ones that propel success and drive results. Not in industry. But transferable skills do.

Of course, your niche skills are important. Don’t don’t count on your extremely specific expertise being valued in industry. If you do, you’re limiting yourself to a very small number of opportunities.

It’s a mistake to think that your degree is enough. You need to identify the transferable skills and experiences you have beyond research and tie those into what industry employers are looking for.

There Are 3 Things PhDs Should Stop Obsessing Over To Get Hired

Depending on your degree program, you may have spent the last decade in academia. 

Obviously, you aren’t going to – and no one wants you to – unlearn everything from the last third of your lifetime.

But if you’re serious about wanting to work in industry, you’re going to need to leave some things behind.

You’ll need to shift the focus of how you measure your own success. 

And you’ll need to learn how to translate your experience into a language that others can understand.

Your academic skills, achievements and mindset cannot coexist successfully with industry. They need to evolve.

Let’s take a look at three of the things that every PhD needs to stop obsessing over if they want to get hired in industry.

1. Your Academic Accomplishments – Including Your PhD

More is more: this is what most PhDs are taught. 

You can see this principle in action when you compare the academic CV to the industry resume.

Your academic CV is like a peer-reviewed timeline of your work history. An industry resume is a persuasive marketing document meant to showcase your biggest professional achievements.

But, when it comes to creating a strong industry résumé for a PhD job, less is more. This is the concept behind creating a targeted resume.

Adding the wrong things or too many things to your résumé will keep you from getting the industry job you want.

So many extremely qualified PhDs hear nothing but crickets from recruiters and hiring managers. There are two major reasons for this, and both are rooted in this obsession with the value of their degree.

1. Your academic credentials don’t belong on the first page. Period.

The number one reason, hands down, is that their resumes include their academic credentials most prominently. 

Wrong. 100% wrong. Do not do this, PhDs! 

Your headline, contact information and summary should be the first, most dominant things on the front page of your resume. Combined, these elements should make up the visual center. 

This is the portion that applicant tracking systems weigh most heavily in their keyword search. It’s also where hiring managers spend 80% of the 8 seconds they’ll take to glance over your resume.

Don’t waste this space with the title of a degree that non-PhD hiring managers won’t understand. They aren’t going to take the time to figure it out. Your resume will basically be dead on arrival.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that mentioning your degree is going to imply your fitness for the job. You, just like any other candidate, are going to need to explain and demonstrate your qualifications

2. Only list achievements and skills that industry recruiters will care about

The second reason that PhDs – accomplished, academically successful ones – aren’t hearing back from employers? They’re wasting valuable space talking about achievements that don’t matter.

If you are listing your accomplishments, awards or accolades, be selective.

Also, include them in a strategic location. And by strategic, I mean on the second page. This advice isn’t meant to devalue your credentials or diminish anything you’ve accomplished.

As I said, hiring managers spend roughly 7 to 8 seconds on each resume. They are looking, just like their ATS counterparts, for keywords that signal your skills match the skills in the job advertisement. 

That’s all they’re looking for in that preliminary read-through.

And if they can’t find the keywords they’re looking for in those 8 precious seconds, they will not hesitate to discard your application.

What good will your 10 publications, five patents and $10 million in funding be to your job search if your resume is in the trash?

2. Your Impressive Library of Niche Skills

Unfortunately, most PhDs cannot fathom the idea of their skills being labeled as soft. According to their academic mindset, things need to be complex to be valuable. Transferable skills are just too simple. 

So they list niche-specific skills that sound impressive – but are skipped rather than read. 

Things like fluorescence microscopy, real-time PCR, quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and so on.

I know what you’re thinking: What was all my advanced training for if I can’t use it on my resume?

Many PhDs feel that they’ve wasted years of their lives once they realize that niche skills are not tantamount to employers in industry.

But this is not true. You developed many transferable skills that give you a competitive advantage.

Your niche skills are important, but transferable skills take precedence. Employers are hiring for versatility in today’s transferable, skill-based job market.

Accept that the niche skills you learned in academia will be obsolete in a few years if not a few months from reading this. In fact, many of them are obsolete right now.

In contrast, your transferable skills are more relevant than ever.

Transferable skills, also called soft skills transfer from sector to sector, company to company, and job to job. This means that no matter what position you are targeting, they are looking for a combination of these skills.

Transferable skills are your biggest asset when it comes to transitioning outside of academia or doing a career change precisely because they are universal. 

Why?

Your niche skills are often too specific to be valuable once you move into a new work environment. Transferable skills, on the other hand, stay relevant as you advance in your career and change positions. 

3. Your Ratio Of Wins To Losses

Academia is a breeding ground for negativity. 

I know that a good part of negativity is self-inflicted. Intelligent people are their own harshest critics. 

And if it’s not your own inner critic cutting you down to size, too many PhDs know what it’s like to be belittled and alienated by the very mentors who are supposed to be their support network.

In industry, bullying and discrimination are fireable offenses. But in academia, your mentors and your teachers can also be your aggressors. Aggressors you’re stuck with, in many cases, for years on end.

When it’s a struggle to make it through the day, it’s easy to start keeping count of your wins and losses. 

Even if you have no intention of ever leaving academia, I hope you read this and walk away knowing that no one is keeping score

No one except you, that is.

Failure, defeat and starting from scratch are all a natural part of success. That’s true in industry, in research and in life.

And being able to demonstrate that you can take ownership, learn quickly from criticism, and bounce back better prepared are traits that are absolutely invaluable.

So if you want to succeed in industry, you need to slough off that self-defeating mindset. Instead, start focusing on the “then what” part of the problem. 

No one is going to fall over themselves to hire someone who doesn’t believe in themselves. 

You need to catalog your wins, file your losses away and focus strategically on the big picture

You want to convince other people of what I hope you already know: you can do this job, and you can do it well.

Concluding Remarks

Ingrained in you are qualities that give you the edge in any room you’re in. You’re not only an expert in, but you’ve contributed knowledge to your field. If there’s something you don’t know, you can learn it in half the time it would take most people. And yes, you have specialty skills that may prove to be valuable in industry. But what makes you a candidate of the highest caliber are the soft skills you built along the way. The tenacity it took to achieve your educational goals, the grit you needed to stay the course in the face of long odds and the patience you developed are just three of the dozens of transferable skills you acquired during your PhD. So let go of your obsession with academic-based benchmarks for success and embrace a slightly different set of metrics. That’s the key to finding a job in industry that you love.

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ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD

CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS

Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of 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. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. 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.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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