5 Ways Academic Career Centers Fail PhDs

If anyone should have known how to execute a PhD job search, it was me. The institution I was earning my PhD at was one of the top 10 across the nation. It was awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) in the award’s first funding cycle. My career center was one of the best.

What made it one of the top ranking career centers was that they provided opportunities and resources to help trainees prepare for a diverse range of careers.

I had taken courses on intellectual property, college teaching, and participated in training sessions on networking and industry resume writing. I volunteered at several career events. I personally discussed career options with R&D scientists, science policy professionals, medical science liaisons, regulatory affairs specialists, and more.

Still, as my thesis defense date approached, I found myself at a loss.

I looked through job posting after job posting for industry roles I thought I wanted. 

But none of them seemed like a realistic option for me. I felt unqualified for almost all of them because I didn’t have 100% of the technical skills. And I couldn’t relocate for the few I felt would be a great fit, due to my personal circumstances.

I was stuck.

Feeling that I had already exhausted my options with my institution’s career center, I turned to the internet for advice on how to get unstuck.

That’s when I found and joined the Cheeky Scientist Association.

I learned that to find appropriate target careers, I needed to focus on my desired professional lifestyle and transferable skills instead of having all the required technical skills. Importantly, I also learned how to create and execute a real PhD-level industry job search strategy. This was simplified with the support of a community of fellow industry-focused PhDs.

Where Academic Career Centers Fall Short

If you are a PhD or PhD student, many assume that your passion and dedication for research will open doors exclusively for an academic job. A hundred years ago, this was mostly true. Yet, this hasn’t been the case for some years now. As the pandemic continues to cause widespread hiring freezes in academia and tenure track positions are on the decline, it’s time for everyone to accept that PhDs are suited for more than just professorship positions. They can and should transition into well-paying jobs outside of academia.

In fact, more and more PhDs are finding that their training provides diverse and rewarding opportunities in industry. A 2014 study concluded that only 13% of all PhD graduates can stay in academia; and this considers any position; not tenure-track positions exclusively. Many of these positions are not new, just replacing those who retire. Yet, much of the training and workshops provided by most university career centers is geared toward academic careers. 

Where Academic Career Centers Go Right

That said, your career center can be great resources. They can help you find job listings, get feedback on your resume, and help you broaden your network with alumni. Some have even changed their programming to support PhDs interested in industry and provide opportunities to learn about different industry careers. Most career centers mean well. These organizations simply face structural limitations because they are largely supported by people that only have experience in academia.  

This is why you need to branch out of academic circles if you are looking to develop your industry network. Cheeky Scientist is quickly becoming the leading resource on career development and discovery for PhDs. This, along with the vast network of fellow associates is the best way to exponentially grow your network. In addition you will gain valuable insights into the industry hiring process and top jobs for PhDs. 

If you don’t believe me check out the top 5 ways your career center falls short in supporting your industry transition and how Cheeky Scientist does better. 

1. Refuge from academic elitism 

Most PhDs are timid when it comes to accepting that they are ready to leave academia. Many view it as “failing” or an “alternative” career. There is a great stigma around choosing to leave. It creates this atmosphere that you’re only leaving because you weren’t cut out to be a professor. This mindset reeks of elitism and hierarchy, creating further insecurities and uncertainties in PhDs. When you are constantly surrounded by this mindset, it’s hard to think you aren’t a failure. As a result, it’s easy to feel alone, and it can be hard to find support as you work on your academic exit strategy. 

This changes if you have continuous access to other PhDs who are also looking to leave academia. All of the sudden, you’re not alone –  you’re in good company. Being part of a like-minded community makes it easier to open up, share your struggles, and find support for the challenges you’re facing in your job search. 

2. Your career center doesn’t give you a complete strategy to your job search 

Your career center has probably told you that you should apply to industry positions with a resume instead of an academic CV. They may have advised you to create a LinkedIn profile. And they may have even told you to network and suggested means for doing so. These are essential components of an industry job search, but you won’t get an effective job search strategy just by putting them together.

You need to know how to pursue multiple job leads at a time. And you most likely need to do so on a time budget because most PIs won’t pay you to job search.

How do you do this?

You integrate the components of your job search strategy so they amplify each other. This is done by setting targets and creating an infrastructure to help you stay organized.

One option is you can spend lots of time figuring out how to do these things on your own. OR you can learn the tried and true way to do this from those who have already been there.

3. Your career center doesn’t allow you to see diverse and valuable feedback on your resume and LinkedIn

Many career centers will have resume or CV writing workshops. Some might even have 1-on-1 resume review sessions. These can be great to iron out some formatting and grammatical errors. However, it’s unlikely that the one person who is helping you knows enough about your background and target industry to provide the strongest advice on how to pitch yourself. 

This is a problem because your resume must be curated to your target position. When it comes to your resume, there is no one size fits all. You have to know what keywords you need and the best format to use to successfully transition into your target industry role. 

Having multiple people from diverse backgrounds who’ve successfully transitioned into similar jobs can drastically improve your resume and LinkedIn profiles. Also, everyone will view your resume differently. Having a diverse set of minds offering feedback on your resume will ensure that you have written a compelling resume, no matter who reads it. 

4. Your career center doesn’t give you continuous contact with industry professionals

Good career centers will have a variety of events allowing graduate students to hear from and interact with local industry professionals. Many will even be willing to connect with you on LinkedIn to help you grow your network. But that’s typically as far as it goes. Most PhDs are unfamiliar with the critical following-up technique. Further, university career events typically involve just one or two industry professionals presenting to hundreds of PhD students. The one industry person at your career center’s event will not remember or have the time to advise all the graduate students they just came in contact with that day. 

This is not a great job search tactic. PhDs who have connections in industry have a faster and easier time transitioning. When you’re job searching, you want continuous access to people already in your target industry. 

5. Savoring success

Throughout graduate school, you see PhDs give a defense, print their thesis, and then you usually never hear from them again. Where did they go? Did they leave academia? Are they successful? You may never know. 

However, you can see the new hires your University just got, typically it’s just one or two a year. You may also hear about the ones you would expect to have an easy time. That’s right, we all know that person who graduated quickly, got their name on 3 Nature papers, and got along swimmingly with their PI and labmates. Besides that and the sparse grant proposal acceptance, you never see or hear about others’ success. 

So, when it comes to our own job search it seems impossible, daunting, debilitating. You are not alone, PhDs are resilient, most PhDs have to struggle, have employment gaps, visa problems, or restrictions due to family or location. It’s easy to feel alone, but I challenge you to find your community. 

Once you can see the vast career opportunities open to you and see PhDs just like you who’ve successfully transitioned all that guilt and loneliness will be swept away. You can savor their success and use their inspiring stories to help develop your own. 

No matter what your goal is, you need a supporting network that can propel you into your dream job, not try to convince you their chosen career path is the only valid choice for you.

In Conclusion

Finding the right career path can be challenging and is highly multi-faceted. Career centers provide valuable information to PhDs and you should use them, but they cannot be your only career platform. The network of Cheeky Scientist expands across the world and is present in all industries hiring for PhD-level positions. In addition the advanced programs are led by leading experts in their field, providing you with the best and most up-to-date knowledge to assist you in your transition. 

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Amanda Johnson
Amanda Johnson

Amanda holds a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology. Currently, as a program development manager at Cheeky Scientist, she produces content that helps PhDs find rewarding careers in industry.

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