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5 Sticking Points Every PhD Hits In Their Job Search And How To Overcome Them

Looking for a PhD-level industry job is a job in itself. It requires you to start with the right expectations and to be prepared to deal with failure.

No matter how prepared you are, you will hit sticking points and will have to deal with rejection.

I have seen thousands of PhDs successfully transition into industry, none of them was successful all the time. They had to pause and readjust their job search strategy at some point.

They key to know is how to deal with pitfalls and keep moving forward instead of quitting.

I was recently talking to a PhD who did just that and got hired. This is their story:

I’m very excited to share that I have accepted an offer for a senior-level engineer position at a robotics company. I received the offer 2 days before my PhD defense!

I started seriously applying for jobs about 3 months before getting the offer and at the beginning I got rejected and ghosted a lot, but I learned to adjust my job search strategy accordingly. 

At the beginning, I was focusing on entry/mid-level positions, which was the wrong approach. 

It was only when I started seriously pursuing senior-level positions and adjusting my resume accordingly, that my job search took off and I started interviewing, even for large companies like Meta, AMD, and Ansys.

An Organized Approach Will Make It Easier To Overcome Pitfalls

You will have to overcome barriers from the moment you start planning your industry transition.

Do you have a tailored industry resume? Do you have a LinkedIn profile that portrays you as a credible industry candidate? What is your target position? Do you have a strategy in place?

This is part of the process. 

Even if you start planning your transition ahead of time and set up your professional profile and reactivate your network before you actually need a job, you will hit sticking points.

But if you have an organized approach, if you document your progress, and focus on the things that are likely to have the most impact, you’ll be in a good position to pivot in the face of adversity and push your job search forward.

5 Sticking Points You Will Hit And How To Overcome Them

There are 5 common sticking points that almost all PhDs come across at some point in their job search, no matter how well prepared they are.

Don’t focus your efforts on avoiding the pitfalls at all costs. Instead, be aware of them so you know how to recognize them, and can apply the correct strategy to move forward.

Below, we will take a look at each of the sticking points and the strategy you need to apply to overcome them.

1. Not knowing where to start

The first sticking point you’re likely to hit is not knowing where to start with your transition.

Maybe you realized that academia is not for you and are set on getting an industry position, but you simply don’t know what should be the next step.
You will overcome this pitfall by determining your desired professional lifestyle. Start by answering the following questions:

  • What does your perfect day look like? 
  • What does your perfect professional day look like? 
  • What are the tasks you enjoy the most in your job?

Once you figure out your desired professional lifestyle, you can find job titles that adjust to it.

Notice this is the exact opposite of what most people do. Most people find job titles that sound appealing or impressive and try to fit their lifestyle to it.

This often ends up in frustration. If you focus on your professional lifestyle first, you will ensure that your efforts are aligned towards a career that will bring you the satisfaction you’re seeking in the long term.

2. Uploading resumes, but not getting any responses

This second pitfall most PhDs encounter when they start looking for industry positions is uploading resumes to an online portal without hearing anything back.

This is fairly common, most PhDs start their job search looking at job postings and applying online. This almost always leads to silence.

To overcome this pitfall, you need to network to get your resume into the hands of hiring managers or recruiters.

Most positions are not advertised online and many of those that are are filled internally through referrals

If you want to access the hidden job market, you need a professional network. 

Reaching out to existing and new connections and fostering long lasting professional relationships will always be a better use of your time than uploading resumes online.

3. Networking, but not getting any job referrals

It’s possible that you’re reaching out to people and investing time in growing your professional network, but are not getting the momentum you were hoping for.

Either people are not responsive or you’re unable to get them to the point where they are willing to recommend you for an open position at their company.

If this is your case you’re probably coming out as too strong in your networking efforts.

If you’re asking for help with your job search, change your approach and ask for an informational interview instead.

Consider this example: you just moved to a new city where you don’t know anybody well enough yet and for some reason you have to move again.

Are you going to move the entire apartment yourself? Are you going to go up to strangers on the street and ask them to help to move your apartment? Of course not. 

You’re likely not even going to ask the people that you’ve just met in the new city to help you move your apartment because that’s a very big ask.

Something similar happens with a job. If you’re asking someone you just connected with to help you find a job, refer you to a position in their company, or even review your resume, you’re asking for too much too soon.

Going back to the moving example, instead of asking people you don’t know well to help you move, you could ask them about tips to move in this new city.

They will probably help you because people love to give their personal opinions. Giving advice is easy, so if you ask for advice, you’ll probably get it.

Take this lesson with you when it comes to your job search, instead of asking people to help you get a job, ask them for their advice, ask them to answer a couple of questions about how they got their current job. 

If you do this, they’ll be very happy to open up to you and build a relationship with you. This is what an informational interview is all about, and it’s what you need to do if you want to overcome the third sticking point.

4. Getting job referrals, but not getting called for interviews

In other words, you’re creating relationships with people who say they will keep your name at the top of their mind in case anything comes up, but it never materializes into an actual job opportunity.

If this is your case, you need to understand the difference between connecting and networking.

Connecting is what happens when you meet somebody for the first time. Networking is what happens when you follow up and keep building the relationship.

Most people don’t understand this difference. They go to a networking event, collect business cards, and think they’re networking.

But since they don’t follow up, those initial connections rarely turn into something else. Nothing moves forward.

If you’re at stock getting job referrals, but are not getting any interviews, you need to focus on networking and following up with your current connections.

You have to constantly invest in bringing the relationship to the next level. You meet at a networking event. You send a follow up message. You set up an informational interview. You add value to them by making a recommendation. And so on. You never stop networking. 

That’s how you move things forward from getting referrals to getting interviews. 

You have to actively invest in your professional relationships to ensure you stay at the top of the minds of the people you interact with. 

The ball is never in your connection’s court. You can’t say “well, we had a great informational interview, now I will just wait until they contact me with a job offer.”

It’s always your job to follow up, to push things forward.

5. Interviewing but not getting any job offers

The final pitfall PhDs face is getting interviews but not getting any job offers.

You will overcome this by increasing your perceived value and avoiding early negotiation missteps.

If you’re interviewing but not getting job offers, it’s because you’re failing to convey the value you bring to the table. Hiring managers have met you but they’re not convinced about your potential.

That’s why you have to increase your perceived value. You have to increase your professional awareness and show them that you’re the best candidate for the role.

At the same time, you need to understand the rules of salary negotiation.

Chances are that you’re doing something that is decreasing your perceived value because you don’t understand how salary negotiation actually works, or that it starts very early during the interview process.

Once you increase your perceived value, you will be able to overcome the final pitfall and will finally have the coveted job offer in your hands.

Concluding Remarks

All PhDs will face pitfalls during their job search. But the more you can anticipate those pitfalls and pivot your strategy, the faster you’ll be able to move on and keep advancing your career. Here are the 5 most common pitfalls you will face in your job search and how to overcome each of them. If you don’t know where to start, focus on establishing your desired professional lifestyle. If you’re uploading resumes but not getting any responses, focus on networking so you can get your resume in the hands of recruiters and hiring managers. If you’re networking but not getting any referrals, stop asking for help and start asking for informational interviews. If you’re getting referrals but not interviews, focus on networking rather than just connection. If you’re interviewing but not getting any job offers, focus on increasing your perceived value.

 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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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of 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. Hankel 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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