7 Career Killing Mistakes PhDs Make That Keep Them Poor And Unhappy
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
I wasted the first four years of graduate school focusing on nothing but my research.
I thought that if I worked hard in the lab and made my advisor happy that I would have plenty of jobs lined up by the time I graduated.
I was wrong.
As the last year of my graduate school career inched closer, I slowly realized that I was facing a dead end with zero options. Soon…
Panic set in.
I quickly wrote up an industry resume and started sending it blindly to every biotech and biopharmaceutical job opening I could find online.
I uploaded my resume over 200 times and heard back from exactly zero companies.
I guess I just assumed that scientific companies would fall all over themselves trying to hire me once I had a PhD.
No so much.
After I defended my thesis, I realized that getting my PhD was just the beginning of an even bigger challenge—getting my first industry job.
The problem as I didn’t have any training for this challenge.
I’d never taken any classes in business, industry, job training, or professional development.
I’d never had a business lunch or made any real industry connections whatsoever.
I was lost.
How could I possibly not have a job lined up after getting my PhD?
The Hard Truth About Your Academic Career
According to a report by the Atlantic, greater than 60% of PhDs and greater than 80% of Life Science PhDs will NOT have a paying job at graduation.
Another report by the Royal Society showed that less than 1% of PhDs will go on to be tenured professors.
There’s a myth in academia, perpetuated by other (mostly unhappy) academics that says you can only be a successful PhD if you become a tenured professor and continue to publish in academic journals.
This myth survives by encouraging young PhDs to look down on anyone who expresses a desire to leave academia.
As a result…
A negative feedback loop exists in academia.
Once you’re in the system, the system keeps you there by refusing to prepare you for anything else, including an industry job.
You’re told over and over again that nothing else but staying in academia is respected.
You’re told over and over again that you can’t do anything else—that there is nothing else.
The academic system makes you so dependent that you get used to being treated poorly.
You also become helpless.
Instead of developing the skills you need to get a real job industry, you start developing negative traits.
You become self-entitled.
You become scared.
You become lazy.
This may sound harsh but it’s reality.
7 Career Mistakes To Avoid That Keep PhD Students Jobless
If you’re waiting for someone to come save you from academia and line up a great industry job for you, you’re going to be waiting a long time.
The only way to get your career back on track is to take matters into your own hands.
You must realize that the biggest obstacle between you and getting the industry job of your dreams is yourself.
It’s your own bad attitude and bad habits that will keep you as an unemployed PhD after graduation, nothing else.
Stop blaming other people for your situation and start blaming yourself.
Make a decision today to quit making the following 7 career killing mistakes that keep PhD students jobless at graduation….
Mistake #1 – Spending extensive amounts of time writing a thesis.
Your thesis is a means to an end, it’s not a work of art.
Too many PhD students turn the molehill of writing a 100+ page summary of their research into a mountain of publishing the next A Brief History of Time.
Don’t do this.
Instead, see your thesis for what it really is—a stepping stone to getting your first industry job.
Your goal should be to get your thesis done as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality.
No matter who you are or what your research entails, this document should take no more than 2-4 weeks once you have your data collated at 4-5 hours a day of writing.
The rest of your time should be spent on wrapping up experiments and, most importantly, networking and applying to industry jobs.
Mistake #2 – Writing a bloated, self-indulgent resume that no one will ever read.
Most PhD students have no idea how to write a quality resume for recruiters or hiring managers.
So, they do what PhDs do best—research.
They Google “how to write a resume” online and read a few academic blogs and then start putting their skills down on paper.
The problem is that most of the people writing these academic blogs are lifetime academics or journal editors who have never had an industry job and certainly don’t know how to write a proper industry resume.
As a result, these PhD students squeeze thousands of words about everything they’ve ever done in the lab onto 3-5 pages and start uploading these pages to job sites.
Not surprisingly, no one responds.
The truth is employers don’t care about your daily duties in the lab, your publications, or the name of the protein you’re characterizing.
All they care about is the results you’ve achieved.
Most industry resumes are read in 5-7 seconds.
This means that you need to write a resume that can be easily skimmed from top to bottom (not left to right) in a very short amount of time.
Mistake #3 – Believing your cherished publications will mean something in the real world.
Your publications don’t mean anything in the real world.
I know, it hurts. But it’s the truth.
Your publications don’t even matter for industry R&D positions.
Sure, there might be one or two hiring managers out there who will swear until they’re blue in the face that they care about your publications, but these hiring managers are part of a very outdated minority.
Do you really think your first author Journal of Who Cares paper is going to get you an industry job?
How? What do you think is going to happen?
Do you imagine the hiring manager sitting across from you at the table, looking at your resume, and saying, “Wow, I didn’t realize you were published in this journal! You’re hired!”
If you want to have a job when you graduate, stop obsessing over getting that last publication out and start focusing on networking with the right people.
Mistake #4 – Being too self-entitled to create and execute a real networking strategy.
“I have a PhD. I shouldn’t have to network to get an industry job.”
Unfortunately, this is the attitude of most PhD students.
Too many PhDs have been told for far too long how important and noble it is to work in an academic lab.
The truth is academic lab work is nearly worthless in the real world.
Don’t believe me?
Then why do 7th year postdoc gets paid less than average librarians ($55,272 versus $56,370, respectively).
It’s simple supply and demand.
There are way to many academic PhDs for the amount of academic lab work that needs to be done.
Stop feeling special. Stop waiting to be chosen.
Instead, get to work.
Start creating a real networking strategy that will get you the industry job of your choice.
First, use sites like Meetup.com and Eventbrite.com to find both PhD and non-PhD networking events in your area.
Aim to go to 2-3 live networking events a week and log these events in your calendar ahead of time.
Second, email or call the host of each networking event beforehand so you have at least one new connection before you arrive.
Third, set one goal to walk out of each event with the contact details of 3 new connections and set a second goal follow-up with each of these connections within 24 hours of the event.
Mistake #5 – Never leaving the lab to go to seminars, conferences, job fairs, and daytime networking events.
One of the biggest mistakes PhD students can make, especially during their last year of graduate school, is working overtime in the lab.
It’s easy to feel like working extra hard during this time will help you graduate faster.
It’s easy to feel like working overtime will please your academic advisor so he or she will support you during your defense and give you a glowing letter of recommendation afterwards.
It’s also easy to stick to the same old routine of chasing publications and playing politics.
The problem is that every minute you spend in the lab is one less minute you have to spend on lining up an industry job.
You’ve been trained to care about nothing but doing experiments.
Your advisor has conditioned you to feel guilty for any time you spend not doing experiments.
Now, you feel like a bad person whenever you’re not in the lab working.
Stop feeling this way. Stop feeling obligated to advance your academic advisor’s career and not your own.
Instead, start going to as many internal and external seminars, conferences, job fairs, and daytime networking events as you can find.
If you’re advisor gives you a hard time for it, create a schedule of the career related events you want to attend and hold a meeting with your advisor and your department to explain why going to these events is important for your career.
Realize that your advisor cannot stop you from networking and going to career-related events.
Sure, he or she can threaten you and make your life uncomfortable in the lab, but there’s nothing else they can do to hold you back.
The key is to be open and transparent about the events you want to attend and to lean on your department and other graduate school’s administrators for support.
Mistake #6 – Kissing up to an academic advisor to secure a letter of recommendation.
By the time you enter your last year of graduate school, your academic advisor becomes ultimately powerless in terms of advancing your career.
This can be both a good and a bad thing.
It’s a good thing because it means your advisor can do very little to hold your career back.
It’s a bad thing because it means your advisor can do very little to move your career forward.
Your advisor is likely a lifelong academic, which means he or she has very few (if any) industry connections.
Depending on your University and program, you’ve likely passed your comprehensive exam or other qualifying exam by your last year of graduate school.
This further limits your advisor’s power over you.
Now, the most your advisor can do is play passive aggressive games.
He or she might try withholding support, making you look incompetent, or alienating you from other members of the lab.
These efforts are both sad and showing.
If you come up against this, simply keep a record of everything that’s happening and schedule a meeting with your department, dean, and graduate school counselor.
This will put your advisor on his or her heels and give you room to wrap up your work and apply to industry jobs.
During your last year of graduate school, or whenever you decide to leave academia, your relationship with your advisor will likely become stressed.
The biggest cause of this stress is you wanting to leave the lab and keep your advisor happy at the same time.
This is nearly impossible.
For one reason or another, most advisors will not be happy to see you go.
Don’t rely on your advisor to advance your career. Instead, cut the cord and take matters into your own hands.
Realize that you are going to have to get an industry job all by yourself.
Mistake #7 – Being too much of a coward to cold call recruiters and hiring managers.
PhD’s are more capable of dealing with failure than any other professionals on the planet.
PhD’s are also very skilled at working hard under high amounts of pressure.
They have to meet hard deadlines, manage multiple projects at once, and present their findings in front of other intelligent doctors who are trained to find holes in their logic.
Yet, most PhD’s are afraid of stepping outside of their specific domain of knowledge.
They’re afraid of looking stupid to anyone outside of academia.
As a result, most PhD’s have never picked up the phone to cold call a recruiter or hiring manager to inquire about an industry position.
This is nonsense.
If you can handle the pressure of having your data and logic ridiculed by reviewers, professors, and your peers, you can certainly get on the phone and introduce yourself to a stranger.
Especially a stranger whose job it is to find candidates for open industry job positions.
If you refuse to cold call someone to ask about open job position, you deserve to stay stuck in academia.
You deserve it because you’re refusing to step outside of your comfort zone and improve your interpersonal skills.
You deserve it because you’re refusing to try.
If you try and fail—that’s okay.
To not try at all is unacceptable.
The next time you see an industry position that might be a good fit for you, get on Google or LinkedIn and find out who the hiring manager or recruiter is for that position.
Then, get on the phone and make the call.
Most PhD’s will be unemployed at graduation. You do not have to be one of these PhD’s. Instead you can be the PhD who successfully transitions into industry by creating a strong networking strategy and executing it during your last year of graduate school. The key is to stop relying on your advisor and start relying on yourself. Take time to craft a succinct and results-oriented industry resume that hiring managers and recruiters will actually read. Then, step outside of your comfort zone and give these people a call.
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