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7 Ways To Keep Your Job Search Alive In A Recession

PhD in a recession

Contributing Author: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I’ve lost a job.

I was offered a contract, and they pulled it back.

Everybody is ignoring me on LinkedIn now. 

I was communicating with somebody about an upcoming interview, and now they’re not replying to my emails.

My postdoc is not going to be renewed. 

This is the kind of message I’ve been getting from countless PhDs all over the world.

The recession has made things challenging for everyone.

A lot of PhDs thought academia was going to take care of them, but they’ve found out the hard way that it isn’t true.

For weeks now, I’ve been warning PhDs that academia is going to initiate spending freezes. 

It’s happening even at the most renowned institutions with the largest endowments, like Cornell University.

Things have been good until now – we were in a hiring boom for PhDs, and that makes this current hiring freeze all the more difficult.

Companies would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on online job ads. 

Now, they’re no longer spending the majority of their budgets on hiring. 

So how does a PhD get a job in a market like this?

I want to help PhDs across the world, and this blog will reveal a number of ways you can protect your career  and get hired during the recession.

First, let’s talk about the attitude you need to have if you want to get hired.

How Adversity Can Help Your Career In The Long Run

Adversity will reveal your character – it always does.

Tough times will tell you more about people than most other settings.

But that doesn’t mean you’re helpless in difficult situations.

You still have some control over what’s revealed.

Everyone has an inner strength to draw from, and you can allow that to reveal itself during this recession.

It can be easy to be negative, and that’s why most people will resort to negativity – you’ve probably already noticed this on social media and elsewhere.

But instead of revealing their negative side, PhDs need to focus on the positives.

As a PhD, you can handle ambiguity, uncertainty, hardships, and all kinds of other challenges.

A study from the Journal of Traumatic Stress defines “adversarial growth” as a “process of struggling with adversity…that propel[s] the individual to a higher level of functioning than that which existed prior to the event.”

In other words, you can grow and improve through adversity – this is the healthiest approach to a struggle. 

The one that successful people take.

The study also found that “optimism, cognitive processing, and positive affect were consistently associated with adversarial growth.”

Right now, success is all about staying positive, looking at the data, and making decisions based on the best available information.

Let your character—your true character as a PhD—shine through during this time.

You can’t just be negative all the time and suddenly put on a fake attitude during an interview.

Employers will see your character, so you have to adapt your behavior to grow in the recession period. 

Another study from the Journal of Applied Psychology found that something as small as positive body language can cause employers to see you as  a much better candidate during a job interview.

In this study, some participants practiced strong, positive “power poses” that included more open postures and more expansive resting positions.

These candidates were recorded giving speeches, and employers watched the recordings, noting to researchers which candidates they would hire.

Candidate participants “who prepared for the job interview with high- (vs. low-) power poses performed better and were more likely to be chosen for hire.”

Your body language, attitude, and success are all wrapped up together. 

Practice a good attitude, consistent drive, and strong posture because your employer will be looking for these things.

You know how to handle adversity. 

You can handle this and we’re going to help you get through it. 

At the same time, be gentle on yourself. 

If you’ve lost something, it’s totally normal to feel sadness or a sense of rejection.

If people stopped responding to you or you lost your job, grieving is healthy.

Remaining gentle on yourself and grieving can actually help you stay productive because you will avoid resentment and anger on the inside – don’t bottle these up.

7 Job-Search Changes That Keep Your Career Safe In A Recession

Right now, employers are looking to reduce risk. 

Before the pandemic happened, they were seeking growth.

When times are good, companies have a “growth mindset” – they want to advance into new sectors. 

They want to push the limit. 

But in a recession, it’s the complete opposite. 

They want to avoid risk. 

All they’re thinking about is risk mitigation. 

Also, they tend to downsize their hiring department during a crisis…

What can PhDs do to protect their career in a recession like this?

You can’t just assume the old ways will give the same results as before.

There are 7 things you have to change about your job search to get hired now.

1. Get to know the new economic landscape.

Cheeky Scientist has been through a recession before.

We’ve helped thousands of PhDs get hired. 

We’ve been through the hiring boom too – it was the highest hiring market ever.

Now, we’re back in a recession, and we’re still going to help you get hired. 

The landscape might change, but the core methodology is the same.

It just needs to be tweaked and revised.

You need to trust the process even more during a recession. 

That means you’ve got to go back to the basics.

You have to go back to networking. 

In a recession, the way you get hired is through employee referrals.

In the last couple of years, you could have skipped this part.

Maybe you were able to just upload a resume and get lucky. 

But the hiring market is not that good anymore. 

Now there’s an oversupply of job candidates, and companies can simply say to their employees, Hey, we’re looking for someone for this job. Let us know if you know anybody. 

In the recession of 2008, at least 70% of industry roles were filled through referrals.

That’s why networking will save your career right now – I can’t understate the importance of this point.

In spite of these data, some PhDs might say, I’m in academia, so I’m going to be protected in my job search or I’m going to be protected in my postdoc. 

But you won’t be protected because that’s not what the economic landscape looks like.

In 2008, academia tried to hide the fact that they were instituting spending freezes. 

They’ll call them “hiring freezes” or “salary adjustments.”

It’s a spending freeze, and it will amplify over time.

Many institutions will have to let go of all their postdocs. 

They’re going to let go of their TA’s. 

Those 2 groups go first, and then adjunct professorships, part-time contractors, etc. 

In 2008, a lot of tenured professorships were forced out – they were encouraged to leave during the financial crisis. 

What’s left after that? 

Usually, it’s the PhD students because they’re the cheapest. 

And they will have a lot of work dumped on top of them.

2. Understand the employer’s new perspective.

Some sectors of industry are still hiring and even growing, but employer motivation is different now.

People try to avoid pain and gain pleasure – the same is true of employers.

When things are very good and the hiring market is up, employers will hire based on the pursuit of pleasure.

They might bring somebody on because they want to expand and begin new initiatives.

They want to take chances and grow…

But all of that changes in a recession. 

People – including employers –  go from chasing pleasure to avoiding pain. 

During a recession, an employer’s greatest concern is risk mitigation.

They’re looking to avoid job candidates who are nervous or negative.

They will reject candidates who seem risky in any way, which is why it’s so important for you to have the right behavior while you are networking.

Practice looking at where the opportunities are and how you can come across as a solution-focused candidate. 

This will serve you immensely during the recession.

3. Show employers that you are not a “risky” candidate. 

Risk mitigation is something Cheeky Scientist trains PhDs on in many of our programs

It’s a very important part of industry because every company wants to mitigate risk. 

They want to cut expenses and make sure they don’t bring somebody on who disrupts their current team’s productivity. 

Disruptions in productivity mean disruptions in profits. 

This means you need to make sure that when you’re interviewing, or when you finally get a chance to talk to an employer, you’re coming across as a stable, positive person.

You need to look like somebody who will learn how to do things the right way.

Don’t come across like a “loose cannon” who tries to do everything on their own. 

A lot of PhDs make this mistake regardless of whether they’re in a recession or not. 

They want to hit the ground running and prove themselves.

So they use language like, I want to figure things out on my own or I’m a self starter or I have a lot of initiative. 

Steer away from that and instead say, I want to do things the way that the company does them. I want to learn the process correctly. I want to make sure I don’t skip any steps. 

Ask questions about regulations and company culture so that you come off as someone who wants to integrate smoothly and not impose any risks.

4. Showcase your project management skills.

Change management and project management are very important during recessions.

Right now, project management—especially virtual project management—is one of the careers that is really taking off right now. 

No matter what job you want to get into during a recession, you need to showcase your project management skills. 

Industry project management is different from academic project management. 

There is no project management in academia—not really. 

There’s no structured process. 

But in industry, you have to understand how budgets, timelines, and milestones connect to each other to form the scope of a project.

Read up on project scopes, different types of milestones, and other things that have to do with project management.

Everybody turns into a project manager during a recession because communication coordination becomes so important. 

When people are working virtually, it’s harder to coordinate them because they’re not in the same office. 

So by showing you understand project management, you make yourself a better candidate. 

Change management is just the “people” side of project management. 

It’s managing people’s emotions. 

When a company gets rid of half its team members, some people lose their friends.

When a company downsizes to a smaller office or a lab, people wonder, How am I going to get everything done in this small space? 

In an interview, you’re going to get a lot of questions on change management.

Show employers that you understand project management – find ways to work them into your resume and LinkedIn profile. 

5. Update your profiles with “avoid-pain” language.

You cannot use the same profile as usual to get hired in a recession. 

You have to use different language that demonstrates you’re not a risky candidate. 

You need to use more “avoid-pain language” – instead of focusing on how you’ll help a company grow and innovate, you want to focus on how you’re going to help a company avoid risk and pain. 

Companies want to avoid risk right now, and this should be your guiding principle throughout your job search.

Risk avoidance should come across in your speech, your resume, and your LinkedIn profile. 

You want to show them that you’re going to help the company avoid risk, not move toward it.

Companies are not keyed into words that have to do with going after pleasure. 

They’re keyed into words that have to do with staying away from risk. 

You need to express yourself in a way that shows employers that you are the least risky candidate. 

For example, you can write that you always stay on budget, that you always hit your timelines, and that you always communicate openly with your superiors.

Write that you never take matters into your own hands, that you communicate effectively with your cross-functional team members, or that you’re flexible enough to do whatever the company requires.

Write that you can make changes easily.

Indicate in every possible way that you will help to avoid any kind of disaster or setback.

6. Be an opportunist. 

Let’s talk about some of the career paths for PhDs that are surging right now.

Right now, medical writing is through the roof. 

We are in an era of information kind of warfare –  which news reports are correct?

Which data accurately represent science and world affairs right now?

Your PhD gives you significant credibility. 

You know how to seek out and evaluate information – you know whether or not it’s credible. 

Things like sample sizes and trends are part of your domain.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a social or life scientist, a chemist, physical scientist, engineer, or even a humanities PhD – you know how to research information, analyze it, and use it. 

Right now, with so many people working remotely, medical writers are needed. 

That’s the only way people can communicate—through online content. 

Medical writing should be your number-1 career safety net.

Obviously, medical affairs and regulatory affairs positions are increasing right now…

That’s because there’s going to be an explosion of drug development and clinical trials, especially in the sectors of infectious diseases, antivirals, etc. 

For years to come, this is going to be top of mind for companies.

To get hired, PhDs have to go where the opportunities are. 

Be flexible in the types of jobs you’re looking for. 

Medical science liaison positions are hot right now. 

Application scientist positions (like MSLs but for biotech companies) are hot too.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen application scientists get hired under various job titles. 

Analysts of all kinds are getting hired in a variety of industries:

  • Quantitative analyst
  • Business analyst
  • Business intelligence analyst
  • Competitive analyst
  • User experience analyst
  • R&D analyst
  • Lab analyst
  • Quality control analyst
  • Quality assurance analyst

PhDs are getting hired to do what all PhDs can do: analyze information and data. 

“Analyst” is the hottest word right now for PhDs. 

You need to include this word throughout your LinkedIn profile and your resume so that it makes it through the ATS software. 

You have to think about the new landscape and be opportunistic – tap into what’s hot right now. 

7. Bring out your “human side.”

Nobody’s responding to me. 

I can’t get any of my messages out. 

Nobody will follow up with me about the job. 

This can be very frustrating.

But at the same time, I’ve seen a lot of PhDs’ networking scripts…

Here’s what they tend to look like:

  • I was talking to you about a job. 
  • Why won’t you respond to me? 
  • Am I still having the interview? 

Don’t do this. 

This is a time where you should really get in touch with your humanity. 

We PhDs have always wanted to better humanity. 

The world  is going through a tough time.

Maybe some of you have noticed that now, when you’re outside and you see somebody else, you practice social distancing. 

You’re far away from each other, but more people are actually waving at each other. 

It’s almost like they’re happy to simply see another human being. 

In some ways, in person, people are being kinder. 

That’s something that you can tap into as well. 

Start identifying with the tough time that people and businesses are having. 

When you’re networking, ask about how the other person is doing. 

Ask them how they’re handling all of this craziness. 

In your subject line, ask, How are you holding up during the lockdown? 

We are social people. 

Even the strictest introverts among us are social people. 

Right now, showing humanity is your best way to get a reply or get a conversation going. 

You don’t want to be unprofessional, but get them to reply to you by showing them, Hey, I’m human too. I understand what’s going on. I really want to know how this is affecting you.

To learn more about being a leader in industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the waitlist for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

Isaiah Hankel


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