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Does Your PhD Resume Spell A Bad Culture Fit?

One of the biggest reasons that I left academia was the constant negativity. 

Instead of collaboration, I was pitted against my fellow PhDs. The system forced us to compete against one another.

I couldn’t look to my advisors for support either. It was more trouble than it was worth to even get them to make time, and in the end, their “advice” was little more than common sense.

And that’s to say nothing of the wrath I’d face if I picked the wrong time to speak up or advocate for my research.

I persisted, though, and looked forward to applying for postdocs after graduation.

When I narrowed down my postdoc search, I started researching positions. I visited research sites. I even conducted a few informational interviews – no small feat for the introvert I used to be.

Eventually, I chose to apply at a lab that I thought would be a good fit. There seemed to be great mentorship in place and the team of researchers seemed capable and brilliant.

For the first time in a long time, I felt like there was an end in sight to the hardship I’d gotten so used to.

But it was just a month into my postdoc position that I realized the truth: any one academic environment is going to be the same as any other.

I could do all the research in the world on the dynamics within an academic lab, but it would never change the fact that in academia, competitive and unsupportive environments are the norm.

If I wanted a supportive environment, I needed to get out of academia.

I began to connect with other PhDs that had already transitioned from academia to industry.

As I networked with PhD professionals, a common theme emerged: everyone seemed to really love their job.

One thing they all said: they wish they would have left academia sooner.

Clearly, the culture in industry was much better than in academia.

What Is Company Culture?

The idea of organizational or company culture is not new. It’s been around since the 1950s, and its study began in earnest during the 1960s. 

Since the 1980s, the concept has become an integral part of any successful company’s business strategy. The term is synonymous now with a company’s character. 

Company culture is a term that describes the beliefs and behaviors of a company and its employees. It can describe how managers and their teams interact. Overarching values and priorities shape it. It is influenced by factors such as market culture, company size, nature of its products, and economic trends.

There are four categories of company culture: clan culture, adhocracy culture, market culture, and hierarchy culture

If you’re having trouble nailing down a target company’s values, explore these four types of company culture for clues about what seems to matter most to similar types of businesses.

Companies characterize their corporate culture in many ways. A company’s mission statement, for instance, is a powerful tool that summarizes a company’s daily goals and future-focused vision. 

Successful companies are looking for employees who can embody their core values. These are the cultural cornerstones and should be the “why” behind everything that a company does.

How a company lives its own values can be seen in its practices. In what ways do they reward their employees? How do they reinforce good results and correct less-than-great ones? 

And they subscribe to the old adage, “You are only as good as the company you keep.” The people that companies hire are ultimately ones that decision-makers believe can be good stewards of the brand and its values.

Why Employers Care About Company Culture

Companies invest a great deal of thought into their corporate culture, and for good reason.

Research has shown that companies that really embody their authentic values reap substantial rewards. It can increase a brand’s popularity with consumers, attract top talent, and ultimately lead to success and longevity.

A well-executed company culture can also:

  • Attract high-quality talent
  • Create and nurture a positive work environment
  • Motivate and engage employees
  • Contribute to higher employee retention
  • Help drive diversity 
  • Improve company-wide performance and productivity
  • Unite employees in a common, shared goal
  • Guide employees to goals and success on a micro and macro level

It makes sense, from a business standpoint, for employers to hire candidates that are willing to buy into their corporate culture. 

Employees who enjoy their work tend to be more productive and perform at higher levels. They’re more likely to refer to other talented candidates, and they’re also more likely to stick around.

If hiring managers get a sense that you gel with their company culture, they trust you are more likely to constructively respond to their leadership style, feel satisfied in the way you receive feedback, feel supported by your team, and care about the company’s success.

5 Steps To Proving You Align With Any Company’s Culture

Companies have been screening you for company fit, whether you pick up the signs or not, as soon as you begin your job search. You’ll find their screening in the form of questions such as: 

  • Describe a time when you had to work with someone difficult.
  • What motivates you at work?
  • Why should we hire you for this position?
  • What excites you about your current job?
  • Can you describe, as you understand it, our company culture?
  • Which one of our company’s core values do you least identify with?
  • How would you handle criticism from a colleague who wasn’t your boss?

If you want to nail your job interview, understanding how business is done at your target company is crucial – especially as a PhD transitioning from academia to industry.

Follow these 5 steps to discover what’s important to your target companies and deliver proof that those things are also important to you.

Step 1: Find Out What A Company’s Culture And Values Are

I strongly recommend that you begin your company culture research on LinkedIn. 

First, read the company’s page from top to bottom. Take note of any descriptive words in the About section that seem relevant to its character. 

Explore any recent account activity on LinkedIn as well. What is this company talking about? What information is it sharing for other professionals to see? Farm keywords from these posts and plant them into your resume and cover letter to increase your visibility to key decision-makers and hiring managers.

Visit the People tab to see if you have a direct connection to anyone who works there. (If you do, LinkedIn should show you on the landing page for the business.) Jump in and review what some employees have shared about their position in their profile. Take notes. 

Go a step further and research a business’s competitors on LinkedIn. Find the sidebar on that company’s LinkedIn profile that reads “Pages people also viewed” and click on these. This can provide you with an idea of who your company is competing against. It’s also a great resource in trying to pin down what the industry you’re targeting values on a global scale.

Another step you should take is to investigate reviews of the company. See what employees have to say about working there. Try to determine what this employer’s pain points might be in their talent acquisition and address, in your cover letter and during the interview process, what they’ve been looking for in other candidates. 

Companies don’t always know how to articulate what they’re looking for, but, by reading between the lines in employee reviews, you may be able to pinpoint what that is. And that is a great selling point.

Step 2: Study The Job Posting For Clues

Now that you have scoured the company’s site and LinkedIn, it’s time to go back to the job description. This is a critical resource. It is essential to include keywords directly from the job description if you want your resume to make it past tough applicant tracking systems. 

It’s also important to study the job description because it’s what drew you to this company in the first place. Here is where you’ll find the reasons that you, personally, think this position and this company is a good fit. 

PhDs are so attuned to research that they can sometimes get caught up in this exercise. They make it more complicated than it needs to be.

For instance:

  • There is nothing to decode in a job description. A little critical thinking is okay (they want someone punctual, so in the past they may have had trouble with employees who weren’t), but don’t try and turn a simple job description into the DaVinci Code. 
  • You don’t need to reword the job description, either – no one is going to accuse you of plagiarizing or being unoriginal. They are literally looking for those exact same words.
  • You should make relatively quick work of this company fact-finding and apply the same day you find the advertisement. Applying for a job should not take you a full week. 

You can use any free word cloud application online to find the keywords you’re looking for. Plug the job description into the text box and it will give you a visual depiction of the words that appear most frequently. Larger words appear more frequently; smaller words, less so.

Another free resource that presents numerical, not visual data, is a search engine optimization tool. Plug your job description into the input box and the application will quantify which keywords appear with the highest percentage in your job description. 

Once you have a list of keywords and notes, it’s time to use them. 

Include them in your LinkedIn profile: your summary, experience section, and even headline. 

Absolutely put them in your resume too. The professional summary, experience and skill sections are all perfect options.

Your cover letter and thank-you email are also a great place to reinforce your skills and drop those keywords. Don’t try to stuff them unnaturally into your correspondence, but do aim to include 5 to 10. 

Step 3: Draw Connections Between Your Experience And The Company

Understanding your target company’s culture is key to assessing whether or not you are a good fit for the role. It’s also the best way to help you assess whether or not this company is a good fit for you. 

If you don’t syncopate with a business’s values and don’t have anything in common with your potential coworkers, you’re setting yourself up for failure. 

Think of it like this: You can have all the experience the requirement asks for and fit the job description to a T, but if you don’t mesh with the people or the place, applying is a waste of everyone’s time.

So, once you’ve spent some time thinking critically about what it takes to thrive at this particular company, brainstorm examples from your academic experience that tick those boxes.

Take one of Cheeky Scientist’s core values, for instance: ‘On it’ Speed. If you were applying for a position here, this information isn’t easy to find. But, if you took the time to connect with an employee on LinkedIn and asked them about some of our values, this one would surely come up. 

You could also ask your interviewer about Cheeky Scientist core values at the end of your interview. Companies will not think this is nosey or rude or forward – they will appreciate that you are taking the time to not just sell yourself, but to buy into their company culture and values. For us, it means that our team hustles hard for our members and works, with a sense of urgency, to propel their progress, not stand in the way of their forward momentum.

From here, you’ll take what you learned during this informational or actual interview and reiterate it. You could mention your sense of urgency led you to success in your PhD research in a cover letter. Or you could slip a mention of how one of the reasons you applied was that core values like acting quickly and confidently resonated with you because that’s how you prefer to work. 

But it’s not enough to just know and understand a company’s values. You need to anchor it to you and your experience in some way. Find an example that proves you care about these values. 

Step 4: Quantify Accomplishments To Reinforce Your Qualifications

Data is powerful. You’re a PhD – I don’t need to tell you this. Data drives decisions in research and also in business. 

If you want to drive home that you can deliver what a company’s looking for, quantifiable results are key. 

PhDs who haven’t graduated yet, I strongly advise you to make quantifiable results a priority for you. Keep a small, pocket-sized notebook handy so that you can make note of your accomplishments. 

Time and money are easy targets. Did you help a project finish on time or ahead of schedule? Have you been awarded a grant or research funding? Did you conduct or lead research that led to a new discovery? 

Challenge yourself to start taking stock of what you’re doing, the skills it takes to achieve it, and the end result. Not only is it an incredible asset during your job search, but it also helps to stifle imposter syndrome and keep you from feeling discouraged or depressed.

PhDs that I work with often express frustration about this part of the process. Imposter syndrome and the passing of time can leave some PhDs feeling like they don’t have anything to show for their years of work. 

This is ludicrous, of course. 

You have a mountain of skills and hundreds of victories to draw on. It just takes time to pull them to the surface. 

For inspiration, do an internet search for quantifiable results. Cheeky Scientist’s blog and radio show have many posts about this topic to guide you. 

Also, spend time on LinkedIn searching for other employees in the positions you’re targeting. Observe which quantifiable achievements they use. Do you have any similar results you can share? 

Remember, sharing concrete results is not bragging or boastful. It’s expected in your industry job search.

Step 5: Tie It All Together In Your Resume, Cover Letter, And Thank-You Email

Quantifiable results are most impactful when they’re anchored to a transferable as well as a technical skill. You’ll want to include all of these in your resume, cover letter, and thank-you email to tie everything you’ve learned about company culture together in your job search.

In your resume: 

The perfect experience section bullet point or professional summary for your resume is made up of a bullet point that follows this formula:

Transferable Skill + Niche Skill + Quantifiable Result

Here’s an example:

Excellent teamwork and collaboration skills demonstrated by managing a multifaceted biochemical research project, resulting in the development of 3 international collaborations and $1.2 million in grant funding.

And another: 

High-level strategic planner with experience analyzing large scientific datasets as demonstrated by the optimization of 5 high-throughput methodologies, resulting in 2 new medical treatments.

In examples like these, you can see skills like “teamwork” and “collaboration” alongside “analysis” and “grant funding.” These are keywords plucked straight from the job description.

These bullet points belong to a resume that made it past an applicant tracking system and into a hiring manager’s hands.

In your cover letter:

In your cover letter, don’t just regurgitate the exact same information from your resume. You can absolutely still highlight quantifiable results as well as key skills, but take a more conversational tone.

Your cover letter should convey your excitement about the position and focus on the company. This is basically the spot for your research about the company’s culture to shine through. 

Summarize what makes you such a great candidate and convince the hiring manager to give you a call.

You want to restate your enthusiasm for the company and the position you’re applying for. The end of your cover letter is also a great place to include important details that didn’t fit elsewhere. 

For example: 

“I’m eager to learn more about how my passion for analytics can translate into optimized marketing spend and lower turnover for Coca-Cola’s advertising team. I hope you and I will get a chance to speak soon about the Data Analyst opportunity and what it takes to achieve in this position.”

If you don’t mention specifics about the role in your closing, focus on transferable skills instead. 

“When you have time, I look forward to learning more about how I can leverage my passion for creative problem-solving and experience with startup culture to further Expedia’s mission of inclusivity and innovation.”

Remember recruiters and hiring managers want to hire candidates who align with the company culture. Focusing on what you’ve learned about the company and how you have skills that align with its culture is a great way to end your cover letter.

In your thank-you email:

After your interview, a follow-up or thank-you email is the perfect place to hit home that you’re not just a great employee, but a great addition to that specific company. 

I know what you’re thinking: what else can I possibly say? How many times can I hit an employer with proof that I’m a good fit before it’s overkill?

But this is your last chance to make sure that this employer feels like you’re the unicorn they’ve been looking for. You’re highly educated, you have years of experience, and you believe in what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. 

That’s why I recommend you use this post-interview message to include one company culture fit point. 

How to choose the one that’s right for you is highly individualized. It all depends on what you conversed about, the rapport you created, and the elements of company culture that you discussed or observed.

Quantifiable results are great to include here as well, but remember that not all elements of company culture can be measured in numbers or percentages. 

The best way to ask employers what they’re looking for when it comes to company culture is to ask them. “What qualities does a successful candidate need to thrive in this role?”

Take note of their answers and recite those facts back to them in your thank-you email. Talk about the qualities they mentioned really resonated with you. Mention that one of your favorite experiences in academia reminds you of a value they discussed. 

You don’t need to be heavy-handed to make your point. But it’s only by addressing both your skills and your character that you’ll convince an employer you’re the right person for the role you’ve applied to.

Concluding Remarks

You can see evidence of a company’s culture in everything it does. Once you know what to look for, you’ll start to gravitate to positions and companies that have qualities in close alignment to your own. A company’s culture is evident in its value systems, management strategies, employee communications and relations, work environment, and attitude. It’s often illustrated on the About Us page of a company by its origin story. By demonstrating that you are a) aware of a brand’s key characteristics and b) are a good match for their organization based on your understanding of those characteristics, you’re giving yourself a definitive and serious edge over other candidates. 

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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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