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Escape The Academic Echo Chamber: Your PhD Belongs In The Real World

After careful consideration, we’ve decided to move forward with candidates whose qualifications and experience more closely align with the requirements of this particular role.

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I can’t forget the sinking feeling in my stomach I’d get whenever I opened my email. 

Every day, at least once a day, I would find myself scrolling through yet another rejection email. 

After years of groundbreaking research, publications in top journals, and even a prestigious postdoc, I couldn’t understand why industry employers weren’t beating down my door. 

It felt like my hard-earned PhD was working against me, not for me.

Sound familiar? 

If you’re a PhD struggling to break into industry, you’re not alone. 

The harsh truth is, many of us fall victim to the “postdoc trap,” believing that more academic experience is the golden ticket to a fulfilling career. 

But what if I told you that staying in academia longer could actually be hurting your chances of landing that dream industry job?

Here’s the thing: industry isn’t looking for another lifetime academic. 

Whether you realize it or not yet, there is a vast difference between lived, working experience and the kind of work you’re doing as a postdoc. 

Employers know this. 

Why? 

Because they’ve made the “mistake” of hiring recent grads before, and they discovered firsthand that postdocs don’t understand the culture shift. 

It’s not PhDs that industry employers don’t want – your degree is a huge get for most industry employers. But they aren’t looking for a PhD who wants to bring academia into the office with them. 

They want PhDs who are adaptable, eager to learn, and ready to tackle real-world problems. 

And the longer you stay in the ivory tower, the more you risk being pigeonholed as an “overqualified” specialist with limited practical experience.

So, if you’re ready to break free from the academic grind and unlock your true potential in industry, keep reading. 

It’s time to debunk the myth of more academic experience and discover why transitioning sooner rather than later is the smartest move you can make for your career.

The Myth Of More Academic Experience

“I’ll finish my postdoc contract first, then I’ll worry about getting hired in industry. I don’t have time to do both.” 

This is what a PhD in the middle of their second two-year postdoc told me. 

“I’ll be able to get more jobs in industry with this postdoc experience,” they continued. “My advisor and I talked about it.” 

Let’s unpack this: 

Your academic advisor made you feel good about doing another postdoc so they could benefit from the dirt-cheap labor? 

Big surprise. 

I didn’t say that out loud, but maybe I should have. 

Because, after talking to this PhD, they have since signed on for their third postdoc. 

Academia tells you that you need more academic experience in order to be successful in industry. 

That’s how they frame these postdoc opportunities and other experiential positions – a great opportunity for you.

Not only is this a major distortion of the truth, but it’s a giant disservice to your career. 

Many PhDs stay in academia after graduating, anchored in place by this logic:

“Once I get this experience, then (and only then) will I be qualified for an industry position.” 

This mindset often results in PhDs spending years chasing one low-paying, overworked academic position after another. 

They justify it to themselves – something we’re used to doing as PhDs. “I just need to put in this work and then I’ll be successful.

I just have to get “one more” publication. One more grant.

One more experience that’ll be really valuable to industry employers. 

But the numbers make a compelling case to the contrary.

A recent survey found that nearly half of the postdocs polled reported being in a postdoc position for over three years with one-third saying they had already completed two or three postdocs. 

And it’s not a secret. Universities know their postdocs are overworked and underpaid

Why would you want to remain in a system that tells you, even after years of experience, that your talents are not worthy of a well-paid permanent position? 

It’s Time To Put Your Postdoc Days Behind You

If you want to land a job in industry, there’s no need to wait in this holding pattern. 

Start planning your transition now. 

In fact, the longer you stay in academia, the more you hurt your chances of landing your ideal job. 

Because the truth is, many companies prefer hiring PhDs straight out of grad school. 

The less time you spend in academia after your PhD, the more open-minded, eager to learn, and flexible employers see you.

The alternative? 

You run the risk of being prejudged as overqualified – a lifetime academic at heart and not suited to the rigors of a corporate career. 

I know what you’re thinking: That’s not true. 

I’m sure [insert the name of your dream company here] will hold my academic accomplishments in high regard. 

But you’re mistaken. 

Recent data showing that 87% of hiring managers have a Bachelor’s degree or less – and far less than half a percent have a doctorate of any kind. 

And a survey from Intelligent revealed that, in 2024, a whopping 45% of companies plan to eliminate a bachelor’s degree from their list of minimum requirements. 

So of course hiring managers are going to feel hesitant to hire someone who is so much more educated than they are. 

Someone who may not listen to them or take them seriously – someone who is going to question the status quo. 

No, the truth is that leadership really wants a team who will just do what they’re told. 

Of course, you won’t hear hiring managers saying this. 

Too many PhDs make the mistake of thinking that a hiring manager is your friend – someone you can trust.

They are not your friend. 

They work for a company, not you. 

So the only way to get your resume noticed and to get interviews, and then get hired, is to focus relentlessly on making these hiring managers comfortable.

This means communicating only what they care about and only in a way that elevates them, not you. 

5 Ways Academia Is Sabotaging Your Future Career In Industry

There are so many reasons why you should skip the postdoc, the adjunct or the faculty position altogether – but there are five that really stand out.

The first reason is that in industry, on-the-job training is far more valuable than any amount of additional time spent in academia. 

Even if you’ve done an experiment, lesson plan or procedure a hundred times, companies have their own proprietary standard operating procedures that they will need to train you on.

They’ll also most likely have their own instruments, reagents, software tools and more. 

A second reason: academia will always move slower, be more stagnant, and have more biases than industry. 

Many of you can attest to the snail’s pace at which academic work moves, and understand how difficult it is to see your progress. 

There’s a stereotype that individuals who have spent a considerable amount of time in academia might struggle to adapt to the culture and pace of industry work. 

The academic system is stuck in its ways, and it resists change. 

Industry, on the other hand, must keep up with the latest innovations and market trends, so it can’t afford to move at this snail-like pace. 

Because timing and speed are everything in industry, projects have a higher risk-reward pay off. 

No more spending years in a silo pursuing stagnant research questions that produce zero results. 

In industry, your efforts will produce measurable results. 

You’ll receive the feedback required to grow. 

And perhaps most importantly, your hard work will be recognized. 

Third, employers are concerned that PhDs, especially those who have never left academia after getting their PhD, lack practical experience in applying their knowledge to real-world business problems. 

This gap can make them less attractive compared to PhDs who are ready to get industry experience right after graduation; those who are perceived as being ready and able to hit the ground running. 

A fourth risk for PhDs who remain in academia too long is the potential for financial underestimation. 

Industry positions offer much higher salaries compared to academic roles, but a long academic career may lead to lower salary offers, as employers might base them on academic pay scales rather than industry standards. 

In other words, if you’re willing to get paid less for five years after your PhD, an industry employer will use this against you. 

An article in Nature Biotechnology showed just that: those who stayed in a postdoc longer got paid less and less in terms of their first starting industry salary the longer they stayed in a postdoc prior to transitioning into industry. 

Stagnanting skills, missed opportunities, financial devaluation and – worst of all – that hard-to-shake perception that you’re far too qualified for “normal” work – all this and more awaits you at the start date of your next postdoc.

Industry Needs PhDs As Much As PhDs Need Industry

This might sound like a whole lot of gloom and doom, but there is a flip side to this coin. 

Yes, you are at a very ironic disadvantage: the one thing that sets you apart from almost every candidate is also the biggest wild card, from an employer’s perspective. 

But having a PhD absolutely makes you more valuable in today’s job market. 

The problems businesses face in today’s economy are more complex and interconnected than ever before.

PhDs are trained to tackle these multifaceted issues with critical thinking and deep analysis, making them invaluable assets in any industry. 

The data revolution has transformed the job market. 

PhDs, with their extensive experience in data analysis, statistical methods, and scientific research, are perfectly equipped to navigate and lead in this data-driven landscape. 

Companies constantly seek innovation to stay competitive. 

PhDs are at the forefront of research and development, bringing fresh perspectives and cutting-edge knowledge to drive innovation in various sectors. 

We possess a unique blend of skills that transcend disciplines. 

From project management to communication, our expertise isn’t just about deep technical knowledge. 

It’s also about the ability to connect and collaborate across diverse fields. 

The explosion of biotech and tech industries has created a plethora of opportunities for PhDs. 

These sectors value the specialized knowledge and research skills that PhDs bring to the table. 

In a globalized economy, the ability to understand and navigate different cultural and intellectual landscapes is crucial. 

PhDs, often with international experience and education, are well-suited to this global outlook.

Your PhD isn’t just a degree; it’s a testament to your ability to think deeply, solve complex problems, and drive innovation. 

In today’s job market, these skills are more sought after than ever. 

Do This To Put A Hiring Manager’s Mind At Ease

Communicate differently – starting with your resume. 

A complex resume filled with every detail of a long and successful career can sometimes overwhelm hiring managers. 

Even worse, it can reinforce stereotypes about overqualification. 

To combat this, consider a resume that highlights skills and experiences directly relevant to the job you’re applying for. 

Limit your professional experience to only what is relevant to the job at hand – what’s fresh and pertinent. 

This can help shift the focus from being overeducated or overqualified to your relevant abilities and how they align with the company’s current needs. 

Instead of listing high-level academic titles that might be intimidating (and yes, postdoc or PhD student is a high level academic title), modify them to reflect the role you’re applying for. 

For example, if you were a postdoc, you might list yourself as a project leader. 

This emphasizes your hands-on skills rather than your academic titles that most hiring managers don’t deeply understand anyway. 

Mention any recent training or certifications that show your commitment to staying updated with industry trends, underscoring your willingness to adapt and learn, rather than command.

 Next, adopt a much more modest communication style. 

When interacting with potential employers, whether in your cover letter, interview, or follow-up communications, simplicity and humility go a long way. 

Be conversational, not intellectually commanding or overly academic in your word choice. 

Use a friendly and approachable tone, and simpler words. 

Express enthusiasm for the role and the team, rather than focusing solely on your past achievements. 

And make sure you listen actively. 

Demonstrate your willingness to learn from others, regardless of their education level. Show respect for the interviewer’s insights and express interest in the current team’s strategies and achievements. 

Be sure to articulate flexibility and versatility too. 

Make it clear that you are eager to adapt and integrate into the existing company culture. 

Tell them outright that you will do what they say and they won’t have to tell you twice to execute an assignment either. 

That’s right – you want to demonstrate teachability rather than authority. 

Reassure them that your vast experience brings a flexible, problem-solving mindset that knows how to listen and learn, not a rigid, know-it-all attitude. 

But DON’T Do Any Of These Things

Most of the things you’ve been leading with up to this point aren’t going to help you get hired in industry – your publications, your postdoc, the name brand of the school. 

Knowing two or three people in industry is a good start, but today’s market is competitive and being connected to thousands on LinkedIn and making new connections daily, getting referrals for multiple people weekly, and dozens and dozens of referrals overall – real referrals, not just referral links and referral codes – that’s what it takes today. 

There are many reasons that some PhDs don’t get ignored in today’s job market.

One of the primary reasons PhD resumes get overlooked is the lack of tailoring. 

Many PhDs make the mistake of using a generic resume for multiple job applications without customizing it to match the specific requirements of each role. 

Others make the mistake of “targeting” the resume by adding a handful of keywords from the job posting once each. 

The reality is you need to have the keywords at a certain keyword density, ideally 0.5% to 2% (so, the word “cross-functional collaboration” would need to be on an average two-page resume twice) for it to register with today’s AI filters. 

Second, PhDs often focus too much on their academic achievements and research experiences, neglecting to showcase transferable skills that are highly valued in industry settings. 

You should always aim to highlight your problem-solving abilities, project management skills, communication prowess, and leadership qualities, which are essential for success in diverse professional roles. 

Another common pitfall is the lack of quantifiable achievements on resumes.

Hiring managers are impressed by tangible results and measurable impacts, which is why you should quantify your accomplishments using metrics, percentages, or dollar figures whenever possible to demonstrate the value they bring to an organization.

The fourth reason is poor formatting and presentation. 

A cluttered or poorly formatted resume can quickly turn off hiring managers. Instead, a clean, professional layout with clear sections and bullet points to improve readability is recommended. 

Including a professional summary at the beginning is a great way to grab the attention of the hiring manager and provide a quick overview of your qualifications. 

Finally, networking and personal branding play a crucial role in getting your PhD resume noticed. 

All PhDs should work to build a strong professional network, engage in informational interviews, and develop a compelling personal brand through online platforms like LinkedIn to enhance their visibility and attract job opportunities. 

Conclusion

The good news is, no matter how long you’ve been in academia, the best time to make your transition is now. Don’t let those rejection emails discourage you. Instead, let them fuel your determination to break free from the misconceptions and limitations of the academic world.

Your PhD is an incredible asset, packed with valuable skills and knowledge that industry desperately needs. But to unlock your full potential, you need to understand the game. You need to tailor your message, showcase your adaptability, and prioritize real-world experience over academic accolades.

Don’t wait until your skills stagnate, your salary plateaus, or you’re seen as too academic to contribute meaningfully. Start your transition today. Embrace the challenge, learn the industry’s language, and position yourself as the adaptable problem-solver you truly are.

Remember, the industry isn’t just a fallback option; it’s a world of opportunity waiting for your unique expertise. Your PhD can be your ticket to a rewarding, lucrative, and impactful career—if you’re willing to step outside of the academic bubble and into a future where your knowledge and skills are truly valued.

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ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD

CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS

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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