Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
Getting a great job is not just about doing the right things, it’s about not doing the wrong things.
I felt awkward and creepy as I walked up to a group of four other PhDs and reached out to shake one of their hands. I had a big goofy smile on my face to hide how uncomfortable I was. Someone else started talking and I relaxed a little. I kept trying to think of things to say but couldn’t come up with anything. Finally I said, “So, does anyone have a job lined up?” Everyone was silent for a second and then they all told me one by one that they were trying to get a job but weren’t having any luck. One was doing a postdoc, one had just received her PhD, and the other was working as a temporary research staffer for some biotech company. We were all at a PhDs In Business networking event. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. But just underneath all the chatter and fake smiling was a sense of desperation.
After I left the networking event, I put the all the business cards that people handed me into one of my desk drawers with plans to email a few of them the next day. I don’t think I ever looked at any of those cards again. Not because I didn’t like the people I met but because they were all looking for jobs too. I didn’t meet one employer or one person with an opportunity for me. To be fair, I didn’t offer any opportunities either. Maybe that was the problem. I spent months and months going to networking events and sending out resumes online. I thought I was doing everything I could. I was working hard. I was connecting with people. I was giving it my all. But I wasn’t giving it my all. I was just doing what everyone else was doing. It was only when I decided to do things differently that I got my first interview.
What Desperation Looks Like
My first interview was a nightmare. I put on a $75 suit that didn’t fit me right with one of those fat ties from the 1990’s and shoes that were a different color brown than my belt. I showed up and waited in the company’s lobby reviewing a list of interview questions that I pulled from the Internet. I recited canned answers in my head and thought, “Okay, I’m ready for this test. I’m going to get all the answers right.” The receptionist called my name and took me back to some large office where three people were sitting. They started asking me basic questions and I answered like a robot. Then I waited for them to ask more questions. There were a lot of uncomfortable silences but I wasn’t sure why. I thought they’d have more questions prepared. Why were they waiting for me to talk? Somehow I made it through the interview and got a call a week later with a very bad offer. The salary was almost twice as low as I was expecting. But, I took it anyway. Because I was desperate.
5 Things That Keep PhDs From Getting Jobs
Starting a new career can be a confusing process, especially if you’re transferring into a new industry. The path is especially difficult for PhDs trying to transition into a career in business. This is because the worlds of academia and business are very different. It’s also because most Universities offer little or no career training for graduate students. As a result, newly minted PhDs who opt out of academia are tossed into the business world with no clue how to navigate it. They’re given a few networking tips and told to send out resumes over and over again. But nothing happens. In fact, the number of PhDs who will have a business job at or soon after graduation is below 40%. And the number of Life Sciences PhDs who will have a business job at graduation is below 20%. The truth is most PhDs will never get a job in business even though they’re doing all the right things. The problem is they’re doing the wrong things too. The key to starting a great career in business learning what not to do. Here are 5 things to avoid:
1. Networking with your competitors only.
I went to just about every PhD jobs networking event on the planet. I went to Biologists In Business, PhD Entrepreneurs, PhDs In Industry, and so on. In terms of career advancement, I never got more than a handful of business cards out of these events. I made some connections and even made a friend or two, but this kind of networking never led to a job interview. In fact, I never even heard about a promising job opportunity at one of these events. I just heard about the jobs that other people wanted.
It wasn’t until I went to a meet-up for small business owners and artists with a friend that I heard about a job opportunity, which led to an interview. I remember thinking that this event was going to be a waste of time because it was an unusual combination of interests and because it was way outside the field I was interested in. Art—I thought—no thanks. But going turned out to be one of the best things I ever did.
Most PhDs network exclusively with other PhDs. That’s like dressing up as a needle and jumping into the middle of a haystack. You’re never going to be noticed at these events. You’ll never stand out. Everyone is just like you. Not only that, the people at these events want the exact same jobs as you. You’re not going to hear about any job opportunities because the other PhDs are going to keep those job opportunities to themselves. Now, consider going to a networking event outside of your direct field of interest. Let’s say you go to a meet-up for architects, lawyers, business executives, painters, real estate agents, etc. First, the people you meet are going to be impressed that you have a PhD. “Wow, a PhD, I haven’t met another doctor here before.” When’s the last time you heard that? You’ll never hear it in a crowd full of PhDs.
Second, because you’re different, you’ll be memorable. If someone at that event hears of a PhD-specific opportunity or knows of one already, they’re going to tell you. They have no reason not to tell you because their interests are different than your own. When networking, go to events where you’ll stand out and where you won’t be seen as a threat. As a side note, this is also one of the biggest reasons you should learn how to network in graduate school. When you’re student, no one sees you as a threat. But as soon as you enter the job market, you get a target put on your forehead. Now, no one wants to share information with you. Now, information comes at a price.
2. Inflating your title and your attitude.
After I got my PhD, I started taking on projects I thought would add to my resume. I did things like join a volunteer group, created a website, and started my first business. The business didn’t take off but I was really excited about it. I was nervous too—nervous that other people wouldn’t take me seriously. So, I made sure to tell everyone I met, at networking events or otherwise, that I was the CEO of my own company. Of course, this was absurd. You can’t be the CEO of a one-person-company. One person can’t even be considered a company. Still, I thought acting bigger than I was would help me stand out.
A lot of PhDs think playing up certain things on their resume or CV will help them connect with people at networking events and get a job. But it won’t. It just turns people off. Besides, if you have a PhD, it’s not a lack of hard skills or credibility that will keep you from getting a job in business. It’s a lack of communication skills and a limited network that will keep you from getting a job. Instead of inflating your title or acting defensive about what you’ve accomplished, be real. Talk about the real people and companies you’ve worked with or the real learning experiences you’ve had. Then talk about what you really want and what you’re willing to do to get it.
3. Waiting for other people to contact you.
I remember the first time an employer actually responded to me after I sent out my resume. I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do so I replied with a thank you and waiting patiently for them to message me back about an interview. I waited three weeks for their email. Yes—three weeks. I finally emailed them back to ask about the next step in the hiring process. The position has been filled. That’s what they wrote me. I was really confused. I was just as confused when a midlevel manager I met at a networking event never emailed me after saying he would. He told me he had an opportunity for me and would send me a message. I even gave him my business card. What happened?
No one is going to chase you down to get a job. This might happen later on in your career but not when you’re in graduate school or doing a postdoc. The ball is always in your court. It’s up to you and you alone to drive the hiring process forward. No one will do it for you. Especially if you’re trying to transition from academia to business. The fact that you’re changing industries adds a new, extra-heavy layer of inertia to the process. This means you’ll have to follow up with people you meet at networking events, follow up with hiring managers before interviews, follow up with them afterwards, follow up, follow up, follow up. Following up is the only activity that people in business respect. And it’s the only activity that will remove the many barriers standing between you and the job you want.
4. Be an interviewee and not an interviewer.
It took me about five interviews after graduate school to realize I was the one who was supposed to do the interviewing. Most PhDs prepare for interviews like they’re preparing for a test. They study up on potential questions they might get asked or they practice a short chalk talk, obsessing over formal inquiries they think they’ll get from the audience. The problem is that employers of top companies don’t care how you handle their questions as much as they care about how you handle yourself. No one is going to sit across from you with a big red buzzer waiting for you to give a wrong answer to some technical question. Employers don’t want to know if you can recite information, they want to know if you can you find problems, find solutions, and communicate them both effectively.
Getting an interview is an invitation to interview a company, not an invitation for you to be interviewed. The best way to show you can find the problems and solutions is to turn the tables on the interviewer. Don’t let them interview you. Interview them. Investigate them. Ask them about their company and the position you’re up for like you’re digging for gold. Seek out everything there is to know and really determine whether or not this job is right for you—not the other way around.
5. Undervaluing yourself.
While it’s true that you shouldn’t inflate yourself, you also shouldn’t tone yourself down. One of the postdocs I knew in graduate school told me over and over again how he wanted a job in industry because he was tired of getting paid next to nothing in academia. He talked about it for years. Then, suddenly, he was being interviewed for the head of R&D at a pharmaceutical company. He was really excited the day before the interview and then slightly depressed the day after the interview. “What happened?” I asked. It turned out that the company wanted him for the job but, when they saw how desperate he was to change careers, they gave him a very low salary offer. He took the salary offer without negotiating because he felt like this was the only job that wanted him.
If you don’t see yourself as valuable, why should anyone else see you as valuable? A lot of graduate students and postdocs go into interviews ready to accept anything that’s offered to them. This is a mistake. Employers can always tell if you’re desperate. They’re going to assume you’re desperate by default because you’ve been working for almost nothing in academia for years. It’s up to you to prove to them, and yourself, that you’re not desperate. You have to know your own value. Remember, you’re highly trained. You’re in the top 2% of the world in terms of education and academic training. The key is being confident in yourself and your worth without acting defensive or like you’re entitled to anything. This can be hard. Especially if you’ve been mistreated by your academic advisor or beat down by the academic system in anyway.
Put some time into understanding you’re worth and showing it in the right way. Start thinking and acting differently than most of the other PhDs who are trying to get a job in business. Go to networking events outside your field, follow up with people consistently, prepare for interviews as the interviewer—not the interviewee—and, most importantly, be yourself.
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Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.