Here’s How To Get Hired When You Don’t Meet All Of The Job Requirements

How to get hired without meeting all job requirements

Written by: Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

To apply, or not to apply?

That was the question.

When I started to look for jobs outside academia, online job sites and job boards were my go-to option.

I knew I wanted a position away from the bench, but I felt that a research scientist position was the only thing I was qualified for.

At least, partially qualified for.

Even research scientist positions asked for previous industry experience.

How is one supposed to get industry experience when every job description asked for previous industry experience?

Was this one of those chicken-or-egg brain teasers set up by hiring managers to ward off academics?

I felt embarrassed at even the thought of applying.

I imagined someone reading my resume and laughing while feeding it through the shredder.

I felt like a joke and I hadn’t even applied yet.

It seemed like a complete waste of my time because it just seemed like a hopeless set-up.

Maybe the only thing I was qualified for was an internship or an academic postdoc.

I even thought about offering to volunteer my time at big pharma companies.

I had no sense of the value I could bring to a company — when in fact, all the transferable skills I obtained during my PhD made me the ideal job candidate.

I just didn’t realize it.

As soon as I saw a checklist of requirements that I couldn’t tick off 100%, I wouldn’t even bother applying.

It wasn’t until I started networking with industry professionals that I learned how foolish I really was.

No job candidate ever ticked 100% of the boxes.

Not only that, but hiring managers will choose someone who is a better fit culturally over someone with all the technical qualifications.

I didn’t even know what I didn’t know and it was holding me back.

My imposter syndrome prevented me from seeing my own true worth.

My connections encouraged me to apply for roles I thought I wouldn’t have a chance getting.

I followed their advice and got the call for an industry interview…

Transferrable skills are more important than meeting all of the job requirements

Why You Don’t Have To Meet All The Job Requirements

Job descriptions are created by hiring managers and human resources departments; people who rarely, if ever, have done the actual job they are recruiting for.

They create it based on a fictitious persona of the perfect employee.

Based on a list of technical skills that someone left on their desk for the job.

A checklist of skills with some added guesswork and imagination.

Just enough to create a job description that will attract top talent while warding off those who are completely unqualified.

The truth is, despite the checklist, a company would rather hire someone who has key transferable skills and is a good cultural fit irrespective of their experience, than just someone who meets every requirement on the list.

Why?

Transferable skills take time (and resources) to teach and some people will never be able to grasp them.

A recent Wall Street Journal survey of nearly 900 executives found that 92% believed transferable skills were equally or more important than technical skills, although harder to come by.

Luckily, as PhDs, we have mastered many transferable skills directly related to industry careers.

Cultural fit equates to higher employee retention and higher productivity.

Employees who match the company goals will want to work for that company for longer and work more efficiently.

Happy employees are good employees.

Unfortunately, too many PhDs take the job requirements too literally and are scared off applying for roles where their prior experience has otherwise aptly prepared them.

Get hired even when there is a large number of job applicants

How To Get An Industry Job Without Matching The Requirements

For every corporate position posted online there is an average 250 applicants and, for larger companies, often up to 2,000-3,000 applicants.

Don’t let this deter you.

No matter how many degrees you have, or how many years of industry experience you have under your belt, you will never meet all the job requirements in a given posting.

Most of the applicants won’t meet all the requirements either.

Remember, the job posting is merely a hiring manager wish list.

They are meant to attract only the cream of the crop.

That means YOU.

PhDs are valuable to industry hiring managers, even if they don’t currently have any industry experience.

Unfortunately, PhDs often lack the confidence and know-how to prove it.

The following 3 strategies will help you get hired, even if you don’t meet all the job requirements to start…

Look for keywords in the job description

1. Research what a typical day on the job looks like.

You have found a job description that piques your interest.

It’s time to separate your desire to have a job, any job, from the actual reality of doing the specific job you’re interested in.

Can you see yourself in this role?

Read through the job description carefully and try to piece together a typical day in the office.

Go a step further — set up informational interviews with employees who are currently in this role and ask them what a day in their life looks like.

Now go through your previous experiences and determine which current strengths you can apply to perform well in this position.

Hint: ignore the bonus requirements in the job description.

If you have them, great — if not, don’t lose sleep over them.

Most importantly, suss out what part of the job is non-negotiable.

Then, make sure you highlight this skill on your resume and during phone screens, video calls, and the site visit.

In particular, make sure you highlight the previous experiences that indicate you will perform the job well.

Use keywords from the job description and weed out anything in your industry resume that is not directly related to the role.

Use these keywords during the interview too — always be speaking the language of your employer.

Curb the urge to fill your resume and interview answers with other accomplishments to make up for the fact that you do not have all the job requirements.

The hiring manager won’t bother searching through your resume to find out which experiences are related to the job.

They never search.

They only skim.

If they have to search, they’ll just move on to the next candidate.

Tailor your resume and don’t be afraid of white space.

When it comes time for the interview, focus on your strengths and the non-negotiables for the position.

Don’t get caught up in the minutia and don’t stress over the requirements that you don’t meet.

Instead, keep the conversation focused on your strengths, not your weaknesses.

2. Highlight your transferable skills on paper and in person.

Applying for research-based roles can cause PhDs a lot of frustration.

You have found your dream company and the ideal position, but the list of technical skills is a mile long.

You know that being an expert in Western Blotting means you can easily pick up the skill to perform an ELISA.

So how do you communicate that you’re the best candidate for the job, and that you just need a chance?

Through your transferable skills.

Identify other strengths that will put you on equal footing.

Touch on experiences where you quickly learned new skills which led to business-savvy results.

For example: staying on budget, increasing efficiency, or displaying innovation.

Project management roles often call for applicants with previous project management experience.

Even if you are not officially working as a project manager, you have used this skill to efficiently manage your own projects.

You had to complete projects in a timely fashion to generate publishable data.

You need to highlight these skills.

You need to get comfortable highlighting these skills and get confident in talking about them.

Don’t simply list the skills and expect the hiring manager to believe you.

Give evidence and show them you can achieve results that will translate into business.

Write an amazing cover letter where you paint a picture of what you have done well and highlight that you have learned what the company wants and can deliver these results.

3. Get a referral from a current employee concerning your job skills.

If you don’t fit the mold of a typical job candidate but are confident you can do the job, and do it well, your best option is always to find an internal referral.

For PhDs, this may seem more arduous than reworking a resume a hundred times over, but it guarantees a positive result.

An inside connection will vouch for your work ethic and your qualifications better than anything you can write on a resume.

The key is to not wait until the job is posted online.

Start networking early and target companies that are of interest to you.

Attend similar networking events, connect with them through LinkedIn, and ask for introductions through mutual connections.

Put your referral’s name in the first line of your cover letter.

Make sure it stands out as the first thing the hiring manager reads.

You’ve worked to provide value to gain an inside track — don’t be afraid to use it.

Some online applications even ask how you heard about the opening, at which point you can also indicate an internal connection.

Best case scenario, your referral hands your resume directly to the hiring manager.

An internal referral like this will compensate for nearly anything you lack in terms of not meeting the job requirements.

The increasing popularity of online job boards and job sites means that the number of applicants per posting is increasing exponentially. Job descriptions posted for these jobs are a wish list of traits the hiring manager is looking for, but doesn’t necessarily expect all the applicants to possess. Many PhDs make the mistake of assuming that they must have all of those traits to even apply — so they don’t. Don’t make this mistake. Your PhD has prepared you for industry, whether you meet every requirement in a job description or not. You must learn to adapt your resume and interviewing strategies accordingly, highlighting your transferable skills and showcasing your prior experiences that highlight your business acumen.

To learn more about getting a job without meeting all of the requirements, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and currently works as a publishing editor in Cambridge, England where she is involved in peer review of scientific literature as well as writing and public speaking. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and allowing access of scientific research to the public. She is also a steering member in the Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology in both industry and academia.
Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.
  • Julian Holst

    I’ve always gotten bad advice about this, it seems. I’ve never bothered applying for a position unless I could check off all the required skills (which really cut me out of a lot of possibilities). Now I can clearly understand why all the transferable skills are so important. Not only does it take longer to learn them, but some people will never really grasp them. It’s actually a huge relief and eye-opener to realize this. 🙂

    • Cathy Sorbara

      YES! I am so happy to hear this Julian – I definitely missed out on opportunities in the past for fear of not ticking all the boxes but I can tell you, from life on the other side, that if you have the transferable skills, you will be far ahead of the competition 🙂

  • Madeline Rosemary

    Cathy, you are a genius. I’ve probably been missing the boat on a lot of opportunities for advancement because I never knew this before. Thanks!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Madeline!

  • Kathy Azalea

    I can see that self-confidence plays a bigger role than I thought, even if you’re just talking about filling out the application and tailoring the resume. I’ve been doing exactly what you said not to do — adding all these little extras that I think will make up for whatever I think I don’t have. Wow, what a mistake. Maybe they can smell the fear behind all that “busyness”!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      LOL – exactly Kathy! Self-confidence goes a long way and I think, even in a resume, it is clear to see who has the confidence to do the role and who is simply hoping to catch a break.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    I’m really glad you’re stressing the point of doing the networking early. I think that making person-to-person contacts is by far the best thing you can do to start learning more about the individual companies and the kinds of jobs you’re going to be getting. How else can you really figure out what a typical day looks like and whether you would fit in? There’s a double reward – some of the people you meet during networking will become close and lasting friends. This makes the search a lot more fun and sustainable over time.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Definitely Carlie – there are many new hires which leave their jobs within the first year because they did not realise what the job entails. If we are going to make the jump into the corporate world, we need to know what we are getting ourselves into so we can succeed, and have fun doing it!

  • SARTHAK JAIN

    Right on. Excellent article, I have just finished my PhD and have started looking for jobs. This article is an eye opener. I knew there is more PhD than publishing. The management of projects is the key success. Thanks again 🙂

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Sarthak and congrats on finishing your PhD! What types of roles are you interested in?

      • SARTHAK JAIN

        Thank you very much. I have been thinking a lot about the roles I see myself in. I m definitely leaning away from bench work and inclining towards project management. I am Half way through ’20 Transferable Skills for PhDs’ (impressed and highly recommended) and feeling more confident about applying to management jobs. I am not sure yet about the experience criteria but I have experience managing multiple successful projects (7 pub and 1 patent) during my master’s and PhD. I am curious how academic project management is perceived in industry.

        • Cathy Sorbara

          Hi Sarthak! Many of our Cheeky Scientist Associates have transitioned into project management roles by only having prior project management experience in academia. As long as you can describe your results in terms of a business, you can show employers you have the business acumen and experience to do the job and do it well. Do you have a large industry network yet?

          • SARTHAK JAIN

            HI Cathy,

            That is a welcome relief. I have been hustling my network bt I just moved to USA so I am definitely lacking a large industry network. I am looking for help with my Resume, cover letter and growing my industrial network.

          • Cathy Sorbara

            Exciting! I would love to help you further. Is there an email that I can contact you at to continue this conversation? Alternatively you can contact me at catherine@cheekyscientist.com. All the best!

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I love what you’re saying about simply listing a skill doesn’t mean that the hiring manager will believe it. Yes, there’s a skill entailed in putting your best foot forward and proving your worth to someone else. I think a lot of people conflate that with pushiness or arrogance.

    In reality, it’s perfectly okay to know your strengths, mention them, and prove them in the context of applying for a position. It’s not something you’re automatically going to learn in a culture that’s asking you to be humble all your life, so pay attention to people who know how to do it.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Absolutely Matthew – valuable comment as always! Building credibility is important at every stage of the job application process. That is what will set you apart from the rest of the candidates (and is why everyone uses the infamous STAR technique to answer interview questions!)

  • Shawn Lyons

    I clearly need to mine the value out of my PhD. Somewhere along the way, I started measuring my success as being a success in academia, and forgot about my original goal, which was using my skills to benefit people and make a good living in the private sector.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Happy to hear you say that Shawn – there is a lot you can do in the private sector to accomplish those goals. What stage of your transition are you in now?

      • Shawn Lyons

        Actively looking for a position now that I got the PhD, which is what led me to this site.

        • Cathy Sorbara

          Great! Well let me know if there is something specific you are stuck on – networking, interviews, resumes – and I would be happy to help! You can also reach out to me at catherine@cheekyscientist.com

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    You’re right, this whole process is a lot more arduous than doing and re-doing resumes. I have to keep reminding myself that it isn’t for short-term gain, but for a long-term life benefit.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Absolutely Marvin – you have to put your energy in the right place. Resume writing may appear to be time well spent but it is preventing you from the valuable aspects of the job hunt – networking!

  • Sonja Luther

    I’ve used plenty of job boards before, and sometimes got some responses, but most of those never led to anything valuable. Most of my successes in job searches came from in-person meetings, referrals, and warm leads.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thanks for mentioning this Sonja – it is such a great point and something many people struggle with believing!

  • Harvey Delano

    Reading these articles makes the job of finding a position a lot more understandable. I used to wonder what magic people were working to get jobs even though they didn’t seem any more qualified than I was. This is really helping.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Fab! I am happy to hear that Harvey!

  • Theo

    Cathy, it’s a lot of work, but you make it seem fun.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Definitely Theo 🙂