Escape Bench Work And Finally Get Paid More Than Your Undergraduate Friends

I slammed the -80°C freezer shut and slowly walked out of the lab. It was midnight and I was exhausted. Another 18-hour day was behind me and all I could think about was going to bed so I could wake up and do it again.

In a twisted way I liked the grind of science. The hard work, obsessiveness over the data, and continual learning were addicting. And I felt a sense of nobility and pride over the fact that I made almost no money. But, after a while, I started thinking about where this lifestyle was taking me. Was I always going to be working slavish hours for the rest of my life? Was I going to be broke the rest of my life?

Is Benchwork Manual Labor? Maybe Not, But It Sure Is Cheap

It’s not that I didn’t like working at the bench. I did. I loved doing experiments. The problem was that, when I really thought about it, I realized that doing experiments is really just glorified manual labor. It wasn’t the same kind of manual labor as digging ditches, of course, but it was labor—and cheap labor at that. My advisor would tell me what experiments to do and I would run along and do them. Sure, I learned to think on my own and design my own experiments, but I was still the one who had to carry them out. If I didn’t make a change, I would be doing nothing more than pushing a pipette for the rest of my life. 

If I stayed at the bench in academia, my best-case scenario would be to work for several more years as a postdoc—working twice as hard and earning nearly the same amount of money as I earned as a graduate student (but with fewer health benefits). Then, if I worked really hard and got really lucky, I’d get an assistant professor position where I’d have to basically kill myself and go against lottery-esque odds to get tenure.

I Did His Homework, Now He’s Rich And I’m Poor

Like most students, I had some kind of mental breakdown every few weeks in graduate school and resolve to do something else with my life. Sometimes this breakdown would happen after my advisor came down on me hard. Other times it would come after talking to my undergraduate friends, who always seemed to be on the fast-track to success.

One friend, who came to me on a weekly basis in college because he needed help writing his essays, started his own video production business. He struggled his first year but then made over 80K in profit his second year. Why was I struggling to pay rent while he was making 80K? Another friend started working as a broker on Wall Street. Within three years he started his own firm and was about to buy his third house. My other friend who went into medical device sales bought three houses too—within two years of graduating college.

I had one friend who, like me, stayed in academia. He decided to go to Pharmacy school. It was the beginning of my 4th year of graduate school when he called to tell me that he just signed a 100K/year contract with a 25K signing bonus. I wanted to cry into the batch of LB I was making.

Dead End Career Path

3 Things You Can Do To Escape An Academic Dead End

I know you shouldn’t compare yourself to other people. It’s not healthy, everyone’s path is different, comparing two career paths is like comparing apples to oranges—I get all that. And I know I’m not mentioning all of the kids I went to college with who didn’t get jobs. But, you do have to look up and look around you from time to time. Otherwise, you’ll end up stuck at a dead end in your career path.

The hard truth is that academic positions are disappearing and the ones who are left don’t come with the same benefits that they used to. The best thing PhDs can do for their careers right now is increase the number of overall career options they have. Even if you want to stay in academia, you should NOT limit yourself to staying in academia. You should identify your transferable skills, develop new skill sets, and position yourself for success at or away from the bench.

Whether or not you want to transition into a research, applications, sales, marketing, management, or some other position in industry, the time to start preparing is now. Here are 3 things you can do to prepare:

1. Forget the myth of the successful professor.

There were one or two professors at the top of the food chain at my University who seemed to have it made. They were well-funded and spent their days writing, traveling around the world to give seminars, and engaging in fun scientific discussions. I admired these professors and they stood out as examples of what was possible. Over time, however, I realized that these examples were mirages. They were fake. The truth is the academic system today is much different than it was when these golden professors received tenure.

Today, the odds are stacked against new PhDs more than ever before. Less than 1% of PhDs will go on to be professors. Less than 1%! Even if you beat these outrageous odds and become a professor, you have a 70% chance of NOT getting tenure. Now consider the fact that in today’s world only 57% of doctoral students will get their PhD within 10 years of starting graduate school. Thousands of PhDs around the world are spending a decade or more of their prime working years chasing something that doesn’t exist. Are you one of these PhDs?

2. Invest in business training now, not later.

The number of PhDs who have a job after graduation is below 40%. The number of Life Sciences PhDs who will have a job at graduation is below 20%. This means that 60-80% of PhD graduates are unemployed at graduation. As a result, they scramble to find postdocs and accept insulting salaries out of desperation. If you don’t develop other skills—interpersonal skills, negotiation skills, public speaking skills, sales and marketing skills, management skills—you will drastically limit your options.

People without options have to accept whatever they’re offered, no matter how bad the offer is. They have to work for 42K a year with little or no health benefits while their less educated peers make 100K a year with premium health packages. That’s the best-case scenario. Most will remain unemployed and have to file for food stamps and other government programs. It doesn’t have to be this way. If you think ahead, you can start developing skills that will increase your options and position you to transition easily into other career tracks. 

PhDs who refuse to think ahead will continue to grind it out and have trouble paying rent and buying food—let alone paying for something like a new car or a vacation. Their only option will be to work unreasonably hard, do exactly what they’re told, and have no other option but to complain about the situation they’re in.

3. Develop a sense of initiative and urgency.

The nature of academia is to carefully pursue hypotheses, consider every option, and plan obsessively. These positive scientific qualities are the same negative qualities that hold PhDs back in their careers.

When it comes to getting a competitive job and getting paid a good salary, you have to operate with a sense of initiative and urgency. No one is going to come along and give you a great job opportunity. You are going to have to hunt for it. You’re going to have to learn how to network, seek out exclusive groups to get insider information, attend courses aimed at improving your business acumen and interpersonal skills, on and on. These can’t be things that are on the bottom of your to-do list. Increasing your career options should always come first.

Finishing one last experiment, doing one more hour of online research, talking to one more person—all of these things can wait. You must start taking action on the behalf of your overall career, not just the next carrot you’re chasing. The time to expand your skills and position yourself for business success is now.

You’ve already waited too long. Thousands of PhDs are currently unemployed or underemployed—all of them wondering why. Are you one of these PhDs? Are you going to be one of them?

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

Book a Transition Call
Get Free Job Search Content Weekly

ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD

CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS

Isaiah Hankel, PhD is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 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. Isaiah Hankel received his doctorate in Anatomy & Cell Biology with a focus in immunology and is an expert on biotechnology recruitment and career development.

Isaiah has published two bestselling books with Wiley and 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 About Photo

Similar Articles

5 Miscalculations That Are Holding You Hostage In Academia

5 Miscalculations That Are Holding You Hostage In Academia

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

As a PhD student, I felt more and more lost the closer I came to graduation. That’s because I had started to doubt that I knew what I wanted anymore. You could say I was torn, but that would be an understatement. I was absolutely wracked with indecision. My original plan had been to continue on in academia.  I was going to apply for a postdoc.  Then on to Assistant Professor.  And so on. However, I was starting to see a real pattern emerge among the PhD graduates I knew. I liked to check in periodically with those colleagues and…

Is Cheeky Scientist A Scam? Who Shouldn't Join The Association

Is Cheeky Scientist A Scam? Who Shouldn't Join The Association

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Is Cheeky Scientist a scam?   Has anyone here had any experience with the Cheeky Scientist Association? Is Cheeky Scientist worth it?  What’s the deal with Cheeky Scientist? Is Cheeky Scientist legit? PhDs are trained to be critical.  In academia and in life, every decision they’re faced with is made with extreme prejudice. Examining facts, collecting resources, and determining what is a trustworthy source of information is one of their biggest strengths.  PhDs have superior critical thinking skills, so it makes sense for them to carefully consider any investment – even if it’s an investment in themselves. And in almost every…

Should You Delete Your PhD From Your Resume? The Answer May Surprise You

Should You Delete Your PhD From Your Resume? The Answer May Surprise You

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If you have a PhD, you’re overqualified for an industry job. PhDs are lab rats and can’t understand business. You can’t get a job without industry experience. Do any of these sentences sound familiar to you? Have you been looking for an industry job unsuccessfully and have reached a point where you ask yourself if your PhD has any value whatsoever? These sentences are myths, commonly said by either academics who don’t understand anything about industry, or by other job candidates who don’t want to compete with PhDs. Hiring managers for PhD-level industry positions want the best candidates possible. After…

4 Skills PhDs Have That Employers Are Desperately Seeking

4 Skills PhDs Have That Employers Are Desperately Seeking

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

The number of PhDs wanting to transition out of academia increases every year. Initially, most of these PhDs were recent graduates and postdocs.  But as the crisis in academia has gotten worse, we are seeing a lot of adjunct and even tenured professors wanting to leave. They feel professionally unfulfilled in academic positions because they are overworked, work in uninspiring roles, and/or are paid marginal academic stipends, fellowships, and wages.  Far too many PhDs are unable to find any meaning or joy in their academic careers, which negatively impacts both their professional and personal lives. Unfortunately, many of these PhDs end up…

The Exciting (or, Dreadful) First 90 Days Of A New Job. Here's What To Expect

The Exciting (or, Dreadful) First 90 Days Of A New Job. Here's What To Expect

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Like many PhDs, I thought I could jump into my first industry position ready to hit the ground running. Much to my surprise, this was not the case.   During the first few months of my new position, I felt like I was drowning. Everything I thought I knew about my field, how research is conducted, and how companies operate was turned on its head. I was not prepared for this major shift, and it showed. I waivered between trying to impress my managers and sitting mute in meetings, intimidated by everyone in the room. If I had known what…

The Inside Scoop On The Industry Onboarding Process

The Inside Scoop On The Industry Onboarding Process

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Nothing could prepare me for the shock I received walking into my first industry onboarding experience. Literally, everything was different from what I had experienced in academia. The processes, the culture, the pace – absolutely everything. I also had no idea what onboarding meant. I heard the word tossed around but, to me, it was just the process you went through to get all the mandatory paperwork out of the way. That was so far from the truth. My first onboarding experience lasted almost 6 months. Yet, throughout that whole process, I had no idea that I was still being…

The One Productivity Hack Every PhD Needs To Get Hired In Industry

The One Productivity Hack Every PhD Needs To Get Hired In Industry

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If your job search isn’t producing results, perhaps you’re doing too little. Or, just as likely, you’re doing too much… too much of the wrong things. You may think “If I just spent more hours of the day searching and applying for jobs, I’m sure to land a job eventually.” But investing more time into a job search without a strategy is time wasted. An effective job search strategy is one that conserves our most precious resource: our mental energy.   Protecting your mental energy is the one productivity hack that every PhD needs to get hired in industry. As…

3 Factors PhDs Must Consider When Deciding Company Fit

3 Factors PhDs Must Consider When Deciding Company Fit

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If you recently started your job search, you probably feel the pressure of proving that you’re a good fit for the industry roles you’re applying to.  You have to carefully craft your cover letter, resume, and LinkedIn profile, and prepare for countless interviews just to prove you’re  qualified for a position.  This pressure can make you feel that employers hold all the power, and the only thing that matters is convincing them that you’re the best candidate for the role. Don’t let this pressure make you neglect other key components of a successful career, like company fit.  You’ll likely accept…

8 Work Qualities PhDs Should Assess When Planning A Career Move

8 Work Qualities PhDs Should Assess When Planning A Career Move

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If you have a PhD, you’re among the 2% of the population who has committed to push a field of knowledge forward.  That makes you one of the most innovative people in the world. This is something special. As such, you deserve to work in a position where your tenacity and ability to solve problems are out of good use. Where you feel satisfied and are rewarded for your job. That’s why I encourage all PhDs to look for an industry position, because academia is a dead end where dreams go to die. However, you have to be strategic when…

Top Industry Career eBooks

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel

The LinkedIn tips & strategies within have helped PhDs from every background get hired into top industry careers.

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD & Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Learn about the best 63 industry careers for PhDs (regardless of your academic background). In this eBook, you will gain insight into the most popular, highest-paying jobs for PhDs – all of which will allow you to do meaningful work AND get paid well for it.

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Learn how to craft the perfect industry resume to attract employers. In this eBook for PhDs, you will get access to proven resume templates, learn how to structure your bullet points, and discover which keywords industry employers want to see most on PhD resumes.