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Getting A PhD And Want An Industry Job? Stop Listening To These 3 People

Getting A PhDWritten by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

My carefully planned conversation started to unravel as soon as I sat down with my academic advisor. He looked at me with his hurry up eyes and said, “What did you want to meet about?” I looked down and sputtered out a few sentence fragments and then finally replied, “I’ve been thinking about getting a job in industry.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect next. Half of me expected him to bang his fist on the table and shout no, no, no, it can’t be—please don’t leave academia. The other half of me wanted him to shake my hand and pat me on the back and say great job and then give me detailed plan on how to transition. Neither happened. He said, “Okay, anything else?” I was confused. Why didn’t he care?

A few days later I asked him if he could help me transition into industry, he said sorry, but he didn’t know how. To be fair, he was right. He knew nothing about industry. It makes sense now but at the time I was shocked. I thought my advisor was all-knowing and all-powerful. What do you mean you don’t know how? The conversation ended and the rest of my graduate school career was awkward. My academic advisor disowned me. He resented me too. I’m not sure if he looked down on industry or if he looked down on me for wanting to go into industry. Or maybe he just felt disconnected to me because I wanted to go into a field that he knew nothing about. I wasn’t really sure.

Looking For Advice In All The Wrong Places

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that when it came to transitioning into industry, I’d have to turn to someone other than my advisor for advice. So, I told two of my committee members that I wanted to get a job in industry. One committee member met with me briefly and told me to make sure my CV was up to date and then to send it out to open positions online. He told me to post it to Monster and a few other career websites too. The very next day I sent out my updated CV to over 50 different job postings by 31 different companies. I remember the number 31 because it was the 31st of July. I figured I’d hear back from at least half of the companies by the middle of August. I never heard back from any of them.

After the first committee members’ advice came up short, I went to the second committee member. This professor was very well connected and put me in touch with a high-level journal editor who used to work in his lab. My committee member sent a short introductory email and, well …that was it. When I talked to the journal editor on the phone, his advice was to go to PhD networking events. But I had already been going to networking events for months listening to other PhDs who wanted the same jobs as me talk about nothing but themselves and their research. Before I ended the call with the journal editor, I asked him if he had ever worked in industry. He said no. I hung up the phone.

I didn’t know where to go from here so I started calling my friends who all had various jobs in business. I called one of my stockbroker friends and he told me to start taking lunch meetings. I called another friend who worked in accounting for a Fortune 500 company and he told me to get on a recruiter’s list. How was I supposed to find a recruiter? How was I supposed to take people out to lunch when I was in the lab all day? My friends did their best but they couldn’t relate to me. They didn’t understand my current academic lifestyle and struggled to relate to me. Having been in school for over 20 years, I was in a very unique position. I needed nonacademic advice from an academic point of view. Was this even possible?

Industry Job PhD

Beware These 3 People When Seeking Industry Advice

Navigating the bridge from academia to industry is not easy, especially for PhDs. It’s hard to know where to start. You can save a lot of time, energy, and frustration by ignoring the advice of people who have no idea what they’re talking about. If you want a PhD-level job in industry, avoid taking industry advice from these 3 people:

1. Lifelong Academics

Do not limit yourself to the advice of lifelong academics when seeking an industry job. By definition, lifelong academics have never held an industry job. They’ve gone from graduate school or some other advanced degree program to professorship without working for any businesses in between.

If you’re a PhD who has yet to get a job in industry, why would you seek industry advice from other PhDs who have never worked in industry? What valuable advice could a postdoc or professor give you, other than what not to do? It doesn’t matter how many books or articles these people have read about working in industry—reading books is not the same as real world experience. And when it comes to working in industry, real world experience is all that matters.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should completely ignore all career advice from lifetime academics. Many Universities have career counselors who make a living helping students transition into industry. These people can be very helpful and you should utilize their advice if it’s available to you. Do not, however, follow their advice blindly. Make sure that they have actual experience in industry or they at least have a strong track record of placing academics into industry positions.

2. Scientific Journal Editors

Since scientific journal editors have a big say in whether or not your journal articles get published, it’s easy to think that they should have a say in how you transition into industry. But this line of thinking is a mistake. Journal editors are not almighty. Just because they can influence the topics that get into their journals does not mean they have any influence over you getting an industry position. Likewise, just because they have the inside track on which articles will get published, it doesn’t mean they have the inside tracking getting an industry position.

The truth is many scientific journal editors have little or no industry experience. Yet, these same people are using their platforms to give academics advice on getting into industry. They jump into LinkedIn Group conversations and write detailed answers to topics they personally know nothing about. As if holding an editorial position for Science or Nature is the same as being the CEO of Merck or GlaxoKlineSmith.

Don’t be misled by fake gatekeepers. Instead, seek advice from people who have worked in industry themselves. This applies to anyone writing articles or answering professional questions online—if they don’t have first-hand experience, ignore them.

3. Non-Academics

If you have a PhD and want an industry job, do not rely too much on advice from people who have never pursued an advanced degree. Do not blindly take advice from people just because they have what you want to have. Just because they get paid more than you (for now), doesn’t mean they know what’s best for you. Instead, seek out people who have been through what you’ve been through and have what you want to have. This combination of shared experience and insider knowledge is extremely valuable.

Most people underestimate the value of shared experiences. There’s a reason that large biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies hire PhDs for sales and marketing positions—it’s because PhDs have the same experience as these companies’ PhD clients. Likewise, you should seek advice from people who have the same experience as you.

The trials that you have gone through on your way to your PhD, MS or any other advanced degree are exceptionally unique (and valuable). Someone who has never navigated their way through the upper echelons of the ivory tower will not understand this. They will not understand your needs and aspirations, nor will they understand the advantages and disadvantages you have. Most importantly, they won’t understand which transferable skills you have or how to leverage them.

Broaden your network. Find people with similar backgrounds who have accomplished what you’re trying to accomplish now. Whether these people are alumni from your University, LinkedIn contacts, or industry consultants, they will have the tools to help leverage your unique strengths to get an industry position of your choice.

To learn more about transitioning into a non-academic career, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, join the Cheeky Scientist Association. 

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Isaiah Hankel


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