How PhDs Can Use Job Boards, Internal Referrals, And Recruiters To Get Industry Jobs

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Written by Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

If you asked me during my PhD where to apply for a postdoc, I could have named at least a dozen research groups.

I knew all the reputable experts in my field and was almost certain they would accept me as a postdoc ― or at least point me in the direction of a collaborator.

I knew the best options for seeking funding, deadlines for applications, and how to write a compelling research proposal.

It would have been an easy transition.

If I was honest with myself, however, I knew I would just be buying time and delaying my eventual career move outside of my bubble in academia.

When I looked to see what the job market had to offer, I realized how little I knew.

The last time I looked for a non-academic job was when I was in high school.

High school was a long time ago and this time I wasn’t looking to serve fries.

Where do people find jobs nowadays?

I felt out-of-date and out-of-touch.

I had no network outside of academia to tap into to find these resources.

I aimlessly began to search online.

I Googled ‘jobs for PhDs’.

Seemed simple enough.

Except that rather than job listings, I was bombarded by skepticism.

I read articles about how big name employers would see me as a career-changer, with no more work experience than a first degree graduate.

As a PhD, I was relegated to a bottom rung employee.

This was as appealing to me as flipping burgers and serving fries.

In fact, being older and more specialized than first degree graduates would actually put me at a disadvantage.

Are you kidding me?

I needed to take a step back and develop a strategy.

I needed to find the best sources for job opportunities for PhDs and prioritize.

If I put in just half the amount of effort I spent writing my thesis to obtaining a non-academic job, there was nothing that could stop me.

Once I developed the right mindset and found the right sources, everything began to fall in line.

I needed to start networking, gaining referrals, and marketing myself as an employable, experienced, job candidate.

Why Doing A Postdoc Is A Default Option

A recent study reported in Science found that more than three-quarters of life science students believed they needed to do at least a year of postdoc research in order to qualify for an industry position.

This is absolutely wrong.

But the idea that you need to do a postdoc is so prevalent that it’s now known as the postdoc default trap.

Or, the permadoc trap.

Either way ― it’s a lie.

You do not need to do a postdoc to get an industry job.

Yet, many PhDs still believe they have to join the ‘holding pattern’ of doing a postdoc until an industry job becomes available.

As a result, each and every year, a line of frustrated PhDs stream into this funnel like cattle.

The reality is that your time is better spent executing a proper job search.

Instead of doing a postdoc, aim to get into an industry job right away by seeking out the best job search sources.

Of equal importance is knowing to diversify your job search.

Your skills are not confined to your specialized PhD project.

You have the skills to go into many diverse alternative career paths.

Knowing this will automatically expand your job search.

Create a list of technical and transferable skills that you could impart to a new company and that you would find fulfilling to develop.

Once you broaden your scope, you can start to amass leads and market yourself accordingly.

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3 Top Sources For Finding An Industry Job

When PhDs search for new jobs, one of the most important elements is developing leads.

How do you uncover the largest number of job leads and do so consistently?

The answer is to leverage multiple sources.  

There are many methods to choose from and, at the end of the day, while some may produce a high quantity of jobs leads, it may come at the cost of quality.

As time and resources permit, use as many of these methods as possible to generate high quality job sources.

But to be successful, you need to follow up on EVERY job lead.

Your goal should be to turn every lead into a job referral, and eventually a job interview.

For example, once you submit your cover letter and industry resume, follow up a short time later to ensure it was received and ask for more information.

It is useless to invest time in developing job leads and missing out by not aggressively following up.

The key is to be professional and not overbearing but be persistent.

Stay organized by keeping a log to track each job, the dates you followed up, who you followed up with, and the next time you follow up.

Remember, you must leverage multiple sources to get as many leads as possible and then work to turn these leads into referrals and eventually interviews.

When it comes to developing leads, you should leverage these three top sources…

1. Online job sites and job boards.

This is by far the most popular way to search for jobs due to the wealth of job listings at your fingertips.

But it’s one of the most ineffective ways of actually getting a job.

These sites provide quantity, but lack in quality.

Still, you can learn a lot by trolling job sites.

You can also build relationships by leveraging the contact information on these sites.

A recent report by business analyst, Jeremy Marsan showed that job boards ― such as Indeed.com ― receive 2 million new resumes in their database every month.

LinkedIn, on the other hand, has over 414 million profiles.

There are connections to be made, but you have to actively reach out to create these connections.

Job sites can be categorized from general to specific.

Job search engines ― including Indeed and SimplyHired ― pull job postings from many different sites including job boards, online classified advertisements, and employer websites.

Job Boards include: Careerbuilder, Monster, Linkedin, and Glassdoor.

Companies pay money to post jobs on these platforms.

There are also industry-specific websites such as Nature Jobs and AAAS for scientists and geographic-specific job sites such as TorontoJobs or Bostonjobs.

Setting up targeted searches on these job sites can give you an idea of not only current jobs, but also which organizations might be recruiting PhDs in your discipline for future roles.

You should use these sites as sources to gain an understanding of each employer you might be interested in working for.

Once you have found relevant employers, go to their company websites and set up alerts for upcoming job openings.

For all of these sites, you have the opportunity to set up your own profile as well.

But don’t expect to receive emails or phone calls from hiring managers simply by setting up a completed profile.  

You will still have to do the leg work of applying and reaching out to hiring managers and recruiters to ensure your application is at the top of their list.

2. Networking and internal referrals.

This is, hands down, the MOST effective way to find an industry job.

If you have not learned the power of networking already, you are sorely missing out on the majority of job leads.

As your network grows, so will the number of potential sources to learn about new jobs.

Networking takes time and energy.

You must get focused on where your time and energy is going.

Stop spending all your time perfecting your resume, and invest time where it counts your network.

Be organized and set up a database to enter key information about the people in your network.

Communicate with them on a regular basis.

Start easy ― friends, family, neighbors, and former colleagues.

Ask them for advice or for introductions to quickly expand your network.

Set up informational interviews to gain insider information about different companies and fields while building your network simultaneously.

If you have never networked outside of academia before, start looking for events to attend.

Use Meetups or Eventbrite as an online source.

Networking events can be related to the industry you are looking for or can be social events completely unrelated to your job search.

These events can be hidden gems for making connections with people that may share valuable leads with you in the future.

Use social media ― such as LinkedIn and even Twitter ― to increase awareness of your professional profile, and engage in online discussions with like-minded people.

But…

Do NOT ask for referrals immediately.  

The key to networking is cultivating these relationships so, when a job opens, you are the first person that springs to mind as the most qualified candidate.

You want to be in a position where asking for a referral is easy.

Where the other person doesn’t see it as an imposition because they know enough about you to trust you.

Consistency builds trust.

Add value consistently and you’ll be in a great position to ask for a referral.

There’s another reason why networking and internal referrals are so important…

Networking unlocks a hidden job market where positions that are never advertised online can become available to you because you’ve made a connection with a hiring manager or employee.

Also, current employees at your company of interest WANT to get you hired.

They want to get you hired because industry companies provide referral incentives.

In other words, when an employee refers you and you get hired, the employee gets a monetary reward or “bonus” from the company.

3. Recruiters and headhunters.

Recruiters or headhunters can be good sources for obtaining job leads.

PhD students are not typical candidates for recruiters, but you should not rule them out entirely when executing your job search.

The most important thing to remember about recruiters is that they are working for money.

As a result, they will likely NOT have your best interests as their top priority.

But this is okay.

As long as you know where you stand with recruiters, you can leverage them to gain insights about a company.

You can leverage them to get multiple job offers too.

Recruitment firms can be divided into two groups: retained or contingency.

A retained recruiter means they will charge an upfront fee to the client (company) to conduct a search.

They will operate on an exclusive basis, meaning that the job will only be filled through this recruitment company.

The process is rigorous, with a shortlist of a few names being presented before interviews begin.

Contingency recruiters are only paid when a candidate takes the position with their client.

They have to compete with the client’s internal HR department, advertising, direct applications and perhaps other recruitment companies to find the right hire.

They need to find the best candidate, and find them faster than everyone else.  

As the job candidate, you can ask how the recruiter obtained the assignment for the position of interest and what the competition is.

A retained recruiter may have more information about the role, interviews, a potential offer, etc. while the contingency recruiter may be more pro-active and have a greater sense of urgency to get you hired.

Either way, a professional and completed LinkedIn profile is a great way to get recruiters to find you, and to reach out to recruiters.

You can also find directories of recruiters by geographical area or discipline online.

Regardless of the source, diversifying your job search will help you transition out of academia faster. The most reliable ― and smartest ― source is through networking and working to get internal referrals. Putting in the extra effort to build your network will allow you access to jobs that are not advertised online, drastically reducing the size of the competition. Networking toward a referral is hard work and you need to be organized. Keep a log of all your contacts and when you were last in touch, jobs you’ve applied for, and your follow-up attempts. Persistence is key and will show your future employer that you are the most motivated for the position.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, 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.
  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    Hey, Cathy, I think you’ve really nailed it. First of all, I can relate to feeling like I was in a bubble when I was getting ready to defend my thesis. I literally knew everyone who worked there, every building, every student service — I was completely at home in academia. In fact, some of the undergrads looked up to me. So the idea of striking out on a new path wasn’t exactly comforting. The other point you nailed was the idea that it takes a completely different mindset to start “marketing” yourself. I never thought I’d have to do anything like that. And I’m sure nobody really mentioned that idea to me at the time. That’s out of the comfort zone of the typical PhD, I’m sure.

  • Maggie Sue Smith

    It still blows my mind that doing a postdoc could actually hurt your chances! They see you as a career-changer, an older applicant? That is just never explained anywhere. Thanks for pointing out that the old way of doing things just doesn’t work anymore.

  • Harvey Delano

    Oh, that’s a brand-new strategy about job boards that I never thought about – cultivate relationships on the boards instead of just doing the usual posting and queries. Thanks so much!

  • Kathy Azalea

    Since you last posted an article, I’ve updated my LinkedIn profile quite a bit. Not that I’m ready to get out there and start looking yet. But now I know how important it is, so I’ll keep up on it as I complete more and more requirements.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    You’re hitting on something super important – that most jobs are never even advertised! I got a lead on a position through a contact, and it paid off and I still have that position. I don’t think they ever did any advertising, at least not through the usual channels.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    I agree that networking is hard work and you need to keep actual records on who you met and when, where, and what event. My first few events were fun and interesting, but I realized after a few of them that I would likely never remember where I met certain people, especially if they are attending numerous events like I do.

  • Julian Holst

    As usual, Cathy, a really informative and practical article! I’ve got to study less and network more! LOL.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    Thanks for outlining the three main ways to develop leads into referrals and referrals into interviews. Sometimes I think that looking for a position is a full time job! But I think I’m up to the task. 🙂

  • Sonja Luther

    It sure is a pleasure to get these inside tips about how to network efficiently to shave some time off your learning curve. Until I came across this blog, I’d never heard of employees getting referral incentives. Knowledge like this can make a huge difference, even if you already have a good position and you’re just looking to advance.

  • Theo

    I guess the key is to just keep spreading your net – deeper and wider. It makes sense that with so many candidates competing, having some good relationships with folks on the inside could only help.