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5 Ways Postdocs Can Become Top PhD Job Candidates For Industry Positions

postdoc jobs | Cheeky Scientist | how to find postdoctoral positions
Written by Klodjan Stafa, Ph.D.

Too many PhDs end up doing postdocs for 2, 3, 4, 5 and even 10 years longer than they should.

I know this because I was a postdoc.

Right after finishing graduate school, I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a job.

The training that I had been given would suffice to get me through any interview and break into industry.

I foolishly thought that my technical skills would speak for themselves and lead me onto the career path of my choice.

Soon, the harsh reality set in.

My technical skills were not enough to get a job.

Having a PhD and doing a postdoc were not enough to get a job.

But like most postdocs, I thought the answer was to simply work harder.

So I applied to hundreds of jobs.

I uploaded resume after resume and heard nothing back.

Soon, I was trapped in an endless cycle of applying for jobs online and never getting a reply.

Rather than changing my strategy, I stubbornly ploughed forward thinking that if I just kept going, I’d eventually get the perfect job offer.

I never got a job offer.

After sending out hundreds of resumes and getting no replies, I started questioning my credentials and overall skills.

My own limiting beliefs began to take over.

I must not be good enough for a non-academic job.

Maybe I don’t belong in industry at all.

Maybe I’ll be stuck in academia FOREVER.

The reality was that my strategy and preparation were causing me to fail, not my abilities or credentials.

The reality was that I didn’t know how to be the outstanding candidate that top companies wanted to hire.

Or at least I didn’t know how to show them that I was.

I learned that there was much more to transitioning than blindly sending out applications.

I learned that it was about building a professional brand, tailoring my job search, and networking with industry professionals.

Why Postdocs Get Stuck In Academia

Having a PhD doesn’t entitle you to an industry position.

Moreover, doing a postdoc can actually prevent you from getting a good industry job.

PhDs do not have access to the education, knowledge, and experience required to obtain industry jobs right after graduation.

Doing a postdoc does not correct these issues.

Doing a postdoc amplifies these issues.

It’s a different world in industry, and the skills that got you through your PhD are different from the ones you need to market yourself effectively for industry jobs.

Getting an industry job requires diligence.

It requires developing your core competencies and transferable skills.

You worked hard for your PhD, but your PhD will NOT help you get an industry job.

Instead, you have to network.

You have to get noticed.

This can only be accomplished by being active, both online and offline.

You have to create a strong presence on LinkedIn while attending networking events every week.

Don’t believe me?

Just look at the data…

LinkedIn is the largest job recruitment platform in the world and over 80% of all recruiters and hiring managers use it to find top job candidates.

In their most recent quarterly report, LinkedIn boasted a record 433 million members worldwide and remains one of the most reliable sources of recruitment for headhunters.

If you’re a postdoc and want to get an industry job, you must create a strong presence online AND craft an intelligent professional brand.

post doc position | Cheeky Scientist | industrial postdoc positions

How To Become A Top Industry Job Candidate

Postdocs are highly qualified professionals and have the ability to land any industry job.

But the job search process can take a lot of time.

A study published in Science shows that postdocs make substantially less income out of graduate school than other disciplines simply because they do NOT know how to get a different job.

If you want to transform yourself from academic postdoc to successful industry professional, you have to get to work.

You have to craft an elevator pitch, communicate your transferable skills effectively, and much more.

The time to get started is now.

Here are 5 ways postdocs can become top PhD job candidates for industry positions…

1. Create a succinct and detailed elevator pitch.

The elevator pitch is a powerful tool that tells your audience who you are, what you want, and why they should care.

The elevator pitch is HOW you communicate your professional brand.

It’s your professional story.

Imagine a scenario where you are attending a networking event filled with top industry professionals and you happen to step in the elevator with the CEO of your dream company.

This is it.

He or she has your undivided attention and you have 10 seconds to impress.

This is your chance to break free of the academic stereotype: non-social nerds who can only hold conversations with other non-social nerds about their latest experimental findings.

A recent report in Nature showed that many postdocs struggle to communicate their knowledge to non-scientific audiences.

As the article notes…

“They do it the same way as they would do it to a lab colleague — resulting in a lot of glazed eyes and wrinkled brows.”

But YOU can be different.

You can craft an intelligent, succinct, and detailed elevator pitch.

The key is to practice and revise your pitch until you have developed a winning introduction that can be expressed in a conversational tone.

An elevator pitch is a personalized, top-of-mind script that you can deliver in a connected way, that shows confidence for impromptu encounters with decision-makers (at formal events or in elevators).

It’s a powerful tool that you can use when hiring managers ask, “Can you tell me a little about yourself?” or when a professional at a networking event says, “Enough about me, what about you?”

Just remember to answer these three questions…

Who are you (both professionally and personally)?

What do you want?

Why should someone else care?

For example, you could say “I’m an immunology specialist but I enjoy going to craft fairs on the weekend, and I’m here to grow my industry network because I’m interested in developing new skills that will help me translate my knowledge of the immune field to a product that will help people.”

With your pitch in place, all you have to do is present it to your target with confidence and good body language.

2. Know the company you are targeting in depth.

Once you identify the company you want to work for, you have to prove that your value and skills align with their needs.

You also have to prove that you know everything there is to know about the company from your current position.

In other words…

Do thorough research on your targeted company.

Your goal should be to walk into the interview knowing you are the best candidate for the company and position.

You have to know that you “fit” with the company and position.

Most importantly, you have to communicate WHY you fit with the company and position.

Every company has a different mission and a different culture – you need to know both.

Details about any company’s mission and culture can often be found on the company’s website.

You know – on one of those hard-to-find webpages that nobody else reads.

But YOU need to read these pages.

You need to become a connoisseur of all information related to your target company.

Any information you cannot find online should be obtained by setting up informational interviews with employees at the company (preferably before you go on an official site visit).

When you go on an informational interview, don’t just interview the other person, build a relationship.

Once you build up the relationship, dig deep into the other person’s experiences at their company.

What’s the culture like?

What do they do on a daily basis?

How many meetings do they have a day?

How do employees communicate with each other – company email, company instant message, company phone, etc?

Joining a company is like joining a big family that shares common values, common beliefs, and common processes.

You must be able to show that you can be a part of this family BEFORE joining it.

When you walk into an interview with this kind of multi-level company knowledge, you’ll set yourself apart from other candidates.

You’ll also fully engage the hiring manager across from you, who will then be ready to hear about your many transferable skills.

3. Identify your transferable skills far in advance.

PhDs tend to hold misconceptions that they are overqualified for industry jobs, given their vast technical library of skills.

Technical skills hold little value during an industry interview.

During an industry interview, hiring managers want to know that you have the transferable skills necessary to be successful in the private sector.

They can teach you any technical skills you don’t have on the job.

Transferable skills, on the other hand, are much harder to teach.

As such, you must identify your transferable skills and learn to communicate them effectively at the very beginning of your job search.

Being able to use industry-specific and even company-specific jargon to describe your lab experience gives you leverage when it comes to getting hired.

The right jargon, or “business acumen” can quickly transform you from academic postdoc to successful industry professional.

One of the most desirable transferable skills that top industry job candidates possess is teamwork.

Teamwork is exceptionally valuable in industry.

In industry, hiring managers are NOT worried that you lack the technical skills necessary to get the job done.

Instead, they ARE worried you will be another awkward PhD who can’t function well in a team.

In academia, most of the projects tend to be carried on by a single individual. But in industry, collaboration, mutual support, and teamwork are indisputable values that are present in every layer of the company, from the manufacturing basement up to the C-suite board room.

Think of your research from a teamwork perspective

Did you form collaborations that lead to a mutual goal?

Did you help colleagues during manuscript revisions or grant proposals?

What was the end result?

By shifting your mindset to consider your professional brand and marketing yourself, you will discover unique ways to communicate your transferable skills using industry-specific and company-specific jargon.

This will further set you apart from other job candidates and put you in a good position to communicate effectively.

4. Display your strengths and ambitions openly.

Once you have identified and communicated your transferable skills to the hiring manager, you must learn to display your strengths and ambitions openly.

Ultimately, the company wants to bring someone onboard who most embodies the skills, qualifications, and cultural fit of the company.

But almost every applicant that reaches the stage of getting a phone screen will have the necessary skills for the job.

In other words…

Skills are replaceable.

Your individual strengths and ambitions, on the other hand, are irreplaceable.

In academia, postdocs are often taught to downplay their strengths and ambitions.

You’re told to be more passive, to say “we” instead of “I” when communicating results, and to NEVER say you want to make more money or be a Vice President of a company one day.

If you want to get an industry job, you must learn to communicate your strengths and ambitions.

You must learn to openly display your goals.

What are your 1-year goals?

What are your 5-year goals?

How do your goals align with the company’s goals?

Have the attitude that you can drive a project forward to completion no matter what obstacles come up.

You can make big things happen for the company.

More than this – you have big goals for yourself and the company.

This type of attitude will be relished at any company, from small startups to large biotechs.

By communicating your strengths and ambitions, you will definitely stand out from other postdocs.

The only thing left to do at this point is to map out your career trajectory.

5. Map out your career trajectory.

Industry professionals want to see a driven mindset, clarity, and honesty in a job candidate.

But they also want to see strategic planning.

A large-scale survey of all Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. reported by Forbes Magazine found that these companies believe the following are the top 3 most important industry skills…

Transferable Skills (or Interpersonal Skills), Drive and Internal Motivation, and Strategic Planning.

As mentioned above, you will eventually be asked the question, “Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?”

When answering this, you must be specific.

You must have a strategic plan.

It’s not a trick question, but the way you answer it can quickly improve (or damage) your chances of success.

Umm. I am not sure really. I just wanted to get out of academia because I hated my supervisor.”


Don’t ever say this or anything like this on an interview.

“Umm” and “I’m not sure” are forbidden phrases because they make you look unmotivated and uncertain of your career trajectory.

Your answer should be enthusiastic and, more importantly, specific.

You don’t have to be specific in terms of the exact position you want in five years, but you do need to specifically say you have goals and a plan.

You might say…

“My goal right now is to find a position at a company where I can grow and take on new challenges over time. Ultimately, I’d like to assume more management responsibilities. But most importantly, I want to work for an organization where I can build a career.”

Remember, communication and teamwork are critical in industry.

Your future manager will be interacting with you daily, so it’s important they know where you want to go in the organization and in your overall career.

Are you are someone who will give 100% to succeed?

Are you someone who will work hard to take their career to the next level?

Or, will you do the bare minimum and accept whatever fate hands you?

Knowing where you want to be, in both the short and long-term, is important for establishing trust with those hiring you.  

By establishing this trust, you will showcase yourself as a top industry candidate and not just another postdoc destined to stay in academia for life.

With a little preparation, determination, and the right mindset, every postdoc can become the job candidate that companies want to hire. You have the attributes they are looking for, and learning how to portray them is what will set you apart from the competition. Start by creating a powerful elevator pitch to use at networking events and industry interviews. Combine this with developing a personal brand that shows you can add value to any company.  Do your homework. Research the company, its values and where it’s heading and communicate how you will apply your transferable skills. Establish career growth potential based on what you’ve learned about the company. Once you have done this, you can present yourself as the well-rounded industry professional that every company wants to hire.

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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Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.

Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.

Klodjan is a Ph.D. and currently works as a Sr. Scientist in the Research & Development department of Estée Lauder Companies in New York City. During and after completion of his Doctorate, Klodjan published several prominent papers in a variety of scientific journals. He got the Brain Mind Institute (EPFL) best PhD thesis in 2013 as well as a fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation. Klodjan believes self-innovation is paramount in today’s competitive job market and encourages other PhDs to take action for themselves instead of allowing others to dictate their choices and careers.
Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.
  • Sonja Luther

    That’s an incredible idea about the elevator pitch. I’d honestly never thought of it before. Usually I wing it, but I can see that having a really clear idea of what I want to say in such a short time would really be a great icebreaker.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    Klodjan, you’ve really framed this in just the right way to make it understandable and doable. I’ve never been good at figuring out what my five-year plan would be post-academia. I appreciate your thoughts on being specific enough to give interviewers some idea as to the depth of character, but general enough not to have a crystal ball with each twist and turn already planned out. Thanks.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    As someone who’s been working in industry for a while, I can enthusiastically agree with point #4. You’ve got to display your unique characteristics (and not in an arrogant, uncooperative way) if you ever want to fit in. It seems almost paradoxical, especially in light of the fact that many of us were taught to try to blend in with a team and not call attention to ourselves. If you’re willing to go through the culture change, however, I can only say that it’s well worth it.

  • Kathy Azalea

    It looks a little daunting to do all that research on a company, but the necessity for doing it keeps coming up. I guess I’ve got to be more outgoing and prepared to follow through with those informational interviews. It’s like REALLY doing your homework — where it counts!

  • Winona Petit

    I think it’s definitely true that back in the day, those of us who got PhDs were rather expecting a career in research, and academia seemed like the most likely place to work after we’d fulfilled all our requirements and been awarded the PhD. Hence, not too many of us worried too much about getting well-paid, tenured positions. It’s rather heartbreaking to hear your story about feeling like you’d be stuck in academia forever and sending out hundreds of resumes. Terrible. I’m so glad you’ve decided to share what you know.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    It seems like a lot of people are afraid to come out and exhibit their strengths. They’re afraid of looking too arrogant. (Funny how the truly arrogant people are never afraid of looking arrogant?) Anyway, I like what you’re saying about individual strengths being harder to replace than simple workplace skills. It’s why we really need qualified people. I only wish more PhD’s realized their value.

  • Harvey Delano

    Hate those trick questions! Thanks for your take on the elevator pitch and communicating your talents in just a few minutes’ time.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    Very, very true. I was fortunate to get my position by communicating the intention to give 100% on the job. That doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat, but just means you have to know your value. I know this might be hard just coming out of academia, but confidence goes a long way. Whatever you do to bolster your confidence will help, and that usually comes from networking and doing your company research. We tend to see ourselves in a kinder light when we’ve got knowledge on our side. 🙂

  • Maggie Sue Smith

    It’s still astonishing to me that a PhD won’t prepare you for getting a great job right out of school and that doing a postdoc can actually hurt your chances!! It’s a strange world we live in.

  • Theo

    Funny that the skills you get as a PhD qualify you to do the jobs they want, but don’t qualify you to market yourself to get the jobs. Good thing we have the inside scoop. Preesh, bro.

  • Daniel Palmer

    Thanks for the breakdown. It now is somewhat clearer to me, at least from a strategic perspective, as to why industry seems to value sociability over technical skills in prioritizing the networking skills over something more merit based. Disappointing from someon who prefers a more merit-based approach, but if that is how the game is played, then you have to learn the rules and play by them if you hope to succeed at it. Again. Thanks for this – it was very helpful and enlightening.