Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
I’m pretty sure I’m the dumbest person I know.
That’s how I felt during my last year of graduate school.
In five years, I went from feeling like a genius to feeling like a moron.
Like most PhD students, I graduated at the top of my class in undergrad.
I was always at the top or near the top when it came to math and science.
In undergrad, I had at least two 4-hour science labs every week.
Most regular undergrad classes were 50-80 minutes long.
But not these science labs.
They would drag on forever.
At 3PM, I’d be learning how to run Western blots while my friends were relaxing in the quad.
It was worth it, though.
I paid my dues and saw results.
I worked hard and got ahead and other people knew I was ahead.
Then I went to graduate school.
Now, everyone was smart and hardworking.
A select few skated ahead without a single problem and graduated early.
The rest of us got beaten down by the system.
We failed over and over and over again.
This was the first time many of us experienced this kind of blunt failure.
It was painful.
A lot of students who came into my graduate program dropped out the very first year.
Others slowly trickled out during their second and third years.
By my fifth year, almost two-thirds were gone.
This is what failure does to you when you don’t have the stomach for it.
This is what happens to “superstars” when they realize there are bigger and brighter stars in the world.
But there were a few who did have a stomach for the kind of failure you experience in graduate school.
These select few were able to make it out of the system, get their confidence back, and get a high-paying industry job position.
How did they do it?
Why Some PhDs Never Get Hired In Industry
Getting a PhD isn’t enough to get you an industry job.
Too many graduate students and postdoctoral researchers think their degrees are all they need to transition into a non-academic career.
The truth is your PhD means very little unless you have the right mindset.
Too many PhDs and PhD candidates have a weak academic mindset, which makes it impossible for them to get an industry job.
This academic mindset is why so many PhDs are unemployed at graduation.
According to a report by the Atlantic, greater than 60% of PhDs and greater than 80% of Life Science PhDs will NOT have a paying job at graduation.
At the same time, many would-be PhDs never make it through graduate school.
According to data from the PhD Completion Project, only 42.6% of Life Science PhDs complete their degree in 6 years.
It’s not much better for Engineering and Math/Physical Sciences PhDs either, which have a 48.5% and 39.3% completion rate, respectively.
Why are so many PhDs unemployed?
Why do so many PhDs drop out?
The problem is that too many PhDs allow themselves to become either reliant on or beaten down by the academic system.
All too often, the academic system thrives on eliminating an individual’s self-confidence.
The system convinces its members that working longer and harder hours in the lab is the answer to all of their problems.
Unhappy with your career and life? Work harder in the lab.
Feeling unsuccessful and unappreciated? Work harder in the lab.
Your academic advisor treats you poorly? Can’t afford rent? About to lose funding? About to lose your visa? Work harder in the lab.
From its obsession with recommendation letters and CVs to its publish or perish fear mongering, the academic system works hard to make you needy.
The only way to transition out of this system is to question it intelligently.
Publish or perish?
I’m going to perish if I don’t publish in a journal?
No thanks—I’ll just go into industry, do meaningful work, create products that help people, get paid well for it, and publish when I feel like it.
How Smart PhDs Get Hired Fast
The only way to make it through graduate school and transition into an industry job afterwards is to stop being dependent on the academic system.
That’s the first step.
The second step is to change your priorities and your overall job search approach.
If you want to get a job in industry, you have to start valuing the same things that successful industry professionals value, like networking, results, and building industry credibility.
You also have to prioritize your life in a way that allows you to execute your job search properly.
Of course, some of these things can remain priorities, but not your top priorities.
If you want an industry job, you have to change your priorities.
PhDs who fail to change their priorities remain in low-paying postdocs and often end up unemployed.
But PhDs who change their priorities get hired fast for industry jobs.
In particular, smart PhDs prioritize these three things to get hired quickly over other job candidates…
1. They reclaim their confidence.
The first thing most PhDs lose in graduate school is their confidence.
These PhDs come into their programs knowing they are intelligent and hardworking.
They know they can find answers to any problem if they keep trying and keep learning from their mistakes.
Then, after a few hundred 18-hour workdays and dozens of unsupportive meetings with their academic advisors and thesis committee members, they stop believing in themselves.
They fail and fail and fail, but this time, without any feedback.
Sure, they get feedback on their data.
But they don’t get any feedback on their professional progress.
They’re simply told to keep working without a roadmap, without milestones, and without any firm completion dates.
Worst of all, no one is there to lead them.
Most principal investigators and thesis committee members refuse to be accountable for anything.
The principal investigator blames the thesis committee, the thesis committee blames the principal investigator, the department head blames both, and everyone blames the graduate student or postdoc.
On and on it goes.
Eventually, these PhDs start to feel like they’re alone, sinking faster and faster into some kind of career quicksand.
The only way to escape this sinking feeling and start making progress again is to get your confidence back.
PhDs who lack confidence are a dime a dozen.
These people remain unemployed or get offered half the salary as other less qualified professionals.
A PhD with confidence, however, is extremely valuable in industry.
As a result, confident PhDs get hired very quickly for non-academic positions.
If you want to transition into a non-academic career, start believing in yourself again.
The problem is not your intelligence or value, it’s your perspective. It’s what you’re allowing to happen.
Quit allowing your academic advisor, committee members, and other people above you to escape their responsibilities.
Start being assertive.
Start demanding that timelines and milestones be set for your graduation, postdoc projects, and overall career.
Both confidence and assertiveness are skills that industry employers find highly valuable.
The time to start practicing these skills is now.
2. They get recruiters and hiring managers to work for them.
Hiring managers get paid to fill open positions at a company.
Recruiters get paid by companies to find top PhD job candidates for hiring managers.
In both cases, recruiters and hiring managers are getting paid to employ you.
Their salaries are dependent on finding the right industry job candidate for the industry right position and this is how you should approach them.
If you’re like most PhDs and have spent most of your life in academia, it’s easy to assume that you need to approach recruiters and hiring managers as if they are elite gatekeeprs.
It’s easy to feel like you need to beg them for their time and attention.
Please give me a job.
Please get back to me.
Please like me.
The truth is approaching recruiters and hiring managers like this will only hold you back.
Industry recruiters and hiring managers don’t want to hire meek, unconfident, or awkward PhDs.
They don’t want to hire beggars either.
This is because hiring poor candidates reflects poorly on them.
Instead, they want to hire smart, confident, and capable PhDs.
They want to hire PhDs who aren’t afraid to approach them as equals and who understand the value of building a long-term professional relationship.
Building long-term relationships with recruiters and hiring managers and getting them to work for you is a very intelligent job search strategy.
We’ve had several Cheeky Scientist Associates apply this technique to great success.
Most recently, Sarah Rodrigues Moreira, a Brazilian born Associate, employed this strategy to get her first industry job, along with visa sponsorship to work in France (not an easy task).
After getting the job, she said…
“This wouldn’t have been possible without maintaining good relationships with the recruiters and hiring managers I met during my job search.”
She also mentioned…
“In many cases, the recruiters and hiring managers passed me new job leads, even leads from other companies.”
The job market in any industry is smaller than you think.
This is especially true for the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical job industries.
The recruiters and hiring managers in these industries know each other very well.
And they could be talking about you.
If you’re just reaching out to recruiters and hiring managers to send them your resume or say thank you after an interview, you’re throwing away valuable relationships.
A better strategy is to invest in these people just like you would invest in any other long-term professional relationship.
Pass them resumes of other people. Connect them to your connections.
Add value to them in every way you can.
Do this and they will add value back by letting you know about opportunities and even passing you job leads.
3. They create a diverse and sequential job search strategy.
The number one reason PhDs don’t get industry jobs is because they don’t understand the job search process.
They have never learned the proper workflow of transitioning into a non-academic career.
As a result, they resort to randomly uploading resumes to job postings as they happen to see them.
Like fools, they see some job posting, think “Wow, I’m perfect fort his job!” and then scramble to polish their resume using some outdated template they downloaded online.
Some may go as far as sending a few LinkedIn messages to industry professionals who work at the company in a last ditch effort to network, but of course, by then it’s too late to create any kind of meaningful connections.
Then these foolish PhDs are surprised when they don’t hear anything back after applying.
This is what happens when you execute a tactical, reactive job search.
You will never get an industry job by being tactical.
Instead, you’ll be disappointed time and time again and eventually give up.
The only way to transition into a non-academic career is to map out a complete job search strategy.
Your job search is a second job and should be treated as such.
This might sound intimidating but it’s much simpler than you think.
All you have to do is create a single Excel spreadsheet with five columns… the first column listing the companies you’d like to work for, the second listing the job postings (with URLs) that you’re interested in, the third listing your contacts (LinkedIn or otherwise) who work at each company, the fourth listing the last time you connected with that contact, and the fifth listing the next time you plan on connecting with that contact.
By creating this simple spreadsheet, you’ve done more than nearly every other PhD job candidate.
How many files do you have on your computer right now related to experimental procedures, reagent specs, and data you’ve collected over the years?
Can you spare some of your precious time to make one single Excel spreadsheet related to your job search?
Once you’ve put your job search strategy on paper, the next step is to approach it in the right sequence.
Your resume is the last and least important part of your job search strategy.
Instead, you need to be spending most of your time networking offline and online and building industry credibility.
Your goal is to start getting industry job referrals as soon as possible.
Only then should you worry about resumes and interviews.
Finally, once your strategy is in place and you’re executing it in the right sequence, you need to diversify it as much as possible.
This means refusing to fall into the trap of applying to only one position at a time.
Instead, you should be applying to 5-6 positions at a time.
Don’t make the mistake of seeking only one type of position at a time either.
The more diverse your job search, the faster your network will grow and the more offers you’ll receive.
You don’t have to find the perfect position to start because you can always transition into another role 6-12 month after starting your first position (despite what some outdated thinkers will tell you).
You don’t have to accept your first offer either.
Keep diversifying your job search and keep thinking strategically. Grow your network daily and make networking and building industry credibility as your top priority. Remember to focus on creating long-term, quality connections, especially with recruiters and hiring managers. Get these people to work for you, not the other way around. Surround yourself with other intelligent PhDs who will support you during your job search process. Most importantly, remember your value as a PhD. Don’t let the academic system take away your confidence. Instead, be assertive and take action to advance your career now.
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.
Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
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