How To Ignore Your Advisor & Get Hired In Industry In 2021

As I read Sarah’s email, I heard a familiar story.

Sarah was hired as a postdoc, working long hours for very little pay. Sarah’s relationship with the Principal Investigator (PI) in her lab, who was also Sarah’s advisor, had become strained. 

Like many labs, Sarah’s lab was running out of funding, which was causing a substantial amount of workplace stress. No matter how long and hard Sarah worked, her PI was never happy. She felt stretched thin, unappreciated, and completely stuck. 

Sarah’s email was 1,567 words, with the kind of detail you would expect from an academic PhD. 

But, one line stood out from the rest…

“Help, I’m stuck and I need a job in industry.”

I replied to Sarah’s email by telling her that if she was serious about getting a job in industry, then she needed to start thinking about her job search as a second job. This meant that she needed to start carving out a significant amount of time in her day to execute her job search to be hired sooner. 

Most of this execution, I told her, would come in the form of reaching out to people currently working in industry, setting up informational interviews, and working towards getting these people to refer her to hiring managers, human resource professionals, talent acquisition specialists and other decision-makers who would ultimately decide to set up a phone screen, video interview or site visit with Sarah. 

I told Sarah that the only way she would be successful in her job search was to prioritize it over her academic duties, including publications, grants, TAship, current experiments that she was working on, and keep her PI happy. 

I knew this would be hard for Sarah. In fact, it would seem nearly impossible to her. 

Prioritize Your Career, Not Your Advisor’s Career To Be Hired

“How could I “slack off” on my academic duties?” Sarah thought. 

What if her PI became angry? What if he yelled at her? What if he threatened to kick her out of his lab? What if he wouldn’t write her a letter of recommendation? Then she would never get a job, right? 

First, I explained to her in my email, none of this was true. Her PI, and all professors for that matter, have no power in industry. None. 

Most professors do not even know anyone in industry. They too are stuck in the academic bubble and have been for their entire careers. 

Academic letters of recommendation, even from the most prestigious PI, are worthless in industry. 

They simply don’t matter. 

Sarah did not need her PI’s approval, or anyone’s approval, to get herself an industry job. This was the beauty of industry. You are hired and promoted based on your results and what you can do, not what other people have written about you in the past or what a committee of reviewers thinks of your research. 

As such, it was time that Sarah started taking her career into her own hands. Her PI was looking out for his career, not hers, and it was time that she started looking out for her career, not his, in return. 

Too many PhDs, I told her, are so brainwashed into thinking that their PI is some kind of omnipresent and omnipotent force in their career that they will do whatever it takes to keep them happy, even going as far as working for free after they run out of funding. Sarah needed to shake off this mindset and deprioritize her PI and her academic career if she would ever be able to transition into academia.

Start With Possibilities For Your Future, Not Limitations

The first step to getting hired in industry, I told Sarah, is determining which positions and companies are a good fit for your career goals. Notice the first step has nothing to do with your skills or your experience. 

Like many of the PhDs who have emailed me in the past, Sarah’s email included an entire paragraph listing her technical skills, followed by two sentences explaining the helpless feelings she had around the fact that she had no industry experience whatsoever.  

But, she said, she did have three admirable publications and might still be able to get a letter of recommendation from her PI. Sarah had been trained by academia to evaluate her worth solely in terms technical skills, experience, publications, and letters of recommendation. 

Unfortunately, while academic employers care deeply about these things, industry employers do not. In fact, most PhDs who get hired in industry report that they are rarely asked any questions about their technical skills but instead are questioned extensively about their transferable skills, such as their conflict resolution skills, project management skills, and time management skills, most notably through difficult to answer “behavioral questions”. 

Employers know that PhDs either have the technical skills they need for the job, or they can learn them. 

After all, a PhD is a Doctor of Philosophy and “philosophy” is the ability to ascertain knowledge, or to learn. This makes PhDs doctors of learning, and learning, especially “speed of learning” is what industry employers care about more than experience because most often, job candidates with industry experience have to be untrained by a new employers before they can be trained. 

Every company has its own processes and its own standards, which means on the job training, not experience in another company’s processes and standards, is most valued. PhDs also report that employers are not interested in what their PIs, thesis committee members, or any other lifetime academic has to say about them, through a letter of recommendation or otherwise. 

Instead, employers most commonly ask for one or two personal references at the very end of the job search process, after a formal contract has been given to the PhD. Finally, PhDs report that industry employers do not evaluate candidates based on their publishing record. This is true even for Research Scientist, Research Engineer, and other R&D positions. 

Over 99% of all hiring managers and recruiters do not have PhDs, which means they have not been taught to value academic publications (The Ladders). They do not see any link between your publication record and your ability to perform in industry. They certainly do not care about the volume, issue, and page number of your publication, which is why this kind of information should not be on any PhD-level industry resume. 

I explained all of this in my email reply to Sarah and ended my email by asking her three questions: which industry positions are you most interested in, when do you want to transition, and how big is your industry network. After sending my reply, I got the feeling that Sarah and I would meet some day. We did, exactly one month later at a Cheeky Scientist event, and she had just been hired into her first industry job. 

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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Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Isaiah Hankel, PhD Chief Executive Officer at Cheeky Scientist

Isaiah Hankel holds a PhD in Anatomy and Cell Biology. An expert in the biotechnology industry, he specializes in helping other PhDs transition into cutting-edge industry career tracks.

Isaiah believes--from personal experience--that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life, it’s a clear sign that you need to 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.

Isaiah is an internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant, CEO of Cheeky Scientist, and author of the straight-talk bestsellers Black Hole Focus and The Science of Intelligent Achievement.

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