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. 

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

Book a Transition Call
Get Free Job Search Content Weekly

ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD

CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS

Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Similar Articles

Why Hiring Managers Often See PhDs As Desperate (& How To Avoid It)

Why Hiring Managers Often See PhDs As Desperate (& How To Avoid It)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Recently, I spoke with an absolutely brilliant physicist. She had a decade of groundbreaking research under her belt, was well-respected and well-known in academia, and she was ready to make the move to an industry career.  And she was stumped.  She couldn’t understand why her job applications had been hitting a brick wall for the last few months. Despite her impressive credentials and numerous publications, she hadn’t received a single interview invitation in months.  The worst part? She’d already stepped away from the research and teaching that had been sustaining her financially.  When she doubled back, thinking maybe it just…

Your Job Search a Disaster So Far? Here's How to Clean Up the Mess (and Land the Job You Deserve)

Your Job Search a Disaster So Far? Here's How to Clean Up the Mess (and Land the Job You Deserve)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

“I’ve had several first-round interviews, Isaiah, but no callbacks,” a frustrated PhD candidate recently confided in me.  “Do you have any idea why?” I asked.  Everyone’s job search is unique, of course, so there’s no one answer to this question. But there are two that I hear more than most.  One is: “Employers say they’re looking for someone with more experience.”  The other? “Employers keep asking me why I’m leaving academia.”  Put another way, these two reasons are a reflection of PhDs being seen as either underqualified or overqualified.  The transition from academia to industry can be a minefield, and…

Why No One Can Get Academic Jobs Right Now

Why No One Can Get Academic Jobs Right Now

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

The academic job market presents numerous challenges for PhDs, including oversaturation, funding instability, adjunctification, and the pressure to publish. These factors create a competitive and exclusionary environment, making it difficult for highly qualified candidates to secure tenure-track positions. The solution lies in transitioning into industry roles strategically.

Negotiate A Higher Salary Using Precise Numbers And Open-Ended Questions 

Negotiate A Higher Salary Using Precise Numbers And Open-Ended Questions 

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

“I did everything I could to negotiate, Isaiah, but they told me the salary wasn’t negotiable.”  A job seeker told me this recently.  Ohhh, they told you that?  Was it written into law by congress?  I didn’t say that of course, but I hear statements like it all the time after people get hired.  While I’m happy they’re hired, it always makes me both sad and frustrated because I know that they could have negotiated and been paid more–more for themselves but also for their families, their futures, their legacies, on and on.  The problem is of course–negotiation is hard. …

How PhDs Can Avoid The Overqualified Label To Get Hired

How PhDs Can Avoid The Overqualified Label To Get Hired

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

“We regret to inform you that we will not be moving forward with your application due to concerns that your qualifications exceed those required for the role.  We feel it would not be a good fit. Thank you for applying.”  Oof, that’s part of a rejection email a PhD sent me. An employer had sent it to them after the first interview.  Another PhD told me this recently… “I feel like I’m both overqualified and underqualified for the jobs I apply to Isaiah.”  Which do you feel is more of a problem for you? I asked.  “At first I thought…

How To Answer “Why Are You Leaving Academia?” (& 4 Scientific Ways To Convince Employers To Hire You) 

How To Answer “Why Are You Leaving Academia?” (& 4 Scientific Ways To Convince Employers To Hire You) 

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

“‘Why do you want to work here more than anywhere else? And why are you leaving academia?’ Those are the questions I got stuck on, Isaiah.  I told them why I liked their company, mainly because it was aligned with my values, but I also wanted to be fair and ethical so I told them that I was considering other companies. Then I explained that academia was no longer a good fit because I wanted to do more than write grants all day.”  “Okay, I replied, anything else? What did you say after that?” “I asked them a few clarifying…

Should You Apply To More Than One Job At A Company? (& 3 Other Tough Job Search Questions Answered)

Should You Apply To More Than One Job At A Company? (& 3 Other Tough Job Search Questions Answered)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

“Isaiah, I applied to ThermoFisher two weeks ago and a hiring manager got in touch with me and I had my first interview…. But then a second hiring manager reached out to me about another job I applied to there.  I started talking to this second manager and they asked if I applied to any other positions there.  I couldn’t lie so I told them about the other job and the other hiring manager.  Now, neither of the hiring managers will get back to me.  What should I do?”  This is what a PhD told me over the phone last…

How LinkedIn Ranks Job Seekers With PhDs, EdDs & Other Degrees

How LinkedIn Ranks Job Seekers With PhDs, EdDs & Other Degrees

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

“Be real Isaiah, there’s not a government bureau keeping track of how our resumes perform.”  This is what a frustrated job seeker said to me recently.  “What do you mean I have a reputation score?” they asked.  “Of course there’s not a bureau dedicated to this, at least not yet” I said.  “But you absolutely are being scored and ranked” I went on, “and your ranking is used to indicate how reputable you are as a job seeker.”  This is what I’ve explained to countless people looking for a job in today’s job market, most of whom were getting initial…

How The Academic PhD Job Market Was Destroyed

How The Academic PhD Job Market Was Destroyed

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

“I spent over a year looking for a job in academia and flew to multiple interviews. I didn’t get one offer.” A PhD told me this recently and many other PhDs have told me similar stories.  Of course, the stories involve more than just looking for a job for a year.  They involve living on a meager academic budget, trying to support themselves and their families, often in very expensive cities where many of the biggest universities are located.  They involve decisions to never go on a vacation, to feed their kids cheaper, less healthy food, and to work all…

Top Industry Career eBooks

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD & Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Learn about the best 63 industry careers for PhDs (regardless of your academic background). In this eBook, you will gain insight into the most popular, highest-paying jobs for PhDs – all of which will allow you to do meaningful work AND get paid well for it.

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Learn how to craft the perfect industry resume to attract employers. In this eBook for PhDs, you will get access to proven resume templates, learn how to structure your bullet points, and discover which keywords industry employers want to see most on PhD resumes.

AI & ATS Resume Filters

AI & ATS Resume Filters

Isaiah Hankel

In today's competitive job market, understanding the impact of AI is crucial for career success. This involves ensuring your resume stands out in the digital realm, mastering your online presence, and being aware of how AI assigns reputation scores. Discovering how to leverage AI to your advantage is essential, as it plays a pivotal role in shaping professional opportunities.

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel

The LinkedIn tips & strategies within have helped PhDs from every background get hired into top industry careers.