How To Tell Your PhD Story And Use It To Sell Yourself In Industry

You were so excited to take charge of your future and transition out of academia. 

You hired an expert to craft the perfect resume.

You lined up interviews, and the hiring managers seemed impressed.

You felt confident.

Then came the question…

“And why do you want to leave academia?”

You figured the answer was obvious. Doesn’t everyone already know academia isn’t the most financially rewarding path—especially after the investment you made in a PhD?

“But what is it about this job in particular that makes you want to take the leap? Are you just looking for a better salary?”

That’s when you realize now is probably a bad time to negotiate a higher salary than the one listed on the job posting. You’ll wait until the second interview.

“So, tell me why you’re a better choice than other applicants who might have more hands-on experience?”

Now, you’re panicking. The question almost feels like a personal attack. 

You ramble off your skills and experience, almost word for word to your resume, somehow knowing that’s not what the interviewer wants to hear.

You leave the interview thinking things like: “This wasn’t how it’s supposed to go.” “Am I not cut out for industry?” “Maybe the next one will go better. No, probably not.”

You have the experience and education for the jobs—if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have landed the interviews! 

Those questions cut so deep because you realized you hadn’t considered them yourself. You spent so much time researching every detail in your field—thinking that’s the important part—that you forgot to dedicate the same energy to yourself.

Learning how to tell your PhD story is the secret to selling yourself as a person while leveraging your academic experience to land almost any position you want.

Yes, Your PhD Story Really Is THAT Important

Without an authentic story about yourself and your transition, employers won’t see you as anything but a liability. 

The starting salary for a PhD-level research position at Walgreens Pharmacy, for example, starts at $123k. The hiring manager can’t afford to fill that position with anything less than the best.

What if you regret your decision to leave academia and quit the job a few weeks after they hire you?

What if you don’t work well in the demanding team environment? 

Whether those concerns are valid or not, the hiring manager can’t tell. That’s why learning how to tell your PhD story positions you how you want employers to see you.

You need to control the conversation.

Hiring managers always throw some curveball questions to test you, but you should prepare for the basics. 

Your PhD story sells you as a person.

Managers want to know your personality blends with the culture and, most importantly, that you’re not too independent to work as one small piece of a team.

You need to subtly prove you’re worth the money and committed to industry.

Companies spend 1.25-1.4 times more than the base salary to hire you. Training and getting you up to speed also cost time and money. If you don’t work out, it takes over six months on average to replace you.

Don’t let this scare you. Just beware of what’s riding on the decision to hire you and why it’s so important to learn how to tell your PhD story.

How To Tell Your PhD Story And Sell It

A few less-than-ideal interviews can leave you feeling out of place in industry entirely.

Only 0.7% of PhDs earn their doctorate before age 25—and less than half get there before 30.

Looking around the prospective workplace and realizing people 10 years your junior have 10 years more industry experience than you isn’t a wonderful feeling.

Don’t let this get to you! You are cut out for meaningful industry work, and learning how to tell your PhD story will get you there.

1. Figure out why you want to leave academia

Not the money. Not the security. Start with a pros and cons list of your experience in academia. 

As you learn how to tell your PhD story, you want to subtly demonstrate why you’ve worked in academia until now and what’s pushing you to industry. 

Dig past the surface. What have you learned in academia? Why are you ready to share your experience elsewhere?

Show employers you’re committed to industry.

2. Think about what you want to gain from industry

What are your long-term goals for transitioning? 

Employers already know you have the technical expertise and can you earn more in academia. Instead, work your transferable skills into this part of the story. 

Explain what attracts you to an industry environment—teamwork, clear responsibilities, contributing to something bigger, better communication. 

Also, show employers you have a realistic vision of industry life.

3. Connect with another PhD who’s been there

You might feel lonely and out of place, but countless PhDs have been in your shoes—and they’d love to talk about the good and bad.

Connect with other PhDs in your field who made the switch recently. They’ll have a better understanding of modern industry demands than someone reaching retirement.

Keep the conversation open. Even casual talks and questions can help you understand yourself and your story on a deeper level.

4. Put your PhD story in writing and share it with friends

Write your story imagining a hiring manager reading it. Don’t get too technical but don’t use super flowery language either.

Once you’ve finished a draft, share it with friends in and out of your field in industry. Those in your field can give specific tips. Those in other fields, meanwhile, can provide a more realistic perspective of your story’s vibe.

Stop Overthinking It

Hiring managers and your prospective coworkers can smell a less-than-authentic story right away. They want honesty—and you do, too. 

Remember, industry hiring is a two-sided process. Use the time to make sure the position is worth your investment, too. You can’t buy back time. Your time, dedication, and experience are valuable. Now, you know how to tell a PhD story that shows it.

To learn how to weave your PhD story into your resume, download our most popular eBook: The Cheeky Scientist Industry Resume Guide for PhDs.

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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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