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.

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

Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 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 two bestselling books with Wiley and 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.

Similar Articles

The Exciting (or, Dreadful) First 90 Days Of A New Job. Here's What To Expect

The Exciting (or, Dreadful) First 90 Days Of A New Job. Here's What To Expect

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Like many PhDs, I thought I could jump into my first industry position ready to hit the ground running. Much to my surprise, this was not the case.   During the first few months of my new position, I felt like I was drowning. Everything I thought I knew about my field, how research is conducted, and how companies operate was turned on its head. I was not prepared for this major shift, and it showed. I waivered between trying to impress my managers and sitting mute in meetings, intimidated by everyone in the room. If I had known what…

The Inside Scoop On The Industry Onboarding Process

The Inside Scoop On The Industry Onboarding Process

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Nothing could prepare me for the shock I received walking into my first industry onboarding experience. Literally, everything was different from what I had experienced in academia. The processes, the culture, the pace – absolutely everything. I also had no idea what onboarding meant. I heard the word tossed around but, to me, it was just the process you went through to get all the mandatory paperwork out of the way. That was so far from the truth. My first onboarding experience lasted almost 6 months. Yet, throughout that whole process, I had no idea that I was still being…

4 Oddly Popular PhD Careers In Finance And Business

4 Oddly Popular PhD Careers In Finance And Business

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

PhDs in the sciences and humanities are not qualified to work in finance or business. At least that’s what I thought. That was until I started hearing more of my former colleagues talk about their transition into consulting and financial service roles. These were people who specialized in very niche areas of science. I was surprised to learn that their skills were needed in the financial and business sectors of industry. What can a PhD in the sciences or humanities possibly contribute to finance and business? As always, it comes down to your transferable skills. These sectors are seeking highly…

PhD Careers In Clinical, Medical, And Regulatory Affairs

PhD Careers In Clinical, Medical, And Regulatory Affairs

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I was defending my PhD in 6 months, and I still had no idea what I wanted to do. What job did I want? Where did I see myself in 5 to 10 years? My goal was to get out of academia and into industry – and as quickly as possible. Beyond that, I hadn’t thoroughly considered my options. In fact, when I finally sat down to apply for jobs, I blindly searched for open positions using standard terms: “Researcher,” “Scientist,” “Biologist,” and so on. As a science PhD, that’s what I was qualified for, right? What I didn’t appreciate…

6 Research And Development Roles For PhDs (Not Just Research Scientist)

6 Research And Development Roles For PhDs (Not Just Research Scientist)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

When you envision yourself in an industry role, what do you see? Like many PhDs, you might imagine yourself in a research position where you are developing and performing experiments, analyzing data, presenting the data to your research team, and so on. After all, that’s what your PhD has trained you for, right? But if the thought of spending a life-long career conducting experiments fills you with dread, start looking beyond the bench. There are plenty of fulfilling career paths within Research and Development (R&D) that keep you close to the innovation. As one Cheeky Scientist member recently shared:  …

4 Great PhD Careers In Sales And Marketing (Don’t Overlook #3)

4 Great PhD Careers In Sales And Marketing (Don’t Overlook #3)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Like many PhDs, you may think that Research and Development is the only department in industry that hires PhDs. But the reality is, your skills are needed in every area of industry. That means that every single department within a company is seeking PhD-level candidates. In fact, there are five core industry career tracks that can provide PhDs with meaningful and rewarding work: Information and Data Management (this is a broad category that includes everything from Patent Analyst and Informatics Specialist roles to Medical Writing and Data Scientist roles), Research and Development, Clinical and Regulatory Affairs, Classical Business (e.g., Management…

Data Scientist, Patent Analyst & Medical Writing Positions For PhDs

Data Scientist, Patent Analyst & Medical Writing Positions For PhDs

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

What industry position can I apply to? That’s one of the most common questions PhDs ask once they decide to leave academia. What you probably don’t realize is that you have many options when it comes to choosing a career. So, the real question is not what industry position you can apply to, but what industry position is the right fit for you. Which position better matches your professional lifestyle and career goals?  In previous blogs we’ve discussed how to establish your desired professional lifestyle and how to use it to evaluate your target career track and companies. In the…

The One Productivity Hack Every PhD Needs To Get Hired In Industry

The One Productivity Hack Every PhD Needs To Get Hired In Industry

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If your job search isn’t producing results, perhaps you’re doing too little. Or, just as likely, you’re doing too much… too much of the wrong things. You may think “If I just spent more hours of the day searching and applying for jobs, I’m sure to land a job eventually.” But investing more time into a job search without a strategy is time wasted. An effective job search strategy is one that conserves our most precious resource: our mental energy.   Protecting your mental energy is the one productivity hack that every PhD needs to get hired in industry. As…

3 Factors PhDs Must Consider When Deciding Company Fit

3 Factors PhDs Must Consider When Deciding Company Fit

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If you recently started your job search, you probably feel the pressure of proving that you’re a good fit for the industry roles you’re applying to.  You have to carefully craft your cover letter, resume, and LinkedIn profile, and prepare for countless interviews just to prove you’re  qualified for a position.  This pressure can make you feel that employers hold all the power, and the only thing that matters is convincing them that you’re the best candidate for the role. Don’t let this pressure make you neglect other key components of a successful career, like company fit.  You’ll likely accept…

Top Industry Career eBooks

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.

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.