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My 3-Step Job-Search Plan For PhDs In A Bad Economy

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Written by Sarah Smith, Ph.D.

Finding the right position was one of my biggest challenges once I decided to move into industry. 

I had plenty of academic experience, but I didn’t know if that was valuable in industry.

A lot of people told me that it would be difficult to apply for industry roles without relevant experience.

At first, I made some major mistakes.

My advisor told me to list my technical skills at the top of my resume.

He told me to emphasize my education section – surely, this would impress employers, right?

It didn’t, and now I know better.

I wasn’t listing all the transferable skills I’d picked up in academia, and I wasn’t targeting industry roles with the right keywords.

Academia is fixated on your credentials…

While industry asks questions like these:

  • How can you apply your knowledge?
  • Can you find smart solutions?
  • What results can you achieve?

Industry cared less about titles from my past and more about what I could do in the future.

I already had all the necessary skills to excel in industry, but I wasn’t communicating them properly on my resume.

Once I started networking and building good industry resumes, it wasn’t long until I started seeing results.

I didn’t get my first big industry job right away, but I made connections, got interviews, and picked up important referrals.

It may take some time, but if you adopt the right strategies as a PhD, you WILL get hired into a fulfilling, lucrative industry role.

Why You Should Expect To Interview Multiple Times For Different Jobs

There is no magic trick to getting hired in industry.

It takes hard work and perseverance.

Even after you get the interview, the job search process still isn’t complete.

The average candidate can have up to 3 interviews with a company before a hiring decision is made.

CareerSidekick reports that, for some positions, candidates may have 5 or more interviews before getting hired.

Hires represent an investment by the company, and they want to be sure you are the right candidate.

If you have more than one interview, don’t get discouraged – this is completely normal.

According to Talent Works, the average time it takes someone to get a job is 84 days.

84 days may seem like a long time for a job search, especially when you are unemployed.

PhD talking on phone

And for PhD-level positions, it can take even longer.

For example, the same source reports that it can take more than 150 days for a mechanical engineer to get hired.

As a PhD, you are qualified for high-level industry positions, and the hiring process for those is longer than for entry-level positions.

So you must be resilient in your job search.

Keep pushing forward, and realize that it’s normal for a PhD-level job search to last many months.

Your PhD is a professional asset, but it will not get you a job all on its own.

You have to learn from the mistakes you make along the way.

And you can also learn from the mistakes other PhDs make in their job search…

3 Steps To Getting Hired In A Recession

PhDs are smart – no one is arguing against this.

But a lifetime in academia can really skew your idea of a proper job search.

Many PhDs are pretty scattered.

Especially right now, in the midst of the recession, they’re not focused. 

Are you getting overwhelmed with uncertainty?

Do you have a sense of panic or fear about what’s going to happen in the future?

I want to clarify exactly what you need to do to focus your job search. 

This is the blueprint you should follow when times are uncertain or when things seem chaotic.

It’s time to go back to the fundamentals and reapply them to the current context. 

Here are 3 things to check off your list during your job search in the recession.

1.  Figure out the professional lifestyle that you want. 

Always go back to this. 

The ball in a sense is always in your court. 

Don’t be desperate – don’t take just any job that’s out there. 

First, consider what you want. 

At the end of the day, you could take a very low-level job, postdoc, or something similar to get by. 

But you deserve better than that. 

So think about your desired professional lifestyle. 

Remember, you have value, your PhD is valuable so you get to decide what you actually want. 

When evaluating the professional lifestyle you want, ask yourself these core questions. 

Do you want an industry position that is:

  • Numbers-heavy?
  • Writing-intensive?
  • At the tip of the innovation spectrum?
  • More on the commercial side? 
  • Related to intellectual property?
  • R&D-oriented?
  • Remote? 
  • In-house?
  • Heavy on travel? 

Do you want to work with large teams or small teams?

A large company or a small one?

Finally, ask yourself, How much do I want the salary to be?

Once you determine the professional lifestyle you want, you can fit job titles to that concept. 

2. Work off of a job-search spreadsheet.

Too many PhDs STILL don’t do this…

You need a master list of all your job search activity.

PhDs search for job

Cheeky Scientist calls this the “job search-spreadsheet,” and you should be using one.

Create a spreadsheet with 5 columns, including:

  • The companies you want to work for
  • Contacts you make within those companies
  • Job openings at the companies in which you now have contacts
  • The last time you followed up with those contacts
  • The next time that you need to follow up with them

This is your home base—your central map of all the information and strategy that you need during your job hunt.

If you don’t have a spreadsheet like this, you’re wasting your time. 

You can’t just “fly by the seat of your pants.” 

This should not be a spontaneous process where you just wake up in the morning and look at whatever job opening you feel like looking at. 

Forget about following one job lead at a time—especially during a recession— and work toward many opportunities at the same time.

This gives you leverage and control in your search, which will make you more confident.

When you interview with a company, it won’t be as nerve-racking because you’ll have many other job opportunities to work toward.

3. Focus on networking and generating referrals.

Set up as many informational interviews as you can.

The Cheeky Scientist Association is extremely valuable for this.

With a built-in network of other PhDs, you will have a very easy time getting informational interviews with those whose careers match your vision.

Then, you can get introductions from these Associates to people who may not be in the Association, but who are working in your dream companies. 

To get those informational interviews, you should follow a process called the “straight-line referral strategy.” 

This strategy is built on 3 steps:

  • Get a reply from a contact.
  • Don’t overthink it. 
  • Focus on reaching out in a professional, yet human way.

Remember, everyone is having a hard time right now.

Don’t be so intensely focused on getting a job that you forget the other person’s a human being going through a pandemic. 

Once they’ve replied to you and you have a dialogue going, you can start the information interview process and ask them questions. 

This second section of the straight-line referral process is all about adding value. 

How do they enjoy their career?

Congratulate them on that career, on their professional progress, something you find on their LinkedIn profile, or whatever else you can think of. 

Ease into the informational interview with compliments and easy, general questions about their professional life.

Ask them how they got into their job or what they enjoy about it the most.

Build rapport.

That third section of the straight-line strategy is to ask more probing questions – this is where you get your most valuable information.

You can’t skip directly to this step.

You have to go through the layers of intimacy first.

Don’t start with a question that’s too intimate right away – you’ll scare them off.

This is where you can ask them about the most challenging part of their job.

What’s the work life balance like? 

What do they wish they had known when they first started the job?

After all this, ask if you can use their name on a cover letter as a referral. 

Ask if they can pass along your resume to the hiring manager. 

Or at the very least, ask them if there’s anybody else they could introduce you to at the company—someone they think you’d benefit from talking to…

Everyone says yes to this. 

This is how the straight-line referral strategy works.

There you have it: The 3 steps to a strong job search during the recession. Figure out the professional lifestyle that you want in order to match your strategy to that ideal. Then track your progress and work off of a job search spreadsheet. Focus on networking and generating referrals, and you will see your career gradually begin to take form. It might not happen right away – in fact, it probably won’t. But these things take time. You’re a PhD, and the hardest part (getting your degree) is over. Now it’s just a matter of following the right formula.

Sarah Smith, PhD


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