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5 Ways To Limit PhD Anxiety And Protect Your Career

PhD walking with confidence

Contributing Author: Elliott Brecht, PhD

You should have seen my academic CV.

It was a total disaster.

By academia’s standards, it was fine.

But I had a real monster of a CV, over 5 pages long and full of academic jargon.

And there was no cover letter either.

Can you guess what industry employers did after taking a glimpse at my CV?

They probably threw it away – that’s assuming it even reached employers.

More likely, it was filtered out of candidacy by application tracking software.

You might think that, given the current situation, you should be focusing your time on other things, not career advancement.

But that’s not true at all.

True, current events are different from how it was back then.

We’re in a spending freeze, an economic slump.

Between new social distancing norms and unsettling news reports, it’s easy to forget about resumes and job searching.

But PhDs who neglect their job search are making a huge mistake. 

Now is one of the best possible times to work on your career development.

Right now, industry is relying on virtual interaction to conduct business.

The world may feel completely different from how it was just months ago, but your job search still needs the kind of drive and devotion that only a PhD knows how to muster.

Before my own industry transition, Cheeky Scientist taught me how to break from my bad job-search habits.

I learned to identify and eliminate the mistakes that were holding me back.

I’m going to teach you some of what I learned and how to apply it in the midst of a pandemic.

Are you ready to get hired?

industry phd on phone

Why The Economy Is Crashing (But You Don’t Have To Crash With It)

There’s a saying in industry: Low profits are like cancer to a business, but no cash flow is like a heart attack.

Just before the previous economic crash, the World Health Organization predicted a rise in poor mental health and anxiety.

They were right, and we’re beginning to see it again.

People all over the world are hiding from the data.

They are holed up, waiting for things to get better.

As a PhD, you have to be better than that.

Realize that as unemployment skyrockets, the GDP will go down.

Jobs are disappearing, and the cash flow has stopped.

Cash flow keeps the economy running, and if it stops, the economy dies – lack of cash flow will kill any business, industry, or sector right away.

Countries and universities are essentially businesses, and a lot of people are not spending money right now.

People are not out buying luxuries, electronics, or going out to restaurants – they are biding time, waiting for the problem to solve itself.

The government can’t save you.

Academia can’t save you either – during a spending freeze, TAs and postdocs are let go.

With postdocs gone, PhD students get overworked.

So what can you do?

You can start looking for sectors of industry that are hiring right now.

You must embrace a powerful mindset during your job search.

There is a strategy to follow.

I’m going to tell you how to put it into action.

5 Ways To Accelerate Your Job Search And Protect Your Career

What should I do to get hired during the pandemic? 

Is it possible? 

As PhDs, we think we’re not qualified for any positions outside of academia because we don’t have all the skills mentioned in the job postings. 

Does this sound familiar? 

During this pandemic, people are feeling down. 

They’re watching things online instead of actively working on getting hired. 

If this sounds like you, understand that what you’re feeling is normal – that is OK. 

But you can’t stay hidden away forever.

Don’t focus on what could go wrong. 

Don’t dwell on the reasons you might not get a job.

You need to use this time strategically – follow up with leads and connections, and add value.

Fix your workflow, ditch your impostor syndrome, and create a stellar industry resume.

Here are 5 important steps you can take to build and protect your career as a PhD.

Social distancing can’t stop you – it’s time to optimize your chances of getting hired.

1. Revamp your job search workflow.

Diagram of job search workflow

Many PhDs follow an ineffective workflow when searching for a job.

Are you starting—and spending most of your time—with your resume and moving forward from there?

That may sound like a logical place to start, but it’s not. 

Non-PhD-level jobs might start with just a resume, and that’s fine for those people.

But you’re not one of those people – you’re a PhD, and you want a fulfilling, high-level industry career.

That means you need to begin with networking.

This is the opposite of what seems natural to most PhDs.

They usually like to follow the incorrect workflow, a job-search process with networking as an afterthought.

This is about the worst possible plan I can think of.

In fact, of all the job-search phases, you should be putting the most time and energy into networking.

That’s because high-level industry roles don’t rely on resumes – they rely on networking and referrals.

Under normal circumstances, LinkedIn is a major part of your networking process – given the pandemic, the importance of virtual networking has shot up even higher.

That means LinkedIn is absolutely crucial right now, so you need to fill out your profile.

 You want it to be 100%-completed. 

 If it’s not complete, this is actually worse than not having a LinkedIn profile at all.

Remember that a ton of other people are online right now – many are stuck at home.

They are looking for social interaction, and you can provide it via professional interactions.

It can be as simple as asking a contact about their day-to-day experience during the pandemic. 

What articles are you reading? Are you able to still do any work? What’s going on with you and your kid/your pets?

Ask questions like these and find ways to add value.

2. Practice virtual professionalism.

Interacting with someone in person is one thing – interacting on a computer screen is not the same.

Don’t underestimate how different these two styles of interaction can be.

If you aren’t comfortable or have no experience with video meetings, it’s time to practice.

This is actually the fun part of the job search though.

You can set up virtual meetings with people you know and practice networking or having a virtual interview.

If you have another PhD to talk with, that’s even better.

Practice going back and forth, asking each other interview questions and giving real feedback.

You need to treat these sessions like the real deal – dress just like you would for an actual interview.

Check your lighting, clear your background of distracting decorations/furniture, and act like the person on the screen is right in front of you.

This is the perfect time to work out any technical issues that might trouble a real virtual interview.

Once you feel more comfortable, start reaching out to your contacts and adding value.

Have conversations, introduce other professionals, and have enriching conversations.

By practicing virtual professionalism and networking, you are generating future referrals.

And referrals can/will get you interviews.

phd networking from home on laptop

3. Transform your academic CV into an industry resume.

It’s true that you ought to spend the least time on your resume/industry CV.

It’s also true that this part of the job search should come last on your list of priorities…

But it’s still important.

There will come a time when you need a resume to hand over to an employer – usually, this is right after landing an interview.

And given the current global situation, you have more time than ever to work on your written credentials.

Now is a fantastic time to work on transforming that academic CV into a professional industry resume. 

You want to create a convincing document that portrays you as a successful professional instead of simply highlighting your education.

A good industry resume emphasizes your transferable skills – the talents you have picked up in academia that make you desirable to companies.

Get rid of that big education section on your academic CV and create a bulleted list of skills linked to quantifiable results.

For example, let’s say you’ve written a successful grant proposal, overseen a research team, and published an article as a result.

One bullet can list your written communication skills in connection with the amount of money you acquired via the grant.

Another can list your leadership experience with the number of researchers you oversaw during the process.

Time and budget management skills are also highly valuable in industry, so list those too.

Now you’ve taken your academic experience and turned it into something an industry employer understands…

You’ve listed transferable skills like communication, project management, leadership, problem solving, and conflict resolution.

Use a little spare time to work on a polished industry resume – if you’re stuck at home during the pandemic, now is the time.

4. Break free of stagnation in small steps.

As a PhD, you are no stranger to stress.

Academic life at the higher levels is beyond tough – it’s downright unfair.

But even with the current gap in employment and academic work, there is a new kind of stress going around.

This stress is like an additional virus, spreading faster and more effectively than coronavirus could ever hope to.

Maybe your mind is racing with negative possibilities, things like employment, supplies, the economy, etc.

The job search can seem overwhelming right now.

Think of a time when you were stressed about something big, and it caused you to stagnate.

You procrastinated because getting started felt impossibly difficult. 

I’m no exception to this rule – I’ve stagnated on plenty of important projects because of how scary they looked.

But remember what happens when you finally get started?

Once you finally dig into the work, it’s like the stress just melts away.

The actual task is less difficult than the imaginary one you’ve blown up in your head.

Think of your job search like a test.

You need to study for it, but you feel like it’s so large and intimidating that you don’t know where to start.

Don’t let yourself fall into that trap.

Stagnation inflates the task in your imagination and makes it huge.

Then, you’re even less likely to get started because of how large it’s become.

Start by taking small steps – give yourself half an hour to begin working earnestly on your job search.

After that half hour, see if you can add another half, and so on.

I bet you will find the real task less imposing than it was in your mind.

phd smiling after managing anxiety

5. Use psychology to overcome impostor syndrome.

This is a tough condition to manage and get over.

I’ve gone through impostor syndrome, and so have many other PhDs.

It’s especially common for PhDs to feel like impostors.

Academia instills low self-esteem in far too many PhD students and postdocs.

You don’t feel like you belong – you feel like you are fooling the people around you.

Maybe you worry that any minute they will discover your incompetence, and then you’ll feel humiliated.

But ask yourself this: How do you imagine other people feel?

Do you think they are constantly walking around with perfect self-esteem and total confidence in their abilities?

Most people are not like that – they are all dealing with their own private insecurities.

Here’s the most interesting part: As a PhD, you are more competent than the average person.

According to the Dunning-Kruger effect, those with less knowledge and competence tend to overestimate their abilities.

Meanwhile, those with higher levels of knowledge and competence tend to underestimate themselves in what is explained as the “false consensus bias.”

Under this bias, PhDs may assume that everyone is approximately as smart and capable as they are.

But that’s not the case.

If everyone on Earth tried to get their PhD, how many would actually succeed?

How many checkpoints would they really be able to get through?

Some would fail to understand the field – others would lose interest or motivation.

Others still would get beaten down by the workload, or they would lose themselves to depression and anxiety.

You are one of the exceptional few who made it.

Never forget this fact.

And if you don’t quite have your doctorate yet, you will – you’ve made it this far.

Job-searching from home might contribute to feelings of being an unqualified impostor, but know that you are a highly valuable commodity.

PhDs are sought-after, and the Cheeky Scientist Association proves it – PhDs just like you are getting hired into industry all the time, even now.

The Association is continuing operations through the current economic slump because it is fueled by successful PhDs who have taken its message to heart.

You are valuable, and an employer will notice. Don’t give up. Other PhDs everywhere are having the same struggles that you are. You’re not alone. Keep these tips in mind: revamp your job search; practice virtual professionalism; transform your academic CV into an industry resume; break free of stagnation in small steps; and use psychology to overcome impostor syndrome.


To learn more about protecting your career and limiting PhD anxiety, 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.

Elliott Brecht, PhD


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