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5 Missteps PhDs Often Make In Their Job Search And What To Do Instead

Written By: Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

I got an industry job offer during the 5th year of my PhD.

Exciting, right?

Not exactly.

I actually had to give up on the first industry job offer I got because my PI wouldn’t let me graduate.

My PI didn’t want me to graduate and, because he was the chair of my thesis committee, his opinion kept me from graduating.

I had an industry job offer but I was still stuck in academia.

I became a victim of my surroundings.

I was depressed and unhappy.

I had an application scientist job in my hand.

I had a paper published.

I should be able to graduate.

But, I wasn’t able to, because somebody else was in control of my future.

I felt like the victim in my own life.

I went through that for a couple of months, but eventually, I became fed-up.

This was not how I wanted things to be, so I was going to change them.

I was not going to let my situation or my advisor prevent me from transitioning into industry.

I followed up with the company again to see if they had the same position or another position available.

They said they still had an open position for me!

So, I took it.

I didn’t even have my PhD. I didn’t even have a date for my thesis yet.

But, I took it.

I know a lot of people think this is crazy, and you can’t do this with every company.

But, I took the job and I told them it’s going to be a couple of months before I can defend.

I didn’t have an exact date.

They said, “Okay, just keep us posted on the exact date.”

And, I kept following up with them, essentially acting like I was working for them.

On my evenings, I would put together data, help them find clients, and do the various things that application scientists do.

And, it kept them happy enough to wait for me.

Having the company wait for me to finish my PhD created a sense of urgency that I really needed to graduate.

I kept telling my PI and my thesis committee that I had a job lined up and that the company was waiting for me!

I went to the administration, I did everything I could think of to move the graduation process along.

Eventually, they let me set a defense date.

I successfully defended my thesis.

And, I was able to take that job.

The company ended up having to wait about 3 months for me to graduate.

I know this is an extreme situation, but I learned not to let my PI or any other nay-sayer prevent me from getting the job I wanted.

As PhDs, we deserve jobs where we can do meaningful work and be well-paid for it.

Remember, you are not a victim.

You have control of your job search and of your career future.

Why You Must Be Resilient In Your Job Search

There is no trick to getting hired.

There is no magic wand.

Instead, it takes hard work and perseverance to get hired in industry.

According to Management Recruiters International Network, for most positions, a candidate will have 3 interviews before a company decides to hire them.

But, for certain positions, candidates may have 5 or more interviews before getting hired.

By hiring you, companies are investing in you, and they want to be sure you are the right candidate.

So, if you have more than one interview, don’t get discouraged, as this is completely normal.

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

Now, 84 days is a long time, especially when you are unemployed.

But, that number is not specific for PhD-level positions.

For PhD-level positions, it can take even longer to get hired.

For example, Talent Works reported that it can take more than 150 days for a mechanical engineer to get hired.

This extended job search time occurs because, as a PhD, you are qualified for higher level industry positions and it just takes longer to get hired into a non-entry level position.

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 massive asset in your job search, but it alone will not get you a job.

Apply the fight and drive that you developed as a PhD to your job search.

And, even though your job search may seem slow, hiring is up.

According to Jobvite, 69% of recruiters reported that their company’s hiring has increased over the past year, and this jumps up to 76% for healthcare companies.

Your industry transition is possible.

Just keep moving forward, remember your value as a PhD, and learn from the mistakes and rejections you experience along the way.

Better yet, learn from the mistakes that I made during my job search, so you can avoid these pitfalls and get hired faster.

My 5 Biggest Job Search Mistakes And How You Can Avoid Making Them

I screwed up during my first industry job search.

A lot.

There were so many things about searching for a job and about working in industry that I just didn’t know.

But, you don’t have to make the same mistakes.

Here are 5 of the biggest mistakes I made and how you can avoid them…

1. I expected someone to just hand me a job — I’m a PhD, after all.

As academics, there is a very clear path laid out for us.

Now, that path is very, very narrow and for most of us it’s a dead-end, but that’s beside the point.

The point is, in academia, it is clear what you should do to try and move forward on that ever narrowing path.

You do XYZ requirement and then you move forward to the next step.

So naturally, PhDs think this is how it will be in terms of getting a job.

You put in the work and got a PhD or you completed a postdoc — so, of course you’re going to get an industry job.

Of course, Pfizer, Amgen, and all the other big companies are going to seek you out and offer you a job — you are a PhD.

At the very least, if you upload a resume, they will see your outstanding academic accolades and will hire you immediately.

This is far, far from the reality.

PhDs, myself included, are so surprised when companies don’t hire them or when they never get any response to their resume.

No one is going to just give you a job and no one is going to do your job search for you.

Bottom line, no one is coming to find you and hire you.

You have to be the one that’s putting yourself out there, over and over and over again, to get hired.

Taking responsibility for your own job search is the only way to make sure that it’s a successful job search.

2. I thought my advisor would help me get an industry job.

As a PhD, your advisor seems omnipotent.

They seem to know everyone, they oversee everything, and they have the final word.

It makes sense to think that your PI can help you get a job.

But, the influence of your PI does not extend outside of academia.

They probably don’t even know anyone outside of academia — my PI certainly didn’t.

Your other academic mentors are probably the same.

They just don’t know people in industry and they do not have any influence over what happens outside their tiny academic sphere.

So, what should you do?

If no one in academia can get you a job, what should you do?

Try to find that perfect networking contact who can solve your job search woes?

No.

Stop trying to find someone else who will “fix” your job search.

There is only one person who will make your job search a success or a failure — you.

It was the same in my job search — I had to put in the effort, again and again.

You can learn the right things, you can get access to the right people, but it still has to be you that pushes things forward.

3. I let other people’s opinions stall my industry transition.

The opinions of academics are strong.

The traditional academic path — PhD to postdoc to professor — is what universities promote to newly minted PhDs.

And, if you waiver outside of those lines, you will hear about it.

You will face resistance.

In my case, my PI did everything he could to prevent my graduation.

You might also face resistance from colleagues or from family.

No matter who it is telling you that you can’t transition into industry, don’t listen.

Don’t let their limiting beliefs place limits on your career.

People often believe in all these fake rules that we make up in our head, like the “rule” that PhDs should stay in academia.

But, in reality, these rules are not real and these limiting beliefs are only there because we’ve accepted them as facts.

Academia can be a negative place and your decision to look outside the university to find a better career might be met with resistance.

But, don’t let the opinions of other people hold you back.

As a PhD, not only can you transition into industry, you can do it now, no matter what your situation is.

There are going to be obstacles, but you can overcome those obstacles.

It might not feel comfortable, you might make other people mad, and you might have to take a risk, but it will be worth it.

4. I got played by negotiation tactics.

You will notice that after you get to your first industry job, recruiters will approach you much more than they did before you had worked in industry.

While working my first job, a recruiter approached me about a position at a much bigger company.

I was interested, and for this company the job search process started with a phone screen — not with a resume.

Someone called and talked with me about the position, but what I didn’t realize was that the salary negotiations had already begun.

That’s right, from the very first phone screen, the company was already negotiating.

But of course, at the time, I didn’t even realize it.

And so, as the conversation ran its course, I got taken by the negotiation tactics.

They asked me how much money I was making, and since I was already working in industry at that point, and they could’ve found out the information anyway, I told them.

And the other person was like, “Wow, I can’t believe you make that much money already in industry. I don’t think we can top that, that’s so much money.”

They went on and on, and I ended up feeling guilty for making “so much money.”

Long story short, these tactics were continually used against me throughout the entire hiring process with this company.

But, I had no clue they were doing this to me.

Anyway, well-played by this company.

I wanted the job really badly, and at the end of the day, they offered me a salary that was the same salary that I was making at my previous company.

I ended up accepting the same salary I earned when I first started in industry, even though I now had more experience in industry.

How did that happen?

Because I got played by the negotiation tactics.

So, learn from my mistake.

It’s very important for you to know that the negotiation process starts early.

Right now, you’re so focused on just getting an interview, just making it to getting a job offer, and you’re not even thinking about negotiation.

And, that’s a problem.

Because salary negotiation is going to come up and you need to be ready.

Otherwise, you will end up getting paid far less than you are worth.

5. I didn’t keep in touch with networking contacts.

Networking is important before, during, and after your job search.

Having a quality professional network that you invest in is a huge predictor of career success (and longevity, for that matter).

But, you don’t need to force networking.

Networking should actually be enjoyable.

There are going to be people out there that you get along with and other people you don’t get along with.

One way to think about it is 25% of the people out there are going to really like you, and you’re going to have automatic rapport with them.

You will easily get along with them.

There is also going to be another 25% of people that won’t like you, no matter what you do.

Something about you annoys them, or vice versa.

And then, there is the remaining 50% who you can convince to like you if you put in the effort.

To get the most out of your networking efforts, forget about that 50% you need to convince and forget about the 25% that are never going to like you.

Instead, focus on the 25% of people you meet at conferences or other events who you just resonate with and are able to have great conversations with.

Yes, you will meet fewer people this way, but the quality of your networking will increase.

So, instead of going to more and more events to create a huge number of people in your network, invest into the people you have already met.

Follow up with them every month or so.

If they are people that you naturally get along with, it will be easier to follow up with them regularly as well.

By maintaining relationships with these people, even if you’re just talking to them once a month, it keeps those relationships warm.

It will be helpful when you are looking to make the next step in your career, and it will make asking for a referral very easy.

In your job search, you are going to face a lot of failure, and that’s tough. You have to follow up over and over and over again. And, while it may be tempting to look for someone else to blame your job search on, your success ultimately comes down to you. It’s up to you to push your job search and your career forward. There’s no rest, you can’t pause during it, you have to keep that momentum going, and you have to learn from the mistakes you will make along the way. Mistakes like the ones I made, such as expecting someone to just hand me a job, thinking my advisor would help get me an industry job, letting other people’s opinions stall my industry transition, getting played by negotiation tactics, and not keeping in touch with networking contacts.

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Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should 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 Hankel Ph.D.