5 Mistakes That Prevent PhDs from Getting Hired and How to Fix Them
Contributing Author: Elliott J. Brecht, PhD
No one was reading my CV.
I was just about to graduate, but I wasn’t pushing forward toward industry.
Instead, I was focused on completing my dissertation.
Don’t get me wrong – I was out there slinging applications left and right, and I lost count of how many jobs I applied to.
But along with my applications, I sent a 5-page CV with no cover letter.
Are you seeing any issues with my process yet?
How about this: I had no connections, no awareness of the industry hiring process, and nothing but a vague impression that my academic experience was enough to see me through.
I just submitted applications into the online black hole over and over, each time hoping that this application would be different.
Well, one of these times, it was different.
I got an interview at a startup doing work very similar to my defense.
You won’t be surprised to learn that I took my one opportunity and flushed it down the toilet.
During the interview, I sat there and regurgitated scientific results from years of research.
I didn’t apply any of my background to the company’s work.
I didn’t express the value I could bring to the team as an employee.
So I didn’t get the job.
I was disheartened because this job had seemed like the best possible fit for me.
If I couldn’t get this job, I figured I’d never get anything in my field.
I thought I’d be resigned to doing post-doc work forever.
But the biggest issue of all was my own mindset.
I was unconsciously making mistakes as I approached industry, including clinging to the academic ways I’d learned to follow for years.
Cheeky Scientist taught me to break from these bad habits and get the position I deserved.
These days, I’m working my dream job.
How did I do it?
I identified and eliminated the mistakes and wrong attitudes that were holding me back.
And since PhD hiring is up 500% in industry, take it from me: If you’re not landing an industry job with your PhD, it might be your own fault.
The good news is that this is completely fixable.
How Ripe Is The Job Market For PhDs Right Now?
Put it this way: PhD hiring in industry is up by 500%.
You read that right.
MassBio reports that in 2017, life-science PhD job listings were sitting at 27,700 in Massachusetts alone.
That’s the second-highest number on record, and only by 3%.
City-Data.com states that Massachusetts is home to three of the most PhD-populated cities worldwide.
The American Institute of Physics displays a long list of employers who have already hired PhD-holding employees between 2009 and 2016.
These are just some of the available data on the rise of the industry PhD.
Who ever said that earning your PhD was a waste of time?
Your PhD is an asset, not an excuse.
It’s only a waste if you allow it to be, so treat it like an advantage — because it is one!
Even Nature agrees on that point.
5 Mistakes That Stop PhDs From Getting Hired
Industries that use the scientific method are hiring PhDs more than ever before.
But if there is truly such a hiring boom for PhDs, why do so many of them struggle to get to the interview, let alone get the job?
Why are so many of them floundering like fish out of water?
In a way, they are out of water — the water of academia.
If you’re a PhD who is struggling to make ends meet, or you’re blocked from your dream job at every turn, you need to start playing smart.
You need to quit making rookie mistakes and meet industry on its own terms.
Each of the following 5 fatal errors can — and will — happily kill all your job prospects.
You don’t have to let them.
1. You’re not making yourself noticeable to employers online.
What does it mean to be invisible online?
Maybe you have a LinkedIn profile, or maybe you’re uploading a ton of resumes.
But you’re not hearing anything back, or you’re just getting automated responses that say, “Thank you for your resume.”
Followed by silence.
Or if recruiters reach out to you, they never call back.
Whatever the case, your online efforts are not leading to a job.
This is what it feels like to be invisible online.
One way this happens is that when you upload an application, you have lots of academic job titles at the top of your resume.
Well, guess what?
No one is reading them.
Your resume is going to be filtered through an AI that looks at your experience and has no idea what a “graduate research assistant” is.
The AI has never heard of a “postdoctoral fellow” and it doesn’t understand why you have so many universities listed.
You’re getting filtered out of the competition.
This will happen if you write a chronological resume instead of a functional one.
On a resume, you need to emphasize industry-relevant skills and applicable experience — not academic knowledge.
Another way you’re making yourself invisible to employers is by not writing your desired locations on LinkedIn.
There is a misconception that if you don’t fill out locations, you’re more likely to show up in search results.
You have to fill out your top 1-2 desired work locations, preferably in your headline, and list whether or not you’re willing to relocate.
The AI is looking for the right locations, and if it doesn’t see them, it’s going to skip over you as a candidate.
Throughout your LinkedIn profile, you should also be highlighting any skills that are transferable.
Here’s one that a lot of PhDs may find surprising, though: you need to be putting job titles in your profile.
This includes jobs you’ve never had, but that you’d like to have!
You need to show up in the search results, and plugging in the right keywords is how you do it.
The final step toward online visibility is easy: hit the recruiter button on your LinkedIn profile so that the website knows to list you in its sister site, “LinkedIn Recruiter.”
2. You’re not showing employers that you’re committed to a specific industry role.
Are you committed to getting a job in industry, or are you just kind of interested?
You need to make a decision — look at the data and realize that there are no jobs for you in academia.
Full-time professorships will be extinct in 5-10 years because they’re being replaced by part-time contractor and adjunct professorships.
According to Nature, staying in a postdoc position can damage your career.
If you want to get into industry, you have to commit to it.
When you make it to the interview stage, do NOT act like industry is just one of your options.
In academia, we are trained as PhDs to explore options and to talk about anything.
But employers want to test your certainty.
So maybe employers will ask you questions like:
“I see you’ve applied to this position, but would you be open to other positions?”
In cases like these, they don’t actually want you to say yes.
They want you to say, “I’m interested in doing whatever’s best for the company, but I’m the perfect fit for this position.”
As a PhD, this may not make sense to you.
You probably want to seem open and flexible, to do whatever the employer wants.
But industry employers aren’t looking for that.
They want you to know what you want, and to commit to it.
They’re going to ask you why you’re leaving academia, and if you would ever consider going back.
They’re testing you.
You have to get in the right frame of mind before talking to an employer.
In fact, you need to do this before the interview even takes place — on your resume and on your LinkedIn profile, show that you’re committed to joining industry.
When you talk to an employer, you want the job you applied for.
You’re not exploring anything except that job.
3. You’re valuing academia too highly.
You’ve been brainwashed by academia to think that it’s amazing.
You’ve been taught that you can either do “noble work” in academia or be paid well and “sell out” to industry (the “dark side”).
In academia, you:
- Set your own schedule
- Answer maybe 10 emails per day
- Get to explore ideas
- Don’t get paid very well, but there is less job pressure
You think you’re really busy, but you’re actually just comfortable.
Maybe the environment is a bit negative but so what?
You’re just in a little pain, which is better than the heavy pressure and performance expectations of industry, right?
When you’re trying to make large, positive changes in your life or career, moderate pain is your worst enemy.
You don’t want to send out hundreds of resumes and network with people.
5 different phone screens or interviews every week sounds terrible.
In a way, academia feels better —- but it’s ultimately a waste of your valuable time and talents.
Be realistic and understand that you’re being paid a third of what you’re worth.
Maybe even less, especially if you’re a PhD student.
Academia will saddle you with unemployment or, at best, a low-paying adjunct professorship with no retirement.
That is, unless you make a change.
4. You’re letting industry intimidate you.
You probably know a lot about your specific niche field, but you don’t know anything about industry.
Maybe you don’t want to start at the bottom of this whole new mountain of industry knowledge.
Learning about joining industry as a beginner seems overwhelming.
It might even seem like you’ve made a mistake by not learning about business and properly searching for an industry job all these years.
It’s easier to feel insecure about this and pretend that academia is better.
Admit to yourself that it’s okay to be a rookie in this department.
Remember — you’re smart and you can learn.
But for now, when it comes to an industry job search, you are not the most knowledgeable person in the room.
You need help, you need mentorship, you need guidance, and you need the right materials.
Break through the insecurity and embrace the process.
As a PhD, there are right and wrong ways to search for an industry job, and you will find out what they are.
Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by industry.
5. Your job-hunt strategy is based on your academic successes (this is bad).
Some PhDs think that landing an industry job is just like the peer review process in academia:
- You write something (your research)
- It gets reviewed (peer review)
- If the third reviewer likes it, you get the call for an interview (oral defense)
This is wrong.
The successful PhD begins the transition into industry by networking and setting up informational interviews.
In these informational interviews, you’re talking with an employee from a company in a field where you want to work.
Ask them how they got their current job, and they’ll share that information with you.
This helps to create a bond.
If you have a bond, then you can probably get a referral from that person.
You use this person as a resource as you pass along your resume, and then the hiring manager will go to your LinkedIn profile.
Then you’ll get called into an interview, and then you’ll negotiate a job offer and get hired.
PhD hiring may be up, but that doesn’t guarantee you an industry job. Maybe you’re not making yourself noticeable to employers online; you’re not showing employers that you’re committed to a specific industry role; you’re valuing academia too highly; you’re letting industry intimidate you; or your job-hunt strategy is based on your academic successes. Any of these 5 mistakes can mean failure for your job search as a PhD. But if you can eliminate these and embrace the industry system, there is an amazing job waiting for you.
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