9 Most Emotionally Draining Parts Of A PhD Job Search (& How To Overcome Them)

Job search can be emotionally draining. When I ask most PhDs about the hardest part of their job search, they always say something along the lines of ‘finding time’ or figuring out where to start.  This is usually their answer before getting hired but after they get hired, I get a consistent yet different answer. They almost always say ‘emotions’.

For instance someone recently shared this with me about their job search;

My time in academia as a PhD and post -doc was tough but it became tougher to find anything relevant when my husband moved to a small town on job deployment. I worked again as a post-doc, laboratory instructor, and sessional instructor. This continued for some years and the experience was emotionally ghastly: low earnings, fighting for the rights of post-docs, sexism, and severe mental stress. Ultimately, I decided that my mental health had suffered enough, and I was no longer willing to ‘play this game.’  I took a year off to recover and revamp my job search strategy sans the emotionally draining aspects. I aimed for jobs within R&D, QC, or Clinical research, and finally landed a scientist role in a reputed firm. 

PhDs have to realize that, in spite of the numerous times that we hear the advice, “Be practical;” the emotions are what truly makes us unique. They are major driving forces behind most successes. Therefore, knowing ahead about the emotionally draining parts of the job search process saves a huge time and stress hassle.      

9 Emotionally Draining Aspects Of Job Search

It’s essential to know beforehand what could potentially drain your energy in a job search. Knowing thy enemy ahead gives you a heads up on the war plan. Once you face a hurdle, your brain automatically looks for —an alternative— something else to do. Your brain will come up with several excuses trying to mold you away from that step. Discouragement, anger, gloom, self-pity are a few emotions that you might experience when faced with an obstacle. These emotions could dissuade you from attempting to overcome the obstacle.

These are the nine scenarios that are most likely to pose as obstacles in your job search:

1. Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

It is very common for people to suffer from ‘imposter syndrome.’ You have concerns that you may not be good enough for an industry job. Self-doubt tricks PhDs emotionally, they feel that they have no potential of adding value to any position and sooner or later people around them will realize it. 

This fear dissuades them from applying to better paying positions, or from salary negotiation. It is a well-recognized roadblock that many researchers face. Often, these subconscious concerns are wrapped up in defensiveness and arrogance. This happens because you have never worked in an industry position before and you have to nip this negativity in the bud.

In order to overcome imposter syndrome, first acknowledge it, and then realize that you are a PhD, a doctor of philosophy, learning. You can learn and process information. You made it through your PhD even though you didn’t have an experience of conducting a doctoral research, or writing a thesis. Make yourself emotionally strong. Approach the process with a discovery mindset, from a student’s perspective. 

Where can I find PhD-specific information regarding this?

What are the job titles available out there? 

Who has the best information? 

Breaking into a field always has a similar protocol, you find people that are already in the field and you make meaningful relationships with them and learn from them. In the end, know your worth as a PhD. 

2.  Overcoming elitism:

Elitism is a superiority complex, it pushes PhDs to assume that employers will come after them and offer them jobs. They are quite opposed to the job search process since they value their elite PhD. This may seem unbelievable but it is very easy for PhDs to slip into this umbrella. 

We constantly see PhDs being defensive of their work and critical of others. They act like they know the answer when they don’t and are just masking that ignorance with defensiveness. We see that often in academic seminars, we think being critical of the work is important and end up critical of the people too. 

Accept that your PhD is highly valuable but it doesn’t compensate for industry performance or social norms. It is not above the job search process. You have to invest time in making your keyword-focussed industry resume, do informational interviews, and add value to your contact despite your PhD. Don’t compensate, turn your efforts into communicating your worth using industry language

3.  Setting up the right expectations

Often PhDs take several aspects of job search for granted. They think that there is a certain threshold to cross. In doing so, they get infected with the Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome. If you set up incorrect expectations as:

 If I slightly adapt my resume, add in a point or two, that’s enough,

I just have to apply to a 1-2 jobs. 

You are setting yourself up for failure. 

PhDs have to come to terms with the fact that they will be rejected multiple times. The correct statistics is that out of the hundred job applications that you apply for, only a handful will result in phone screens, one or two onsite visits and one job offer. 

Especially during unprecedented times such as these, when the number of advertised jobs has significantly decreased; PhDs have to pursue several job leads simultaneously and personalize each of their applications. 

Understand the way the job search funnel works. Accept that you will be constantly rejected. Realize that people are busy, use reverse recruiting, be proactive in the job search process. Pursue several job leads at the same time. Rise above the notion that uploading resumes is the job search process, it isn’t. Use every rejection as a teaching point. Work attentively, presenting transferable skills, quantified results, and expertise in the best way to show employers that you can talk the language of industry. 

4. Not knowing where to start

Life in academia doesn’t teach PhDs much about industry roles and industry titles. We are not aware of the job titles that are available in the industry, or the roles associated with them, it can be frustrating. Not knowing where to start the job search process is stressful. When faced with these blackboxes you are clueless. It can feel so different from your research, where you can rely on the library, internet, a professor, or a colleague to solve your problems. So, now what?

To overcome this, you can do long tail searches on the internet. Search for small start-up firms, find them on LinkedIn and see the hierarchy of the job titles. Then, compare them with those of the big companies. Make a spreadsheet with the job responsibilities and requirements for each title you come across on LinkedIn, Glassdoor, etc.. Another good way of identifying target jobs is through informational interviews. Connect with people working in your positions of interest, build a network, attend job fairs, conferences and seminars, communicate with people. Build meaningful relationships, follow up on referral leads. Learn a few job titles and find out which one is the best for you.You can start with this list of 20 industry positions for PhDs

5. Rewriting your resume

This is one of the most emotionally stressful aspects of the job search. The ATS seems terrifying and almost impregnable. Rewriting your resume in the correct format, with every bullet point starting with a transferable skill leading to technical expertise and ending with quantified results can take some time. 

Most PhDs take the easy route and just work on a template. But jargon-loaded resumes that lack the relevant keywords for the job posting do more harm than good. 

Your resume introduces you to the recruiter, —it has to be clear, super-organized, carefully structured with job-specific relevant information, updated with your contact information— so that the recruiter can find the relevant information quickly, assess it, and get back to you. It’s your responsibility to make it easier for the recruiter to find the relevant information in your resume

Dedicate a few focussed hours to writing your resume when your mental energy is peaking. Skim through the JDs to highlight relevant keywords, then tailor your resume. 

Highlight your experience more than your education. Draft an accomplishment-oriented resume as opposed to a responsibility-driven one. Humanize yourself by adding in your honors, awards, and hobbies.

6. Completing your LinkedIn profile

Most recruiters find valuable candidates on LinkedIn, the most relevant professional social network. Therefore, you need to have an impressive LinkedIn profile to get noticed  . 

LinkedIn keeps adding new features to better showcase your abilities. So, you need to improve your profile constantly. Some PhDs find it intimidating and stressful to stay abreast with the ever-updating features. They prefer to ignore their profile and that costs them heavily. You have to leverage LinkedIn as the platform to connect with industry professionals. 

Make your professional summary engaging by using the first person. LinkedIn is keyword intensive. So, including relevant keywords will ensure you appear in more searches. Finally, turn on the button that lets recruiters and employers on LinkedIn know that you are open to work.

Make sure that the information on your resume and Linkedin profile match. Humanize yourself by adding hobbies and volunteering works. Recruiters like to have a deeper insight into potential candidates. Hence, a bare bones profile will only hurt your chances or getting a job. You need an all-star LinkedIn profile. 

7. Reaching out to contacts

Networking is the currency of industry but it is one of the most emotionally tiring steps. Reaching out to new people confuses your brain as it starts looking for reference points to talk to strangers. You know you need the information but reaching out to old and new contacts and fostering new relationships can be stressful because we often think that our connections think we are ‘selfish.’

Add value to your contacts by appreciating their accomplishments. Try complementing their recent article, use the law of reciprocation. Appreciate the difference between networking and relationship-building. PhDs should value human connections and see them as long term investments to create meaningful professional relationships, not as short-term connections whose only means is to get them hired.

Look at the networking scripts that other PhDs have used before, tweak them, and send them to your contacts. Here is one example:

Hi [Name],

I found your profile on LinkedIn during my search for an XYZ position/company. I am interested in learning more about XYZ position/company and would value your opinion. Do you have time for a brief 5-minute chat?

Thank you!

[Your Name]

P.S. [Insert compliment, such as, “I love the quote you have on your LinkedIn profile!”]

8. Asking people for informational interview 

Even after the basic introduction, it is difficult for PhDs to ask for an informational interview, let alone a referral. Generally, asking for informational interviews fails because PhDs ask too soon without adding value to their relationship first or because they don’t make their request time- and topic-specific 

Often, the contact feels uncomfortable when PhDs interrogate them as lawyers instead of being journalists asking plausible questions. One of the biggest reasons behind this failure is that PhDs don’t set proper expectations or follow up professionally.

Many industry professionals are willing to give you informational interviews because people love to give advice and be seen as experts. However, remember to show your connections that you appreciate their time by telling them from the beginning that the conversation won’t take long.  Something like “would you have 30 minutes to answer a couple of questions I have about your current position?”

Elevate their credibility and show appreciation by asking informational interview questions like: 

What do you enjoy most about your current position?

What are the biggest challenges, where do you see yourself moving next? 

This will likely lead them to asking you, “what about you? where are you in your career/job search?” Which in turn leads to referrals

9. Asking for higher salaries

After all the hassle, when a PhD finally comes to the point of salary negotiation, they are emotionally void. Academia has drained PhDs so much that they accept bachelor-level salaries. Negotiating the salary is the last thing they have in mind. 

That seems too hard. “What if the employer is not happy with me negotiating?” thoughts like these infiltrate the mind and PhDs refrain from what they are expected to do.

You need to start operating under industry social norms, being more direct, negotiating, exchanging value. Industry employers expect you to negotiate. It’s a way to show that you know your value.As long as you keep your negotiation professional, you have little to lose and a lot to gain. Flip your mindset: don’t think emotionally; deal-making is a social norm, don’t violate it, ask an open-ended question.

Concluding Remarks

Each step of the job search process can be emotionally draining and make you want to quit. Instead, redirect your emotions positively, avoid the stress and focus on the job search process with confidence. Don’t lose focus but divert your attention to the solution. Remember your value as a PhD.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, 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.

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

Isaiah Hankel holds a PhD in Anatomy and Cell Biology. An expert in the biotechnology industry, he specializes in helping other PhDs transition into cutting-edge industry career tracks.

Isaiah believes--from personal experience--that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life, it’s a clear sign that you need to 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 is an internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant, CEO of Cheeky Scientist, and author of the straight-talk bestsellers Black Hole Focus and The Science of Intelligent Achievement.

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