10 Obstacles Sabotaging Your PhD Job Search And How To Overcome Them
Written By: Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
I was in my fifth year of graduate school, trying to decide what I was going to do when I finally graduated.
I was looking at postdocs in the U.S., and I thought, okay, according to the NIH guidelines I’ll make $45,000 per year, that’s not bad.
It’s way more than the $19,000 yearly stipend I was earning as a PhD student.
It certainly was the path that academia was encouraging me to take.
But after a bit more research, I realized that the NIH recommendations are just guidelines, they’re not laws.
Meaning no one had to actually follow those guidelines.
I started asking my friends who had done postdocs what they were paid.
At that time, my friends told me that when they started their postdoc they were being paid about $30,000 a year – not $45,000.
$30,000 is so low.
Especially considering that postdocs have earned a PhD, they are a doctor.
Postdocs are brilliant highly trained people, and the universities thought it was okay to pay them that ridiculously low salary.
Something wasn’t adding up for me.
So that’s when I started looking at what PhDs in industry were earning.
I found out that the average salary in industry is over $91,000 a year – that’s 3 times as much as my friends doing postdocs were making.
At that moment I knew I had to find a route out of graduate school that didn’t involve doing a postdoc.
The problem was that I didn’t know how to get a job outside of academia.
I had no training.
And so I thought, well, my PI will help me.
I thought he probably had lots of connections to people in industry.
And it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that when I asked him about helping me find an industry job he only knew other lifetime academics.
To make the situation even worse, when I asked about moving into industry, he got upset.
He was upset that I wanted to transition into industry and not be a professor.
So he started to withdraw his support for me.
Which made things more difficult for me.
This is something that a lot of PhDs have experienced.
I didn’t have any training about how to get a job outside of academia.
I was really lost.
I had no idea what to do to get hired.
All I was doing was looking online for jobs and for advice.
But I found nothing useful.
People act like getting a PhD level job is the same as getting a job at McDonald’s.
They tell you just submit a resume and you’ll be called in for an interview.
No, it doesn’t work like that for PhD level jobs.
I had to learn through trial and error and it was a very complicated process.
It took me over a year to get a job.
And it took several years to build up my industry network.
It was tough and I was lost a lot of the time during my job search.
That’s why I created a place where PhDs can have access to an industry job search blueprint.
A place where PhDs have a network of people to help them get an industry job.
Because PhDs deserve a job where they can do meaningful work and be well paid for it.
Why PhDs Need To Leave Academia Right Now
The university system does not make it easy for you to leave.
Universities provide very little, if any, industry career or job search training.
This leaves many PhDs feeling stuck, unsure of what is available to them outside academia, and thinking they are not qualified to do anything except a postdoc.
It’s appalling that so many PhDs don’t know about the opportunities that are available to them in industry and end up in a low-paying postdoc position.
Because in industry your PhD is in demand.
This means that the hiring of PhDs is increasing because you are the talent they are looking for.
But it’s not just biotech and biopharma hiring PhDs. Many other large companies hire lots of PhDs.
According to Paysa, Amazon employs 14,663 PhDs, Google 9,136 PhDs and Facebook 1,943 PhDs.
In one year alone, Amazon hired more than 500 PhDs – it would take a university several years to hire that many PhDs, as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Industry is hiring lots of PhDs because they recognize your value.
But in academia there is an oversupply of PhDs and not enough professor positions to go around.
According to the National Science Foundation, in just one year, 54,904 PhDs were granted in the United States alone.
That’s a huge number.
In fact, the National Science Foundation reported that over the last 40 years the number of STEM PhDs granted annually has more than doubled.
This creates a huge disparity in the number of PhDs and the number of available professorships.
10 Challenges Keeping PhDs Unemployed And How You Can Overcome Them
The math just doesn’t add up, and many PhDs find themselves stuck in a dead-end postdoc making half the salary that they are worth.
Where the average postdoc salary in the US is a measly $46,434 – about the same salary that a manager at McDonald’s earns, according to PayScale.
But doing a postdoc is not the only option for PhDs.
There are many industry positions where PhDs are valued, where you can do meaningful, impactful work, and make a nice paycheck at the same time.
1. You think you have time to wait.
You might think that you have time to spare before you need to start focusing on your job search.
PhDs tend to think this for a variety of reasons.
Maybe you are a PhD student and you haven’t finished your thesis yet or maybe you’re in a postdoc and you think, “When I finish this post doc, I can start looking for a job.”
Well, here’s the problem with that, it can take a long time to get an industry job.
If you’ve uploaded resumes online and haven’t heard anything back, you understand that it can take a very long time.
You think you have time to wait?
You think you can sit around and ignore the fact that your academic career is headed to a dead-end?
You don’t have any sort of industry network, you don’t even have your LinkedIn profile done correctly, or your resume done correctly, and you think you can wait?
Well, the longer you wait the harder your job search becomes.
If you look at the number of PhDs that are being granted every year, it’s phenomenal.
In the U.S., 60,000 or more PhDs are produced every year, in China, 50,000 or more, in Germany, 28,000 or more, in the UK, 23,000 or more.
When you break this data down into the daily numbers, 1,000 PhDs are granted every single day.
That means every day you wait to take your job search seriously, there’s 1,000 more PhDs in the job market you’re competing with.
Now why does this happen?
Why is there a flood of PhDs being produced?
It’s because universities get grant funding based on the number of students they bring into their programs.
So of course universities are going to bring in more and more PhDs, and governments are incentivizing this, because it looks good if a country has a lot of PhDs.
That’s why there are so many PhDs.
That’s why if you look at the number of postdocs piling up in academia, it’s skyrocketing.
And that’s a problem.
This is why you can’t wait.
You can’t wait one more day to start taking your job search seriously.
Don’t do what most PhDs do, and they wait until they defend, and then face unemployment.
And they’re like, why can’t I get a job?
And they get into desperation mode.
Or they wait until their postdoc lab runs out of funding.
And then all of a sudden, you’re unemployed.
All of that work you’ve done in your PhD and postdoc, and you’re unemployed.
All because you didn’t start taking your job search seriously, because you thought you could wait.
2. You don’t have a visa or a green card.
Now, it can be more difficult to find employers who will hire you if you don’t have a visa or a green card.
But it’s not impossible.
You just need to have the right strategies and the sequence for implementing those strategies.
First of all, immigration procedure changes a lot and you need to stay informed.
Whether you’re on an H1B, or you want to go the EB1 route, the EB2 route, A or B, there are a lot of different options for you.
If you’re on a J1 visa and you haven’t got your extension yet, there are many different things you need to understand.
And that’s the key to getting hired if you don’t have a visa or green card.
You must have a thorough understanding of the immigration process.
This will allow you to explain it simply to employers.
The reason that when most employers say, “do you need a visa?,” and you say “yes,” the conversation ends is because you’re not explaining your situation properly, you’re not following best practices.
But it’s not really a lot of work, just that a lot of employers don’t know the process and it’s intimidating to them.
This is where you can alleviate their fears.
If you understand the immigration process well, and you can explain it simply, and you have a strong referral from within the company, you’re much more likely get hired.
So don’t let that hold you back
Yes, you’re an international PhD, but that just means you’re going to work that much harder.
You’ve left your country behind, your family behind, you are going to bring a high level of work ethic and value to their company.
3. You are too focused on your specific academic background.
Now you have to understand that in academia, we break things down into very, very specific verticals, or very specific fields.
As a PhD, you probably identify with very specific niche filled, something like computational cellular bioinformatics or psychological linguistic anthropology.
But people in industry don’t think like this.
Think about this way, who’s the first person you’re going to come into contact with at most companies during the hiring process?
Is it going to be a PhD?
For the most part, talent acquisition specialists don’t have PhDs.
They are not going to have an understanding of your highly specific technical background because it doesn’t matter to them.
When they’re looking for job candidates, they’re not going to search for computational cellular bioinformatics in the job advertisement, they’re just going to put down bioinformatics.
And when they’re searching for somebody to fill a job, on LinkedIn for instance, they’re just going to type in, bioinformatics.
They’re not focused on your background, they see you as a PhD, as somebody that’s highly technical, and has that technical box checked.
What they are more concerned about is your transferable skills, your soft skills.
You’ve probably seen people who get their PhDs and then move into a postdoc, that’s very different from their background.
The same thing happens in industry.
You are a PhD, a doctor of philosophy.
And what is a philosophy?
Philosophy is knowledge and the ability to ascertain knowledge.
As a PhD, you are literally a doctor of learning.
So you can get a variety of jobs out there that are not specific for your background because you have the skills to learn anything.
4. You are not networking.
Most PhDs struggle with networking.
And it’s true that networking is not easy.
But it is very important because most jobs come from through employee referrals.
And 80% of jobs are not even advertised.
The only way you will hear about these unadvertised jobs is from a person in your network.
Searching for jobs online and just uploading your resume is a waste of time.
You resume is probably never even being seen by a person because of applicant tracking software.
And many jobs are posted online just as a formality, because they have already been filled internally.
If you have experienced this and you feel stuck in your job search, you have to know there’s a better way.
It’s not you, it’s not your PhD.
And it’s not that there’s something wrong with you, that’s not the reason you haven’t been hired.
It’s because you’re not applying the right strategy and you’re not networking.
Your PhDs is valuable.
But you have to network and grow your industry contacts so that you can earn a referral.
5. You think you need to do a postdoc.
The idea that you need to do a postdoc before transitioning into industry is absolutely false.
You do not need to do a postdoc to get hired in industry.
Now, if you have done a postdoc, you can use that to your advantage, so don’t worry.
But overall employers are not thinking, “I really want this PhD to gain more academic experience before I will hire them.”
They’re not thinking that way.
Instead, they want to gain on the job training.
You will not increase your chance of getting hired into industry by staying in academia longer.
The time to transition into industry is now.
You don’t need an internship.
You don’t need an industry postdoc.
You don’t need to do an academic postdoc.
As a PhD, you already have the technical and transferable skills needed to get hired in industry.
You just need to apply the right job search strategies.
6. You don’t have industry experience.
Do employers expect PhDs to know everything as soon as they enter industry?
Employers will train you.
Employers want you to learn their procedures, their policies, and they will give you on-the-job training.
But what employers do want to see is that you have some understanding on how industry works.
You will need to prove that you are not just a lifetime academic.
They want to see that you understand business acumen, that you understand concepts like organizational behavior, basic of economics, mergers acquisitions, etc.
So you should take the time before you have an interview, to learn these concepts.
You don’t need to become an expert, but you do need to gather a basic understand of business concepts.
This industry knowledge, coupled with your PhD, will set you up as a top job candidate.
7. You expect someone to just give you a job.
Yes, getting a PhD is a unique achievement and you should be proud of that.
But it doesn’t mean someone is going to hand you a job just because you have a PhD.
Especially for the high-level jobs paying upwards of $90,000 per year that PhDs are qualified for.
You have to demonstrate to your potential employer that you are a valuable addition to their company.
And this goes well beyond telling them that you have a PhD.
They want to know about your transferable skills.
Will you fit into their team?
Do you have any business acumen?
Are you just an awkward academic PhD?
Your PhD gives you many advantages over other job candidates, but you still have to show your future employer why you would make a valuable addition to their team.
Just resting on the laurels of your PhD is not going to get you hired.
8. You have imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is described as the inability to recognize your own accomplishments and to constantly feel like a fraud.
Many PhDs experience this feeling and worry that they will be exposed as a fraud.
The academic environment that encourages you to be very critical of data can often cause you to become overly critical of yourself.
As PhDs, we place extremely high pressure on ourselves to perform to the highest degree, we are perfectionists.
But the opposite side of that coin is extreme self-doubt.
And when trying to transition out of academia, imposter syndrome holds many PhDs back by making them think they are unqualified for an industry position.
You need to shake this belief.
As a PhD you are an expert, you are an innovator, and you are a highly qualified job candidate.
Don’t let your misplaced self-doubt keep you from transitioning into the industry job of your dreams.
9. You are not sure what industry jobs are available.
Academia is a bubble.
As a PhD you have likely spent more than a decade living your day-to-day within the academic sphere.
And academia does very little to educate PhDs about what is going on outside the university setting.
If your university does have career training, it’s most likely limited to just a day or two per year, and is probably run by lifetime academics who don’t really know what is going on in industry any more than you do.
It’s not a good set up.
So you need to take it upon yourself to find out what positions are available to you.
You can start with this list of 20 industry positions for PhDs here.
And PhDs, no matter what your background is, can transition into a variety of industry roles.
Chemists can get into life science positions, engineers get chemist positions, neuroscientists can work for a skin care companies.
Your PhD is valuable, not just because you have become an expert in one super specific topic, but because you have gathered a huge number of transferable skills along the way.
To figure out what positions might be right for you, start by identifying your core values and what type of professional lifestyle you want.
And then, the sky’s the limit.
As a PhD you can get any industry position you want.
10. You think you have a good chance at becoming a professor.
The dream of becoming a professor is why many PhDs entered graduate school.
You thought you would travel down the traditional path: PhD – postdoc – professor.
But that is far from the reality for the vast majority of PhDs.
According to the data, 80% of life scientists will face unemployment.
And PhDs with an engineering, social sciences, or physical science background will face this same unemployment situation 60% of the time.
Because there are just not enough professorships to handle the number of PhDs universities are producing.
Ultimately, your chance at becoming a professor is 0.45%, according to the Royal Society.
Stop ignoring the data.
Stop waiting for your chance to become a professor.
In all probability it is not going to happen for you.
Instead, you need to realize the value that your PhDs has outside of academia.
Learn about the wide range of options you have outside of academia.
Time and time again PhDs find themselves stuck. Stuck in graduate school, stuck in a dead end postdoc, stuck being unemployed. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, you will face challenges as you transition from academia to industry. But the benefits of making this change are huge. Don’t let a few minor speed bumps keep you stuck in academia. You can overcome common challenges such as thinking you have time to wait, not having a visa or green card, being too focused on your specific academic background, not networking, thinking you need to do a postdoc, not having industry experience, expecting someone to just give you a job, experiencing imposter syndrome, not knowing what industry jobs are available and thinking you have a good chance at becoming a professor. Remember your value as a PhD, take the steps to overcome these challenges, and find a role in industry where you can doing meaningful work and be well paid.
To learn more about the 10 Obstacles Sabotaging Your PhD Job Search And How To Overcome Them, 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.
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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