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A PhD Job Search—What’s Normal And What’s Not

PhD Job Search Cheeky Scientist

Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

“Thank you for submitting your resume but the position has been filled.” This is the only response I received after several months of applying to PhD jobs online.

I submitted dozens of resumes and only heard back that one time. It was embarrassing. At least I thought it was embarrassing. Years later I found out that only 5% of resumes submitted online ever receive a response, good or bad. Just 5%!

I assumed I would always get a response after submitting my resume, even if it was negative. I also assumed that there were at most 20-30 other people applying for the same industry job as me and, since I had a PhD, getting a job wouldn’t be that hard. I should have been embarrassed by how little I knew about conducting a job search.

When I finally got an interview, I had no idea what to do. I relied on hazy memories of things I read growing up like “dress for success” and have a “firm handshake.” But I had no idea how to really dress for the interview or what to say or how long the interview would last. And what if I got the job? What do I do then? Do I just sign whatever deal they give me? I was confused at every turn.

How NOT To Start A Job Search

The hardest part about searching for a job during graduate school or a postdoc is not knowing what is normal and what is abnormal. When I was a graduate student, I had no idea what a normal industry resume looked like, let alone what a good or great resume looked like.

I didn’t know how many industry job openings there were or how many people on average applied to these industry jobs. I didn’t know how many people who apply to a job get an interview, how long an interview lasts, when to follow up after an interview, what employers look for during interviews, how negotiating works, or how many people accept the first offer they’re given.

A PhD job search is not easy. There’s more competition for PhD jobs than ever before. The good news for you (since you’re reading this) is that most PhDs have no clue what they’re doing.

The majority of PhDs are just winging it when it comes to searching for an industry job. There so busy in the lab that instead of taking their job search seriously and getting help, they just try to learn through trial and error. They execute little pieces of a job search here and there, feeling good about doing something without ever really doing anything. As a result, they spend months and months getting rejected while other less qualified candidates get hired and get paid.

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10 PhD Job Search Facts

A job search is not a lab experiment. It’s not a thesis. You shouldn’t learn it through trial and error and it’s not something you should do alone. If you’re looking for your first industry job, the smartest thing you can do is stop guessing what to do. The answers and best practices are already there. You just have to find them, or connect with people who have already found them.

The simple truth is you don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, you’ll never figure out the right way to do XYZ when you don’t even know that XYZ exists. There is a right way and a wrong way to perform a PhD job search. Some experiences are normal while others are less than normal. Here are 10 things that will help you determine which experiences are normal and which are not:

1. You’ll never hear back after submitting your resume online.

95% of all resumes submitted online never get a response. This makes your resume (mostly) useless in industry. But, resumes are still important. A good resume won’t get you a job, but a bad one will keep you from getting a job.

When you first start an industry job search, it’s natural to think that having a great resume or CV is all you need. Most PhDs believe that the resume is the starting point of every job search. This is absolutely false. Networking is the starting point of every job search. You need to connect to other professionals (both PhDs and non-PhDs) to find out where jobs are and to get referred to the hiring managers for those jobs.

Don’t worry about your resume until after you build up your network and get a few good referrals. Then and only then should you craft a sharp industry resume.

2. Most industry jobs are not advertised.

80% of industry jobs are not advertised. Think about that.

Guess which jobs are not being published online–the good jobs or the bad jobs? Of course it’s the good jobs. Companies don’t need to advertise their high level positions because there’s already a high demand for them.

Instead of advertising high level positions, most companies will either hire internally or seek referrals. They may use a recruiter to help them find someone but most will just ask their employees and external networks for good candidates. If you’re not part of any of these networks, you’ll never even hear about the best jobs.

All industry jobs searches start with networking. Networking is the ONLY way to get a good industry job. Over 50% of jobs at top firms come from direct referrals. Over 50%! And this number is climbing.

3. You’re up against stiff competition.

If you’re applying for a PhD job, so is everyone else. The average number of applicants applying to any individual industry job is 118. Many large organizations receive over 2,000 applications a day. Less than 20% of the people applying to any given job posting will get an interview.

The number one question you should ask yourself during any job search is “How can I differentiate myself?” From 2005-2009 there were 100,000 PhDs granted and only 16,000 professorships opened. Quick, do the math. It’s no wonder the current unemployment rate for PhDs at graduation is 60-80%. 

You’re not alone. If you want a good industry job, you seriously need to consider how you’re going to differentiate yourself from all of the other PhDs applying to the same position as you. This doesn’t mean learning more lab skills. It means learning skills that most PhDs don’t have, like interpersonal skills, and joining unique networks and organizations that will make you stand out from the crowd.

4. Getting an industry job will take a long time.

The average time that it takes to find an industry job is 2-8 months. The average time it takes to change careers is between 2-6 years. When you’re transitioning from academia to industry, you’re changing jobs and changing careers. So don’t think your transition is going to happen in a snap. You’re going to have to put in a lot of effort over a long period of time. You’re going to have to approach your job search strategically, taking systematic steps to get what you want.

If you don’t know where to start, find people who do. You can save months of research (and failure) by joining high level networks and associations that have the information you need. There are people who have successfully transitioned before you. Find them and learn from them.

5. Most interviews are over in minutes.

While the average length of an interview is 40 minutes, 33% of hiring managers reported knowing within the first 90 seconds if they will hire that candidate.

These managers reported the following reasons as to why they eliminated candidates: 67% indicated applicants failed to make eye contact, 55% indicated that the applicant’s dressed poorly or carried themselves poorly, 47% indicated applicants had little or no knowledge of the company, 38% indicated the applicants lacked confidence or didn’t smile, and 33% indicated applicants had bad posture or a weak handshake.

Whether you like it or not, any interview you go on will be over within the first few minutes of meeting the hiring manager. The first impression you make is all that will matter. When it comes to first impressions, studies show that emotionally expressive people fare better. Surprisingly, this relationship between expressiveness and positive first impressions is independent of physical attractiveness.

Other studies show that first impressions can last for years. This is because meeting someone for the first time activates your amygdala, which is one of the few areas of the brain that receives information from all your senses at once, and your posterior cingular cortex, which controls your autobiographical memory, emotional memory, and attention.

The worst thing you can do during a job search is work hard for months (not to mention the years it took to get your PhD) and then blow it all in the first 90 seconds of meeting an employer. Give everything during those first few minutes. Don’t skimp on any detail.

6. Most PhDs transition into R&D, Sales & Marketing, or Applications.

When it comes to transitioning into industry, the biggest obstacle most PhDs have is figuring out where to start. They don’t know which positions are available to them and they don’t know which position they want.

The majority of people in academia have no idea what industry positions are available. Most don’t even know the divisions or categories that these positions are in, let alone the names of the positions. This is a relatively easy problem to fix. The solution is to dig into company websites and career catalogues and figure out exactly what names they give to different positions. Then, compare those positions to the names other companies give to similar positions.

If you’re a STEM PhD looking to transition into a standard, multi-national biotechnology or biopharmaceutical company like Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Baxter, GSK, Roche, or similar, the first decision you need to make is whether or not you want to transition into R&D. Do you want to stay at the bench in industry or get away from it? If you choose the latter, then you should decide whether or not you want to get into Sales & Marketing or Applications. In Applications, you’ll do more teaching. In Sales & Marketing, you’ll do more–you guessed it–sales and marketing.

The individual positions within each of these divisions can vary greatly, as will the job requirements and benefits, but the below diagrams will give you a decent overview. Once you have an idea of which division you’d like to transition into, you need to figure out which companies you’d like to work for (preferably those with job openings) and which position you’d like to transition into. Again, the only way to find the right position for you is to research the different names these companies are using for these positions.

For example, in the Applications division, one company might be hiring for an Application Scientist position while another is hiring for an Technical Specialist position and another is hiring for a Field Application Support Representative position. If you’re new to industry, these position can look radically different but, in reality, they’re all the same.

Job Search PhD Transition Points

PhD Positions Comparison

7. The first person to follow-up will get the job.

The first person to place a follow up call to an industry job posting has a 95% chance to get the job position and those who call the following day only have a 1% chance. These numbers seem outrageous but they’re true. There are two reasons why following up increases your chances of getting a job.

The first is because nobody one does it. Seriously, nobody. But it works. Following up is a huge differentiator. In every single job hire I’ve been a part of, the person who was hired followed up by email or with a written thank you card within hours of their interview ending.

The second reason that following up increases your chances of being hired is because it shows good business sense. This is especially true for non-R&D positions. If you want a job in Applications or Sales & Marketing, you better demonstrate you ability to follow up in as many ways as possible.


8. Everyone hates negotiating, but you better do it.

The majority of PhDs have no idea how to negotiate. Yet, negotiating is a normal (and expected) part of any job search.

The average PhD is so desperate to transition from academia to industry that they never consider negotiating for more money. Instead, they accept whatever offer they get. The problem is that by not negotiating, a PhD stands to lose more than $500,000 by the time they reach 60.

Read this if negotiating salary makes you uncomfortable.

9. Lack of interpersonal skills is a deal-breaker.

Over 85% of hiring managers say they hire people they like rather than what the job requires. This is absolutely insane and unfair but it’s a fact. It doesn’t matter how smart you are or how many publications you have, if you can’t have a normal conversation with someone, you’ll never get hired. 

Numerous surveys and studies show that interpersonal skills matter more than technical skills in industry. Lack of interpersonal skills is the number one reason people don’t get hired and it’s the number one reason people get fired. Albert Einstein is one of the most famous scientists whoever lived, not because of his theories, but because he was an expert communicator. The only reason his theories changed the world is because he was able to communicate them.

If you struggle to communicate with different types of people, especially non-academics, than you need to get trained in interpersonal skills. The longer you wait to improve these skills, the more your career will suffer.

10. Social media is more important than your resume.  

Over 90% of recruiters are likely to look at a candidate’s social media profile. 89% have hired someone through LinkedIn. 68% of employers will find you on Facebook before they will bring you in for an interview.

If this seems shocking to you–wake up. Things have changed. The age of relying on a 10-page CV, 3 carefully written recommendation letters, and your publication record is over. These things simply do not matter like they used to when it comes to getting top level industry jobs. But this is not something to get upset about. It’s something to use to your advantage.

In 2014, 18,400,000 applicants found their job on Facebook, 10,200,000 found their job on LinkedIn, and 8,000,000 found their job on Twitter. When it comes to executing a successful job search, your online platform matters. If you don’t know how to use your online platform or if you lack one all together, get help and get help fast. It can be a huge force multiplier for you in increasing your exposure to the PhD job you want most.

To learn more about transitioning into a non-academic career, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, join the Cheeky Scientist Association. 

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Isaiah Hankel


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