How To Write A PhD Thesis And Get A Job At The Same Time

“I wished I never would have gone to grad school.”

I just passed my qualifying exams and Jess, a student in her 6th year, and I were cleaning out the -80C freezer. I nearly dropped the box of dry ice filled with valuable samples on the floor. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“You mean you don’t know what has been happening around here?” Jess said. I thought I was on top of all the grad school gossip but had no clue what she was talking about.

Jess sighed.

“There are no jobs. All of us who are defending this year are looking for jobs, but it’s just impossible to get one unless you have industry experience or know someone. If I had known how tough it would be to get a job, I would have just left with my Masters. It was a total mistake to come to grad school.”

I was thinking about Jess’ story for the rest of the afternoon. I had just passed a 7 hour written exam and an oral exam and I wondered whether I should just quit and get my Masters (as some of my classmates had done) or stay on course and complete my PhD.

Suddenly I realized I had no idea what my career options would be after graduate school. I assumed that with all of the biotechs springing up in the Boston, I’d just be swept up after getting my one-of-a-kind PhD degree.

Things Happen Slow, Then Fast

After months of job searching, Jess learned about an opportunity in the most unexpected place–a coffee shop where she ran into an alumna from her department. Jess’s friend was working for a start-up that needed some help. Next thing I knew, Jess got the interview and was offered a high-level position before even finishing her thesis.

Jess’ success encouraged me to continue pursuing my PhD. Her success also made me realize that I could not just hide in my lab until my thesis was done and expect to get hired the day after I defended. While it was way too soon to actually start applying for PhD jobs (although a 2-year PhD sounds great in theory), I decided to at least start attending networking events to find out what was out there in the real world.

Writing A PhD Thesis

6 Reasons To Start Networking Now

Just like Jess, most graduate students focus so much on their thesis research that when they get close to graduation they realize that they have–no professional network, few marketable skills, and no plan for career advancement.

This last one is particularly important because even if they get a interview, one of the most likely questions will be: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” It’s nearly impossible to answer this question unless you have explored different careers through networking and have given some thought to which path would suit your skills and personality best.

What is your excuse for not networking?

I don’t have time to network,
I don’t know how to start a conversation,
I should finish my thesis first,
I don’t know what I want yet,
I don’t feel comfortable “selling” myself (my resume will speak for itself),
I feel bad about wasting other people’s time (I’m just a student after all)

Networking is indispensable if you want a job. Your industry resume will not speak for itself. Neither will a cover letter no matter how well it is written. If you apply to a job through the Internet, your application will be buried in a pile on the desk of a hiring manager who needs to review hundreds of applications in addition to their full-time day job.

The only way to get an industry job is to start networking. The key is you have to start networking while you’re finishing your thesis, not after you finish it. There’s an unexpected benefit to this–networking will help you finish your thesis faster. Here why:

1. Learning about exciting career opportunities will give you the motivation you need to finish your thesis.

2. Talking to professionals about the big picture of your research (which is easy to forget in the day-to-day busyness of graduate school) will help broaden your perspective.

3. You will learn what marketable skills employers are looking for, and you can tailor your thesis so you pick up these specific skills. It is not enough to be smart anymore. Employers are looking for people with very specific technical backgrounds.

4. Talking to professionals in your field might give you ideas (in the form of references or other contacts) on how to solve technical problems in your thesis.

5. Professionals are always happy to share their experiences about graduate school and to give you great advice on both writing your thesis and dealing with difficult advisors and thesis committee members.

6. There might be opportunities for collaborations with industry that could lead to extra funding, expanding your network, and learning about industry work environments.

The Industry Secret All PhD Students Should Know

After working in industry for several years, I can let you in on a little secret: “Employers are just as desperate to get the right person for an open position, as candidates are to get a job.”

By the time a position is advertised, the hiring manager is overwhelmed with work and they need someone yesterday in order to meet a deadline or a company quota. Instead of feeling bashful about talking to professionals, think about it as “giving them an opportunity” to learn about what expertise you would bring to their company.

While they might not have a position for you at the moment, if you can show what value you would provide for their company (in terms of saving time or money in the process of bringing a product of service to the market) they will keep you in mind for future positions, or refer you to a colleague who might be hiring.

Networking Is A Two-Way Street

The first step to learning how to network is learning how to add value to other people. Networking is a two-way street–you need to be willing to offer help to your professional contacts as well. “But how can I help them, if I am just a student or postdoc?,” you might ask.

First, if you are not the right candidate for their company, they might ask you if you would be willing to put them in contact with someone (such as a fellow graduate student or postdoc) with the right background.

Or, they might have a technical question for you. This would be the perfect opportunity to showcase your technical expertise. If you don’t have an answer at that moment, you can research it later and send them an answer along with a thank-you card.

Finally, in a year or two when you are employed, your contact might reach out to you, because they are looking to advance their careers. Whether or not your company is hiring someone with their background, be willing to offer your help by referring them to one of your colleagues or put them in touch with a recruiter. You never know how quickly the tables might turn. 

How To Write A PhD Thesis

10 Strategies To Put Your Thesis And Career On The Fast Track

Many PhD students struggle with getting interviews simply because they cannot articulate through their resumes and cover letters the value that they would bring to a company. If you refuse to actively explore career opportunities in graduate school, it will be very tough to market yourself well during your job search. This is because you will not have a good understanding of what companies are looking for.

Given that it takes 6-12 months to find a PhD level position (even longer if you have no professional network), the time to start exploring career paths is now. The following 10 strategies will help you complete your research and plan for your career at the same time:

1. Have a crystal clear vision of the purpose of your thesis.

What is the big picture of your research, how does it advance your field of study, and how does it support your career development? Even if you don’t have the details of your thesis proposal in place, at least be clear on the general problems you are trying to solve in your thesis. Be sure that your thesis research will help you acquire transferable skills sets and expertise.

2. Network as much as possible.

Do you think it is too early to start networking as a first or second year student? It is actually great to network when you are not looking for a job, so you can show genuine interest in what others are doing without looking like you are desperate for a job. This will give you the opportunity to learn about career paths and start expanding your professional network.

3. Follow up with key professionals.

If you are diligent about networking, you will meet hundreds of professionals. You don’t need to send holiday cards to all of them. However, there will be a few people who are easy to talk to and their backgrounds are similar to yours. Keep in touch with these professionals, as they might be valuable resources when you are close to graduating

4. Take people out for coffee.

Some may say “no”, but those who say “yes” will have great job searching advice and could even refer you to other professionals in the industry. Be sure to send hand-written thank you cards to all professionals who meet with you in person.

5. Connect with alumni.

Learn about the career paths they are on, what their lifestyles are like, and what skill sets are necessary for their jobs. Some alumni can also help you to resolve specific technical problems, and even interpersonal issues with your supervisor and committee members.

6. Write out your 1, 3, 5 year plan starting now.

Some students are reluctant to make plans because research is unpredictable. However, you need to have at least a preliminary plan with milestones. Update your plan regularly (at least every 1-2 months) or after you reach a significant milestone. This will help you to discuss requirements for graduation with your supervisor, and also help you to plan for additional skill sets or expertise you want to pick up prior to graduation.

7. Evaluate which parts of research you enjoy doing on a daily basis.

Many students define their career paths in terms of a job title or financial compensation. The truth is that a desired “job title” does not necessarily lead to job satisfaction. If you enjoy labwork, apply for jobs where you will be working at the bench. If you like writing, apply for positions where writing will be one of your primary responsibilities. A “Senior Scientist” position in one company might translate to 90% labwork and 10% report writing, and just the opposite in another company. As you explore different career paths and companies, find out what the daily responsibilities are for each position to be sure that they are a good match for your talents and interest.

8. Look for external collaborations.

Expand your network in any way you can–every additional person you know in your field, knows hundreds of other people that they could put you in contact with down the road (e.g. 3 years from now they might work at the company you are applying to and can forward your resume or CV to the hiring manager). In addition to expanding your network, collaborations also diversify your skills set, and give you experience in working with teams–a great asset in an industry environment.

9. Engage in Linkedin group discussions.

Linkedin is a fantastic resource to grow your professional network if you are a student, and you have few opportunities to meet professionals in person. All students should build a detailed Linkedin profile and include all honors and publications. Professional discussion groups in your field are a great opportunity to learn what the “hot” areas of research are and what career paths people with your background tend to follow. Discussion groups also give you the opportunity to ask technical questions,and contribute to discussions which will improve your credibility as an “expert” in your field.

10. See graduate school challenges as growth opportunities.

Are you struggling with an impossible academic advisor or a really challenging project? Some students use up a lot of their energy trying to resolve conflicts with their supervisors or worrying about running into dead-end projects. There seems to be an unspoken belief among graduate students that once you “survive” graduate school, life becomes easier.

There might be some truth to this, as you won’t have the pressure of having to complete a thesis weighing down on you. However, your boss in industry might be a more difficult person than your thesis advisor, and they might even have higher expectations from you. In addition, you might need to work with other difficult people, who procrastinate, or are hostile, and sometimes you will need to depend on their work to meet your own deadlines. It is a scary feeling when you paycheck and livelihood depend on the performance of other people.

The most successful graduate students are those who learn to “reframe” these frustrating people and events into learning opportunities. If you refer to your advisor as the “gatekeeper” standing between you and your degree, you’re going to be unhappy. However, if you view this experience as a chance to learn how to communicate with your future bosses, you will be much happier.

Likewise, your thesis might be that “100+ page paper standing between you and your degree” or it can be a chance to show everyone how much you know, or a chance to learn how to write better (which will come in very handy when applying to industry jobs), or it can be a talking point to bring up at your next networking event. The choice is up to you.

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Dora Farkas, PhD
Dora Farkas, PhD

Dora Farkas received her Ph.D. from MIT in the Department of Biological Engineering and worked for several years in the pharmaceutical industry as a Senior Scientist. Dora is a thesis and career coach and the founder of the online Finish Your Thesis Program & Community, which has helped hundreds of graduate students finish their thesis.

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