7 Professional Skills That PhDs Must Develop Before Scheduling Job Interviews
Written by: Gemma Paech, Ph.D.
As a PhD student, I believed that there was only one job option for PhDs.
I thought the only future available to PhDs was to stay in academia and become a professor.
I saw some PhDs getting jobs outside of academia, but these non-academic jobs appeared to need further study or were seen as a step down from an academic position.
After already completing 10 years of university study, I certainly did not want to go back to school.
Nor did I want to take a step down — in either perception or reality.
I saw how my senior colleagues and supervisors judged the PhDs who pursued non-academic jobs.
They saw those who left academia as failures.
So, I focused on finishing my PhD and securing a postdoc position.
The postdoc track seemed pretty straight-forward — “publish or perish”.
And I did.
I wrote and published papers and presented at international conferences.
I was on an upward trajectory, doing everything right… or so I thought.
Unfortunately, what I discovered is that to succeed in academia, it takes more than publications and conference presentations.
You need to get grants — big ones — and that wasn’t happening for me.
I felt stuck in my current academic position.
I was not getting the support and professional development I needed to move forward.
On top of that, I learned how few academic positions actually exist in academia.
I started to feel like all my study and hard work was going to waste.
But I was wrong.
I made the decision to leave academia and discovered that there are many different career options for PhDs.
I learned that My PhD was highly valuable outside of academia.
But, when I started to polish my resume and apply for industry positions, I quickly realized I had no idea where to begin this process.
The last time I had written a resume, I was as an undergraduate student.
I realized that while my PhD had given me industry-desired skills, I had no clue how to actually get an industry job.
I had spent all my time writing papers and going to conferences, never even considering that professional development would be important for my career.
With the help of my alternative career mentor, I was able to invest in the professional development I had missed out on during my time in academia.
Why PhDs Need Professional Development
For many PhDs, it seems as though there is only one career option: to stay in academia.
PhD programs are aimed at training PhDs to become lifetime academics.
PhD programs are NOT designed to help students find work outside of academia because academia relies on the cheap labor of PhD students and postdocs.
According to PayScale, the average academic postdoc salary in the US is only $46,000.
This is extremely low.
Especially when compared to the average industry research scientist salary of $77,000, also reported by PayScale.
Academia does not train PhDs to leave academia because it needs the inexpensive skilled labor to support the current system.
However, a majority of PhDs end up leaving academia.
A report by The Royal Society in the UK shows that only 30% of PhDs will become early career researchers.
The same report found that ultimately less than 1% of PhDs will go on to become professors.
That means, more than 99% of PhDs are not receiving appropriate professional development.
The way universities train PhDs does not encourage development of the transferable skills required to transition into industry positions.
This does not mean that the skills obtained during a PhD are wasted.
Quite the opposite, PhDs have some of the most desired skills for industry positions.
However, PhD training programs encourage PhDs to focus solely on academic professional development.
There is so much more to professional development than publishing and presenting at conferences.
PhDs need training in basic professional skills.
It’s up to you to seek out the professional development you need to successfully transition into an industry position.
7 Professional Skills That PhDs Must Develop
Since the majority of PhDs leave academia for industry positions, development of professional skills is a necessity for almost all PhDs.
Usually, the professional development offered by universities is specifically directed to keeping you exactly where you are… stuck in academia.
This leaves many PhDs unsure on how to move forward and unable to search for and successfully apply for industry positions.
As a PhD, you are an expert researcher.
Take it upon yourself to find out what professional skills you need to develop to ensure that you can successfully transition out of academia.
To get you started on your transition, here is a list of seven professional skills that you must develop in order to successfully enter industry…
1. Explore multiple career options.
Unfortunately, PhDs are led to believe that their only option is to stay in academia.
And, when PhDs do learn about alternative career pathways, other academics may discourage them from leaving academia.
Avoid this negativity and follow your own path.
Connect with your core values and identify the activities you enjoy.
With this self-reflection accomplished, you can research the industry areas and positions that you might like.
Set up informational interviews to determine if a particular company or job might be a good fit for you.
Research various companies online to see what they are working on and their expected profits.
This information can help you determine whether the company is growing.
In industry (which includes nonprofit, for profit, and government organizations), there is a huge variety of positions well-suited for PhDs.
You just have to get out there and find the one that’s right for you.
2. Differentiate between a curriculum vitae and a resume.
In academia, PhDs are taught the importance of having a good CV.
PhDs are not taught how to write a resume.
Often, the words CV and resume are used interchangeably to describe the same thing.
A CV typically covers all your academic accomplishments and can be several pages long.
A resume, on the other hand, is focused toward the job you are applying for and should only be one or two pages long.
Recruiters and potential employers will not spend a lot of time looking over a resume.
This means that you need to make your point quickly and clearly.
If a recruiter has to read several pages of a CV that includes irrelevant publications, it is unlikely that you will get a call back.
Highlight your transferable skills and show the reader what you have to offer.
When applying to industry positions, you will almost always need to provide a resume, not a CV.
3. Know how to network.
The key to getting industry positions is to network.
Many positions available in industry will never be advertised.
Without building up a large network that includes many people who work in industry, you will never hear about these positions.
It can be difficult to network, especially if you are an introvert.
However, networking is critical to your success.
Networking takes effort and time.
It is more than simply exchanging business cards at a conference.
You need to follow-up with new connections and build relationships by providing value.
Stop going to PhD-only networking events and explore industry events related to your goals.
Treat every social activity as a networking opportunity.
Continue expanding your network and always remember the #1 way to network: add value first, and regularly.
Networking will get easier over time, and it will be key to your successful transition into industry.
4. Use LinkedIn effectively.
LinkedIn began as a way for professionals to network.
While LinkedIn is still an excellent networking tool, its focus has expanded.
LinkedIn has evolved into a job searching tool where prospective job candidates can easily connect with hiring managers and recruiters.
Unfortunately, many PhDs do not understand the importance of LinkedIn.
When used properly, LinkedIn can be an essential tool for PhDs to get an industry position.
But if you use LinkedIn improperly, it can make you look unprofessional and inexperienced.
Your LinkedIn profile is your first impression to the professional community, so it needs to be top notch.
Have a professional headline so you can stand out from other candidates.
Have a good, professional profile picture to demonstrate industry credibility.
PhDs can also optimize their LinkedIn profile with keywords so that hiring managers and recruiters can find them easily.
Once you have gained the attention of hiring managers and recruiters, start building relationships with them that will ultimately lead to an industry position.
5. Learn how to write a cover letter.
Do not underestimate the importance of your cover letter.
This document is not just a formality.
It is one of the first things a recruiter or hiring manager will see from you and it is the place where you can be conversational and show them who you are professionally.
However, there are two big “don’ts” with cover letters.
First, do not address your cover letter, ‘To whom it may concern’ or another non-personalized greeting — ever.
Failing to address your cover letter to the right person is a surefire way to stop someone from reading it.
Second, do not simply rehash your resume in your cover letter.
Instead, use the cover letter as a place to show why you will fit into their company culture and highlight your transferable skills that demonstrate why you are the best candidate.
Use the words and phrases listed in the job description to highlight why you are the right person for the job.
Spend time on your cover letter to customize it for each position specifically.
This investment will go a long way in opening industry doors for you.
6. Build transferable skills outside of academia.
PhDs have more transferable skills than they are often led to believe.
Earning a PhD teaches you far more than the technical skills of your particular discipline.
You learn project management, problem solving, teamwork… and the list goes on.
Not only do you need to know the skills you already have and how to highlight them, you also need to know the skills you lack and how to acquire them.
A great way to boost your transferable skills is to volunteer within your local community or get involved in local organizations.
Volunteering with community groups can help develop your networking and interpersonal skills.
If you need to increase your writing or public speaking skills, offer to write or present for a local science organization.
Volunteering doesn’t just help you develop additional skills, it shows prospective employers that you are motivated and community-minded.
7. Join professional associations or societies.
Most industries have at least one association or society dedicated to the area.
Joining these professional groups can widen your networking opportunities.
Some of these groups may also offer professional development workshops or seminars.
These associations and societies are a great way to connect with experienced industry professionals in an environment where they are willing to help you.
Set up informational interviews with other members so you can learn more about their jobs and industry.
Remember to look outside your field as well as within it.
Once you join a group, become an active member.
This doesn’t simply mean paying fees.
It means actively participating in meetings or signing up for committees.
This is a way to add value to the group, enhance your leadership and teamwork skills, and increase your chance of getting a job or job referral.
For PhDs to successfully transition into academia, they need to develop professionally relevant skills. Unfortunately, many PhD programs are geared towards creating academics, even though a majority of PhDs ultimately leave academia. However, as a PhD there are many ways you can develop your professional skills, including networking and utilizing LinkedIn effectively. PhDs can also join professional associations to seek out the professional development and mentorship that universities are lacking. By focusing on these areas, you’ll be able to increase your opportunities and position yourself for industry jobs as a well-rounded, industry-ready professional.
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