Spin The Hard Knocks Of Academia To Your Advantage To Get Hired
Something that comes up a lot when I talk to new PhDs is that they think they don’t have enough on-the-job experience to apply for the high earning jobs they’re perfect for.
I see this imposter syndrome prevent PhDs from even trying to apply for jobs – and puts a stop to their journey to getting hired in industry. So they settle.
For academia, where they don’t have job security.
For jobs that pay less and don’t value their abilities.
For a job they’re not interested in and don’t want, but they think it gets them “started” in industry when it just gets them to another dead end burn out job where they’re underpaid.
All of this because they’re not seeing their daily experience in academia through a professional lens.
And they do all this because they think, despite being subject matter experts and proven themselves over and over again, that they don’t have enough skills to get started in industry or they have to pay their dues.
They think their time in academia didn’t prepare them for “the real world”. They overthink it, the analysis paralysis takes hold and suddenly, they find an excuse to stay where they are.
In the dead end academic position, waiting for tenure that’s not coming.
Taking a job that’s below their pay grade, accepting a salary they think they deserve.
They think that they won’t be able to showcase or back up these skills.
What these PhDs are forgetting is the value of their time in academia – and the transferable skills they have in spades.
Academia Taught You Professional Survival – Flip It To Your Advantage
The years it took to hone your skills, write your thesis, and navigate through the ins and outs of academia weren’t completed in a vacuum. You dealt with a myriad of different personalities, all who had different expectations of the outcome. Right now employers are not just hiring bullet points on a resume, they’re hiring people who have high emotional intelligence, a high ability to problem solve, and the ability to work with others under optimal and suboptimal conditions. This describes your academic career – you have the emotional and interpersonal skills employers in industry are looking for, with the added bonus of being a trained and educated expert. PhDs don’t put a lot of value on their transferable or “soft skills” because they think they’re unquantifiable.
All that time in academia makes them think that they don’t have solid proof of their transferable skills – that’s patently false.
All of these soft skills are to your advantage when combined with your PhD. You just have to showcase them right to get the most out of it. Because you process things on another level, see things other employees won’t see, here are some ways to flip your transferable skills to your advantage. As a PhD, do you want to leave these hard-won skills to the whims of the institution or do you want to benefit from them in industry?
Your Unreasonable Thesis Advisor Suddenly Became Useful
You have more transferable skills and more professional experience than you think, you just need to showcase those skills correctly. The unreasonable thesis advisor who kept you to tight deadlines, didn’t take no for an answer, never kept to their office hours and was basically a tyrant? You learned what an unhealthy work environment looks like while you honed the ability to work with difficult people who are immovable in the way they do things, have high expectations that are also unpredictable. And most importantly, from this kind of leadership, you learned more about how you want to lead and what you’d bring to the table as a manager. In short – you now know how not to behave and how not to lead, and what does and does not get results from your team.
You can showcase these skills during your job search by talking about being a self-starter – when you didn’t have great leadership or guidance you were still able to meet your goals and deadlines, and you were still able to make an impact.
Your Hard Skills And Expertise Still Matter And Hold Weight
Employers aren’t just looking for candidates with people skills who can meet deadlines. If that were the case, nobody would need a PhD. Your years of research, your hard skills all hold high value in industry. Things that can’t be taught on the job like data analysis, formulaic thinking, years of lab, technical, or coding experience are invaluable to major industry employers.
Your years of experience throughout your PhD still hold a lot of weight – but its the transferable skills you learned in academia that give you an edge over other candidates with less hard skills and education. Like the other PhDs I’ve helped find jobs in industry, you need to think of yourself from a recruiter’s perspective – as an educated professional who can communicate, meet deadlines and is deeply educated on the ins and outs of the job. Here are some ways you’re set up for success with your transferrable academic skills:
1. Working With Undergrads Who Never Listened And Ignored Deadlines Is Valuable
If you’re looking at managerial positions or are expected to step into managerial roles after being hired, a lot of PhDs balk at that, thinking they don’t have any leadership or management experience. We know that less than 1% of PhDs get tenure so what were all those years as a TA or a lab manager for if not to prepare you for understanding your management style and gaining leadership skills you can apply in industry?
Working in an environment where you were leading and teaching other students while also doing your own work, offering mentorship and guidance with a variety of different students from different backgrounds gave you leadership skills, patience, and the ability to parallel work with a team. These are all deeply sought after skills in industry. Make it a point to discuss your ability to lead and your academic leadership experience when you’re networking and start building yourself up as not just a PhD, but a PhD with leadership experience.
2. Your Hard-Won Transferable Skills Show Employers You Are Flexible And Can Thrive In Industry
It’s no secret that academia is an unpredictable field, during interviews and networking opportunities describe how you’ve handled multiple priorities with competing deadlines and competing expectations. Discuss how you handled and grew from criticism or were able to redirect a project after the parameters were changed or funding was redistributed. Flexibility is a skill that can’t be taught – employers want someone who can adapt in industry. Successful companies are ones that can adapt and change with fluctuating supply chains, high employee turnover, and have employees who can process uncertainty.
Especially with the changes automation and AI have brought to the tech industry, showing your academia honed-flexibility can make you an attractive candidate to employers and recruiters. Transferable skills like effective communication, resilience, and problem-solving are essential to the success of the modern workplace.
3. The Time You’ve Spent In Academia Shows Stick-to-itiveness And An Ability To Work With Difficult Personality Types
Since November of 2022 and the Great Resignation, more than 4 million Americans quit their jobs each month, which is why retention is important to employers. When recruiters and employers are interviewing candidates they’re looking for someone they think will have the most staying power. Highlight the longevity and success of your projects, show them you’re interested in their company by asking fit questions, company culture questions and what they want from a person in this position long-term.
This gets both you and recruiters thinking about your long-term fit and what your longevity could bring to the company. While you shouldn’t make a point to brag that you can withstand any manner of horrible bosses and bad work environments, by way of being a PhD you’ve shown you can see difficult situations through to produce a high-quality end result. Being an employee they want to retain means you’re an employee they’ll want to promote and compensate.
4. The Grant Funding You Brought In And How Well You Managed In Matters In industry
You know that money is the bottom line; in academia, and in industry. Your PhD is valuable to employers because you were able to handle finite budgets to meet specific deadline needs to a desired outcome. Not a lot of job applicants can say that. Even in higher-level interviews, it’s not uncommon for employers to ask how you handle money or what your cash processing experience is.
Different industries will have different expectations on how money is handled by employees, and even if you’re not handling money in the field you’re aiming to join, you’re still showing potential employers that you can be trusted with big responsibilities that are pivotal to the organization’s daily functions. When big-budget projects come in, even if you’re not in a financial role, employers know you can still be trusted to keep the bottom line in mind and stick to a budget while being able to ask for realistic funding and, most importantly, show the supporting data.
5. Your Strong Foundation In Ethics And Integrity Is Impactful to Employers
As a PhD you have a strong foundation in ethics, which matters in todays’ workplace from lower level issues with quiet quitting to the bigger questions surrounding the conversations in AI, your years in academia primed you to think critically and ethically about the factors surrounding new products and ideas. Major industry employers need people who have a strong foundation in ethics and integrity. Your academic background helps you highlight this value as a candidate. Your research had to go through third party testing, it had to be validated and verified, you weren’t able to get by on bad results or bad data.
As a PhD, you’ve had a marked and full professional career. The problem is that a lot of PhDs don’t see their time in academia as beneficial and something they can leverage to their professional advantage; they just assume that potential employers will write them off for not having a lot of professional experience. Transferable skills combined with your hard skills as a PhD are more than enough to get you hired in industry. After the great recession, employers are looking for people who want to be there, and who can withstand fluctuating workloads, understand how to work with teams that may have differing expectations and objectives, and most of all, someone who is an expert in their field.
You can showcase these things while you network, during your interviews, and in your resume by accepting that your PhD has value, and so does your time in academia.
ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD
CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS
Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.
Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.More Written by Isaiah Hankel, PhD