Cheeky Logo
Ready To Get Hired?
Apply To Book A Free Call With Our Transition Specialist Team

The (Revised) Fundamentals Of A PhD Job Search

We’ve seen dramatic changes in the job market since the start of 2020; the fundamentals are changing.

From the first wave of lockdowns to the mid-year hiring boom and then the second wave of lockdowns, and now –  the vaccine rollout. 

We’ve observed the highest month of PhD hiring ever since we started tracking PhD hiring nearly a decade ago. 

The month was November, 2020. 

But this boom was followed by an 81% drop in PhD hiring. 

And now, with a lot of uncertainty around future corporate tax rates in many countries, we are seeing PhD hiring stagnate in this PhD hiring pit. 

Hiring is down and rejections are climbing. 

I heard these two rejection stories from PhDs recently…

The first PhD told me, — “The last few months needless to say have been very frustrating because I would send in my resume and no response or responses which say -no thank you-…I understand there is no point of simply applying for a job that is possibly already filled! I got an email for a phone interview (I was so happy) – and after which no communication. Feedback I get : I am overqualified for entry level positions, but then I don’t have enough work experience for positions higher up”

The second PhD, on the other hand, was rejected after the interview stage and told me — “Three rounds of interviews and I just got a rejection letter again. I am extremely qualified for the job and they said I presented myself very well and that I was very clear. I asked for feedback and they said there’s really nothing to improve, that they have no complaints about my performance and that they just went with someone who was a better fit.” 

If you’re being rejected right now too, you’re not alone. 

You’re not alone and you just keep trying

But work smart, not just hard

Go back to the fundamentals. 

If you’re hesitant to take your job search seriously because of the drop in PhD hiring, now is the time for you to go back to the fundamentals too. 

But not the fundamentals you used to know. 

The new, revised fundamentals of a PhD job search. 

The 5 Fundamental Sticking Points Of A PhD Job Search 

Before you can go back to the fundamentals – revised or otherwise – you need to understand the fundamental sticking points of a PhD job search. 

There are 5 such sticking points and the details as to why each sticking point exists is as follows…

1. Uploading resumes but not getting any responses

It has been reported that 75% of resumes are rejected before they even get into the hands of a hiring manager. 

While the outcome of the remaining 25% is decided within an average of 7 seconds

The job search process that most PhDs start with just uploading resumes over and over again has been termed as ‘spray and pray’. 

You upload hundreds of applications and pray that at least one gets accepted. Though response through a call or an email acknowledgement was fairly common earlier, employer ghosting has become rampant lately. 

You are not alone! 

An alarmingly high 82% no response rate has been recorded to resume uploads. Hence, the fundamentals of the resume has to be revised for breaking through this sticking point.

2. Networking but not getting any referrals

Networking is the currency of the industry. Informational interviews with industry professionals provide first-hand information about the industry, job title, and your fitness for the role. 

Though almost 85% of the open positions are filled through networking, a fair share of networking does not end in referrals

PhDs often struggle with the initial steps of networking as they are uncertain where to begin, whom to ask, and how to best use their time to set up an interview. 

Networking often fails because PhDs ask for a referral too soon without adding value. You either don’t ask the right questions in the first place or you ask to be hired without building a relationship of value first. 

Unfruitful networking is a huge stumbling block for the PhD job search process. Therefore it is one of the most crucial fundamentals that warrants revision.

3. Getting referrals but not phone screens

Many PhDs never hear back from employers despite referrals. 

You may have set up an informational interview, had the interview go very well. You may have even got the other party to assure you that they would pass your resume to the hiring manager, but they never did

So, you got a referral, but no phone screens, no callbacks, and no contact from a decision maker. 

One of the biggest reasons behind this failure is that PhDs don’t set proper expectations or follow up professionally. Either way you are not advancing in your PhD job search journey.

4. Getting callbacks but not 2nd interviews 

You may have had a couple of phone screens, but never progressed to a second interview. 

This second interview stage varies and may be a video interview at one company or an in-person site visit at another. The situation is extremely frustrating and often happens during periods of economic uncertainty and when there is more competition in the job market. 

Many job openings receive an average of 250 resumes

A very small percentage of candidates – only 4 to 6  of these 250 – are actually called in for an interview in the first place and only half of those will get a second interview.  

 5. Interviewing but no job offer

If you make it to the final interview stage, at most, you would be competing against one or two other job candidates.

Yet, many PhDs get rejected here because they don’t show enough enthusiasm or commitment for the job at hand. 

On your site interview, you need to go above and beyond to assure the company that investing in you is the right choice. 

You also need to remember that hiring is expensive. 

The average cost of hiring a new professional is $7,000, however depending on the role and company, the cost can escalate to $25,000 or more.

If you can’t be enthusiastic about getting hired during the interview, or show you’re 100% committed, what’s your enthusiasm going to be like 100 days after being hired?
How committed would you be then?

Think about this from the employers point of view and maybe you’ll realize why you’re struggling to get hired. 

The (Revised) Job Search Fundamentals For PhDs

The fundamentals are not enough any more. We are in a new economy, a new job market and a new world. Following these revised fundamentals of a PhD job search are the only way to get hired today…

1. Keywords are not enough anymore. You must understand keyword connectedness and your unique selling proposition.

How do employers find your resume in their application tracking system (ATS) software? 

How do they find you on LinkedIn?

The fundamental way is through the keywords that you put on your resume or LinkedIn profile.

We’ve been teaching these fundamentals to PhDs for years. We even developed a hack for it which includes copying multiple job postings for the same job title into free word cloud software so you can see which words (the transferable skills and technical skills) are used the most. 

But this is not enough anymore. Now, you have to consider keyword connectedness, meaning you have to consider 30-50 keywords related to the 5-10 main keywords that you found through your word cloud analysis or other analysis. 

Most PhDs simply do not have the stomach for this, but it’s the only way to ensure that you show up at the top of an employers search results. 

You also must shift your focus from a mere quantitative analysis of keywords to a more qualitative analysis of your unique selling proposition, or USP.  

This means you must carefully read and understand each job posting and instead of focusing on the skills you don’t have or the words you don’t know, determine which skills you have that others likely don’t have or won’t communicate on their resume, in addition to which combination of skills are uniquely yours. You must understand keyword connectedness and your unique selling proposition to get hired into a PhD level position. 

2. Networking on LinkedIn is not enough anymore. You must aggregate a job lead list, reach out systematically, and make daily progress toward job referrals.

The original fundamental was to network on LinkedIn, to reach out to people and create a list of the people you reached out to follow up with them. 

The revised fundamental is you must aggregate a massive job lead list of 50-100 contacts, including 2-3 contacts at each company you’re interested in, and then reach out systematically to these contacts while recording your progress with them. 

Yes, you should still network by adding value and building a relationship, not just connecting. 

That’s a given and a constant. However, you need to apply a more tactical and measurable approach to this process. For every company you want to work for, you should aim to find a decision-maker at that company with an HR or operational job title. 

For smaller companies it could be the CEO and for much larger companies it could be an internal recruiter or talent acquisition specialist. Then you need to find a lateral connection at the same company, which is someone working in the role that you want to get into, or at least working in the same department. This is the person most likely to give you a referral to the decision maker in case you can’t make contact. 

Make sure you are recording your progress with each candidate too. First, record if you’ve reached out. Then record if they’ve replied (now, you have a dialogue). Next, record if you’ve asked them a work related question (now, you’re in an informational interview). Finally, record when you ask them for a referral, or for a connection to someone else at the company to talk to, or for permission to mention you talked to them on your cover letter. If you’re struggling to get any response, don’t overthink it. Try our proven 7-word question:

 Hi XYZ {person’s name}. How are things at ABC {company}? 

When they respond, at the very least, you must use every networking touchpoint to get introduced to another networking contact and make progress towards a job referral. 

3. Following up with contacts is not enough anymore. You must use every networking touchpoint to get introduced to another networking contact or to otherwise make progress toward a job referral.

The third fundamental was to follow up after every interaction

The revised fundamental is to use every networking interaction as a gateway to another interaction. 

This means that while it’s still important to follow up with the contact you’re talking to now after the conversation is over, you should also work to tap into your contact’s network right now, before the conversation is over. 

Follow up during every interaction should set the stage for subsequent follow ups to further your job search. 

For example, at the end of an informational interview with a networking contact, try saying:

“I really appreciate your time. Is there anybody else you could introduce me to who might be able to tell me more about XYZ at ABC company?”

Make your request specific so that it is easy for them to think of someone (i.e. XYZ should be a specific public initiative at the company, an upcoming job opening that was mentioned, what it’s like to work in a particular department, and so on).

You can also ask them if they would be willing to pass along your resume to the hiring manager or, at the very least, if they are okay with you mentioning that you had a conversation with them on your cover letter that you’ll be sending to the hiring manager.  

Having a referral name on your cover letter puts your application on the top of the pile

Employee referrals, even if merely via a cover letter mention, can substantially decrease the hiring time because companies prefer employee referrals as they’re budget-friendly and dependable.

4. Answering standard phone screen questions is not enough anymore. You must ask quality questions too, including “Do you have any concerns about hiring me that I can address?” before the end of the call so you can defend against objections while present.

The original fundamental was once you get on the phone, put your best foot forward, meaning that you needed to present yourself well and answer questions positively. But this is no longer enough in today’s competitive job environment. 

Now, you must be prepared to ask questions to demonstrate your knowledge and enthusiasm for the company. Example questions include:

“Do you have any remaining questions about hiring me that I can address?” 

“Is there anything that still concerns you about me filling this role?”

“What might hold you back from offering me this job?” 

Ask quality questions like these so that you can advocate for yourself while you’re on the phone call. This is a much better strategy than having the hiring manager bring up these objections to the hiring committee when you’re not present to provide clarifications and/or defend yourself. 

5. Asking why you got rejected is not enough anymore. You must show that you’re committed to the job at hand and you must have confirmation bias that you’re the best candidate for the job.

It used to be a fundamental to ask employers for feedback, but now it’s generally useless. The reason is because most employers only give stock answers like the following to to avoid legal implications:

“We didn’t hire you because you’re overqualified.“ 

Or, “We found somebody with better skills”

These are pre-approved answers that will not help you in your job search and should be immediately discarded. They might’ve hired somebody internally or they may have just liked someone’s personality better. Who knows? Not you. And you never, ever well. So ignore it.

Instead, put your efforts towards showing more commitment and engagement next time. This is the new fundamental. 

Too many PhDs are taught to have a discovery mindset when it comes to their job search; they are taught to explore all possibilities at all times and to never show confirmation bias. This is absurd. Of course you have confirmation biased – you’re biased for yourself. Or you should be. 

Being unbiased and exploring all possibilities during an interview, say by entertaining other roles at the company when the employer strategically asks you “would you be open to other roles here?” can make you appear flaky at best, or arrogant at worst. Ohhh …you can do any role here? Just like that? Or, ohhh …you don’t really care what role you take? You’ll take any job thrown at you? 

When you’re trying to get hired into a job, you better have confirmation bias that you’re the best candidate for the position and you better show commitment to the job at hand. 

Concluding Remarks

The job market is much more competitive today than it was even a few years ago. You need to reform your strategy to be successfully hired. You need to come back to the fundamentals – the revised fundamentals – of the PhD job search process to overcome challenges and get hired. Focus on your unique selling points. Understand keyword connectedness. Display your unique combination of skills. Build meaningful relationships. Add value to your network. Be committed to the job at hand and stay committed to the overall job search process. 

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

Book a Transition Call
Get Free Job Search Content Weekly

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.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Similar Articles

Should You Apply To More Than One Job At A Company? (& 3 Other Tough Job Search Questions Answered)

Should You Apply To More Than One Job At A Company? (& 3 Other Tough Job Search Questions Answered)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

“Isaiah, I applied to ThermoFisher two weeks ago and a hiring manager got in touch with me and I had my first interview…. But then a second hiring manager reached out to me about another job I applied to there.  I started talking to this second manager and they asked if I applied to any other positions there.  I couldn’t lie so I told them about the other job and the other hiring manager.  Now, neither of the hiring managers will get back to me.  What should I do?”  This is what a PhD told me over the phone last…

How LinkedIn Ranks Job Seekers With PhDs, EdDs & Other Degrees

How LinkedIn Ranks Job Seekers With PhDs, EdDs & Other Degrees

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

“Be real Isaiah, there’s not a government bureau keeping track of how our resumes perform.”  This is what a frustrated job seeker said to me recently.  “What do you mean I have a reputation score?” they asked.  “Of course there’s not a bureau dedicated to this, at least not yet” I said.  “But you absolutely are being scored and ranked” I went on, “and your ranking is used to indicate how reputable you are as a job seeker.”  This is what I’ve explained to countless people looking for a job in today’s job market, most of whom were getting initial…

How The Academic PhD Job Market Was Destroyed

How The Academic PhD Job Market Was Destroyed

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

“I spent over a year looking for a job in academia and flew to multiple interviews. I didn’t get one offer.” A PhD told me this recently and many other PhDs have told me similar stories.  Of course, the stories involve more than just looking for a job for a year.  They involve living on a meager academic budget, trying to support themselves and their families, often in very expensive cities where many of the biggest universities are located.  They involve decisions to never go on a vacation, to feed their kids cheaper, less healthy food, and to work all…

Give Yourself The Gift Of Leaving Academia Forever

Give Yourself The Gift Of Leaving Academia Forever

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

My last year in academia, I didn’t have enough money to fly home for Christmas. So I spent it in Iowa City, mostly alone.  I was broke (of course) so I decided to shovel snow out of driveways for $10 per driveway. I remember thinking how ridiculous it was to be a PhD shoveling snow for money. “What I wouldn’t give to have a better job”, I thought.  That was the gift I wanted for Christmas and the holidays.  A better job.  Not to be a student or a postdoc or an academic PhD getting paid less than I was…

The Ideal Keyword Density For Targeting Your PhD Resume To An Industry Job Posting

The Ideal Keyword Density For Targeting Your PhD Resume To An Industry Job Posting

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Writing a resume for an industry job is one of the biggest sticking points I see with PhDs entering the job market.  What worked even a year ago is not working today due to recent and rapidly accelerating advances in Applicant Tracking Systems.  These systems, called ATS or just AI today, are software tools used by companies to filter resumes.  They scan for specific keywords related to the job role, abilities, credentials, and qualities desired in a candidate.  As a PhD seeking very competitive roles, including relevant keywords in your resume is essential to pass through these systems and get…

AI Is Replacing Recruiters. Here’s How PhD Job Seekers Should Adapt

AI Is Replacing Recruiters. Here’s How PhD Job Seekers Should Adapt

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

“I had a recruiter reach out to me, Isaiah, and after I gave them my resume and answered their questions, they never got back to me. What should I do?”  I hear this a lot.  I also hear, “Isaiah, I was on the phone with a recruiter and as soon as they heard that I needed a visa, they hung up” …”or as soon as they heard I had no industry experience, they hung up.”  Man, I personally hate this. What a waste of time. The recruitment industry is broken.  The good news is its being devoured by Artificial Intelligence,…

Why PhDs Are Powerhouses Of Productivity (& How It Can Get Your Hired)

Why PhDs Are Powerhouses Of Productivity (& How It Can Get Your Hired)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

“Nothing makes sense today in the job market”, a PhD expressed to me recently.  “No one is responding to my resumes. I don’t understand why they would ask for a scientist at the company and then not even want to talk to me”, they said. They went on: “I’ve even had some friends refer to me, but still didn’t get an interview. I feel like I made a mistake getting my PhD.”  It’s hard hearing this from PhDs who invested so much in their education and in advancing research for humanity.  Still, I hear it a lot.  My response is…

Employers Are Hiring PhDs Because They Learn Faster Than Other Job Candidates

Employers Are Hiring PhDs Because They Learn Faster Than Other Job Candidates

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

“Why would any employers hire me… I don’t have industry experience, my skills don’t match the positions I want, and I’m not hearing back from any positions I’ve applied to… Plus, I don’t know anyone in industry.” I heard this from a PhD recently who was mentally broken from their job search.  They had been applying to jobs for months and either hearing nothing back or getting rejected very quickly.  When they asked their peers for insights as to why, they heard the usual stuff, “maybe you’re overqualified?” Or… “Actually, you’re underqualified because you don’t have industry experience.” “You can’t…

What Are Ghost Job Listings & How PhDs Should Handle Them

What Are Ghost Job Listings & How PhDs Should Handle Them

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

“I’ve applied to hundreds of job postings” a PhD recently told me. “Using the same resume?” I asked.  “No.” they replied.  “I targeted every resume. I’ve heard nothing back. In some cases I was sent a rejection email within the hour. What’s happening?!”, they wailed.  “Ghost job listings.” I replied.  They asked me what a ghost job listing is and I explained that ghost job listings are jobs posted by real companies but they’re jobs that these companies have no intention of actually filling. Of course, this PhD wanted to know why and I told them that the answer is…

Top Industry Career eBooks

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD & Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Learn about the best 63 industry careers for PhDs (regardless of your academic background). In this eBook, you will gain insight into the most popular, highest-paying jobs for PhDs – all of which will allow you to do meaningful work AND get paid well for it.

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Learn how to craft the perfect industry resume to attract employers. In this eBook for PhDs, you will get access to proven resume templates, learn how to structure your bullet points, and discover which keywords industry employers want to see most on PhD resumes.

AI & ATS Resume Filters

AI & ATS Resume Filters

Isaiah Hankel

In today's competitive job market, understanding the impact of AI is crucial for career success. This involves ensuring your resume stands out in the digital realm, mastering your online presence, and being aware of how AI assigns reputation scores. Discovering how to leverage AI to your advantage is essential, as it plays a pivotal role in shaping professional opportunities.

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel

The LinkedIn tips & strategies within have helped PhDs from every background get hired into top industry careers.