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. 

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Isaiah Hankel, PhD Chief Executive Officer at Cheeky Scientist

Isaiah Hankel holds a PhD in Anatomy and Cell Biology. An expert in the biotechnology industry, he specializes in helping other PhDs transition into cutting-edge industry career tracks.

Isaiah believes--from personal experience--that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life, it’s a clear sign that you need to make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.

Isaiah is an internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant, CEO of Cheeky Scientist, and author of the straight-talk bestsellers Black Hole Focus and The Science of Intelligent Achievement.

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