The Top 5 PhD Job Applicant Mistakes Marking You Dead-On-Arrival

In the beginning, you only bothered with applications for your dream industry postings. 

They had openings. You have a PhD and the skills. 

It seemed like an open-and-shut case.

Days turned into weeks. Your phone never rang, and your inbox stayed empty.

“They probably already filled the position before seeing my application. They can’t exactly backtrack after hiring someone.”

You moved on to your second-tier choices, then third, and then whoever else had a relevant opening with a salary you could live with.

Sadly, this is usually the point where most PhDs give up and sentence themselves to a resentful life in academia. 

They blame the hiring managers, the resume scanning software, the industry, the other applicants—everyone except themselves. 

You? Can’t be! 

You have the experience and education most industry managers would kill for. 

While true, that doesn’t mean you have what it takes to actually work the position day-to-day for years.

That’s why your application isn’t proving to employers you’re worth the risk. 

Why should they hire you instead of someone else with over ten years of industry experience?

You absolutely have what it takes but your resume and application are sending the wrong message. 

You’re stuck in academia-mode making common PhD job applicant mistakes and marking your resume dead-on-arrival. 

The Top 5 PhD Job Applicant Mistakes Killing Your Chances Before They Even Start

Now you see why over 30% of all PhD recipients admit they have no post-graduation employment plans. 

Or maybe you already knew. After all, that 30% figure doesn’t include all the tenured folks trying to claw out of academia. 

And even those “secure” university positions aren’t a guaranteed backup option for PhDs these days.

Either way, give yourself a break. You thought you were doing the right thing with your resume. 

You thought industry hiring managers wanted to see your attention to detail and breadth of knowledge.  

Enough with the pity party though. 

It’s time to admit your mindset was wrong, stop making these PhD job applicant mistakes, and use your efficacy to show industry employers the version of you they need.

Mistake #1: Regurgitating your skills in a lengthy resume, CV, and LinkedIn bio

Yes, companies run resumes through AI software looking for keywords—but once you get through that, you need to impress a human. 

Industry managers might even tell the AI to trash any resume over a certain word count. Meanwhile, a preprogrammed bot could see repetition and label you as spam. 

Either way, use each piece of valuable real estate to make an instant impact. Showcase your personability on LinkedIn and limit your resume to a page or two. 

Don’t mention every skill. They already know. Focus on the results your work achieved and who/what benefited from it. 

Mistake #2: neglecting your transferable skills and humanity 

This is one of the biggest PhD job applicant mistakes to kill motivation: Don’t treat your resume and application like a research report.

Managers need to see who you are—not just what you are. 

All the knowledge and academic experience in the world won’t convince an industry hiring manager you can handle the position’s workplace dynamic. 

Include hard and soft transferable skills via concise examples as they relate to the position: managing a team, delegating tasks, communicating on projects, working as a team. 

That last one is the most important. PhDs have a reputation for being a little too independent when they transition into industry. Show industry managers you’re not.

Mistake #3: Assuming your PhD and research will get your foot in the door

Over 55% of PhDs don’t receive their doctorate until their 30s or 40s and up. 

If you took an academic position after your PhD, you could be competing against other industry applicants with over 15 or 20 years of experience in similar roles. 

What makes you think a hiring manager cares more about your decades of research? Exactly. They don’t. 

Anyone reading your application already knows the investment a PhD entails. Pick parts of your experience that prove why you’re worth the risk. 

Tell your story. Highlight the real change you brought to the organization and the world.

Mistake #4: Writing a CV Instead of a cover letter

PhDs have no business submitting a CV for industry positions.

CVs work when someone built a successful career through years or decades of industry experience.

Your academic CV might impress peers in academia, but it’s mostly egotistical gibberish to an industry hiring manager. Ignoring that reality is possibly the worst PhD job applicant mistake you can make. 

Grab attention by smothering your ego: Use a cover letter to gently promote your transferable skills, results, personality, and why these things are useful to the industry role.

Mistake #5: Ignoring advice (or not seeking it) from employed PhDs 

Don’t assume you can fix all your PhD job applicant mistakes alone.

Like research and experiments, finding the correct solution to your industry hiring problem requires testing. 

Well, find the people who already ran the tests. 

Ask them questions. Really listen to them. Don’t cherry-pick an excuse to convince yourself their experience doesn’t apply to yours. 

Don’t take their direction word for word necessarily. Just keep an open mind and respect what you don’t know about this new process.

How to Avoid All PhD Job Applicant Mistakes: Stop Thinking About What You Would Want From An Applicant 

Avoiding the worst PhD job applicant mistakes doesn’t boil down to any technicalities and details. 

It’s about realizing that what you would want from an applicant in academia and what the industry hiring manager wants for the role are two opposite things.

The first human will probably spend less than 30 seconds reviewing your application, initially. To stand out from the 200 to 2,000 other applications and make it into the “maybe” pile, you must prove yourself within that quick glance.

Keep it short. Focus on transferable skills. Show off your personality.

When you set aside your ego and let all your awesome qualities shine, the managers will see that side of you, too, and appreciate your value.

Need some inspiration from someone who’s been in your shoes? Download the Cheeky Scientist Industry Resume Guide and compare your current resume to the ideal template to pinpoint where you went wrong.

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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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