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Where Do You Measure Up To The Average PhD Looking For A Job? (Data From 1,679 PhDs Reveals The Truth)

My resume is above average. Certainly it’s at the mean. That was my belief when I started my job search.

I’m way ahead of where I should be when it comes to transitioning into industry. I mean …I haven’t even graduated and I was already looking at options. That was another belief I had when I started my industry job search.

Looking back, I’m amazed at how unscientific my approach was when it came to the most important thing in my life at the time – my career. In retrospect, I had no idea what I was doing. I was merely dabbling in my job search and hoping an opportunity would fall in my lap. 

But this felt like enough. It felt like enough because everyone around me in academia was doing the same thing. These lifetime academics were my reference points. If I had only known at the time that the postdocs in my lab and even my PI were way behind in their careers. If I had only known that their careers were, in many ways, failures.  

One of them in particular had been chasing postdocs for nearly a decade …and I was comparing myself to them as a reference point? They were my guidepost as to whether or not I was successful? Really? 

I was so foolish. 

In the years since, I’ve seen data from tens of thousands of PhDs, including the data I’m going to share with you below that was collected from 1,679 PhDs over a 6-month period starting in October, 2020.

What these data show is that most PhDs are wildly off when it comes to where they think they are in their job searches and careers.

The Average PhD Is Executing A Below Average Job Search

The average PhD thinks that they have plenty of time to start their job search after they defend their thesis, or after they finish their next postdoc, or even after their contract or adjunct professorship is terminated. 

This assumption is a big mistake because executing a PhD-level job search can take months if not years. Yet, as you’ll see, what normally happens is that the average PhD let themselves get into a position where their only options are working for free or being abjectly unemployed.

Unfortunately, when you wait until you’re working for free or unemployed to start a job search, it’s far too late to execute it properly. By then, you’re in desperation mode. By then, you don’t have any savings to live on. You’re broke and your career is broken. Think of that. An unemployed doctor who can’t get hired and who doesn’t even know how to get hired. Will that be you? Why would you wait and take the chance? 

The sad truth is most PhDs know deep down that they are going to end up unemployed, but they ignore the pressure they feel to do something about it.

Instead, they distract themselves by staying busy in the classroom or the lab. 

As you’ll see in the data below, most PhDs don’t even know which industry job positions are right for them. This is corroborated by survey data from Global 500 employers showing that these employers’ top concerns when it comes to hiring PhDs is their lack of business acumen and their lack of commitment to the position at hand. These employers walk away from interviewing PhDs unconvinced that the PhD even wants to work there, let alone that the PhD can add anything of value to the organization.

This is amazing because the data below show that many PhDs perceive their interviewing skills as average, when in fact employers see the average PhD’s interviewing skills as far below average, just as they see the average PhD’s resume as far below average. 

As you read the data below, don’t feel bad about yourself for having no idea what you’re doing. Don’t feel bad about yourself when you realize that your reference points are way off. Instead, feel inspired because now you know the truth and you can start executing an above average PhD-level job search. 

1. Most PhDs need a job immediately when they start their job search 

Nearly a quarter of the PhDs we polled were out of a job and needed to get hired immediately. Think of that. 24.3% of PhDs who planned so poorly in their careers that they are now desperate. 

This should never happen. 

Figure 1: Average time frame of a PhD job search

Why can’t you line up a job prior to defending your thesis? You can. Why can’t you line up a job while you’re in your postdoc? You can. You are in control of your career and as a PhD you have no excuse for ending up in dire need of a job. After all, you’ve been rigorously trained on problem solving, innovation and long term planning. 

Ignorance and laziness are the only reasons for ending up needing a job immediately. That may sound harsh but it’s true. Somewhere along the way you gave control over your career to someone else, or you assumed things were going to work out in a way that they clearly did not and failed to set up a backup plan. 

The data above also show that 61.2% of the PhDs polled needed a job in 6 months or less. If you’re one of these PhDs too, what are you thinking? According to Science, the average industry salary for a PhD is $91,112… but they don’t just give away these salaries to PhDs with average resumes. No, they require resumes that stand out from other PhDs. On top of this, they require you to execute 40 distinct PhD-level job search steps correctly. If you try to do this alone, it will take you a minimum of 6 months. Alternatively, our Cheeky Scientist Methodology, published in part by the Harvard Business Review here, can get you hired in 5 weeks. 

2. PhD students end up as postdocs or as unemployed PhDs, and they all need jobs 

You can see in the data below that 33.6% of the PhDs we polled were PhD students, 24.7% were postdocs, and 26.9% were unemployed. What you can’t see is that these statistics have been very stable over the past 8 years. 

Figure 2: Current situation of an average PhD job candidate

During this time, we’ve run this particular poll question with the exact same language and exact same answer options. Year in and year out, roughly one quarter to one third of the PhDs polled are either PhD students, postdocs, or already unemployed. 

What’s even more interesting is that we’ve been able to follow thousands of these PhDs longitudinally and have found that those who are PhD students when they take the poll, but do not enter any of our job search training Programs, most often end up in low paying postdocs, only to become unemployed within 3 years. 

Between 61% and 78% of the PhD students who take the poll but do not get job search training, depending on the year, end up in low paying postdocs or unemployed. What’s more is that a staggering 82% of those who end up in postdocs become unemployed for the first time (or work for free) within 3 years. 

In agreement with our findings, data from Nature Biotechnology shows that even after 15 years, PhDs who do a postdoc fail to catch up with PhDs who don’t do a postdoc in terms of salary and career trajectory. In short, the longer you stay in academia and the longer you refuse to take your job search seriously, the more you damage your career.   

3. 81.7% of PhDs don’t even know what industry position they want 

8 out of 10 PhDs don’t even know what industry career they want to get into after they start looking for an industry job. These numbers shock me every time I look at them.

Figure 3: Current positions of PhD looking for jobs 

Academia has failed you and PhDs everywhere. The complete lack of career training that academia provides to its PhD students and postdocs who, by government definition are “in training positions” – not employment positions – is astounding. 

How in the world has this “Profzi scheme” lasted so long? Depending on the data you look at, hundreds if not thousands of PhD students and postdocs prop up one tenured professor, with this ratio getting worse by the month. 

The hard truth is academia can’t teach you which jobs are available in industry or how to get hired into them because academia is full of lifetime academics. Even Universities with “career counselors” hire almost exclusively lifetime academics into these counselor positions. 

How can someone who has never worked in industry teach you which jobs are available in industry, let alone how to get into them? How can YOU get hired into industry if you don’t even know which industry job you want? 

It doesn’t matter how intelligent or driven you are if you don’t know what you want. You can’t hit a target you don’t set. 

4. Most PhDs think their industry resumes are average while employers think their resumes are far below average PhD

As PhDs, we are trained extensively in writing. Unfortunately, the type of complex technical and niche-specific writing we learn how to do in academia is the opposite type of writing that is expected of us in industry. This is especially true when it comes to writing industry resumes. 

As a result, one of the biggest disconnects between reality and a PhD’s perceived reality is in the realm of resume writing. Most PhDs rate their resumes as on par with what is expected of their resume for a PhD-level industry job. As you can see below, 45.3% of PhDs believe that their industry resume ranks a 3 on a confidence scale of 1-to-5 with 1 indicating a resume that a PhD feels is far below average and is thus very unconfident. A score of 2 indicates a below average resume, 3 an average resume, 4 above average, and 5 far above average. 

Figure 4: Data about average PhD perception of their current resume

However, preliminary data from surveys we have sent to Global 500 employers found that these employers see the average PhD’s resume as far below average, with 45.1% of them rating these resumes as a 1 on the same 1-to-5 scale mentioned above. 34.5% of these employers rated the resumes as a 2 on this scale. 

As a PhD, your resume is one of your biggest blind spots. 

Perhaps, even as you’re reading this, you still believe that your resume is the exception. If so, let me ask you …why are you reading this? Where are you struggling in your job search? I’m willing to bet you’re struggling to get enough phone screens to break through enough site visits to get a job offer. 

In other words, you’re uploading your resume over and over again but are not hearing back enough. 

Hmm …could it be …your resume is, in fact, far below average too? 

5. Most PhDs think their interviewing skills are average or below average while employers think their interviewing skills are far below average. 

Similar to #4 above, the interviewing stage is a major blind spot for PhDs. The question is why? I believe the reason is because as PhDs, we are trained extensively on defending a logical position orally in academia. After all, we have to present our findings regularly and, to get our PhD, we have to rigorously defend our thesis findings to a committee of highly trained doctors. This highly specific, highly academic process inflates our perception of our interviewing skills. 

The type of oral defense you learned in academia is very, very different from the type of oral Q&A you will do during a phone screen, video interview, or site visit for an industry job. 

Figure 5: Data about PhDs perception of their interviewing skills

Here too, preliminary data from surveys we’ve sent to Global 500 employers found that these employers see the average PhD’s interviewing skills as far below average, with 38.8% of them rating the average PhD’s interviewing skills as a 1 on the 1-to-5 scale, and 31.6% of them rating their skills as a 2 on the scale. 

Meanwhile, as you can see below, 31.9% of PhDs see their interviewing skills as on par with what’s expected of them in industry and 32.2% are slightly less confident, rating their skills a 2 on the 1-to-5 scale. 

The top complaint that employers have following an interview with a PhD is that the average PhDs lacks even basic industry knowledge and fails to speak the language of industry (together, these are often referred to as “business acumen” and it’s something that we teach extensively on in the Cheeky Scientist Association). 

average PhD

The second most common complaint from these employers is that PhDs don’t know what they want and show a very low level of commitment – especially when pressed – to the position they are being interviewed for. PhDs don’t seem committed to do whatever it takes to succeed in the position, know how they can add value to the position, or be able to provide rationale as to why they want the position in the first place. 

This compliant makes complete sense given #3 above. If 8 out of 10 PhDs don’t even know what industry position they want, how can they show commitment to a position during an interview or otherwise? 

Concluding Remarks

You don’t want to be an average PhD executing an average PhD job search. You want to be the rare PhD who takes their PhD-level job search extremely seriously. Instead of only thinking about your job search and playing out scenarios mentally over and over again, start executing your job search at a higher level. Get access to the training and job referral network you need to decide on the industry position you want, get your high-quality resume into the hands of a decision maker, interview properly, and get hired. 

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.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 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 three 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

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