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Why Hiring Managers Often See PhDs As Desperate (& How To Avoid It)

Recently, I spoke with an absolutely brilliant physicist.

She had a decade of groundbreaking research under her belt, was well-respected and well-known in academia, and she was ready to make the move to an industry career. 

And she was stumped. 

She couldn’t understand why her job applications had been hitting a brick wall for the last few months.

Despite her impressive credentials and numerous publications, she hadn’t received a single interview invitation in months. 

The worst part? She’d already stepped away from the research and teaching that had been sustaining her financially. 

When she doubled back, thinking maybe it just wasn’t the right time for her to leave the university, she found her position had been filled.

“I’m at a loss, Isaiah,” she told me. “It’s like I’ve stepped into the Twilight Zone. I’ve been really fortunate most of my career – my work spoke for itself. 

But now, it feels like my applications are disappearing into a black hole. It has to be something I’m doing.”

Well, actually… yes. 

You see, she didn’t know it, but her job search efforts were inadvertently signaling desperation to potential employers.

Her actions online, her resume, her social media – it was painting a pretty unflattering portrait of her. 

And she’s not alone. 

Many PhDs make the mistake of applying academic strategies to their industry job search, leading to unintended consequences.

In this case, she was sending out heavy signals of desperation.

What Are Desperation Signals?

Desperation signals are subtle cues that job seekers unintentionally send to employers. 

They can indicate a lack of confidence, a sense of urgency, or a willingness to settle for less. 

These signals can manifest in your resume, LinkedIn profile, online presence, and even during interviews. 

While they may seem harmless, they can significantly impact your chances of landing your dream job.

Why? 

To answer this question, you really need look no further than the dictionary. 

Some of the synonyms for desperate include: depressed, despondent, cynical, bleak.

Does that sound like someone you would want to work with?

The first step toward neutralizing these hidden “desperation signals” that could be sabotaging your job search is to be able to identify them.

So let’s take a hard look at some of the common mistakes PhDs are making today on LinkedIn, in their resumes, and during interviews that are giving industry employers the wrong impression.

The Formula for a Perfect LinkedIn Profile

In order to understand what your LinkedIn profile looks like from a recruiter’s perspective, it’s helpful to understand how hiring managers typically use LinkedIn.

Like job seekers, many recruiters on LinkedIn start with a keyword search. 

They’ll search for candidates associated with specific keywords that are closely related to their open position’s job requirements (e.g., “data scientist,” “project manager,” “Python”). 

They may also use Boolean search operators to refine their results.

Next, once potential candidates are identified, hiring managers scrutinize their profiles, paying attention to:

  • Your headline: Does it accurately reflect the candidate’s current role or career goals?
  • Your professional summary: Does it provide a concise and compelling overview of the candidate’s experience and skills?
  • Your professional experience: Does the candidate’s work history align with the job requirements? Are there any gaps or inconsistencies?
  • Your skills and endorsements: Are the listed skills relevant to the role? Do endorsements validate those skills?
  • Recommendations: Do the recommendations highlight the candidate’s strengths and achievements?
  • Activity: Is the candidate actively engaging on LinkedIn? Are they sharing relevant content or participating in discussions?

Everyone has their own unique level of engagement on LinkedIn, though. 

For instance, the PhD who I was working with in this particular example was not writing her own posts on LinkedIn. 

Even though many would consider her a thought leader, she felt out of place addressing a group of strangers. 

This is not uncommon. 

Especially for PhDs who haven’t really had the need to network in the last decade, it feels safe to hang back and observe for a time.

That’s why recruiters may also:

  • View a candidate’s LinkedIn posts and comments: This can provide insights into their communication style, interests, and values.
  • Check for mutual connections: Mutual connections can offer valuable references and insights about the candidate.
  • Conduct a Google search: A quick search can reveal additional information about the candidate’s professional background and online presence.

Essentially, hiring managers are looking for validation that you’re who you claim to be – that you’re walking the walk, as they say. 

Are you signaling desperation on LinkedIn?

Just as employers are looking for specific background on their applicants, there are things they are hoping they won’t find too.

So what are employers NOT hoping to see on their candidate’s LinkedIn page? 

  • Incomplete or outdated profile: This can signal a lack of professionalism or engagement. 
  • Inconsistent information: Discrepancies between the LinkedIn profile and resume can raise concerns about the candidate’s honesty and attention to detail.
  • Unprofessional profile picture or headline: This can create a negative first impression.
  • Inappropriate content or comments: Negative or controversial posts can raise concerns about the candidate’s judgment and professionalism.
  • Lack of engagement: A dormant profile with no recent activity suggests a lack of interest or motivation.
  • Generic Skills, Summary or Experience: This can make the candidate seem less qualified or less passionate about their field.
  • Overuse of buzzwords or clichés: This can make the profile seem insincere or lacking in substance. 

As for what you’re doing on LinkedIn to specifically make you seem hard-up for a job?

  1. The “Open to Work” Banner 

The “Open to Work” banner on LinkedIn, while intended to signal availability to recruiters, can inadvertently create a perception of desperation in some cases. 

For one, it implies unemployment.

The banner is often associated with individuals who are actively seeking employment, which can lead employers to assume that you are currently unemployed. 

This may raise concerns about your recent performance or desirability as a candidate.

It also suggests a lack of selectivity.

When you broadcast your job search status to everyone on LinkedIn, it can imply that you’re not very selective about your next role and might be willing to settle for any opportunity. 

This can weaken your negotiating position and make you seem less valuable to potential employers.

It also creates a perception of urgency.

The green banner can give the impression that you’re in a hurry to find a job, which can be seen as a sign of desperation. 

Employers may wonder if there’s a reason for your urgency, such as being fired or having financial difficulties.

It also attracts low-quality opportunities.

While the banner is designed to attract hiring managers, it may also attract less desirable job offers or companies that are known for high turnover or low salaries.

Even companies who don’t pay to use LinkedIn Recruiter can find Open to Work candidates. 

And if they can’t afford to pay for LinkedIn Recruiter, what else can’t they afford to do?

Finally, the Open to Work banner contradicts any projection of confidence you may have worked hard to establish. 

If your profile showcases a successful career trajectory and strong accomplishments, the “Open to Work” banner might seem out of place and create a sense of dissonance. 

It can undermine the image of confidence and success that you’re trying to project.

  1. Rambling Summary & Experience That Doesn’t Translate To Industry

When a LinkedIn profile or resume is filled with generic phrases like “highly motivated,” “team player,” or “results-oriented,” it doesn’t provide any insight into your specific skills or how they apply to the desired role. 

This can make you blend in with the crowd, appearing unfocused or – worse – irrelevant.

If your experience section simply lists your academic accomplishments and publications without highlighting their relevance to the industry, employers may struggle to see how your skills translate to real-world problems. 

This can make you seem like you haven’t put much thought into your career transition.

By not customizing your profile and leaning into phrases that sound impressive, you miss the chance to demonstrate your understanding of the industry’s language and priorities. 

This can make employers question your genuine interest in the field and your ability to contribute effectively.

A generic profile can make you appear uninterested in the specific company or role, as if you’re simply applying to any job available.

The absence of industry-specific language can signal that you haven’t done your homework on the company or the industry, making you seem unprepared for the interview process.

And, if your profile doesn’t reflect the company’s values or language, employers may question whether you’d be a good fit for their team.

  1. Spamming Connection Requests and Messages

Many PhDs make the mistake of introducing themselves with little to no professional courtesy.

It’s an especially easy mistake for us to make, especially if we’ve been siloed in academia and never needed to network.

We may think we’re being proactive by cold-contacting industry professionals, or that our to-the-point approach will be a refreshing change of pace for our new industry connections. 

There’s no one way this manifests. For you, it could be overly effusive emails or messages (ones that use excessive exclamation marks, emojis, or overly familiar language).

It could be that you’re presumptively asking about next steps or a timeline from your connections or contacts before they’ve even offered to help.

Some PhDs, acting out of nervousness or in trying to forge a connection, will overshare personal information, revealing too much about themselves and pushing contacts away. 

This lack of boundaries and excessive enthusiasm demonstrates a lack of emotional maturity and composure.

There’s a chance your actions make others feel uncomfortable or pressured, creating an imbalance in the relationship and making it difficult to establish rapport and trust.

It can also come across as insincere or manipulative, as if you’re trying too hard to impress.

Another implication of this behavior is that you’re more focused on landing any job, no matter whether the position is a good fit for your skills or career goals. 

Making people uncomfortable at any stage of the networking or interview process raises concerns about your ability to work effectively with others. 

Some employers may also feel it reflects a pushy or domineering disposition and confirm their suspicions that PhDs can’t be team players.

You can redeem yourself

By understanding how hiring managers use LinkedIn and being mindful of potential red flags, PhDs can optimize their profiles to attract the right opportunities and avoid being overlooked or misjudged.

First, craft a compelling, tailored LinkedIn profile.

This starts with a headline that highlights your expertise and gives a nod to your target industry. 

Instead of simply stating “PhD Candidate,” highlight your expertise and target industry. 

For example, “Experienced Data Scientist | PhD in Machine Learning | Passionate about solving complex problems.”

A concise, focused summary is the next step.

Avoid academic jargon and focus on demonstrating your value to potential employers. 

Use keywords relevant to your target industry and quantify your achievements whenever possible.

Then you’ll highlight your most relevant skills and experience from academia that translate directly to the work you want to do in industry.

Highlight quantifiable accomplishments and transferable skills in your experience section, including metrics and numerals that demonstrate your impact.

Next, make sure you’re engaging authentically with companies and recruiters.

Focus on building genuine relationships rather than bombarding them with requests.

Finally, network strategically.

Send personalized connection requests to people who can offer valuable insights and opportunities, not just anyone in your field.

Ask colleagues, mentors, or former supervisors to write recommendations highlighting your skills and achievements.

Participate in discussions, share relevant articles, and connect with other professionals in your field. This demonstrates your interest and engagement in the industry.

What red flags are your resume throwing up?

Your resume is your first impression in the job search, and it’s crucial to make it a strong one. 

A well-crafted resume can open doors to exciting opportunities, but a desperate-sounding one can quickly get you tossed into the “no” pile. 

Recruiters are, naturally, looking for the best possible fit for their positions. 

There’s much more nuance to this skill that most people realize; someone could be an incredible Data Scientist, but he could also be impossible to work with.

That’s why human resource professionals are trained to see subtle signs of a bad fit.

Some serious signs of desperation that jump right off the page of your resume include: 

Over-Applying

If you’ve applied for multiple positions within the same company in a short period, it can signal a lack of focus or a “spray and pray” approach to job hunting.

Hiring managers might perceive this as desperation or a lack of genuine interest in the specific roles you’ve applied for.

Generic Resume Content

A one-size-fits-all resume that isn’t tailored to the specific job description screams “uninterested.”

Recruiters want to see that you’ve taken the time to research the company and understand the role, highlighting your relevant skills and experiences.

Keyword Stuffing

While using relevant keywords is essential for getting past applicant tracking systems (ATS), overstuffing your resume with keywords can backfire.

It can make your resume sound robotic and inauthentic, and it might even trigger ATS filters that flag overly optimized resumes.

Unrealistic Salary Expectations

If your stated salary expectations are significantly higher than the industry average for your experience level, it can signal that you’re not well-informed or have unrealistic expectations.

Research salary ranges for your field and location to ensure your expectations are reasonable.

Irrelevant Information:

Including personal details like marital status, hobbies, or irrelevant work experience can distract from your relevant qualifications and waste recruiters’ time.

Neutralize them by…

Focusing on quality over quantity when it comes to applying for jobs.

Carefully select a few roles that align with your skills and interests and tailor your application to each one.

Highlight your unique value proposition.

Showcase your most relevant skills and experiences in a concise and impactful way.

Use keywords strategically.

Incorporate relevant keywords naturally and avoid overstuffing.

Many of the suggestions that apply to your LinkedIn profile also apply to your resume, and vice versa.

If you see some overlap between these two areas, consider applying those fixes as needed.

However, it’s important to note that your LinkedIn profile should NOT simply reiterate your resume.

They are two separate tools and should be optimized for their unique, respective purposes.

Have you let signs of desperation tank your interviews?

LinkedIn and resumes are going to be your gateway to an in-person interview. 

Once you land one, you may start feeling like you’ve got the job in the bag. 

But sometimes, unfortunately, your success up to this point goes to your head. 

Too many talented PhDs have missed out on opportunities in industry by acting, in the eleventh hour, too desperate or too confident.

It’s important to remember that interviews are a two-way street.

Both you and the employer should both be assessing each other’s suitability. 

Your behavior and communication style play a crucial role in how you’re perceived.

Certain actions can inadvertently signal desperation, turning off potential employers. Here are some key behaviors to avoid:

Over-Enthusiasm: While showing genuine interest is important, going overboard with excessive excitement or flattery can seem insincere and desperate. Maintain a professional demeanor and express your interest in a balanced way.

Rambling or Over-Explaining: Nerves can lead to rambling answers or over-explaining your qualifications. This can make you seem unsure of yourself and your abilities. Instead, practice concise and focused responses that directly address the question.

Lack of Confidence: Speaking hesitantly, avoiding eye contact, or fidgeting can project a lack of confidence. Remember, you’re a qualified candidate with valuable skills to offer. Stand tall, speak clearly, and maintain a positive demeanor.

Focusing on Yourself: While it’s important to highlight your achievements, constantly focusing on your own needs and wants can come across as self-centered. Instead, connect your skills and experiences to the company’s needs and demonstrate how you can contribute to their success.

Asking Too Many Questions About Salary and Benefits: It’s important to understand compensation and benefits. Bombarding the interviewer with questions about these topics early in the process, however, can signal that you’re more interested in the perks than the job itself.

Accepting Any Offer Immediately: Jumping at the first offer that comes your way, without carefully considering whether it’s the right fit for you, absolutely makes you seem desperate. Take the time to evaluate the opportunity and negotiate for what you deserve.

Negative Comments About Previous Employers or Colleagues: Speaking negatively about your past experiences in academia can make you appear unprofessional, difficult to work with, and desperate for a clean slate. Always focus on the positive aspects of your previous roles and what you learned from them in a professional context. (Venting about your job search struggles or sharing negative experiences on social media counts!)

Overemphasizing Your Need for the Job: While it’s okay to express your enthusiasm for the position, avoid phrases like “I really need this job” or “I’m desperate for a change.” These can and will raise red flags for employers.

Next time, focus on doing this

Prepare Thoroughly

Research the company, practice your answers, and anticipate potential questions.

Focus on Your Value Proposition

Be prepared to clearly articulate how your skills and experience align with the job requirements and how you can contribute to the company’s goals.

Be Positive and Enthusiastic

Express genuine interest in the role and company, but avoid excessive flattery or over-the-top enthusiasm.

Ask Thoughtful Questions

Show that you’ve done your research by asking insightful questions about the company, team, and role.

Be Yourself

Let your personality shine through, but maintain a professional demeanor.

Conclusion

The job search can be a daunting progress, especially for PhDs transitioning from academia to industry. It’s easy to fall into the trap of desperation, leading to behaviors that unintentionally sabotage your chances of landing the job you deserve. However, by understanding and avoiding these common pitfalls, you can project an image of confidence, professionalism, and competence that will attract recruiters and hiring managers. By tailoring your resume and LinkedIn profile to highlight your relevant skills and experience, preparing thoroughly for interviews, and avoiding off-putting behavior, you can showcase your unique value proposition and increase your chances of job-search success. Don’t let desperation derail your career aspirations. Embrace your qualifications, refine your approach, and project confidence. With the right strategies, you can turn your job search into a successful journey towards a fulfilling career in industry.

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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

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