Why PhDs Don’t Need Industry Experience To Get An Industry Job

no industry experience needed | Cheeky Scientist | industry knowledge and experience
Written by Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

I didn’t have the first clue about life outside academia.

I spent 7 days a week in the lab, working long hours with little to no interaction with people outside.

I didn’t have time to start looking for a job (or so I thought).

I had a thesis to write.

Papers to finish.

A supervisor to keep happy.

I could not manage academic stress and look for a new job at the same time.

Anyhow, the odds were against me when it came to finding an industry job.

Rumors flew around the lab as to why I would never be hired…

I was not fresh out of my undergrad, which meant I was less trainable in the eyes of big companies.

I had little (ZERO) relevant industry experience.

I was old compared to most people seeking their first industry job.

I was too qualified for entry-level positions.

Most obviously, with a PhD, I would be seen as an independent and selfish know-it-all.

I felt like an imposter.

Without realizing it, academia had turned me into a weak-minded PhD with no confidence to move forward.

Academia had made me believe that I didn’t have any other choice but to stay in a low-paying postdoc position.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized I did have a choice.

I could choose to continue in academia and wallow in self-pity or take charge of my career and prepare myself for a better position in industry.

Why PhDs Need To Transition Into Industry Now, Not Later

The academic system is a mess.

Graduate students who want to live the dream of being a tenure-track professor need to recognize that this dream often turns into a nightmare.

Tenure track positions are accompanied by stressful hours for little pay.

Most of your days will be spent begging for just enough money to keep your lab afloat for another year or two.

To make matters worse, these so-called dream positions are disappearing fast.

A High Education Employment Report published by Higher Ed Jobs showed that the number of jobs in higher education has continued to decline in the third quarter in 2015, the fourth consecutive quarterly decline and the largest quarterly decline since 2007.

A recent news article in Nature showed that while the number of people receiving a doctorate increased, 42% of Life Science PhD students graduated without a job commitment of any kind, up from 28% a decade earlier.

It’s clear that academia is producing more doctorates than there are tenured positions to fill.

The good news is that PhDs are more than capable of applying their skills to alternative careers.

prior industry experience isn't necessary | Cheeky Scientist | do you need work experience

5 Tips For Getting An Industry Job Without Industry Experience

You are prepared for a non-academic career.

Consider the new technical skills you mastered throughout the course of your graduate studies.

Consider the endless papers you read to develop your hypotheses.

Like all PhDs, you know how to find answers, learn new skills, and quickly adapt to changing environments.

As such, you should be confident in your ability to transition into an industry career, even if you don’t have any industry experience.

Here are 5 tips for transitioning into industry without any prior industry experience…

1. Know your value as a PhD.

Focus on your strengths, NOT your weaknesses.

Too many PhDs look at a job description and automatically focus on the one qualification they don’t have instead of the ten qualifications they do have.  

PhDs are so used to relentlessly seeking out errors in their data that they’ve started to relentlessly seek out errors in themselves.

They beat themselves up mentally until they are completely convinced that they’re useless.

Over time, these PhDs become so unconfident in themselves that they stop trying to do anything new.

Instead, they stagnate.

They become bitter, arrogant, and guarded.

Don’t let this happen to you.

Realize that YOU and your skills are valuable in the real world.

Realize that it’s the transferable skills you’ve obtained during your PhD, not your technical skills, that make you attractive to industry employers.

Hiring managers and recruiters will not be wooed by your specialized dissertation title.

Instead, they will be impressed by your problem-solving, conflict resolution, and critical thinking skills.

Your publishing record (or lack thereof) does not define you.

Ask trusted colleagues, friends, or family what they think your strengths are.

Ask them what transferable skills they think you have.

Be open-minded.

Seek out feedback on how you come across to others.

Use this exercise to help define which positions might be a good fit for you and what positions you’re already qualified for.

Most importantly, be confident.

Confidence is an equalizer in industry and is one of the most important transferable skills that industry employers look for. 

Yes, confidence is a skill.

How do you carry yourself?

Can you represent the company confidently in front of customers?

If you can’t answer “yes” to these questions, then start developing your confidence by recognizing your value as a PhD and getting feedback on your transferable skills.

2. Prioritize your job search

Yes, doing a PhD is a lot of work.

So is looking for a job.

Don’t think that the moment you finish your PhD, you can switch on your computer, start applying for jobs and wait for the offers to roll in.

You can’t.

Getting an industry job is a full-time job.

If what you want is to transition into industry, you need to make time for it.

You need to make it a priority.

This means having the guts to occasionally say “no” to your academic advisor.

One of the hardest things for PhDs to do is set boundaries with their mentors.

Listen, your advisor will always want you to do more work.

He or she will always want you to spend more time in the lab.

Your advisor will NEVER be happy with you.

So stop fantasizing about getting that hug or pat on the back.

You do not need a recommendation letter from your supervisor to get an industry job.

You do not need his or her approval to start looking for an industry job.

If you’re serious about getting an industry job, start making it a priority.

Set aside one hour a day for your job search and record your progress.

Keep a spreadsheet to track your goals.

List the companies you want to work for, the open job postings at those companies, and your connections at those companies.

By keeping yourself accountable for your transition, you will make progress quickly, regardless of any industry experience you may or may not have.

3. Make the most of mundane conferences.

Do you ever get tired of all the scientific seminars and conferences you have to attend?

Instead of being bored or overwhelmed at these events, start seeing them as opportunities to develop your networking skills.

Instead of falling asleep during a talk, make a list of questions to ask the speaker after his or her talk.

Take copious notes after talking to colleagues and other professionals you meet.

Then use these notes to follow up on LinkedIn and by email.

Networking in a room full of people forces you to formulate clear, concise questions and gives you the chance to demonstrate that you can communicate your ideas effectively.

This is especially true when asking questions “live” after a big talk.

By standing up to ask a question after a talk, you’ve automatically networked with an entire room of science delegates.

Just like that you’ve put yourself forward as someone worth connecting with.

In one fell swoop, you’ve demonstrated your value.

You can execute this strategy at both PhD networking events and non-PhD networking events.

4. Thrive at non-PhD networking events.

Everybody knows somebody.

Networking is about making meaningful connections with people who can then vouch for you and connect you with people you don’t know.

The problem is that many PhDs live in a bubble.

They only meet and socialize with other PhDs.

If you’re looking to transition into industry, especially without any industry experience, you must start connecting with people outside of academia.

Start going to events where you’re the only PhD.

Start going to events where you stand out.

Remember what it felt like the first time you told your family and friends that you were going to graduate school to get your PhD?

Wow, you’re going to be a doctor.

That’s what they thought.

That’s what you thought.

Now, no one cares.

Now, you’re surrounded by PhDs.

Many of them have better credentials than you have. 

Why would you choose to network with these people?

You might as well dress up like a needle and jump into a haystack.

No one can see you.

But when you go to non-PhD networking events, you stand out.

Very often, at these events, you’ll be the only doctor.

This fact is very impressive to people outside of science.

Remember, less than two percent of the population has a doctorate.

It’s time you start leveraging this two percent.

It’s very hard to be remembered for your STEM PhD in a room full of scientists but you’ll always be remembered for it in a room full of painters, or authors, or architects, or a thousand other professions where having this kind of doctorate is practically unheard of.

Leveraging your networking skills in this way will help you see new opportunities and get more job referrals, even if you don’t have industry experience.

5. Charm the company into hiring a PhD.

Believe it or not, PhDs can be charming.

All it takes is the decision to leverage your transferable skills.

You can single-handedly break down the stereotype of the PhD and be the perfect job candidate.

But how?

First, don’t assume hiring managers and recruiters have any knowledge of academia.

Instead, spell out what you do and use as many results-oriented, quantitative references as possible.

Second, realize that commercial awareness is important. 

Highlight your involvement with obtaining funding, maintaining budgets or meeting targets.

Use the company’s website to find out about their business innovations, profits, projects, and culture.

Third, gain some competitive intelligence—who are the company’s main competitors and what are they doing?

During the interview, demonstrate how your academic expertise, background and credentials will benefit the company.

What value can you add?

Dress better than your interviewers.

Show them you are ready to do business.

Get a picture of what they’re looking for and customize your entire job search, including your industry resume, LinkedIn profile, and interviewing strategy accordingly.

By doing this, you’ll show them that you do in fact have all the industry experience you need for the position.

Getting an industry job without having prior industry experience is not a fantasy but it is up to you to make it a reality. The most important thing is to start right away. Don’t worry about upsetting your academic advisor or slowing down your thesis. Put your future first. Start networking with like-minded people and build connections with people outside of academia who may be your foot-in-the-door to your new career. Add value before asking for favors and apply your research acumen towards learning as much as you can about the industry position you are aiming for.

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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Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and currently works as a publishing editor in Cambridge, England where she is involved in peer review of scientific literature as well as writing and public speaking. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and allowing access of scientific research to the public. She is also a steering member in the Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology in both industry and academia.
Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Latest posts by Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D. (see all)

  • Winona Petit

    Incredibly insightful. Back in the day, getting a PhD was something really prestigious, and nobody in my class had the slightest doubt that we were going places. But over time, I believe you’re right – PhD candidates zoom in on personal errors, whether they exist or not. While only 2% of the population achieve the status of PhD, there are a lot more of them to compete against in today’s job market. So all of these tips and mindset principles will serve our younger PhDs quite well.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thanks for comments Winona. It is odd that, as brilliant as PhDs are, we can think so little of ourselves especially when it comes to getting positions outside of academia. We need to gain back that confidence and highlight our amazing accomplishment.

  • Kathy Azalea

    I’m going to use this information to my advancement as I draw nearer to finishing my academic career. It’s been great, but I also know it’s not the end of the line. Thanks so much for illuminating that so clearly. 🙂

    • Cathy Sorbara

      That is great to hear Kathy! You’re most welcome and best of luck as you forge your new path!

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    I like the idea of starting with an hour a day to develop contacts and research job opportunities. It’s doable. When you’re overloaded with research work, it’s pretty hard to do more, but breaking into that habit is a must.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Completely agree Marvin. I was working long hours in the lab so the thought of putting energy into any other task except eating and sleeping seemed overwhelming but making only a small commitment to do this for yourself can really pay off. Thanks for the post!

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    It’s true. The job market today probably is much more competitive for industry jobs than ever before. But if the PhD puts the same kind of effort into transitioning out of academia and into industry, it can be done. And it’s very rewarding, in my experience.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Yes Carlie! Completely agree – as PhDs we are used to putting 100% into everything we do so why should that change when we start looking for jobs outside of academia. It’s all about knowing how to pitch yourself and giving yourself time to transition.

  • Evguenia Alexandrovna

    Wow! I was having the impression that you were talking about me… Seem we are to alone in this path! Amazing insight Cathy! Looking forward to putting all this new information in practice!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Hi Evguenia! Seems like we are connecting on all forms of social media 😛 Thanks for the lovely comment — you are definitely not alone and now you have the support to help you transition out! Looking forward to seeing you through 🙂

  • Sissy MacDougall

    These are actually great tips for networking that can be used by anyone, not just PhD’s! Thanks so much! 🙂

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Sissy!

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    Boy, I wish I had had some of this data before getting my PhD. Things have a way of working themselves out, but these tips could have really helped me skyrocket my career in a much faster way.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Agreed Matthew – hindsight is always 20/20 right?! Learn from the past and move forward. Thanks for posting.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    When you’re working and putting in those last couple of years and it seems like you just CAN’T WAIT to get out of academia, it feels exhausting to try to network and make lists of companies and jobs and everything that’s entailed in the job search. But getting a good start is so important. There are a lot of people I know who are planning on taking a long vacation when they’re done, but this is going to help me keep on track and start networking well before I’m released from academic obligations. Thanks so much for a great article.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      That’s great to hear Madeline – thanks for your comments. I had the same feelings – my lab work took priority over everything but you need to put your future first.

  • Julian Holst

    That’s a pretty way-out concept of saying no to your academic advisor. But I can see what you’re saying about finding your own way and not letting yourself get caught up in trying to make an advisor happy. They’re probably too mired in their own problems to have much objectivity anyway.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Hi Julian – it does seem like a crazy idea to say no to your supervisor but at the end of the day, you can get a job in industry without their referral so if they are overworking you and holding you back then it pays off just to stand and say it’s too much. Thanks for your comment!

  • Harvey Delano

    This is a fresh way to look at things. I know that people kind of assumed they’d be on a tenure track and everything, but to tell you the truth, not everyone’s cut out to be a professor. I think you might have to work harder to get an industry job, but I think the stimulation and the pleasure of being on the leading edge is worth it. Especially now that PhD’s are not rare enough to just fall into an academic job.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      I agree Harvey that nowadays the path to tenureship is not so straightforward. I would argue that you do not have work ‘harder’ to get an industry job but place your efforts in a different way. We have to learn to network and market ourselves which is something we do not normally have to do in academia. But as you said, the pleasure of being on leading edge is definitely worth the added effort. Thanks for your comments!

  • Sonja Luther

    I think these are great ideas. This article really reinforces and helps bring all the concepts on this site into focus. We are getting the best advice right here – not necessarily at the school job fairs!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Sonja! I feel the same way – happy to hear you are getting the most from the CSA 🙂

  • Desiree Douglas

    Really great article. Thank you. I think the first point is really important. After years in academia putting all my energy into my projects I forgot about developing myself. If only I got this advice when I was a PhD student!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you for your positive feedback Desiree! You are absolutely right – we always manage to put work ahead of our own self-development. Time to make some positive changes and put us first 🙂