Cyber Monday Banner

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

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.

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.

Join Cheeky Scientist Association
Get Free Job Search Content Weekly
Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.
Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and is COO of the Cheeky Scientist Association. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry positions. She is Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology. She has also been selected to take part in Homeward Bound 2018, an all-female voyage to Antarctica aimed to heighten the influence of women in leadership positions and bring awareness to climate change.

Similar Articles

5 Resume Templates Every PhD Needs In Their Toolbox To Get Hired

5 Resume Templates Every PhD Needs In Their Toolbox To Get Hired

By: Sarah Smith, PhD

I truly believed I had a stellar resume brimming with all my accomplishments from every walk of life. I kept shooting the same resume at all the different job postings, all throughout the year.  Surprisingly, I never got a call back.  After facing several rejections, I reached out to a friend who is a hiring manager at a firm and asked them to have a look at my resume. The first reaction I received was “what position are you targeting? The feedback that I received from a person who knew what I was trying to convey made me realize that…

This Is Why Most PhDs Get Hired In November And December

This Is Why Most PhDs Get Hired In November And December

By: Meerambika Mishra

I had been enthusiastically job hunting since February but a series of rejections were slowly starting to dampen my spirit. It started gradually, but at some point imposter syndrome got the better of me and I became absolutely sure that I wouldn’t get hired that year. My efficiency and focus plummeted, I went from connection with 20 potential referrals every month, to 5 and then to none. In November, a connection offered to refer me for yet another position. With the last shred of strength left in me, I pulled myself through the process even though I did not have…

5 Ways Academic Career Centers Fail PhDs

5 Ways Academic Career Centers Fail PhDs

By: Amanda Johnson

If anyone should have known how to execute a PhD job search, it was me. The institution I was earning my PhD at was one of the top 10 across the nation. It was awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) in the award’s first funding cycle. My career center was one of the best. What made it one of the top ranking career centers was that they provided opportunities and resources to help trainees prepare for a diverse range of careers. I had taken courses on intellectual property, college teaching, and participated in training…

5 Lucrative Career Options for Any PhD (Even Without A STEM background)

5 Lucrative Career Options for Any PhD (Even Without A STEM background)

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Contributing Author: Maxwell Caughron A year before I got hired, I didn’t even know the career I currently worked in existed. My path to industry success has not been a straight line, so let’s start from the beginning… My PhD is in Asia Pacific Studies, and after about 6 years in academia, I needed a change of pace. I can’t put into words how anxious I was about finding a job but I started looking at various career tracks. I had absolutely no idea what valuable skills I had or where to look for relevant positions.  It was then that…

A PhD In Leadership: 9 Academic Skills That Turn You Into A Boss

A PhD In Leadership: 9 Academic Skills That Turn You Into A Boss

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

How many PhDs miss their calling as being a leader and or a boss because of academic failure and not realizing the leadership skills they have?  I remember my own academic education well. Like other PhDs, no one taught me how to develop my leadership skills. Leadership is a core part of real life, of industry. But it’s not a focal point for academia, which is why so many students get their PhDs only to face a harsh reality… Instead of success and recognition, PhDs feel used. They’ve been used by a university system that chewed them up and spit…

I Learned These 3 Things, And Then I Got Hired As A Data Scientist

I Learned These 3 Things, And Then I Got Hired As A Data Scientist

By: Shobeir Mazinani, PhD

Becoming a data scientist has changed my life. That’s not an exaggeration. Since becoming a data scientist, recruiters have invited me to apply for positions in their own organization. It wasn’t always like this though… It used to be the academic life for me – lengthy hours, little pay, and even less appreciation. But I made a decision to join Cheeky Scientist and take my career into my own hands. Now, it’s normal to receive multiple job offers, which I negotiate for higher salary and improved signing bonuses. Does this sound like a luxury? Like a distant achievement that you…

7 Ways To Keep Your Job Search Alive In A Recession

7 Ways To Keep Your Job Search Alive In A Recession

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I’ve lost a job. I was offered a contract, and they pulled it back. Everybody is ignoring me on LinkedIn now.  I was communicating with somebody about an upcoming interview, and now they’re not replying to my emails. My postdoc is not going to be renewed.  This is the kind of message I’ve been getting from countless PhDs all over the world. The recession has made things challenging for everyone. A lot of PhDs thought academia was going to take care of them, but they’ve found out the hard way that it isn’t true. For weeks now, I’ve been warning…

How These 3 Leadership Skills Can Protect Your Career During A Recession

How These 3 Leadership Skills Can Protect Your Career During A Recession

By: Sarah Smith, PhD

The current crisis reminds me of something that happened to me years ago, before I had leadership skills. I had an interview with a big company, and it was scheduled to take place on an upper floor of a tall building. I took the elevator, which turned out to be the wrong choice. Normally, I’d have chosen the stairs, but I was feeling nervous and didn’t want to make my heart rate increase – it was already beating fast. The elevator got about halfway up to my floor and abruptly stopped. The doors didn’t open. There were several other people…

5 Ways To Limit PhD Anxiety And Protect Your Career

5 Ways To Limit PhD Anxiety And Protect Your Career

By: Elliott Brecht, PhD

You should have seen my academic CV. I would have set off anyone’s anxiety. It was a total disaster. By academia’s standards, it was fine. But I had a real monster of a CV, over 5 pages long and full of academic jargon. And there was no cover letter either. Can you guess what industry employers did after taking a glimpse at my CV? They probably threw it away – that’s assuming it even reached employers. More likely, it was filtered out of candidacy by application tracking software. You might think that, given the current situation, you should be focusing…

Top Industry Career eBooks

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel

The LinkedIn tips & strategies within have helped PhDs from every background get hired into top industry careers.

20 Most Popular Industry Career Tracks For PhDs

20 Most Popular Industry Career Tracks For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD & Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Learn about the top 20 industry careers for PhDs (regardless of your academic background). In this eBook, you will gain insight into the most popular, highest-paying jobs for PhDs – all of which will allow you to do meaningful work AND get paid well for it.

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Learn how to craft the perfect industry resume to attract employers. In this eBook for PhDs, you will get access to proven resume templates, learn how to structure your bullet points, and discover which keywords industry employers want to see most on PhD resumes.