Written By: Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
The last year I was in graduate school, I had a huge wake-up call.
I knew that staying in academia was not for me, but quickly realized that I had no idea of how to get a job.
It was embarrassing.
I submitted application after application online, but heard nothing.
I thought that once I had a PhD, the job offers would just start rolling in.
Plus, my advisor was dead set against me.
He was doing everything he could to keep me from graduating, including deactivating my key card and trying to remove my name from already published research papers.
I couldn’t believe this person, who was acting like a child, was in control of whether or not I graduated.
Our relationship had completely deteriorated and I knew there was no way I was ever, ever getting a recommendation letter.
How would I get a job without that letter?
I spent my entire graduate career trying to make my PI happy…
What was I supposed to do now?
When talking to a friend who worked at a biotech company, he told me, “Nobody cares about those letters, anyway.”
I didn’t believe him.
As the situation with my PI worsened, I began networking with people outside of academia.
I realized that my PI was completely powerless outside of his lab.
He could not keep me from graduating.
And, he certainly could not keep me from getting a job.
Without the support of my PI, I graduated on time and got an industry job that was well-suited to my skills and interests.
Why PhDs Are More Valuable Outside Of Academia
Earning a PhD is a rare and prestigious achievement.
According to the US Census Bureau, less than 2% of the population have even attempted a PhD.
But, living in the academic bubble surrounded by other PhDs can cause you to lose sight of your value.
And, the extremely low salary that academia sees fit to pay PhDs doesn’t help the situation.
Regardless of field or experience level, the average salary for a postdoctoral fellow is $53,195 (Glassdoor).
This is less than the average salary for a personal trainer, an elementary school teacher, a librarian… and many other professions that do not require the extensive education and training that being a postdoc does (Salary.com).
Why does academia place such a low value on PhDs?
Why is it acceptable to pay PhDs so little?
Because the academic market is flooded with PhDs vying for a handful of professor positions.
There are too many PhDs for academia to adequately support.
But, the opposite is true outside of the university setting.
In industry, there is a high demand for skilled PhDs, and companies are willing to pay for your expertise.
In a recent Life Science Survey reported by The Scientist, life science professionals in industry make $39,916 more every year, on average, than those in academia.
But, this situation is not unique to the life sciences.
According to the most recent NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates, PhDs from all disciplines are paid a higher annual salary in industry than in academia — upwards of $60,000 more.
Most postdocs don’t even make $60,000 per year.
Moving into industry offers the opportunity to more than double your current postdoc salary.
There are many options and opportunities outside of academia, where PhDs can do meaningful work and get well-paid for it.
But, you have to learn what is important in industry and how to persuade a company that you are the perfect candidate for the job.
Your PI does not know how to do this.
Your PI has been absorbed in academia for their entire career and cannot help you get a job.
The way to get an industry position is by networking with industry professionals and building up your alternative career mentor network.
Top 3 Reasons Your PI Can’t Get You An Industry Job
Your PhD is in demand in industry.
There are a variety of job options where PhDs can thrive and be well-compensated for their work.
But, your PI cannot help you get these jobs.
Your PI cannot prevent you from getting an industry job, either.
Your PI is powerless outside of academia.
Here are the top 3 reasons why your PI cannot help you get an industry job…
1. Internal referrals account for >50% of new hires.
The number one way to get hired in industry is to have an internal referral, and the only way to get a referral is to network with industry professionals.
Trying to make your PI happy will not get you a job.
Your PI has no influence on who gets hired in industry.
Industry and academia are 2 very different spheres, and rarely do professors know more than just a couple of people in industry.
To get hired in industry, you need to stop caring about your advisor’s opinion and start networking.
By getting a referral, you will bypass many of the barriers in a job application and immediately become a top candidate.
This is because employees hired by referral have a higher retention rate and report higher job satisfaction.
It’s a win for you and a win for the company when a candidate is referred for a position.
But, that referral is just the first step. It’s how you get your foot in the door and get noticed.
The next part is where you have to prove that you are the best candidate for the job.
They are not going to seek out your academia PI, whom they don’t know and don’t care about, to learn if you are a good candidate.
Instead, they will expect you to showcase not only your technical skills, but your transferable skills as well, during your interviews.
To be the candidate that gets hired, you have to have the technical skills required and be a good fit for the company culture.
You do not need to have a PI who likes you.
Your PI has no influence on whether you get hired or not — that’s on you.
You have to network.
And then once you secure a referral, it’s up to you to prove that you are the right candidate for the job.
2. Industry does not care about a recommendation letter from your PI.
Many PhDs get stuck on the idea that they NEED a recommendation letter from their PI.
You might think that getting a good letter from your PI is the key to getting a job.
But, it’s more than that.
PhDs and postdocs come to feel as though their entire worth and future are dependent on this letter.
And, PIs play into this idea.
Recommendation letters are often held ransom by manipulative advisors trying to squeeze every last drop of work out of you that they can.
It’s time you stop letting your academic advisor use your letter of recommendation as leverage against you, because industry does not care about recommendation letters.
Seriously, your letter of recommendation does not matter in industry.
Why would a company care what a lifelong academic has to say about your ability to work in their company?
What does that academic know about what’s needed to succeed in industry?
Instead, companies turn to their employees, encouraging referrals and looking for candidates who have the right transferable skills.
They want candidates with good communication skills, who work well in teams, and who get results.
That is what industry cares about, not what your PI may or may not write in a letter.
It’s completely illogical to think that one person and one letter can keep you from getting a job.
It’s unlikely that your PI knows very many people in industry, but even if they know a handful of people, there are a HUGE number of companies looking to hire excellent PhDs like yourself.
Your PI and their recommendation letter cannot help or harm you in your job search.
3. PIs are focused on surviving in academia, not maintaining an industry network.
As a PhD student or postdoc, you know better than most that academia is broken.
There are not enough resources to go around and the academic culture is toxic.
It takes all of your PI’s effort to survive in academia.
They do not have the time or the energy to help you get a job.
The only thing they are focused on is securing funding so that their research can continue.
No grants equals no research.
This breeds selfish actions.
Instead of being a mentor and helping you reach your career goals, they only see how you can help them reach their goals.
How can they use you to survive academia?
Your PI is not thinking about how they can help you further your career.
The only person who can take the steps necessary to reach your career goals is you.
Outside of academia, your PhD is valued and in demand. But, industry is very different from academia. Your PI cannot help you get hired in industry because more than 50% of new hires come from a direct referral. Industry does not care about the recommendation letter from your PI. Your PI is so focused on surviving academia, that they do not have the time or energy to help you get a job. It is a waste of time trying to keep your PI happy. Instead, you should be implementing a job search strategy, and networking with people in industry, with the goal of getting referrals.
To learn more about 3 Reasons Why Your PI Will Not Help With Your Job Search, 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.
Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should 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.