3 Big Worries That Hold PhDs Back from Success
Contributing Author: Mitali Patil, Ph.D.
I was feeling extremely anxious.
As I conducted my PhD thesis research, life seemed overloaded with worries.
Other PhDs know how much work goes into getting their degrees.
One thing was for sure: I didn’t need more stress on top of such a heavy academic workload.
But more stress was exactly what I got — and then some!
My advisor was a nightmare.
He didn’t allow me to graduate on time, and he liked to yell at his underlings when things didn’t go his way.
I worked under these conditions for 6 years, wondering whether the whole process was even worth my time.
Finally, I graduated with a PhD in Bioengineering.
Yet once I began my transition into industry, it seemed like no one was willing to give me the time of day.
I was frustrated with my inability to effectively job search and network.
I kept applying for positions, sending my resume anywhere and everywhere, with little success.
This was a new low.
All my old doubts about whether I could have a successful career returned.
I felt totally disheartened.
Ultimately, I had to revamp my resume and update my LinkedIn profile.
I worked smarter—not harder—by using a job-targeting strategy.
Eventually, I landed a Medical Writer position with an amazing salary and superb benefits.
Looking back on my journey, there were some dark times and plenty of doubt.
But I’m happy to report that, in retrospect, these doubts were not founded in reality.
And I’ve got the career to prove it.
Why PhDs Can Lose Hope
To put it mildly, the road to a PhD can be rough.
The Berkeley Science Review once reported that over half of grad school students claimed to feel “frequently overwhelmed, exhausted, sad, hopeless, or depressed.”
And sadly, the American College Health Association has announced that 15% of college students were depressed. They added that suicide was a major issue within this demographic.
Is it starting to look like academia has a problem?
That’s because it does have a problem.
And post-grad troubles in job-searching only add to these woes.
Academia doesn’t bother to teach most PhDs how to pursue fulfilling industry careers.
For all the value in a PhD’s education (and there is tremendous value here), PhDs are struggling in ways that are simply not necessary.
A lot of them are worried, and sometimes, these worries can seem too big to handle.
But you can’t give up.
As a PhD, you are trained to face challenges and solve problems.
You have to see your job search effort as a challenge you can master — a problem you can solve.
You will find your place in industry, and the first step is to think clearly about your prospects.
3 Big Worries That Hold PhDs Back, And How To Let Them Go
Have you ever felt like quitting?
Some PhDs find out the hard way that postdoc work doesn’t pay.
Most of them notice that professorships are on the decline — they feel discouraged.
With no industry experience, it’s easy for PhDs to reason that they’ll never get a real career, and that their hard work will never be rewarded.
Too many PhDs don’t know what to do or where to turn.
A PhD is a heavy investment, and it’s normal to wonder whether that title is worth all the effort.
The short answer?
Industry needs PhDs — no doubt about it.
Your talent is too valuable to be stifled by unfounded worries.
Let’s tackle the 3 biggest transition worries that haunt PhDs, and why you can safely ignore them.
1. “I don’t have enough industry experience.”
A ton of PhDs go for the full “academic lifestyle.”
They go all the way through academia to get a PhD, and then it’s onto a postdoc.
Sometimes, it’s more than one postdoc — maybe a string of them!
They’ve never worked at an industry job — not at the PhD level.
And now they’re facing down this huge, looming industry transition.
A PhD job is not entry-level grunt work — it’s a full-time corporate career at a high station.
But it may seem like there’s a paradox here.
You have no experience in industry, but you can’t get that experience until…
Well, until you have the experience first.
It’s like the “chicken-or-the-egg” argument.
How can you get a job that requires industry experience when you don’t have any to begin with?
Here’s a little secret:
You don’t need industry experience.
What you do need is the right strategy for breaking into your desired job field.
Industry employers are not necessarily looking for experience.
Generally, they want to see that:
- You can quickly find accurate information on your own
- You’re a self-starter who can work autonomously
- You can learn on the job quickly
It’s important to communicate these things on your resume and your LinkedIn profile.
But the most surprising thing of all?
Industry experience can actually work against you.
Employers worry that a candidate will have old habits from a previous corporate job — habits that need to be “untrained.”
But as an industry newbie, you’re fresh and new to the corporate world.
And as your PhD can attest, you learn fast.
So not only are you a solid candidate for an industry job in your field, you actually have an advantage over candidates who lack your academic experience!
If you can make those connections (and you can), you’ll come off to employers as a credible candidate.
2. “A PhD isn’t worth all of that hard work.”
If you’ve picked up a postdoc position after earning your PhD, you have probably worried a lot about this.
Maybe you have a low-paying adjunct position.
Maybe you’re actually in industry now, but you’re getting paid the same as people with a bachelor’s degree.
Maybe you’re even unemployed.
PhDs can get stuck in this rut, and they feel like the huge effort they put into earning a doctorate degree has just been a waste.
Most of the time, it’s as simple as this:
You haven’t transitioned into a true PhD-level industry job.
PhD-level positions in industry are high-paying, respected jobs with a lot of responsibility.
They often involve management of some kind, as you are the expert in the room at any given time.
Once you have picked up a position like this, you will know it was worth it.
So say goodbye to the lie that a postdoc will enhance your career, and start acting the part of a qualified candidate for an amazing job — you are one.
3. “I’m not worthy of a top-level industry salary.”
Instead of suffering low self-esteem, do your PhD thing: Research!
You don’t have to rely on intuition to figure out your industry worth.
It’s easier than ever to Google this, so pull up a salary website and look at people with:
- An education similar to yours
- A similar/nearby location
- The industry job you want to get
Check out the average salary of people with these qualities.
If you have those same qualifications, and you still think you aren’t worth such a high amount, you may be wrestling with imposter syndrome.
Take a step back and carefully evaluate the situation.
What are you going to trust — the data, or some vague impression that you aren’t worthy?
As a PhD, you know which one of these to trust.
Using data to draw reasoned conclusions is one of your best skills.
You can plainly see that people with your qualifications make a lot of money in industry — therefore, you can do it too.
If you aren’t experienced in a specific field, you can work hard to make sure you gain the skills you need to succeed in your desired job.
During the hiring process, this is exactly what employers want in their candidates!
So don’t let worries get the best of you. Maybe you have your PhD, or maybe you’re still working on it. Either way, don’t give up. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking “I don’t have enough industry experience”; “a PhD isn’t worth all of that hard work”; or “I’m not worthy of a top-level industry salary.” You have all the experience you need. Your PhD is definitely worth it, and you deserve a salary that justifies the hard work you’ve put into your education.
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