How Writing Your PhD Thesis Can Keep You From Getting Post Grad Job Opportunities

It was already past 9 pm, and I decided to leave the crowded bar in downtown Boston.

After 2 hours of networking with professionals from the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, I was spent.

I collected about 15 business cards and I headed to the exit after storing them safely in my back pocket.

I was about to step out onto Washington Street when a young woman caught my eye.

She was sitting by herself at a corner table, sipping a glass of ginger ale, looking bored and confused at the same time.

I walked over to her table and reached out for a handshake.

“Hi, I am Dora,” I introduced myself. “I don’t think we’ve met yet.”

She stood up when she saw me.

“Hi, I am Sara,” she said with an awkward smile, shaking my hand. “You are the first person who said “Hi” to me tonight. Everyone else seems so busy.”

I sat down next to Sara, and I learned that she was a senior graduate student planning on defending her PhD thesis in Pharmacology in a few months.

I asked Sara how many networking events she’d been to.

“This is my first networking event,” she replied.

I’m an introvert and don’t like networking. I just came because my friend said she would be here, but she didn’t come. I’ve been here for half an hour already and was about to leave when you came over.”

Sara’s job searching strategy consisted of looking up job ads on the Internet and submitting her resume online.

“What kind of a job would you like?” I asked.

“Not sure,” she shrugged. “Wherever I can get a job with my background is fine.”

“Where do previous students from your department work?” I probed further.

“Umm…I think one went to Genzyme, but not sure what he does. I am just kind of busy writing my thesis and paper, so I don’t really keep track of where others ended up.”

“Did you know the fastest way to get an industry job is through a job referral from networking events or past connections?” I replied. “Have you been in touch with alumni to see if someone could introduce you to someone who is hiring?”

“That’s so much work!” she said. “I thought if I got my thesis done and a first author publication, I would get a job pretty easily.”

Writing Your Thesis Will Not Help You Get A Job

Like most graduate students, Sara assumed that the key to getting a well-paid job in industry was to finish her thesis and publications as quickly as possible.

The idea that focusing solely on your thesis and publications will guarantee you a job in industry is a myth.

This myth has kept Sara and thousands of other graduate students from exploring careers and networking with professionals during graduate school.

The last two years of graduate school are the most critical time-period during your professional development as a research scientist.

This is your once in a lifetime opportunity to network as a graduate student and future industry professional.

After graduate school, you will no longer be a student. You will only be able to network as an industry professional, which will afford you less freedom in terms of pursuing information from your competitors.

Back at the networking event, I gave Sara my business card, which was the very first one she collected that night.

While Sara felt overwhelmed by all the time commitment that job searching required, she was surprised to learn that several obstacles in her graduate school experience (such as dead-end experiments, troubleshooting instruments, and conflicts in her group), could be reframed into transferable skills for careers in industry.

Why Your Job Search Is More Important Than Your Publications

In an ideal world, there would be plenty of openings for PhD-level researchers.

This would allow you to spend as much time as you needed writing your thesis and wrapping up your publications.

However, we are not living in an ideal world.

According to a report by the Atlantic, greater than 60% of PhDs and greater than 80% of Life Science PhDs will NOT have a paying job at graduation.

With so many unemployed PhDs on the market, employers can be picky about whom to hire.

They don’t make hiring decisions based on technical expertise only.

Soft skills such as leadership skills, written communication, and assertiveness are valued just as heavily as technical skills during the hiring process.

Numerous studies including these reported by the National Academies show that interpersonal skills are measurable and important.

Several surveys including those by the Workforce Solutions Group, Adecco, and the ManpowerGroup, reported in Upstart Business Journal, show that interpersonal skills matter more than technical skills no matter the profession.

Improving your interpersonal skills is important, but it’s only the first step.

The next step is leveraging your interpersonal skills to grow your network and get the industry position of your choice.

If you’re not networking aggressively during graduate school, you are falling behind.

5 Ways To Prepare For Industry Jobs While In Graduate School

If you put all of your focus on your research during graduate school and neglect to explore other careers or develop skills that are valued in industry, you will leave tens of thousands of dollars on the table.

This is true for three reasons.

First, without a professional network or transferable skills, it will take you longer to find a job in industry.

Second, preparing for your career can help you to finish your thesis faster and get a job sooner.

Third, if you refuse to spend time determining which career paths are a good fit for your strengths, you are setting yourself up to get stuck in another dead-end career track.

Since most students enter graduate school assuming that they will stay in academia, they put too much focus on publishing papers and writing their thesis.

They fail to realize that they should be spending at least half of their time exploring other career paths and developing the transferable skills they need to succeed in these career paths.

Don’t assume that a great job will be waiting for you at the end of graduate school.

Don’t assume that your industry resume will speak for itself when you submit it online either.

If you want to find post grad job opportunities with a promising future, you need to take an active role in shaping your career path throughout graduate school, not just in your final year. Here’s how…

1. Network proactively and explore alternative career paths.

Most academics don’t like to network.

Some describe it as “insincere” or “using other people to get a job” and many graduate students don’t attend networking events until their final year when they realize that submitting resumes through the Internet is futile.

Given a PhD-level job search takes 6-12 months to successfully complete (or longer if you are in a competitive field), it is never too early to start networking at professional events or career workshops.

Even if graduation is several years away, information from professionals can help you to direct the course of your thesis research to pick up marketable technical and interpersonal skills to prepare for your career in industry.

Most importantly, when you meet industry professionals, you will see how many exciting career paths are available to PhDs.

This excitement will motivate you to continue working hard to finish your thesis and publications quickly.

2. Diversify your technical skills through new projects.

There are two ways to diversify your technical skills—by learning a new technique, or by finding a new application of a technique you already know.

When you have a diverse set of technical skills, you are more likely to find jobs that match your background.

However, it’s also important to stay within your general field of specialty so that you don’t seem “unfocused” on your resume or during your interview.

I worked in a mass spectrometry lab in graduate school and one of my labmates decided to learn cell culture through a small side-project to broaden his background.

While he received a job offer in a mass spectrometry lab, his understanding of cell culture differentiated him from the other candidates because he had a better understanding of the origin of his samples and how to prepare them for mass spectrometry.

Another labmate diversified his background by developing a new method for analyzing a different class of compounds on the mass spectrometer.

This new expertise allowed him to collaborate with others and as a result, he received three job offers because he had demonstrated his mastery of multiple analytical methods in mass spectrometry.

Both of my colleagues chose their strategy for diversification based on information they received from top industry professionals.

They networked aggressively and asked targeted questions about which skills are valued most in industry.

You can apply this same strategy to your job search.

When you network with professionals who are experts in your field, ask questions about how they apply the technical skills you are familiar with in their work, so you can shape the direction of your thesis or find a side project that will allow you to learn these marketable skills.

3. Practice scientific writing.

There are very few PhD-level scientist jobs that don’t require any writing.

Most scientists in industry have to write reports for internal records, to communicate with other companies, or to support documentation for the FDA or other regulatory agencies.

Since most scientists don’t enjoy writing, you will have an advantage over your peers during the hiring process and in your job if you have experience writing.

The most common way to get this experience in academia is through writing publications.

For example, many professors are asked to write review articles, and they are happy to pass on the responsibility to their graduate students, as they will still be listed as senior authors.

If writing a review article seems daunting (it usually takes 2-3 months of intense research), write summary reports of your progress for your committee meetings.

The key here is to use your writing for publications to gain experience that you can leverage during your job search, not to value getting published over your job search.

The practice of writing reports will help you to get into the habit of keeping good records of your methods and data, which is essential for career advancement in industry.

4. Practice assertive communication.

Whether or not your academic advisor is easy to get along with, it’s unlikely that you’ll agree on every issue.

When conflicts arise, most students become passive.

They go along with whatever their advisor suggests because they are afraid of confrontation and falsely believe that they need a recommendation letter from their advisor.

A few students take the opposite approach, choosing to have emotionally charged meetings where both parties feel disrespected and nothing gets resolved.

Assertive communication is a happy medium between these passive and overly aggressive styles.

By being assertive, you can work together to find a solution that is beneficial to both you and your advisor.

The ability to communicate assertively is invaluable for your career advancement because it’s required for leading teams, managing projects, and meeting company deadlines.  

If your academic advisor is a difficult person, it may be challenging to practice assertiveness, but you can view this situation as a chance to gain valuable industry experience.

In industry, you will need to work with many different personality types, some of whom may be more difficult than your academic advisor.

Use any challenging situation you face in graduate school as leverage to develop your industry skills.

By doing this, you will be in a better position to transition into industry when the time comes.

5. Take initiative and practice leadership skills.

Who wants to volunteer to take charge of a new project or lab cleanup when you already have so much to do?

The reality is that everyone in academia is busy, and no one wants to take on more work.

However, most interviewers will ask you to give examples from your work experience about leadership, teamwork, and conflict resolution.

If you bury yourself in your research, you will not be able to share stories that convey your strengths as a leader.

Worse yet, even if you do get the job, you will not have the skills to lead projects and meetings, and that could jeopardize your performance review and career advancement.

While you shouldn’t become everyone’s little helper and spend all your time volunteering, you should selectively volunteer for tasks that will improve your lab’s overall efficiency and effectiveness or projects that you’re passionate about.

The time that you invest in taking this initiative will help you pick up new skills, while also learning leadership skills.

If you re-frame your graduate school experiences and challenges into learning opportunities, you can make the most out of your years as a graduate student to prepare for a successful career and get an attractive job offer. After all, this is why you came to graduate school in the first place. The key is to value networking and the job search process overall above finishing your thesis and wrapping up your publications. By diversifying your technical skills through new projects, practicing scientific writing, and assertive communication, you can put yourself ahead of other PhD students who refuse to focus on anything beyond their thesis and publications.

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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Dora Farkas, PhD
Dora Farkas, PhD

Dora Farkas received her Ph.D. from MIT in the Department of Biological Engineering and worked for several years in the pharmaceutical industry as a Senior Scientist. Dora is a thesis and career coach and the founder of the online Finish Your Thesis Program & Community, which has helped hundreds of graduate students finish their thesis.

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