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Your Job Search a Disaster So Far? Here’s How to Clean Up the Mess (and Land the Job You Deserve)

“I’ve had several first-round interviews, Isaiah, but no callbacks,” a frustrated PhD candidate recently confided in me. 

“Do you have any idea why?” I asked. 

Everyone’s job search is unique, of course, so there’s no one answer to this question. But there are two that I hear more than most. 

One is: “Employers say they’re looking for someone with more experience.” 

The other? “Employers keep asking me why I’m leaving academia.” 

Put another way, these two reasons are a reflection of PhDs being seen as either underqualified or overqualified. 

The transition from academia to industry can be a minefield, and many PhDs initially struggle to translate their hard-earned qualifications into meaningful career opportunities. The biggest problem is a drastically different communication style.

Academics and industry professionals speak the same language, but it’s almost like a whole different dialect. Instead of data, industry leaders want results. In lieu of research and planning, industry wants action and quick pivots.

The result is a communication breakdown. PhDs come across sounding timid, clueless, and desperate when we admit we don’t have experience but are willing to try anything.

But we can sound cocky and entitled when we assure employers that we are confident we can do this job well because of our relevant skills. 

The good news is it’s not too late to turn things around. By shifting your mindset, refining your approach, and embracing a flexible yet confident attitude, you can salvage your job search and finally land that fulfilling career you deserve.

The PhD Paradox: Overqualified and Underqualified?

PhDs often face a perplexing dilemma in the job market – they are too often pigeonholed into the stereotype of being overqualified or underqualified. This paradox can leave us feeling undervalued and overlooked.

The label of being overqualified stems from several employer concerns. First and foremost, there is a fear of high turnover. Employers worry that highly qualified individuals like us PhDs may leave for better opportunities shortly after being hired. 

Secondly, there is apprehension that we will quickly seek promotions and raises, disrupting salary structures and leading to inevitable workplace dissatisfaction if these demands are not met. 

Furthermore, employers might assume that the work will not sufficiently challenge us PhDs, leading to disengagement and counterproductive behaviors. 

On the other hand, we might be seen as underqualified due to our lack of direct industry experience. This makes sense, to a degree. Most PhDs have spent the majority of their careers in academia, conducting research and publishing papers. While this experience is valuable, it doesn’t translate directly into hands-on experience or practical knowledge of industry practices and workflows that employers are seeking.

There’s also a perception among employers that PhDs, with their focus on theoretical knowledge and research methodologies, may not possess the specific technical skills required for certain industry roles. For example, a PhD in biology might not have the programming or data analysis skills needed for a bioinformatics position.

To overcome this paradox that is sabotaging your PhD job search, we need to address both sides of the coin.

We must showcase our adaptability, eagerness to learn, and commitment to teamwork while also highlighting our unique strengths and value proposition.

6 Phrases That Will Salvage Your Credibility

Your PhD equipped you with a wealth of knowledge and expertise. The problem is, up until now you’ve been communicating almost entirely with other academics. To successfully parlay that bounty of skill and knowledge to industry professionals, you’ll need to shift your focus a little. 

By default, we speak in absolutes. We hesitate to make unsubstantiated claims. We champion the objective. 

Forget all that. 

Employers want to know that you are not so overqualified that you’ll be disruptive to their workflow. They also are looking for proof that you aren’t underqualified – that you won’t require hours and days and weeks of hand-holding. 

You need to be extremely subjective when it comes to your job search – you need to conduct your search with a strong confirmation bias towards yourself and your ability to do the job you’re applying for. Job searching is, all in all, an act of persuasion, not a fair compare-and-contrast of all the candidates who apply.

So start off by acknowledging an employer’s biggest concerns about you. We touched on what those are above, and the six phrases that follow can be strategically woven into your resume and interview responses to put an employer’s mind at ease. 

These points not only address common employer concerns about hiring PhDs but also highlight your soft skills and eagerness to contribute in a meaningful way.

  1. “I’m highly coachable and eager to learn.”

This seemingly simple statement is a powerful signal to employers that you’re not just an academic know-it-all. It demonstrates your humility, adaptability, and willingness to embrace new challenges and approaches – qualities that are highly valued in any fast-paced work environment.

Companies value employees who can efficiently assimilate training without needing repetitive instruction. Highlight your attentiveness and willingness to accept feedback gracefully, characteristics that save time and resources. This will reassure employers of your commitment to continuous improvement and your openness to constructive criticism.

  1.  “I’m a team player.”

Collaboration is the cornerstone of most successful teams. By emphasizing your collaborative skills and willingness to work effectively with others, you show that you’re not just an individual contributor but a valuable asset who can contribute to a positive and productive work environment.

Some PhDs worry that this will paint them as someone who lacks original ideas or is not suited to lead. Instead, the opposite is true – it indicates your ability to collaborate smoothly with others and not feel competitive. It suggests that your cooperative nature will help push projects to completion without unnecessary conflicts – a harmonious addition to their workforce. 

  1. “I’m committed to delivering results.” 

While this may seem obvious, explicitly stating your dedication and work ethic reinforces your reliability and commitment to the company’s goals. It demonstrates that you’re not just looking for a job but a place where you can make a real impact.

Hard work is a baseline requirement in most jobs, but explicitly affirming your dedication can set you apart. Make it clear that you’re prepared to tackle assignments diligently, even under tight deadlines or pressure. “I will work hard to complete the given assignment,” assures employers of your perseverance and reliability. 

  1. “I’m quick to understand and execute instructions.” 

This phrase highlights your efficiency and ability to work independently. Employers appreciate candidates who can quickly grasp new concepts, ask clarifying questions, and execute tasks with minimal supervision. This saves time and resources, making you a valuable asset to any team.

By expressing this, you’re telling potential employers that you understand instructions quickly and can execute tasks without constant supervision. “You won’t need to tell me twice what to do,” conveys your ability to manage responsibilities effectively, making you a valuable asset who can contribute to a more streamlined operation.

  1. “I want to work here because…” 

Don’t just say you want the job; explain why. This is your opportunity to connect your personal and professional values with those of the company. 

Research the company thoroughly and share specific aspects that resonate with you, such as their mission, values, products, or culture. Discuss your alignment with the company’s mission, your admiration for their achievements, or specific attributes that make the company an ideal workplace for you. 

This answer not only shows your enthusiasm for the position but also your initiative in understanding and valuing what the company stands for. This shows genuine interest and demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to understand what the company stands for.

  1. “I’ve tackled similar challenges before.” 

Don’t just tell them you can do the job; show them. Share specific examples of how you’ve applied your skills and knowledge to overcome relevant obstacles in your academic or professional career. This validates your qualifications and highlights your problem-solving abilities and potential contributions to the company.

Providing concrete examples of past challenges you’ve successfully navigated reassures the interviewer of your problem-solving capabilities. This response demonstrates your experience and readiness to handle similar issues in the new role, thereby positioning you as a competent and dependable candidate.

Reframing Your Resume and Demonstrating Business Acumen

Beyond those six phrases, it’s crucial to reframe your entire approach to the job search. And the best place to start is by tailoring your resume to the specific role you’re applying for. 

First, you need to ditch the lengthy academic CV and create a concise, targeted resume that highlights relevant skills and experiences. Consider alternative resume formats that emphasize your skills over the chronological order of your jobs. 

The Functional Resume format, for instance, focuses on skills and achievements. The Combination Resume blends this focus with a chronological list of jobs, allowing your skills to shine through. For those looking to stand out further, creative formats like infographics or video resumes can also be effective. 

Begin your resume with a compelling summary that ties together your career trajectory. This section should be concise – somewhere between three to five sentences – and it should focus on your core strengths and the value you bring to potential employers. 

Mention how each role you’ve held has enhanced your skill set, making you a well-rounded professional. Quantifying achievements in previous roles can also demonstrate your impact and help set a positive tone right from the start. 

Third, group similar roles together. If you’ve held similar positions across different organizations, place these experiences under a single entry. This approach not only cleans up your resume but also emphasizes your expertise in that area without repetition. Under this consolidated entry, use bullet points to highlight specific achievements from each role, showcasing your consistent performance across positions. 

Fourth, exclude short-term positions. It’s generally advisable to omit very short-term roles (less than three months) unless they are particularly relevant to the job you’re applying for. 

Instead, focus on roles that align with your career goals and demonstrate your skills and achievements. If a short-term position is relevant, include the skills or experiences gained in the skills section of your resume, without emphasizing the duration. 

Fifth, highlight any long-term engagements. Demonstrate your loyalty and dedication by emphasizing any long-term roles you’ve held. For each of these positions, detail key achievements, projects, or milestones. 

The next thing you want to do is possibly the most important: Whenever possible, quantify your contributions to convey the tangible impact you had in those roles. This shows potential employers your ability to commit and succeed over time. 

Across your resume, highlight your achievements to draw a cohesive narrative through your varied job history. Place these at the top of each job section so they capture attention immediately. Use strong action verbs like “achieved,” “implemented,” and “developed” to convey your accomplishments effectively and energetically. 

Finally, provide a brief explanation of your experience in the cover letter. Use this document as a means to address any potential concerns about your job history. 

Begin by acknowledging your diverse job experiences and explain how they have contributed to your professional growth. Discuss how moving between roles or industries has helped you climb the career ladder and enhanced your skills. This is also a good place to address any employment gaps, highlighting how you used such periods for further learning or personal development. 

Remember, employers are looking for more than just academic credentials. They want to see that you understand the business world and can apply your knowledge to real-world problems. Invest time in researching the company’s industry, competitors, and target market. Demonstrate your ability to think strategically and contribute to the company’s bottom line.

By implementing these seven strategies, you can transform a seemingly erratic employment history into a narrative of growth, adaptability, and diverse experiences.

Emphasize Your Top Skills As a PhD

You’ve got the right format for your resume and you know what to say to put an employer’s mind at ease. But do you truly know and understand why you’re an asset to industry employers? Because if you don’t, you have got your job search work cut out for you.

Your PhD is not a gimmick – you have learned everything you need to know to succeed in industry already. 

And it’s not some kind of free pass to the good life, either (which many of you, like me, are learning the hard way). Every so often I speak to a PhD who worries they might be “cutting in line,” so to speak – possibly taking a job away from someone without the benefit of an education but more experience. 

Absolutely not true. You know hard work and patience, humility and integrity. If you’re hired, it’s on the merit of your accomplishments, same as any other candidate.

So let’s take a second to remind ourselves what some of our major selling points are as PhDs. After all, you can’t convince an employer that you’re a great fit if you can’t articulate what makes you so great.

First, as a PhD, you know how to prioritize problems. Anyone can find problems, but can they find the right problems? Problems that will have a lasting impact if solved. PhDs have years of training in finding the right problems to solve. This kind of strategic, high-level problem-solving strategy is invaluable in business.

Second, you know how to find answers. Meaningful problems require extreme effort and coordination to solve. They also require consistency and persistence. PhDs thrive in these areas. 

Third, you don’t fear failure – you learn from it. Many PhDs were at the top of their undergraduate class. Then they went to grad school and faced an unending line of failed experiments, negative data and nearly impossible research projects (all part of the process of innovation). This exposure to failure makes PhDs very resilient. 

Fourth, as a PhD, you are comfortable with uncertainty. Discovery requires uncertainty. You have to live in a space of uncertainty for years to be able to discover at the highest level. PhDs are able to Iive and work in this space. 

Fifth, as a PhD, you learn on your own. Most people need to be pushed, prodded and spoon-fed to learn. PhDs don’t. They are internally driven to learn and to know. Not only do you learn independently, you do it very quickly. PhDs have learned how to learn. Their speed of comprehension is unparalleled. 

Seventh, PhDs don’t just regurgitate information, they create it. Anyone can write a book report summarizing information that has already been discovered. Many people can go on to master a field. But very, very few can create new information that adds to a field after rigorous review. PhDs can and do this; it’s a requirement to get a PhD. 

Eighth, PhDs evaluate and challenge information appropriately. PhDs are trained in evaluating information and know how to dig to find real answers. This is a lost art with much of the world being misinformed and unable to differentiate fact from fiction. 

Ninth, PhDs adapt quickly to new data – “adapt or die,” as they say. They know they can’t hide from change. It must be confronted and then responded to. This growth mindset gives PhDs an immense advantage in today’s job market. 

Bring Balance Back to Your Job Search 

It’s important to balance resilience, self-care, and flexibility during your job search. You need to stay strong but also be gentle with yourself. 

I remember the cycle of frustration, renewed hope and crushing disappointment I was trapped in during my job search. It was an absolute grind, and there really felt like there was no end in sight.

Sometimes it can be helpful to take a step back and look at the big picture, and to be honest with yourself. Recognize that it’s perfectly natural to feel disheartened or overwhelmed

Job searching is not just a logistical task; it involves emotional labor, too. Allow yourself to feel these emotions without guilt. Acknowledging them is the first step in managing them effectively. 

Second, take a short strategic pause when necessary. If the job search feels like it’s becoming too much, it’s okay to take a break – but set a limit. Whether it’s a few days or a week, a planned pause can help prevent burnout. Use this time not to ruminate over job applications but to engage in activities that rejuvenate you, whether that’s spending time in nature, pursuing a hobby, or simply catching up on rest. 

Third, set small, achievable goals. When you’re ready to resume your job search, start with small, manageable tasks to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Break down the process into daily or weekly goals, such as updating your resume, reaching out to three contacts in your network, or attending a workshop. This helps create a sense of accomplishment and forward momentum, even on days when the bigger picture might look daunting. 

Fourth, stay connected. Isolation can exacerbate feelings of discouragement, so keep in touch with supportive friends, family, or fellow job seekers. 

Consider joining a job search group or networking events where you can share experiences and strategies. Sometimes, simply knowing you’re not alone in this struggle can be incredibly reassuring. 

Fifth, and this one is important for us PhDs, stay open and flexible in your process. While it’s important to be persistent, being too rigid in your expectations or career path might limit your opportunities. 

Open yourself to possibilities that might lie slightly outside your primary field of interest. Diversifying your search can uncover unexpected opportunities that align well with your skills and interests, even if they aren’t exactly what you initially envisioned. 

Sixth and finally, the ultimate hack to keep moving forward is to maintain a routine without constantly changing it. Applying the order of a schedule can help you feel in control and ensure that you don’t lose momentum. 

Include job search tasks, exercise, social activities, your current work or research if any, in your daily schedule. A structured day can improve your mood and keep you grounded. Taking a temporary break from your job search isn’t giving up – it’s a necessary part of staying mentally strong and resilient. 

Embrace Your PhD and Don’t Give Up!

Your PhD is not a liability; it’s an immeasurable asset. It represents years of hard work, dedication, and expertise in research, problem-solving, and critical thinking. Embrace your unique skills and experiences, and don’t let imposter syndrome hold you back.

Job searching can be a long and arduous process, filled with rejections and setbacks. But remember, persistence is key. Take breaks when you need them, practice self-care, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Surround yourself with supportive people who believe in you and your goals.

With the right mindset, strategies, and a little bit of humility, you can turn your job search disaster into a success story. Remember, your PhD is not just a degree; it’s a testament to your potential. Use it to your advantage and land the fulfilling career you deserve.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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