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Short and Sweet: Five Job Hunting Mistakes PhD Graduates Should Avoid

You might argue that if I leave academia to, say, teach high school or become a journalist, I’ve wasted my laboratory training. This argument is ridiculous. Since the Ph.D.’s inception in 18th century Germany, the product of a doctoral education has been a dissertation—a body of research that, in a small way, moves a field forward. There’s nothing wrong with contributing to science and then moving on. The work won’t disappear. Dissertations are published, and doctorates last a lifetime. ~ Why Grad School Is Worth It

Short and Sweet Advice for PhD Grads

Each year sees an incalculable number of PhD graduates leave their studies and head into the job market, only to find out rather painfully that it’s not as straightforward as they expected. More often than not however it’s a simple case of those involved making one or two extremely common mistakes, which once corrected can see many doors swung wide open.

Going further, a lot of PhD’s also need to put the ‘entitlements’ attitude aside because the degree doesn’t guarantee you the job. You may think you are qualified, but in reality you lack real-world experience to crossover. Therefore, becoming fixated on a position (based on how you view yourself, job location, etc.) is irrational because it doesn’t always mean you are qualified. On the bright side, many PhD’s do have a wide-range of transferable skills that can be leveraged. But first, let’s put it in perspective..

Words from Dave Jensen:

When I ask an experienced industry person in marketing, tech transfer, regulatory affairs, or operations management how they made their transition from academia, more than three-quarters will tell me about their stint at the bench. Most industry employees with advanced science degrees spend their first few years in industry doing what they did in academia: cranking out science.

That’s because companies typically hire you to do what you’re doing right now, or something very close. They don’t hire you because you have the words “business development” written into your objective statement. What reason would they have for thinking you’d be good at that? These senior staffers go on to tell me that their grand career plan kicked in later, when they were offered a position in a new area of the company, away from the bench.

If you are looking to make a crossover (to industry for example) you will have to demonstrate marketable skills. This is why I encourage doing internships during your time in graduate school or even during a post-doc. Others may develop a unique skill set on their own outside of their laboratory work and find their niche.

However, today’s hiring manager’s are doing ‘pinpoint’ hiring. What this translates to is an employer’s market, and they know it. For this reason, the need to network and create opportunities is even greater since you may be competing against those who already have the real-world experience PLUS the same education as you.

Since I have already covered in-depth on how to network, add value, and create opportunities outside of academia in previous posts, this post will be highlighting the Top Five Job Hunting Mistakes that you want to avoid.

If you haven’t already, make sure you take a look at this Free E-book (by jobs.ac.uk) which dives into PhD Career Planning. I have also previously mentioned myIDP, which is another great online resource. Either way, you need to be aware of what jobs are out there and come up with a strategic plan before you even think about applying.

So… Do you have your plan or goal in mind? Great. Then keep reading.

With this in mind, here’s a look at five of the biggest and most common mistakes holding PhD graduates back on the job front:

1) Expecting Too Much

First up and unquestionably the most epidemic error of all, gunning for the 100% perfect role first time around is almost guaranteed to result in disappointment. The overwhelming majority of PhD graduates have little to no chance of scoring their “dream job” as what will technically be their first job, but instead must accept that this is something to work towards. And really, there’s plenty of time to climb the ladder so don’t fall into the trap of stunting your progress by being too picky.

Again, a PhD doesn’t entitle you to a job. Therefore, the egos must be put aside in order to fully understand and address the current situation.

2) Narrow Region

Next up, PhD jobs are widespread and are available, but this doesn’t for one second mean there will be any in the village you live in…or even your nearest big city for that matter. If your intent lies in making a name for yourself in a suitably high-profile role, you must be willing to expand your field of focus in terms of distance and region. To only look 50 miles or so from home is to rule out about 95% of the career prospects out there.

Therefore, do NOT limit yourself and your career. Be open to all different kinds of possibilities.  If you are open and accepting to change, you will most likely be 10 steps ahead of the person who is afraid to step out of their comfort zone and expand their horizons (one example of this is someone who does a post-doc in the same lab that they graduated from).

3) Taking Qualifications for Granted

Sure you’re qualified up to the eyeballs, but so are thousands of others just like you. But then again, maybe they’ve also got more experience. Or better references. Don’t ever assume that PhD status instantly guarantees any favor whatsoever with recruiters as if the position demands PhD level qualification, your application won’t stand out as every single applicant will also be a PhD graduate. Words on paper count for very little – be ready to sell yourself and be able to demonstrate how you can add value to a company.

4) Exclusive Web Focus

Always an interesting discovery for PhD graduates – not every job posting is advertised and applied for online. In fact,  many of the world’s biggest organizations and/or companies prefer the idea of taking on people they’re already familiar with (via informational interviews), or have at least met in person (through network contacts). As such, never underestimate the power of networking and getting your face known where it matters most – even if this means doing the decidedly old-fashioned thing of getting off your behind and going out into the big wide world.

5) Careless Mistakes

And finally, something you really have to take on-board when applying for PhD graduate jobs is that at this level, careless mistakes will not be tolerated. You might have been able to get away with sloppy grammar and the odd spelling mistake here and there with your undergraduate CV, but now you’re competing at a whole new level and perfection is only an acceptable standard. The advice therefore is simple; once you think your CV is flawless in its accuracy, check it at least twice more and hand it to no less than two suitably intelligent friends or family members to give it a double-over for you.

If you are applying to more than one job, you should have multiple resumes/CVs tailored to each specific job. Employer’s will notice the effort that you put into your resume/CV, so don’t cut corners. Although cold resume submission only works 4-10% of the time,  you will still need a well-polished resume that is ready to go when giving this to your network (networking accounts for ~90% of employment).

Even if you do decide to do cold-resume submission in combination with networking (in order to find employment), you need to be aware of these common mistakes and avoid them. Once you see things for what they really are, you will start to see your career unfold. A PhD Graduate still has a lower unemployment rate than the general population and this is for a good reason. There are many transferable skills that can be leveraged, and PhD’s add a lot of value to the job market.

If you wish to have your resume/CV corrected or receive feedback, there are great online resources that do this for free. One example is here.

So what are you waiting for? Start networking, get out there and start applying!

About the Author

Lisa Morton worked several Glasgow staff nurse jobs before turning to full-time blogging and sharing her experience.


Further Reading

Are you ready to look for a job? By dougsguides

List of Jobs Available Via PhD Career Guide

Making the Cut

The Big Disconnect

If all else fails:

Welcome To The ‘Academic Fight Club’

Welcome to the ‘Academic Fight Club’. 


Here are the rules:


1st RULE: You do not talk about Academic Fight Club.

2nd RULE: You DO NOT talk about Academic Fight Club.

3rd RULE: If someone goes emotionally limp towards academic bench science and taps out, their existence is over.

4th RULE: There are only two ways to view your future – as a successful academic PI or failure.

5th RULE: There is only one ‘fight’ – the noble pursuit of an academic PI position.

6th RULE: No discussion of ‘alternative’ careers or possibilities.

7th RULE: Pursuit of your academic PI position, by way of postdoctoral appointments, will go on as long as they ‘have’ to.

8th RULE: If you are a young, idealistic scientist in love with research, you HAVE to fight. Publish or perish.


These are the 8 Rules of the ‘Academic Fight Club’.

There is a ‘secret society’ mentality of academia. As I sat in my academic laboratory, I wondered where screenwriters and innovative filmmakers would draw inspiration from with the aim to educate, entertain, and open the eyes of the young generation of blossoming scientists. The more I thought about this, the more I connected my experience, and ultimate awakening, with the 1999 film Fight Club (written by Jim Uhls and directed by David Fincher) based on the 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk.

The flurry of online negativity directed at NIH funding, availability of academic positions, the number of PhDs, alternative science careers becoming mainstream, and the question of versatility and diversity in PhD training is what truly got me thinking about how Hollywood and I would address these issues. As a result of the negativity, many PhDs have become disillusioned with academia, but are these issues the sole cause?

The Story

I believe there is a slow building movement to change this ‘academic fight club’ mentality, but for many, the ripples of impact may not reach in time. Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar reality for many young researchers that have entered the academic machine with an idealistic interpretation of what science is all about. Maybe these thoughts are closer to imagination and unrealistic – that is a valid point. However, prior to joining most clubs, organizations, fraternities or sororities, the rules and expectations are explained in a transparent manner.

Armed with a firm understanding of the rules and expectations, one can then apply deductive reasoning so that all options can be weighted and evaluated. By following this approach, we can be expected to make logical and thoughtful decisions based on our values. The fact is that academia has their own set of rules and values.

Many times, these do not align with what we thought we signed up for because the academic rules and values were not honestly explained or completely understood until multiple windows of opportunity were missed, or worse closed. The smoke and mirrors of academia allow us to wrap ourselves in a cocoon, shut off the world around us, and build a narrow complacency shell to protect us from reality.

 When you have insomnia, you’re never really asleep… and you’re never really awake.

Our story and how we ended up here is always the same. Driven by curiosity and fascinated with science at an early age, we were excited about the possibilities of research and the questions we could answer. More importantly, we were thrilled with the idea of solving tough, real world problems and leaving our mark.

Maybe the vision of watching a loved one pass away from cancer, neurodegeneration, or a heart attack struck a chord and inspired us to dedicate ourselves to the endless pursuit of scientific knowledge and technological advancement. We excelled in our science and math courses and were advised to pursue higher education. Within the walls of our academic institutions, we fell in love with the scientific method. We were captivated by bench research and the work our hands could accomplish once our minds crystallized an idea.

We did not care about income or student loans; in fact, we could get paid to learn and do what we loved. We did not care what ‘industry’ or big pharma corporations wanted – we were doing meaningful and important work.

Surrounded by similar academic minds, we were nude in the Garden of Eden. A new set of goals were created and our scientist alter-egos were born. This was the time when we were ripe for the plucking. This was the ideal time to be tantalized with the coveted fruit, professorship. Placed ever so gently onto our foreheads, the academic carrot dangles in front us at all times, tethered to a 3’ pole just barely out of our reach.

I had it all. I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable. I was close to being complete.

We progressed ahead to obtain our PhD (NIH minimum graduate student stipend for the 2012 fiscal year, $22,032), as we were told, and gained a deeper appreciation for our specific area of interest along the way. We carried out challenging experiments, collecting and analyzing data at a steady pace, and published our results for peer review to the scientific community to show that ‘we were part of the group’.

It was at this time, that we started becoming more familiar words and phrases such as impact factor, NRSA, statistical significance, curriculum vitae, n-value, caffeine, pipette-jockey, PubMed, Cell-Science-Nature, science does not happen from 9-5, tenure, jargon terminology, and postdoc. We were less acquainted with the concepts of mentoring, team environment, transferable skills, project management, leadership, networking, resume building, professional development, alternative careers, outreach, net worth, and value.

We were defined by our research without a care in the world.

That condo was my life, okay? I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was ME!

For many of us, we chose the noble, academic path and secured a postdoctoral appointment (NIH minimum graduate student stipend for the 2012 fiscal year, $39,264). For those of you not in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, this is the ‘next step’ after you are awarded with the high prize, the PhD.

Think of this, for all intent and purposes, as an apprenticeship or a contract position. One key factor to note here is that many of us did, and some still do, not quite understand how to put into perspective the ‘statistical likelihood’ we would make it to the next step. PhD granting institutions create a bottleneck, because of their incentive to increase revenue, by opening more spots to those seeking a PhD at a rate disproportionate to the number of positions available (or created) for those holding a PhD. This is especially problematic in academia.

The Current 15%ers Club

A study published last year in the journal Science suggests less than 20% of U.S. graduate students in the STEM disciplines will land a tenure-track position within four to six years of completing a PhD. [This number has been reported to be as low as 15% for those in biological sciences.]

Keep in mind about 50,000 PhDs were granted from U.S. institutions alone. At present, there is no incentive to reduce this number. This is where people with less thick skin would start getting depressed and anxious and let the waterworks flow.

But hey, we are going to defy those odds because we still have that glimmer of idealism in our eyes, with fresh new horse blinders attached, and are focused on that carrot. We have the righteous hand of science and years of training on our side.

Even more satisfying, is the fact that our PIs never brought up the possibility that we would not get a position like him or her. The thought never [openly] crossed our minds…did it? Therefore, it must be getting close, right? We just need to finish this next experiment, analyze some more data, send the paper to Cell-Science-Nature, get that NRSA and K99, and click our red slippers together, close our eyes and repeat, “There is no place like home”, and boom – we are assistant professors at My Dream University.

 I am Jack’s raging bile duct.

In this academic scenario, time itself is of no issue (7th Rule). Your well-being, mental state, and sleep cycle are of little concern as you toil away at the bench and feverishly submit publications in your niche area of research under the strict guidance of your advisor. However, this may not matter because your apprenticeship will one day end and you will have what it takes to secure that full-time, well-paying job academic PI position, correct?

 Hey, even the Mona Lisa’s falling apart.

The rules of the ‘Academic Fight Club’ are not necessarily for your benefit

Now may be the time to take the horse blinders off and cut yourself out of the cocoon. Your value is estimated solely on your publications and independent sources of funding. Without these, you have little value on the academic market. The time invested, which at this point may be getting close to 8-10 years, does not directly correlate to your market value.

 On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

You may begin to realize that the ‘entrepreneurial startup’ you invested in was overvalued with an almost insurmountable risk. You may also start to become more familiar with mentoring, transferrable skills, project management, leadership, networking, resume, professional development, alternative careers, outreach, net worth, and value, not because your PI or department colleagues have brought them up to you, but because your friends with jobs outside of academia constantly ask you about these terms or skills. What happened?

 I am Jack’s broken heart.

Wasn’t this apprenticeship supposed to be a training period for me to increase my market value in the scientific community? Not necessarily. I do not believe a postdoctoral appointment should be viewed as an internship. There is no ‘company’ investing in your training and skills to ensure that you can be competitive in the open job market. During the academic apprenticeship, you are a worker bee serving under a queen bee that serves under the equivalent of Zeus.

This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.


After blissfully floating from our undergraduate, to graduate, to postdoctoral research positions, we wake up and begin to make the transition from idealistic researcher to realistic job seeker. We reflect on our decade of experience and start to examine the job market. We come to grips with the fact that the honeymoon is over and are now faced with the daunting chore of obtaining a faculty position.

We start to accept the fact that we should have done more and are partly to blame for this situation. However, we still believe that our allegiance to the academic enterprise and the obligation of our PI to aid in helping us secure a faculty position will pay off.

 Someone loved it intensely for one day, and then tossed it. Like a Christmas tree. So special. Then, bam, it’s on the side of the road.

Sadly, this is when you begin to understand that the rules are in place to support the academic infrastructure and enterprise. The rules of the Academic Fight Club are not necessarily for your benefit, but to ensure the supply is strong and institutions continue to receive funding, while keeping secret and masquerading the demand.

We now start to wonder more about the 6th rule and question the queen bee and Zeus’ mission and long-term vision. It is now that we begin to understand the importance of peripheral vision and the value of networking. We track the trajectory of our career and start to realize that, just as in Super Mario Brothers, there may have been ‘secret’ and ‘alternative’ portals that we could have pushed the ‘down arrow’ on and been transported to a new world of possibilities outside of academia. This is our revelation.

 And then, something happened. I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.

Does this suggest that the current academic model is broken? Do the statistics indicate it is time for a dramatic change in the way graduate school and postdoctoral appointments are viewed? Should academic advisors stop abiding by the Rules of the Academic Fight Club? Should the measure of a PIs success be their ability to adequately train and produce productive and employable researchers with transferrable skills applicable in multiple settings and not 10 Cell-Science-Nature papers? Yes.

 The liberator who destroyed my property has realigned my perceptions.

Seeing Reality: The System

So, where do we go from here? The next step(s) requires an honest self (past, present, and future) assessment, dedication, and serious motivation. To quote Peggy Olson (Mad Men Season 5), “It’s not a game, it’s my career.” It is now time to take charge and quit depending on others to ‘help’ you. Once you understand the business of academia and see through the rules, it becomes easier to make an educated decision on how to proceed.

You now have the mental and visual acuity of Neo (The Matrix) to see the world around you for what it is. This realization endows you with a new sense of purpose, clarity and career focus. You understand your value and what an investment of your time really means in the grand scheme of things.

You might feel like Neo in the matrix, finally opening your eyes to see how you and others fit into the system.

Maybe you re-dedicate yourself to academia because you are inspired to change the culture and create an open exchange that will benefit future generations of scientists. Maybe you become motivated to set the standard for PI achievement and mentoring. I believe this is a fantastic choice, and fully support this option. The model is broken and needs talented, well-balanced individuals to take a stand and fight for change.

Conversely, maybe you realize that the statistics are not in your favor, not because you were not successful by academic standards, but that you are not willing to keep sacrificing bits of your life for a prize associated with such an uncertain timeline. At this point, you may come to grips with letting go of the idealistic dream of academia and focus your energy to pursue a career path that allows you to utilize a skill you were never able to use at the bench.

Maybe by doing this, you fall madly in love with another way to contribute to the scientific community altogether. This realization can be exhilarating and almost overwhelming. [For those having the revelation right now finish jumping in jubilee and stay with me, we are almost to the honeypot.] However, you may still wonder what do we need to do? In the spirit of ‘makeovers’ (i.e. Ty Pennington; Extreme Home Makeover or Tyra Banks; America’s Next Top Model), I present to you, my rules for the 85%ers Club:

You’re Welcome To Join The New 85%ers Club

Rule #1: Understand the importance of effective communication. There is nothing more important in science than the ability to communicate in a clear, concise manner. This applies to scientific presentations, posters, your ‘elevator pitch’ when networking, putting together your job application or research statement, and developing your narrative when interviewing for jobs. I have been lucky enough to see Tim Miller, from Spoken Science, speak on this topic.

Additionally, sitting in on skill building workshops can also be incredibly helpful. For example, H. Adam Steinberg, of Art for Science, gives a wonderful set of lectures on visualizing your science and how to effectively present to an audience. Finally, a recent event held at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus titled ‘The Art of Conversation’ was very effective. Practice as much as you can. This will come in handy when you are interacting with your advisor, colleagues, and prospective employers.

Rule #2: Assess your skills and evaluate your career options. This is a big one. I highly recommend spending some quality time with myIDP and a career counselor. For this to really be helpful, you must be honest with yourself. Who knows, you may come to find out that you are interested in joining the 85%ers Club.

If you are interested in careers in the private sector, I encourage you to read ‘Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development by Toby Freedman. If you are interested in learning more about your options in academia, visit the NIH videocast and podcasting site in addition to pursuing virtual career centers such as the one at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Rule #3: Ask for help. You cannot do this alone. You cannot expect your advisor, thesis committee, or program director to read your mind. It may be extremely helpful to look into campus organizations, committees, or small ‘support’ groups that focus on career development. For example, start a graduate student or postdoc organization and work with the campus administrators to put on professional development events or seminars.

This is also a great way to help out with Rule #4. Seek out individuals that inspire you and get in touch with them via LinkedIn or Twitter. Attend campus or community seminars focused on science or professional development and volunteer at outreach events. Seek multiple mentors within and outside of academia. For you postdocs, spend some time at the NPA site.

Rule #4: Step out of your complacency shell and network. This is not something that happens overnight. However, make it a priority to meet 5 new people a week, using LinkedIn, Twitter, your alumni directory, or at conferences and seminars. This is a great way to start building your confidence and career swagger.

For example, Madison has Biotech Happy Hours, Biotech Meetup groups, and breakfasts with leaders in the biomedical community. Collaborating with professors at your institution is also extremely important. Try to conduct informational interviews when possible. Let people know you are genuinely interested in learning more about what they do. Ryan has many great resources on this topic.

Rule #5: Determine what you are really good at. Upon completing Rule #2, you must put into practice the results of your assessment test. Once you are able to determine this, you can really focus on marketing yourself appropriately, branding and developing a niche, and defining who you are as a professional and what you are looking for in a career. Just as in academia, people will come to appreciate your skills, respect the value you add and seek your advice as an expert. This will ultimately boost your net worth.

Rule #6: Seek out niche areas that can benefit from your particular skill set. I am fairly certain a majority of people in the 85%ers Club did not find their dream job advertised online or in a magazine. They created their own position based on a need or gap they saw that only they could bridge. Really understanding Rule #5 will trigger this revelation and you will begin to see the whole chessboard and moves you can make 10 steps ahead of anyone else. Insert yourself in that position and market your expertise.

Rule #7: Do not undervalue your skills or your time. Always align things within the framework of the big picture. In my opinion, this is the most important rule. Never undervalue what your time is worth. A good way to get a proper picture of this is to use a basic calendar. For those of you that really want to keep track and learn some new software at the same time (note: this may be very useful when applying for specific jobs) tinker around with some project management software. Remember that life may not be rosy on the other side, but at least you come out knowing more about yourself and what you want.

Do not become – Jack’s wasted life


About the Author

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, The PostDoc Way

Brian is a passionate researcher, active outreach educator, and entrepreneur with over 10 years of experience in biomedical sciences. He was awarded a Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Toxicology in 2010. Shortly after, he accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Neuroscience.

He is currently a postdoctoral scholar entering his third year. He utilizes a multi-disciplinary approach that combines pharmacological, biochemical, spectroscopic, and electrophysiological techniques to develop novel methods to probe the structural dynamics of ion channels in an effort to better understand their role in electrical communication in excitable cells.

Brian is also a co-founder/chair of Badgerdocs (est. 2011), a postdoctoral association housed within the School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, co-chair/organizer/web administrator of PALS, a postdoctoral association sponsored by the Department of Biochemistry and Bioforward, co-adviser for the SMPH Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (est. 2012), and member of The Science Alliance, Biophysical Society, and National Postdoc Association. When he is not in the lab he can usually be found volunteering, running, bicycling, performing or listening to music.

Let The Truth Be Told: Get The Right PhD Advice When You Need It

Moral of The Story: Practice What You Preach

Many online blogs/sites serve as a guide or resource, or to help provide advice and insights. But, at the end of the day, you still have to create opportunities on your own as PhD student. You just have to know where to get the best information and WHO to get it from.

What is frustrating nowadays is where or more importantly, WHO to get your graduate or career advice from. With all the blogs popping up, and the talk of alternative science careers, it is very easy to get OVERWHELMED and confused. Who should you listen to? Who is qualified and who isn’t? Is this advice realistic and/or feasible? More importantly, what steps do you need to take in order for this to even happen?

These are questions that you must keep in mind every time you read a blog or site, or even talk to someone within a certain field. In many cases, the blogger may just be venting frustration. Others have a passion to CHANGE something or improve it (i.e. graduate education, promoting awareness, etc.). Others write from experience to help others. Unfortunately, there are also those who just want to “better their name” and get noticed. What’s missing here is you must practice what you preach.

Let’s say you wanted to start your own blog with a focus on how to run your own business on the side while working a full-time job (or while in grad school). Let’s also say that you are currently in the midst of doing this yourself or you are thinking about doing it, but lack the experience (and like to talk about it).

Now we can twist the story around and say you already have successfully ran your own business on the side while working a full-time job. What’s the main difference here? There are the talkers and the doers. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather take my advice from a doer.

To put this in perspective, let’s look at a few scenarios:

Scenario #1: There are those who ARE and those who ARE NOT qualified

Let’s say there is a PhD student that is AWESOME at science. Let’s also say this particular student is tracking two first author publications in prestigious journals and will graduate in a timely manner. Let’s call this PhD student, “the academic.” Now the academic may not care about alternative PhD careers. The academic has been highly successful and is “on track” in his or her mind, and this may lead to a prestigious post-doc position and ultimately (hopefully) to a tenure-track position. But let’s be realistic. Maybe in the back in the academic’s mind, the thought of alternative PhD careers is not absent. Maybe the academic has come to realize that only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years.

So, why not keep an open mind? However, the point here is just as the academic will generally not take sound academic advice from someone other than a Professor (which is founded on experience, knowledge, credibility), why would he or she take advice from someone who has never worked in industry? In other words, are you going to get concrete advice about alternative PhD careers (i.e. going into industry) from someone who lies solely in academia? And just because you WANT to work in industry (as many bloggers do), this doesn’t make you qualified.

This is EXACTLY why you must branch out from academia if you wish to go into industry. You aren’t going to learn a sufficient and credible amount of information by forgoing networking, or by simply reading blog posts. I will continue to say this to PhD students, post-docs, and scientists in academia until I am blue in the face.

I recently heard a recent comment that was very intriguing:

How can you expect scientists or someone who lies in academia to step out of their comfort zone? We are trained to work hard and be independent, many times in social isolation. It is against our personalities and what we are used to doing on a daily basis. Therefore, it is really hard for us [to be expected] to network or even realize the need to network.”

I hate to say it, but enough with the excuses already. Unless you want to end up as a potential unemployed post-doc 5 years down the road still trying to figure what it is you want to do, start networking NOW. Networking is a skill that can be learned, regardless of your personality or situation. It will open up many doors and opportunities for you. I’ve already written a lot on graduate school and post-doc networking, so this post will not go any more in-depth on how to network. If you would like to recap, go here: The Dire Need To Network While In Graduate School.

But let’s also say that the academic does start networking and does find a credible source of industry-related careers. What are these sources? Online, they must come solely from someone who has worked in industry or who has some sort of experience. Some of the best advice I’ve ever read comes from Science Careers Magazine, the Tooling Up Series. The rule of thumb here  is to be CAREFUL, when reading other blogs/sites (that don’t have nearly as much credibility as AAAS) from someone who has never worked in industry.

Although it is easy for others to write articles about how dark and gloomy it is out there, and give you a shopping cart list of potential careers, it won’t add value to your action plan and/or career goals. And many times, it may just be that they think if they write about alternative careers-they will get noticed for doing so. In a way, it is not to benefit the reader but themselves. However, many bloggers and sites add TREMENDOUS value and open up your eyes to many things, but you should not rely SOLELY on getting your information from behind a computer screen.

The funny thing is that it is typical of grad students or post-docs to find their answers ONLINE. Let’s Google “How to transition from academia to industry.” I am guilty of this 3 years ago. But it won’t get you anywhere. Just as easy as you can go on PubMed and type in keywords related to your research, unfortunately career advice is NOT essentially the same.

So if it doesn’t come from reputable online resources like Science Careers Magazine, where DOES it come from? The answer is staring right at you. Stop reading the computer screen, your iPhone, or iPad, and get OUT and start talking to people in the field. I am certainly not an expert on how to become a Medical Science Liaison (for example), so I’m not going to write you an article of my own describing what it is. Even if I went out and interviewed a MSL and had them write me a guest blog article for others to read, this will potentially add value to the readers (as blogging is a great way to educate and reach a large audience in a short amount of time), however the most value is going to come from what action YOU take on your own.

If you haven’t yet, check out thepostdocway.com which has a great list of GENUINE interviews that has everything spelled out for you. Use these as a STARTING POINT, and go from there.

The person that is reputable, credible, and is going to be the most valuable to you (with your direction, goals, and career advice) is someone who is already working in the field. If you want to learn about a position in industry, go TALK to someone in the field with years of experience. Those are the people you should take advice from and who are qualified.

The best advice you can also get from someone is a hybrid. If someone is currently working in BOTH academia and industry, they know the best of both worlds. I know many professors at UW-Madison that run their own companies while having commitments on campus and running their own labs. I respect those who have experienced and can appreciate both worlds. And because of the collaboration between academia and industry by one of these professors, it opened up an unforeseen position in product management for me the last 6 months of my PhD.

When a PhD transitions from academia to industry, it is essentially the same story. When they were fresh out of school, how did they make this transition? Many at times think that this is entirely individualistic, and what worked for someone else may not work for them. Although there is no guarantee, you choose which advice to internalize and put into action. By talking to PhD’s who made the transition, you are already 10 steps ahead of someone who is stubborn or complacent when it comes to networking.

If you do need a great starting point and you feel that you truly benefit from reading online posts about PhD transitions, Dora Farkas (who has her PhD and currently works in industry) wrote an article on PhD Career Guide titled: “Making the Leap from Academia to Industry: How to Set Yourself Apart from Other Candidates.” I’ve also had guest authors such as Doug Kalish write articles on “7 Ways to Stand Out From the Crowd” and “Life After Grad School: What Matters and What Doesn’t.” These are all great articles, written by reputable scientists who have successfully made the transition. Keep this in mind when digesting information from blogs.

Their goal (as well as The Grad Student Way’s) is to provide you with enough information, tools, and advice to “kickstart” your PhD or graduate career. It is a wake-up call.

Scenario #2: The Wanna-Be’s

Many PhD’s end up taking a post-doc only to find out later that it may have been a huge mistake. Others embrace the experience, and broaden their skills as a scientist. Just as the PhD’s who near graduation realize what is coming in comparison to the post-docs who have already experienced it-there are blogs popping up all over the place. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and wants to be heard, but at the end of the day, how are you truly helping others?

That’s great if you want to vent frustration, tell others of your bad experience, try and change something, or promote awareness. But you have to practice what you preach. (If academia is not for you, and you’ve come to realize this, that doesn’t make you any more credible than the next person)

If I write a book on how to network while in grad school or beyond the PhD, you obviously would be less apt to read it had I, the author, never networked a day in my life (experience speaks for itself). It is easy for anyone to read about networking online, then regurgitate that information. It is just as easy as it is for someone to write a list of 50 alternative PhD careers. Therefore, the same applies for those writing about alternative PhD careers in industry.

Someone who is in the “midst” of being qualified or is a “wanna-be” typically wants to write about it in hopes that it will become a reality for them. They hope that the more they talk about it, think about it, and dwell on it… It might happen for them. Don’t DO this. Although online reputation is very important and can get you noticed as a PhD student, enough with the recycling of information. The purpose of a good blog is to add value to your readers.

I could VERY easily write a 4,000+ word blog post on alternative PhD careers and give you a giant overview with a paragraph description of each type of position. But at the end of the day, where does it get you? Would you even know what steps to take in order to transition into one these careers fresh out of graduate school? I’ve already written about how to approach your thesis advisor and come up with an action plan. This is something that you should follow (whether or not you are ready to even approach your thesis advisor). The key is to come up with an action plan and execute it.

The Grad Student Way’s intention is to provide sound advice and HELP PhD grad students and post-docs see the reality, allowing you to have clear information in order to ACT on it. Even though listening to a success story might motivate you, this just might be something that was entirely individualistic. Therefore, it is necessary to focus on the readers as a WHOLE, and the VALUE that it can add. What worked for me may not have worked for you, but I can only hope that you, the reader, can see I once struggled where you used to be and now write from experience.

Scenario #3: The Brute Force Blogger

I see a lot of Q&A blog posts, which is fine but you have to look at how it benefits the reader. Many bloggers lack the drive to actually go out and interview the person in the field (in-person or over the phone), then they proceed to post a glob of Q&A series online, and promote it all over the place on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+. It is a brute force method, only to really benefit the person who hosts the blog and bring in more traffic to their site. It takes the work off their shoulders since all they have to do is write a giant list of questions, and make the person writing the answers do all the work.

Q&A posts are great in some cases and have many benefits of getting expert advice outside one’s field of knowledge, however the reader has a very hard time siphoning out the important and relevant information. Where is the interpretation and value added to the reader?

One thing that is missing from Q&A blog posts is the fact there is no face-to-face contact. The reader doesn’t get to meet the speaker. Also, the reader doesn’t have the opportunity to learn what value he or she can add to a network contact. What is missing here again is EVERY PhD student has the opportunity, time, and power to do these Q&A sessions on their own (it’s called an informational interview)! So what are you waiting for? Do not take networking out of the equation and rely solely on a computer to get your information. Therefore, these Q&A posts should serve as motivation for what is out there!

A good example of a very thorough and genuine interview that will really add value to your career planning can be seen here. The main difference here is the author of this site actually spent time to type up these interviews, summarize relevant information, develop a podcast, and ultimately add value to the readers and listeners.

I’ll just end by saying, don’t confuse brute force blogging with someone simply trying to promote their content. There is a difference. Again, it comes down to the value that a blogger is adding to the reader. Beware of the bloggers simply trying to promote themselves and their own name.

If the blog/site you are reading from falls in the list of “credible” and adds value to you as a reader, then I encourage you to dive in and digest/internalize all the relevant material. But the real question here is: How are you going to use that information?

As I said earlier:

Many online blogs/sites serve as a guide or resource, or to help provide advice and insights. But, at the end of the day, you still have to create opportunities on your own as PhD student. You just have to know where to get the best information and WHO to get it from.

Now, once you know what to look for, go put it into action!


Further Reading


Come Up With An Action Plan!

Who are the scientists that industry wants to hire? “Brilliant people who are creative and curious and can communicate” ~William Banholzer

Are You Ready For A Career In Industry? How To Succeed By Really Trying

Top 5 Thesis Writing Strategies To Keep You Going

Evolution of Your Thesis: The Last Fifteen Minutes

I went to middle school and high school in New York City and one of my favorite places to visit was (and still is) the Museum of Natural History (by the way the movie,  “Night at the Museum” does not do its magnificent exhibits any justice). A very memorable exhibit is the “Evolutionary Clock” which compresses the evolution of the Earth into a 24-hour day.

The evolution of my thesis (and I believe of many other students) followed a similar exponential development with a lighting-speed sprint before the finish line. During the first five and a half years, I completed coursework, learned the basics of my field and figured out 1001 ways to set up my experiment so I would not get reproducible results.  Five months before graduation my methods were finalized, and I had produced publication-quality data three months before the thesis deadline.

My thesis committee then gave me the green-light to graduate, and scheduled my defense less than 3 weeks later.  Twenty days to be exact. Twenty days is less than 1% of a six year doctoral program (about 15 minutes on a 24-hour clock), but I have more vivid memories of those twenty days than the rest of my years in the program put together. I had twenty days to put together a 50 slide presentation and write my thesis.

How did I pull through? Here are the top five strategies that kept me going:

1. Summarize your dissertation in one sentence. This is called the thesis statement. For example, “The purpose of this study was to determine the effect of XYZ mutation on the development of tumors  (result) in order to gain a better understanding of the causes of cancer (purpose)” Write this sentence somewhere where you can see it all day. You will become more focused when you repeat it to yourself several times a day.

2.    Keep writing, even if you are out of ideas. As you write, ideas will come to mind and make it eventually into the computer. If you are really out of ideas, write 3 letter-size pages by hand. I have tried this strategy hundreds of times, and I always have a few ideas by the end of the three pages.

3.    Pesky little thoughts popping into your head? What to make for dinner? Need to call XYZ or check your email? All those can (and must) wait. Keep a little notepad next to you and jot down all your to-do’s until the end of the day. They will not seem so urgent by then.

4.    Write every day, preferably at the same time and place. If you have a few months to write, aim for at least 2 pages a day. If you need extra motivation, ask someone to read your thesis by a certain day. External deadlines can do wonders for your productivity.

5.    Remember that no one wrote a doctoral thesis in one day. Build up your arguments gradually. Begin with your core    statements and add more arguments and references as you write. Each time you proofread, you will probably get more insights to enhance your writing. Complete your abstract at the end.

Finally, visualize yourself defending your thesis every day. What will you tell your audience? What was the purpose of your thesis? How did you contribute to your field of research? What are the 3-5 chapters of your thesis? The more vividly you imagine your defense and your written thesis, the more focused you will become. Soon, you will become unstoppable, writing and proofreading without the need for external motivation.

A final piece of advice: Aim for excellence, not perfection. No matter how many times you read it over, you will make little corrections here and there. The priority is to confirm that your data and references are correct, and your arguments are built up logically. Once your thesis is 98% complete, it is time to let it go. If you want to be extra diligent, give it to a friend (in exchange for reading their thesis), in case they notice any small imperfections.

The Grad Student Way’s “Secret To Thesis Writing”

I am currently writing my thesis and it will be complete by July 1. Basically, I have set a deadline and have weekly goals as I break everything down into small, manageable chunks. I will be posting a future article on how to keep the motivation, manage your time effectively, and stay in the habit of writing. Some of you may not like writing or feel that you’re are good at it. Or as the deadline approaches you get ‘thesis meltdown.’  There are ways to overcome it. Also, there are a lot of distractions and things that can demotivate you, so I will be sharing those with you in the future. This is an excellent list by Dora, but I will be going more in-depth. Keep an eye out and sign-up for our mailing list!


For more ideas, here are a few books and resources:

  1. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis by Joan Bolker
  2. Writing the Doctoral Dissertation by Gordon Davis
  3. Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process by Kjell Erik Rudestam.
  4. http://gradschool.about.com/lr/writing_advice/176668/2: This page has several links to other sites with dissertation writing advice.
  5. smartwaytoyourphd

Author Bio:

 Dora Farkas received her Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering and her Ph.D. in Toxicology from MIT. She is currently a Senior Scientist at AbbVie Bioresearch Center in Worcester, Massachusetts. Dora is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of Grad School Net, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, Q&A columns and blogs on her site, www.gradschoolnet.org