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 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: