3 Ways You Will Fail At A Job In Industry After A PhD

Wrong expectations starting a job in industry after a PhD can lead to a huge disappointment.

As many PhDs, you want to cross the bridge between Academia and industry, but do you know what it is like on the industry side?

You have so many questions. What can I offer to industry? What does industry expect from PhD graduates? Will I make a step back switching to industry?

We all think that working in industry is going to be great. We will earn a decent salary. We will improve our job stability (much better than having a postdoc in different country every 2 years). We won’t have to worry about publishing in journals.

But is it really like that in industry?

Here’s What I’ll Share Over The Next 2,610 Words

  1. The skills that industry want in PhDs and how to start your industry job with the right foot.
  2. Why thinking like a scientist doesn’t work in industry and the best way to leverage your academic background.
  3. What indicators industry recruiters use to detect poor applications from PhDs and how to increase your chances of landing a job in industry.
  4. Bonus: I will present the best training you must follow to equip you for a job in industry after a PhD. 

Let’s start with the first thing …

Once upon a time in the land of unrealistic expectations…

I have been working in industry after my PhD for more than a year. To say that it has been tough to adapt would be an understatement.

It took me a while to find a job. I hustled my ass off to find a job in industry after my PhD.

Stupid me thought, like in many endeavors in life, that getting the job was the end of the hustle. It was the beginning of the next level of the hustle. One for which I was not ready.

The problem with me thinking that way was that I expected everything to be easy in my new job. I thought I was going to get tasks that would make good use of my “PhD status”. Why would they have hired a PhD, anyway?

I was expecting the company to say: “Oh Julio, I am so glad you are here. Let me make sure you can use your special talents so you can shock us. I have a custom track to propel you to business stardom”.

In fact it was more like “Oh you got a PhD? That’s cute! Now figure out a way to make yourself useful and worth the salary I am paying you.”

Welcome to the real world. Welcome to industry. Too bad you had the wrong expectations.

Remember the time you expected your PhD supervisor to help you out in everything? When you thought she had to take care of you? Those were the wrong expectations on how a PhD works.

How can you avoid having the wrong expectations about a job in industry after a PhD?

I have identified my 3 biggest mistakes when transitioning to industry. These are not unique of me. I have talked with other PhDs in industry and these wrong expectations seem to be a recurring pattern.

Let’s see where you, mister PhD, get it wrong about industry jobs.

3 Mistakes About Getting A Job In Industry After A PhD

Mistake #1 You Think You Are Entitled To Something

There you go with your flashy PhD diploma. It wasn’t easy to obtain, was it? You excelled in high school, in your bachelor studies, in your MSc and in your PhD. Your PhD is well deserved.

Look at you. You are a doctor of philosophy in something. A PhD. A scientist.

And know you are looking for a job in industry after a PhD. How hard can that be?

I mean, come on, shouldn’t you deserve a job in industry?

You have pushed the boundaries of our knowledge. You have made discoveries. You have proved theorems.  You have published in scientific journals. You have given plenty of presentations.

All that means jack poop.

Obi Wan knows you're not entitled to a job in industry after a PhD

What did you think? That companies are going to hire you because you are Dr. Above-than-average Joe?

Industry doesn’t care about what you did in the past in Academia. Industry wants to know what you can do in the future.

Just because you have a PhD you can’t expect to land any job in industry.

Just because of that you don’t deserve a great salary.

Hey, don’t get me wrong, salaries can be nice in industry and yes, it’s possible to land a job in industry after your PhD. You just need to have something to offer that has value to industry.

Now is when you think: so if companies don’t care about my academic background, what are they looking for in PhD graduates? Why do they hire PhDs in the first place?

The truth is that having a PhD is a filter for smart people. Industry thinks that you are smart. And they want smart guys. And they want more than just that.

Industry is looking for other skills. Transferable skills for PhD students, anyone?

That’s right. They are looking for other skills as well. Let me just give you a taste of the transferable skills for PhD students that  will help you land a job in industry after a PhD…

Think of networking skills. Can you get people to like you, trust you and give you important work? Can everybody in your new organisation know what you can do for them?

Think of sales skills. Can you convince some stubborn old-fashioned manager that your new technology is going to make him successful? Can you find what makes people tick and use it to your advantage?

Think of interpersonal skills. Can you take feedback, process it and build on it for your own development? Can you manage the expectations of your manager in a way that buys you more time to finish your delayed work yet it makes you look professional?

Sounds like too much having to develop these skills during your PhD?

I understand that the work load of PhD students is quite heavy. But keep in mind these two factors:

  • Most PhD graduates won’t end up having a stable academic job.
  • Most transferable skills for PhD students take years to develop.

So if you are planning to move to industry and fix your (missing) transferable skills, please, don’t wait till you start looking for a job. Work on your transferable skills now.

But my university doesn’t offer courses to develop transferable skills…

I know.

I feel your pain.

And you know what? If they offer courses they cost a lot. And you still need to convince your professor. And most of the times those courses are for beginners. Or they last only 2 hours. And what are you going to learn in just 2 hours, right?

Don’t worry, I got you covered. I have spent some weeks collecting the best books to succeed in academia, develop transferable skills for PhD students and get a job in industry. Please have a look.

You can read these books, at your own rhythm, at the time and location you want. Some are fantastic, others are awesome.

What are you waiting for? Check these books to improve the transferable skills of PhD students and make yourself valuable for a job in industry after a PhD.

Mistake #2 You Still Think Best Ideas Win

When I started in industry after my PhD, I had a conversation with my project manager along these lines.

Me: Why are we using technique A? If we use B we get more accurate results that are statistically significant.
Manager: Clients like technique A.
Me: But technique A is not reliable and you need to tune it manually, so the quality of the results is worse than with technique B and …
Manager: It has nice colors.
Me: What the fuck? I mean, I beg your pardon.
Manager: Technique A has nice colors. People like the colors. People understand the colors. Colors make them feel they understand technique A and therefore they feel smart (aka not stupid).

That was my introduction to best ideas don’t always win in industry.

Your good idea won't keep you at a job in industry after a PhD

When we PhDs think about ideas, we do it in terms of correctness, completeness, soundness, optimality, elegance, novelty… you catch my drift. And that is fine, in Academia.

Remember when you submitted that paper. What you presented in it had to be correct, sound, new, and if possible complete and optimal. Those where the parameters on which you were judged by the reviewers. That’s how people decided if you were a good scientist.

Incentives in industry are a bit different.

[I use the word “client” because I am a consultant and I projects for other companies, my clients. If you sell things you also have clients. If you develop products, you have clients. Otherwise you could see you boss or colleagues from other departments as clients.]

[I use the words “idea” and “product” interchangeably. Think of product as your project, what you are producing, your service, your solution, or what the client will get from you: it can be software, advice, a report, an improved process … you name it]

Let’s imagine that you are dealing with an industry colleague who in your eyes behaves like a nay-sayer.

It’s a frustrating experience at first: doesn’t he see his idea is technically inferior? It is suboptimal, for Einstein’s sake!! My idea could potentially (save | increase) XXXX (unit of time | currency | jobs) !!

And you are right. Your idea is correct. The only thing is that in the real world of industry there are more factors at play.

Do we have the know-how and resources to deliver? Can we do it in time? Within budget? Does it match our strategy? Are we stepping on somebody’s toes?

Does the client like that product? Does he understand it? Does this idea deliver what the client is expecting from us?

And on and on and on.

Two-step approach to come up with successful ideas in industry

This two-step approach is based on the notion of minimum viable product (MPV), also known as early prototype as presented in the free book Getting Real by 37 signals (get that book now!) or in the “done is better than perfect” motivational posters of Mark Zuckerberg.

The MPV is the prototype of your product, the bare bones version. If you remove one more feature is not the minimum of what the client expects.

Step 1 Find the Minimum Viable Product

What is a) the minimum viable product (MPV) that delivers what the client expect from me? and b) that can be delivered within our time, budget and resource constraints?

Step 2 Optimize the Minimum Viable Product

You take your MPV and think: with the resources I have left, how can I make this product even better and still deliver in time what is expected from me?

There you go. In two steps you have come up with something clients want and at the same time you have satisfied your need to work towards better ideas.

The last reason to strive towards MPVs and good-enough ideas is that deadlines are tighter in industry.

There is little time left to mentally masturbate about great solutions and optimal products. Be happy if you have an afternoon left to iterate once on your MPV.

Mistake #3 You Think A PhD Counts As Working Experience

I know it’s sad to think about it. After all these PhD years you have grown, you have evolved, it feels like you are more skilled, doesn’t it?

If you would ask your professor she would say that today you are a much better scientist than when you started.

Doesn’t all that growth count as experience?

Experience for a job in industry after a PhD?

Unless your industry job has to do with research, your PhD hardly counts as experience. If you are lucky, they will count it as 1 or 2 years experience so you don’t have to start at the most junior position.

Recruiters look for education + experience + motivation.

If you are weak in one of those areas you should compensate with the others. And no, don’t think that a PhD (=highly educated) completely compensates for zero experience.

MSc and PhDs are regarded as highly educated, but a MSc with 3 years of experience is going to look more attractive for a recruiter than you.

So it’s clear that you need to show (somehow) experience and motivation.

What are the common flags that show lack of experience?

  • You don’t mention having worked for a relevant company, duh! (Bar tender doesn’t count as working experience in this case, with all my respect to bar tenders)
  • You don’t talk business. You just list academic accomplishments, by stating what you did.
  • Keywords like networking, teamwork, results, and the like are nowhere to be found in your application.

How to compensate for lack of business experience?

  • Say what you did and achieved in terms of Accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z] like this example.
  • Do internships in companies.
  • Do freelance work on the side.
  • Present your PhD experience using STAR method and relate it to business.
  • Collaborate in a shared research project to gain team working experience.

What are the common flags that show less than desirable motivation?

  • “I want a job in industry because I am tired of Academia”. Who wants to hire a grumpy cat?
  • “I want to work in your company because the job is close to where I live and I heard salaries are great”. You don’t know much about the field in which you are trying to get a job.
  • “I want to work with you because I always want to try new challenges. For instance, a few years after working you I want to start my own gig as a organic smoothie yoga instructor.”

How to show your motivation?

  • Describe how the type of work and challenges in industry match better your ambitions.
  • Let the recruiter know that you are aware of the latest developments in and the challenges facing by their specific industry.

Now you know how to adapt your mindset for a successful job hunt in industry. You learnt how to minimize some career-limiting-moves PhDs tend to do.

What else can you do to make sure you get your first job in industry after leaving Academia?

Here’s what to do if you REALLY want a job in Industry after a PhD

There is a training program for PhDs and young academics that want to leave academia and get a job in industry.

It’s for you if you think nothing that you learnt in academia is valuable for a company.

For you if you feel like an overspecialized academic.

For you if you went to a networking event hoping to get a job and nothing happened.

For you, who can write a 30 page paper but has no clue how to write a single page CV that gets you invited for an interview.

For you, who doesn’t want to run the rat race of linking postdoc after postdoc in different countries hoping for an elusive tenured position.

For you, if you have that feeling in your gut saying “I enjoyed academia so far, but I don’t see myself here all my life”.

Meet the Cheeky Scientist Association

… the best training program that helps you land a job industry after a PhD.

It helps you get a job in industry AND once you are there, it teaches you how to grow in your new role. It’s a lifetime investment that pays off year after year!

It covers topics like networking, applying for jobs, negotiating, developing the right skills for industry, or even turning your LinkedIn profile into a magnet for recruiters. It’s that damned complete.

Wait, there is more. Keep reading.

Fun fact #1: did you know that Dora Farkas, a guest blogger here at Next Scientist who wrote viral posts on dealing with tough supervisors, is an Accredited Cheeky Scientist consultant who is also an active member in the Association?

Fun fact #2: did you know that Isaiah Hankel, the creator of the Association, is also the author of the book Black Hole Focus, which has been equally endorsed by New York Times best selling authors and top scientists?

Wait, there is even more. Don’t stop reading now.

Special bonus for Next Scientist readers

We partnered with Cheeky Scientist to offer some extra goodies, so joining the Cheeky Scientist Association is a no-brainer. On top of all the Cheeky Scientist Association offers, you’ll exclusively get:

  • 50 scripts/templates for your emails and negotiations with recruiters, interviewers, and people you network with.
  • A crash-course on how to improve your verbal and non-verbal communication skills.
  • A proven step-by-step guide to network with anybody.
  • A plan with the minimum number of actions you take to get the maximum likelihood of getting a job in industry.

Click here to register for the Cheeky Scientist Association

About Julio Peironcely

Julio Peironcely, PhD is the founder of Next Scientist and a PhD by Leiden University. He helps PhD students to stay motivated, be more productive and finish their PhDs. Follow him on Twitter (@peyron) or read more from him on JulioPeironcely.com.


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