Contributed by Dr. Isaiah Hankel, Founder of the Cheeky Scientist Association
Getting started on your thesis can be extremely difficult.
One of the biggest reasons getting started is so difficult is that there’s usually nothing driving you to finish your thesis.
Very often, your advisor is happy for you to stay working in a lab for your subpar graduate student stipend.
Perhaps, deep down, you may be a little hesitant to finish your thesis because you don’t know what you’re going to do next.
Maybe, like most PhDs, you waited until you got approval from your thesis committee to graduate to even start writing your thesis and thinking about what you will do after graduate school.
Now, you’re looking at two options, a low-paying postdoc, or unemployment.
According to a report by the Atlantic, greater than 60% of PhDs and greater than 80% of Life Science PhDs will NOT have a paying job at graduation.
As a result, many PhDs drag their feet when it comes to writing their thesis. Some become so overwhelmed by the process of writing their thesis and getting a job that they dropout of their PhDs programs entirely.
According to data from the PhD Completion Project, only 42.6% of Life Science PhDs complete their degree in 6 years.
It’s not much better for Engineering and Math/Physical Sciences PhDs either, which have a 48.5% and 39.3% completion rate, respectively.
Why Mapping Out A Job Search Will Help You Finish Your Thesis
Motivation is a critical component of not only getting started on your thesis, but of finishing it.
PhDs who lack this kind of internal motivation end up staying stuck in academia for years longer than they should.
One of the best ways to get motivated is to create a sense of urgency.
This kind of urgency can be created through strict deadlines and through external rewards.
A lucrative job offer from a prestigious company where you can do meaningful work is a great external reward.
A carefully planned out job search strategy, riddle with deadlines and key growth metrics is a great way to create a sense of urgency.
Too many PhDs make the mistake of thinking that they should focus all of their efforts on writing their thesis first and then focus all of their efforts on getting a job.
While this may work for some, it does not work for the majority of PhDs (as the above referenced data suggests).
You can’t graduate until you finish your thesis.
But what’s the point of graduating if you’re just going to be unemployed once you graduate?
A better idea is to create a job search strategy and to execute this strategy as part of your graduation plan.
3 Steps To Creating An Effective Job Search Strategy
How do you create an effective job search strategy?
How do you execute this strategy when you’re busy writing your thesis and busy in the lab finishing up your experiments.
Strategically – that’s the answer.
You cannot just look at job postings online and upload your resume through trial and error online. Instead, have to create a job searching strategy.
The most important part of this strategy is getting into the right mindset. You must start seeing yourself and your degree as valuable again.
You must also recognize that an academic postdoc is not your only option after graduating.
According to research by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical industries provide more than 850,000 direct jobs, contributing more than $1.2 trillion in economic output in the United States alone.
Your PhD is highly valuable and there are many options available to you.
All that’s left to do is to finish your thesis and execute a proper job search strategy.
Here’s how to do the latter…
Step #1: Develop a confident and successful professional mindset.
The first thing many PhDs lose in graduate school is their confidence.
These PhDs come into their programs knowing they are intelligent and hardworking.
They know they can find answers to any problem if they keep trying and keep learning from their mistakes.
Then, after a few hundred 18-hour workdays and dozens of unsupportive meetings with their academic advisors and thesis committee members, they stop believing in themselves.
These PhDs fail and fail and fail, but this time, without any feedback. Sure, they may get feedback on their data.
But they don’t get any feedback on their professional progress.
They’re simply told to keep working without a roadmap, without milestones, and without any firm completion dates.
Worst of all, no one is there to lead them.
Most principal investigators and thesis committee members refuse to be accountable for anything related to a PhD students career after graduate school, especially if the student aspires to leave academia.
Over time, these PhDs start to feel like they’re alone, sinking faster and faster into some kind of career quicksand.
These PhDs lose their motivation to finish their thesis.
They lose their motivation to line up a job for after graduate school too.
The only way to prevent this loss of motivation is to change your mindset.
For most PhDs, this means regaining their sense of confidence – both their confidence in themselves and in their degrees.
PhDs who lack confidence are a dime a dozen.
PhDs without confidence in themselves and their degrees remain unemployed or get offered half the salary as other less qualified professionals.
A PhD with confidence, however, is extremely valuable in industry.
As a result, confident PhDs get hired very quickly for non-academic positions.
If you want to transition into a non-academic career, change your mindset.
Start believing in yourself again, your degree, and your future again.
The problem is not your intelligence or value, it’s your perspective.
It’s what you’re allowing to happen.
Quit allowing your academic advisor, committee members, and other people above you to escape their responsibilities.
Start being assertive.
Start demanding that timelines and milestones be set for your graduation, final papers, and thesis.
Both confidence and assertiveness are not only skills that industry employers find highly valuable, they are skill that will help you finish your thesis in a timely manner.
Step #2: Get recruiters and hiring managers to work for you while you write.
Hiring managers get paid to fill open positions at a company.
Recruiters get paid by companies to find top PhD job candidates for hiring managers.
In both cases, recruiters and hiring managers are getting paid to employ you.
Their salaries are dependent on finding the right industry job candidate for the industry right position and this is how you should approach them.
If you’re like most PhDs and have spent most of your life in academia, it’s easy to assume that you need to approach recruiters and hiring managers as if they are elite gatekeepers.
It’s easy to feel like you need to beg them for their time and attention – like you’re working for them.
“Please give me a job.”
“Please get back to me.”
“Please like me.”
The truth is approaching recruiters and hiring managers like this will only hold you back.
Industry recruiters and hiring managers don’t want to hire meek, unconfident, or awkward PhDs.
They don’t want to hire beggars either.
This is because hiring poor candidates reflects poorly on them.
Instead, they want to hire intelligent, confident, and capable PhDs with the right transferable skills.
They want to hire PhDs who aren’t afraid to approach them as equals and who understand the value of building a long-term professional relationship.
Building long-term relationships with recruiters and hiring managers and getting them to work for you is a very effective job search strategy.
The job market in any industry is smaller than you think.
This is especially true for the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical job industries.
The recruiters and hiring managers in these industries know each other very well.
They talk – and they could be talking about you in a good way.
If you’re just reaching out to recruiters and hiring managers to send them your resume or say thank you after an interview, you’re throwing away valuable relationships.
A better strategy is to invest in these people just like you would invest in any other long-term professional relationship.
Pass them resumes of other people.
Connect them to your connections.
Add value to them in every way you can.
Do this and they will add value back by letting you know about opportunities and even passing you job leads.
They will work for you and help you get a job, all while you spend time finishing your thesis and preparing to exit academia.
Step #3: Create a diverse, sequential, and measurable job searching map.
The number one reason PhDs don’t get industry jobs is because they don’t understand the job search process.
They have never learned the proper workflow of transitioning into a non-academic career.
As a result, they resort to randomly uploading resumes to job postings as they happen to see them.
These PhDs see a job posting, think “Wow, I’m perfect fort his job!” and then toss their thesis writing plans aside and scramble to polish their resume using some outdated template they downloaded online.
Some may go as far as sending a few LinkedIn messages to industry professionals who work at the company in a last ditch effort to network, but by then it’s too late to create any kind of meaningful connections.
Then these same PhDs are surprised when they don’t hear anything back after applying.
This is what happens when you execute a tactical, reactive job search.
You will never get an industry job, or finish your thesis, by being tactical.
Instead, you’ll be disappointed time and time again and eventually give up.
The only way to line up a job before you graduate without disrupting your thesis writing schedule is to map out a proper job search strategy.
Your job search is a second job and should be treated as such.
This might sound intimidating but it’s much simpler than you think.
All you have to do is create a single Excel spreadsheet with five columns:
- First: list the companies you’d like to work for,
- Second: list the job postings (with URLs) that you’re interested in,
- Third: list your contacts (LinkedIn or otherwise) who work at each company,
- Fourth: list the last time you connected with that contact, and
- Fifth: list the next time you plan on connecting with that contact.
By creating this simple spreadsheet, you’ve done more than nearly every other PhD job candidate.
How many files do you have on your computer right now related to experimental procedures, reagent specs, and data you’ve collected over the years?
Can you spare some of your precious time to make one single Excel spreadsheet related to your job search?
Once you’ve put your job search strategy on paper, the next step is to approach it in the right sequence.
Don’t do what most PhDs do and spend all your time on creating the perfect industry resume or preparing for phone, Skype, and in-person interviews.
Your resume is the last and least important part of your job search strategy.
Instead, you need to be spending most of your time networking offline and online and building industry credibility.
Your goal is to start getting industry job referrals as soon as possible.
Only then should you worry about resumes and interviews.
Finally, once your strategy is in place and you’re executing it in the right sequence, you need to diversify it as much as possible.
This means refusing to fall into the trap of applying to only one position at a time.
Instead, you should be applying to 5-6 positions at a time.
Don’t make the mistake of seeking only one type of position at a time either.
The more diverse your job search, the faster your network will grow and the more offers you’ll receive.
You don’t have to find the perfect position to start because you can always transition into another role 6-12 month after starting your first position.
You don’t have to accept your first offer either.
Keep diversifying your job search and keep thinking strategically until you finish your thesis and get hired.
Remember to focus on creating long-term, quality connections, especially with recruiters and hiring managers.
Get these people to work for you while you finish your thesis.
Combine your job search and thesis writing deadlines to stay motivated.
Most importantly, remember your value as a PhD.
Develop your confidence, be assertive, and take action to finish your thesis advance your career now.
Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized speaker and author who helps individuals and organizations develop a more entrepreneurial mindset to accelerate their business success. Isaiah earned his Ph.D. in Anatomy and Cell Biology and is the founder of www.CheekyScientist.com, a training platform that has helped thousands of academics transition into industry careers.