I did not know ANYTHING when I started my industry job search in the last 2 months of my Ph.D. Unfortunately, that job search didn’t lead anywhere. Even though 1 company took me all the way through 2 panel interviews, a written assignment, and 6 reference checks, I was ultimately rejected.
That rejection really stung and it made me think I wasn’t ready for an industry job. Like, maybe a postdoc had to come next so that I’d be more “appealing” to companies down the line. That made me get easily convinced by my advisor that I should just stay on as a postdoc instead and not focus on job hunting for a while.
I COULD NOT HAVE BEEN ANY MORE WRONG.
Qualifications- and experience-wise, I was totally ready. I just wasn’t marketing myself the right way. My resume was absolute garbage. My cover letter sounded terrible. I was applying willy nilly to a bunch of different positions. Hoping something would bite.
I simply didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
The more time you have up front to think these things through, the easier and more streamlined the rest of the process will be. Trust me! Here are some important things you need to know about getting an industry job after your Ph.D.
1. Completely change your academic mindset.
You’ve been in academia for as long as you can remember, or at least a really long time. Well guess what, the real world isn’t academia. It’s a LOT bigger, with more opportunities than you can imagine.
It’s time to escape the bubble and finally get paid what you’re worth.
That means making some serious changes in how you think about yourself and market yourself so that you maximize the chances you move smoothly through the job application process.
You’re no longer valuable because of the school you went to or the fellowships you got. It doesn’t even matter if you TA-ed or not. I didn’t even have any first-author research publications (or TA experience) and I got an industry job (I couldn’t care less about not having any)!
You’re not a student. You’re not a trainee.
You aren’t powerlessly hoping to be chosen like you were when you were applying for grad schools (and postdocs).
You’re a full-fledged employee with years of experience.
You’re valuable for your practical and soft skills.
Is the company’s financial investment in you going to be worth it for them? That’s what they care about. And the way they assess that is by seeing if your resume contains demonstrated skills and outcomes (from your time in grad school, postdoc, or wherever else, like side hustles) that show you can do the things you need to do in the job that they’re advertising.
The earlier you start thinking more practically, and less academically, you’ll start seeing ways you can streamline and refine your resume and cover letters, as well as what you mention in interviews. That’s how you fine-tune your application so that you can not only get the recruiter’s attention at the first-pass, but get through all the steps in the application process swiftly and confidently.
2. Look within yourself to figure out what you really like (or don’t mind) doing.
I didn’t do this very much when I first started out looking for a job a couple months before I defended, and that landed me nowhere.
Like I mentioned at the beginning, I got through one interview process all the way until references, but then I was rejected. It made me think that I didn’t have enough experience and skills to get a job at that point and that I needed to do a postdoc. I was sorely mistaken.
Since I started my postdoc, continuing in the same lab I did my Ph.D. in, I haven’t done much in terms of research progress. But I still got a job.
The reason I didn’t find a job when I was defending but I did find a job 4 months later was because I put my postdoc on autopilot and took that time to really dive into what I wanted to do and didn’t want to do, and understand myself so that I could go for the jobs that suited me the best.
For me, I knew I loved writing (for practical purposes, not academic writing) and generally learning new things. I knew I also loved education, teaching, helping people in my community, and communicating with other scientists. I knew this from my tutoring side hustle (which I have a blog post about!) that brought me so much joy, and the fact that my favorite part about grad school was the conferences. The job I landed combined all those things.
This kind of soul-searching isn’t instantaneous. You most likely aren’t going to just think for a second and then *poof*, get the answer.
If you’re still in grad school, it’s amazing that you’re reading this now and it’s only going to help you. If you’re a postdoc, that’s great too, because you want to think about this stuff before you actually put in time and energy applying for jobs. You have to know yourself and repeatedly identify: what do you like to do? What do you feel joy doing? Or at the very least, what do you not mind doing every day for years to come?
You’ll eventually get the answer! Looking back at all the years you’ve spent in academia is a great way to identify them.
3. Understand the roles that are out there and which one to go for.
The previous section ties in nicely here. You need to understand that there are SO many different jobs that you could do as a STEM Ph.D. holder. The world is LITERALLY your oyster.
Do you know what Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) do? What about management consulting – did you know Ph.D. scientists are super wanted in that field? Do you know what a Field Application Scientist is? What about positions in your local or federal government’s clinical research labs and county hospitals? Ever considered the local science museum? Do you know what EdTech is?
That’s not meant to overwhelm you! It’s meant to show you that scientists are everywhere and there are a ton of jobs out there for you to pick from. It’s kind of a joyous thought! The world is at your fingertips and the playground has never been bigger. Like I said above, there are so many more options than you probably can even imagine.
One person who’s graduating from a Ph.D. program might be cool with labwork but hate the idea of interacting with customers. They might want to go for an R&D position, but not so much a Sales Scientist or Technical Support Scientist position.
Someone who loved the logistical stuff like ordering reagents, mentoring undergrads, leading lab meetings, and doing student government work in grad school might be into being a Lab Manager, Product Manager, or Project Manager.
Another person might be completely over labwork and eager to leave the bench, but be really curious about science and medicine in general and find that Medical Writing or Science Writing working from home is more their speed.
You see, it’s all about fit.
Also, remember: one job isn’t “more prestigious” than another. That’s a toxic academia mindset. What matters most is you being happy with the job you get. It doesn’t matter what others think about how cool or lame the job sounds to them. All that matters is that you get a job you really don’t mind doing.
Identifying that role as early as possible is going to make the rest of the process so much easier because you’ll essentially have your job application arsenal (resume + cover letter) ready to go if it’s already tailored to the type of position you want to get. Sure, you still need to do some fine-tuning per application, but overall, it’ll be ready for you to do that!
I struggled for a while to find the role that I really wanted so I applied to all sorts of roles, not just one type of role. After some interviews I realized that I didn’t want to do certain roles, and kind of wished I thought about things a bit more before I threw resumes out there hoping something would stick.
So trust me, it’s going to be a lot easier if you don’t flounder and apply to a bunch of positions you end up not really wanting to do, like I did.
I’m not an expert on every single option that’s out there and I don’t know what your particular background is, so here are some great resources that helped me narrow down what I wanted to do!
4. A resume isn’t a CV.
I cringe looking back at the first resumes I had sent out willy nilly into the ether when I was desperate to find an industry job (more isn’t better btw, when it comes to how many you send out). My resume was about 1.5-2 pages long and it had all sorts of extra stuff in it that I thought would be cool to mention but had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the job I was applying for.
After I started my postdoc, put it on autopilot, and then started putting all my energy into finding a job and understanding everything there is to know about the transition from academia to industry, I realized that my resume was absolute garbage and was pretty much just a CV dressed up as a resume.
Your resume should only be 1 page if you’re coming fresh out of grad school and be chock-full of words, phrases, and details you directly take from the job description. It can’t be easier, to be honest. They put it all out there for you to put in your resume, as long as you are actually skilled in those things.
I eliminated the entire publications, fellowships, awards, posters and presentations, and skills sections.
I moved my education section towards the bottom.
I stuffed my resume full of words and phrases from the job listings and sent it out.
I started getting replies left and right.
You don’t need to tell them your academic life story with your resume. It’s a bitter feeling but leave out things that aren’t relevant to the job, even if it’s something you’re really proud of from grad school. It’s not an academic thought process for sure, but it’s practical, and that’s what matters for industry.
All you have to do with it is convince the recruiter (who may be a scientist and may even have a graduate degree or who may be a non-scientist) that you are worth talking to a bit more. If they want to look into your publications, they will bring it up later. If they happen to ever care about fellowships you got, they’ll ask.
You get such a short time to make an impression on recruiters. Don’t have a resume that looks like it was made by someone who has no idea what an industry resume is. Fill it with the skills that are needed for the role, given the job listing, and your experience.
Here’s an entire blog post I wrote that has my generic industry resume template, an example industry resume, and resume preparation steps and tips!
Also, here are some really helpful tools that got my resume to a much better place that landed me the job I got!
5. Know your worth.
You can stop thinking about yourself as being in that pitiful gray area between being a student and someone in the real-life corporate world.
You don’t have to think that way anymore, and it’ll only help you to make that mental shift because you’ll be able to market yourself better by seeing yourself as a seasoned professional in the world of research, writing, troubleshooting, project management, data analysis, etc.
It’s not embarrassing or ridiculous to think about yourself this way. You have years of real work experience and deserve good pay. Inspect your experiences, the things that match up to the positions you’re most interested in, and play them up, a lot. You will get really far, and you will make it.
This is also important when you’re speaking in job interviews. Being confident and referring to your experience as strictly “work experience” and “professional experience” rather than “as a student I did XYZ” or “I did XYZ during grad school” will help the recruiters and hiring team see you in a better light.
6. It’s not “pay to win”.
You don’t need to pay $5000 to get into private communities or even $300 to see slideshows and videos from people who do career guidance for a living.
It’s totally possible to get a job in industry without paying money along the way. I most certainly didn’t.
We’re already underpaid as postdocs and grad students. Broke grad students and postdocs should not be influenced into thinking they have to pay to get an industry job. You totally could use these paid services and get some really incredible advice, and that’s 100% your call, but I genuinely don’t think it’s necessary.
I was so close to paying for some, myself, in my darkest hours (and trust me I had a lot of dark hours, I can get into that in other blog posts). But I’m going to try my absolute best to squeeze out every drop of insight and knowledge I have from my job search so that you definitely won’t need to pay money to do what tons of people before you have done without paying money too.
The job market is so hot right now, too, so it’s not necessary to be shelling out hundreds to hear simple facts you can Google or read on blogs for free.
Getting an industry job was quite a self-reflective experience for me.
During grad school I felt like I was just going through the motions and doing what was expected of me. This was definitely also true for my undergrad, too. I simply had the classes to take, the exams to take, the hurdles to jump over, and the paperwork to fill out.
I never really HAD to look closely at myself and identify skills and measurable outcomes to the degree that industry job applications require.
Leaping into it and applying to jobs willy nilly is only going to cause you a world of frustration and confusion. And guess what: it’s totally possible to get a job in a matter of weeks if you’re doing everything at least fairly well. 2 weeks, even. That’s how long it took me to get my job from the date I applied to the date I got the offer letter.
Sure, that’s after I had refined my resume and had floundered a ton. But that means that reading these tips and following through with identifying what you really want to do and can do will help you get a job in a timely fashion, too. So you don’t “waste time” haphazardly applying and being sad about not getting responses like I did.
It takes time and work to figure that out for yourself. It’s not something you decide one night and just go with. It’s also okay to change your mind in the process, and you might! That’s totally fine. It’ll all lead you to the role that’s a great fit for you.
You are worthy, you are valuable, and you are your own person.