Three actions PhD-holders should take to land their next job

Three people sit at a table, talking in an office conference room.

Many skills that PhD-holders acquire in the lab are useful in the corporate world.Credit: Getty

When I finished my PhD in physical chemistry at the University of Bristol, UK, 11 years ago, I didn’t expect to become a director in financial consulting, advising businesses on how to secure investments. But that’s what happened, and to get there, I’ve had to overcome several challenges that academia never prepared me for.

When I started my job search after earning my degree, I had to work out how to identify suitable employment, describe the value of the numerous technical and social skills that I had developed during my programme and apply those skills in the world of business.

I don’t think I fully appreciated how broadly my PhD skills could be used beyond my molecular-dynamics research. I used to think I was ‘just a chemist’ and limited accordingly the jobs that I applied for. However, I eventually realized that being able to analyse complex information quickly and communicate the key message concisely is valuable in any field.

I then widened my job search and changed how I described my skills. In my current role, I write concise proposals for clients and use the project-management and communication skills that I acquired while earning my PhD.

How we think of our skills influences how we progress in our careers. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learnt on how to find a suitable job as a PhD-holder.


When I first applied for post-doctoral positions, I rarely approached the hiring manager before submitting my CV. I assumed that they wouldn’t want to be bothered. I was much more successful after shifting my mindset and becoming more proactive. I eventually secured a post-doctoral position at Tampere University, Finland. Since then, every time I’ve applied for a job, I’ve approached the hiring manager through the professional social-networking platform LinkedIn or a cold e-mail, or had a colleague connect us. I keep my message brief, introduce myself and attempt to learn more about the role.

This directness doesn’t come easily to some people, but by exhibiting proactivity, you’re helping to solve the hiring manager’s problem — finding someone to hire — and you stand out from the crowd.

In my experience, successful PhD-holders, regardless of whether they stay in academia or transition to industry, take initiative. Demonstrating a positive attitude and actively seeking to complete the task at hand, such as solving a problem or finishing a project — rather than waiting for instructions — is much more important to a hiring manager than is any specific technical knowledge or skill.

Most PhD-holders find that being proactive comes easily in an academic setting, such as approaching potential collaborators by e-mail or reviewing the literature before drafting a research-project proposal. However, when you are job hunting, you need to take a proactive stance with a more ‘commercial’ mindset. Getting a job is a transaction, and you are selling your skills in the job market.

Tailor your pitch

Earlier this year, I interviewed a candidate without direct experience in submitting funding proposals for engineering projects, a key requirement for the position. However, she did tell me about her relevant experience in writing reports that summarized her biology research, and she explained how she would apply that skill.

Her succinct description of her capabilities, and her awareness of how transferable they were, were key measures that I was assessing her on. Hiring managers want to know who you are, and which skills you have that are relevant to the role. How you present that information can separate you from other applicants.Academia teaches us to value technical detail and to justify our answers robustly. This is great for a journal submission, but there is much less time in a job interview or space in a written application to ramble on about all your brilliant capabilities. So, when I ask about a candidate’s experience, I am mainly trying to determine their relevant skills. I want to hear a concise and coherent story, not a detailed, chronologically accurate blow-by-blow account of their research. Tailoring your application to highlight only the relevant information will help the interviewer to quickly determine your suitability.

Language and tone

Shifting your tone is another technique to embrace. Academic training encourages objectivity, to eliminate bias in research. However, the passive language that is essential for peer-reviewed papers is not at all suitable for a job application; it is just not as engaging as active speech, and risks disengaging, or even boring, the hiring manager. Academic language is impersonal and cold compared with mainstream forms of communication. Hiring managers need to determine the specific parts that you played in your research. So, when describing your experience, focus on what you personally achieved, even when you worked in a group.

When I graduated, there was essentially no advice for newly minted PhD-holders about transitioning into industry. That’s why I share my career mistakes at university talks and in my book, A Jobseeker’s Diary, because I want others to avoid my missteps. Whatever career direction you go in, don’t forget to be proactive, hone your pitch and adjust your tone to match the job you are applying for.

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