Applying Your Ph.D. to Industry


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Isaiah Hankel presents a seminar at FiO. [Image: Alessia Kirkland]

In a special professional-development seminar at FiO+LS, author, CEO and career consultant Isaiah Hankel spoke about the limitless career options for STEM Ph.Ds.

Hankel, who is the founder of Cheeky Scientist—a job-search training platform for Ph.Ds who are transitioning into industry—shared tips, tricks and secrets about scientific industry careers with a standing-room-only audience of students and early-career professionals.

A holistic view

“Most of you will go outside of academia for a job,” began Hankel. “The question is, how long will it take you to realize that?” He followed this powerful introduction with a series of surprising statistics. For example, according to the Atlantic, 60% of all Ph.D.s will be unemployed at some point. And only 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs have doctorates—Hankel wants to see that number rise.

The reason for these numbers, according to Hankel, is that most students get tunnel vision and drive full-steam ahead into academia, but there aren’t nearly as many attractive academic positions as there are qualified Ph.D.s. In fact, based on the decreasing number of tenure-track positions and a rise in adjunct positions, Hankel predicts that in 20 years, full-time professorships will be extinct.

For this reason, among others, Hankel believes that students should take a more holistic view when approaching their job search and cast a wider net. “Dig into the data” when researching postdoc positions, he advised. “Postdoc positions were never meant to be a holding pattern for Ph.Ds after they graduate,” Hankel said, “so don’t chase postdoc after postdoc—it can actually damage your career.” Citing a study in Nature, he pointed out that, on average, it took nearly 15 years for Ph.D.s who took postdoc positions to reach the same salary and career trajectory as Ph.D.s who went straight to industry.

Beyond salary, one way to figure out if an industry position is right for you is to think about your ideal professional lifestyle. “Instead of focusing on how impressive a job title sounds,” Hankel said, “the first step in a Ph.D.’s transition should be deciding on what their perfect workday looks like.” By this, Hankel means job qualities such as travel, salary, working on-site or remotely, working at the bench or away from the bench, a writing-intensive job or a numbers-heavy job, and others. Map out an ideal professional lifestyle, and fit a career and job title to that.

40 top jobs for STEM Ph.D.s

So what are the top jobs in industry for STEM Ph.D.s? Hankel presented five different career tracks within industry, each with its own set of job opportunities.

Track 1 is information aggregation and patents—ideal for those interested in learning about and analyzing the newest innovations. Example job titles are patent agent, scientific consultant or technology transfer officer. Writing and editing jobs and information/data management jobs also fall under this career track.

Track 2, sales and marketing, includes jobs like market research analyst and product manager. These kinds of industry positions can be very lucrative, but most STEM Ph.D.s don’t realize that they have market knowledge. Track 3, research and development, includes jobs like research scientist or user-experience analyst.

Track 4, clinical and medical affairs, was met with surprise, but Hankel explained that clinical trials are no longer just about drugs—they’re about equipment and instruments, which optical scientists and engineers know a thing or two about.

Track 5, business, finance and policy, is perfect, according to Hankel, for those STEM Ph.D.s who are interested in these areas. Typical jobs include equity research positions at investment banks; working for huge venture-capital firms to analyze data and find trends before others do; and government and strategy jobs like public policy advisor and competitive intelligence analyst.

Know your value

With the audience’s curiosity piqued about these opportunities in industry, Hankel presented insider secrets for scoring a dream job. One big tip: “You’re more valuable than you realize.” Hankel said that STEM Ph.D.s are in high demand in the job market—the problem is that no one can find them.

“It's easy to think that a lack of progress in your job search is the result of not having value in the job market,” explained Hankel. “But in reality, Ph.D.s have immense value in industry, and employers are scrambling to find them.”

He advises that anyone looking to get into industry update their academic resume into a more industry-friendly template. The focus should be on transferrable skills, such as data analysis, time management, information processing, market research and drawing conclusions from results. Academic job titles often get weeded out by resume-tracking software because they don’t contain the buzzwords, the actual skills, that employers are looking for. “Think broader and think bigger,” said Hankel.

Once someone has updated their resume, Hankel suggests building up a professional network. One of the best things that someone can do to stand out in their job search is to set up informational interviews with people working in the exact position that they want. “60%-70% of Ph.D.-level jobs are filled by referrals,” said Hankel, “so build up industry credibility and your industry network.”

Becoming visible, getting hired

“You can get into all of these positions,” Hankel assured the audience at FiO+LS. “It doesn’t matter if you’re specialty is optical engineering or quantum physics.” Instead, he said, it’s all about the approach: “By implementing the right strategies and getting access to the right industry networks, Ph.D.s can become visible and get hired.”

OSA has partnered with Cheeky Scientist to provide free online training materials and other professional-development resources through OSA’s Career Calibrator.


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