Take your PhD to industry

Hannah Stern, PhD, interviews Isaiah Hankel, PhD, CEO of Cheeky Scientist, a career development program that helps science PhDs transition to industry.

Isaiah Hankel

“People who spend 3–6 years obtaining a PhD are a rare and valuable part of the workforce,” Isaiah Hankel, PhD, CEO of Cheeky Scientist tells me. “Less than 2% of the population has a doctorate degree of any kind and less than 1.6% has a PhD.” And these people have a unique skillset. “To get a PhD, by definition, you must add to the field. These are highly driven people who are self starters and who know how to collaborate on large projects. They can learn anything.”

Despite being highly skilled, not all PhD graduates easily find a job after they graduate. In the UK, figures show the employment rate for highly skilled graduates is 74% (2016 gov.uk study) and in the US various figures show the employment rate for graduates could be lower, at 61% (Science and Engineering Doctorates). Of those who do find employment, a large number of graduates chose to take posts in academic institutions (SED), instead of exploring the industrial workforce.

Crossing the bridge from academia to industry.

According to Isaiah, more PhD graduates should seek to apply their skills in industry. “It’s important to have PhDs in leadership roles at companies, especially in biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies…These are very technical companies that are often run by people with zero technical knowledge.” As well as our highly specialised knowledge, as students we are often told that a PhD arms us with other transferable skills. When I ask Isaiah why PhD graduates are valuable to industry, he confirms this view and tells me, quite simply, that PhD graduates “have a doctorate in learning”.

“PhDs literally have a degree in knowing how to learn. And this is very valuable in industry where companies want to train people on the job.”

For PhD graduates, the jump from academia to industry can be a difficult one.
“PhDs literally have a degree in knowing how to learn. And this is very valuable in industry where companies want to train people on the job.”

But if PhD graduates are so good at learning and applying their skills, what is it about entering the job market that is so daunting? Why does the process of leaving the academic safety net feel so unnatural for graduates?

“The top reasons PhDs struggle to transition to industry is that they have an academic mind-set,” Isaiah says. “For instance, they feel they need to list all of their publications on a resume, essentially turning their resume into a bibliography or work-cited section. They need to start thinking like industry professionals, not academics. They need to change not only their perspective but their strategies.”

The essential industry skills toolkit

Isaiah doesn’t think PhD graduates necessarily need to learn new skills as they enter the job market — “It’s not so much the skills they’re lacking, it’s how they apply those skills. Most [PhD graduates] have been in academia for twenty three years so they are used to certain things being important, such as publications. In industry, results and achievements are important. As soon as a PhD can learn to communicate results, over job duties or methodology, that’s when they start to excel.”

Isaiah stresses, communication skills are critical. “We are living in a day and age where attention is the most valuable resource [for success], in many cases.” Scientists are not known for effectively communicating the importance and the nuances of their work to the general public, something that platforms like Sparrho are addressing — giving researchers the ability to share and demystify their work on an open, public platform. Isaiah explains that PhDs need to take all opportunities to practise science communication, “PhDs need to know how to communicate effectively not only in academia, by writing a peer-reviewed journal article for example, but also in social media and in meetings at work.”

Communication and networking are essential skills for PhD graduates. Often these can be learnt during a PhD- at conferences for example.
“PhDs need to know how to communicate effectively not only in academia, by writing a peer-reviewed journal article for example, but also in social media and in meetings at work.”

Under the umbrella of communication skills is the often dreaded networking. Quite apart from researchers often not enjoying networking, many do not believe that it is important, says Isaiah. “Really you have to teach PhDs that networking is valuable by showing them the data, not just telling them that it’s valuable. The data shows that most jobs are filled through employee referrals.”

“For example, one study showed that over 50% of all people hired to top jobs are filled by referrals, but only 7% of job applicants get referrals. That right there shows that 93% of the people are just uploading their resume online and these people are not as likely to get a job as the 7% who are getting referrals. So, communicating the data and showing why it is important — once PhDs know why something is important, they will do it.”

“One study showed that over 50% of all people hired to top jobs are filled by referrals, but only 7% of job applicants get referrals.”

Isaiah and Cheeky Scientist

Isaish Hankel speaks to a PhD audience.

Isaiah speaks from experience — he too had to learn how to succeed in industry when he graduated. “ It came down to the pain that I experienced as a PhD and subsequently, seeing others have that same pain. Most PhDs feel the pain of not being able to get a job or having career options once they are finished.”

In response to this personal experience, Isaiah set up Cheeky Scientist, a programme that helps PhD graduates globally to secure jobs in industry. “Cheeky Scientist offers career development, we call it Industry Training, which involves assisting PhDs learn how to transition into industry effectively. This could be anything from interviewing to generating referrals, as well as helping them thrive in the industry afterwards by, for example, applying principles and learning topical things that an MBA may learn.”

“Engagement with Cheeky Scientist comes mainly from the website, our articles, webinars or social media. Primarily [graduates] engage through The Cheeky Scientist Association, which now has 3000 members. It’s the largest private organisation for STEM PhDs to get into industry careers.”

“Cheeky Scientist has teams of recruiters and preferred affiliates, in terms of employers and hiring managers that we work with, but really our goal is to teach PhDs to get the job they want themselves. Statistics show that recruiting firms are dying and most employers are bringing recruitment in house. Our goals aim to arm PhDs with the tools they need to get the jobs themselves and not to place them ourselves.”

Is a postdoc a waste of time?

I asked Isaiah for some words of advice to offer to PhD students who are beginning to think about their future careers. In particular, I asked about timing — when is the best moment to transition to industry? Is it too late after a postdoc?

“The best time to transition to industry is as soon as you realise you want to work in industry. Ideally, I think every PhD should get their degree and go on to a job in industry. I think it’s a better model to return to academia if they have a desire to go back to teach classes after working 10–20 years in industry, after being on the cutting edge, essentially after they are retired in industry. Rather than having postdocs and PhDs stay in academia only to be paid half of what they’re worth. Go into industry, get experience and when you’re finished, give back by teaching or running a lab.”

But Isaiah does not believe a postdoc is a complete waste of time. “You can leverage a postdoc to your advantage. We like to say it in this way: no matter what you’ve done in your career as an academic researcher -whether it’s a 2 year postdoc or a 10 year postdoc - you can use it to your advantage to get a job. However, as soon as you know you want to go into industry, go into industry. Don’t think you need postdoc experience. Companies do not want you to gain more academic experience before hiring you. They want you to gain on the job experience. There are very few companies, less than 1% overall, that require any sort of postdoc experience. Very often there are people with Bachelors and Masters degrees working side by side with PhDs when they first start out and it surprises a lot of PhDs.”

“Also, if you’ve done a postdoc for several years, it’s never too late to reinvent yourself. You can leverage that knowledge and those skills. All you have to do is start applying your transferable skills, not just your technical skills, to the position that you want. Then start applying the right strategies for your job search. Most importantly, develop the right perspective — not an academic perspective, but a successful industry professional perspective.”


How can you make the most of this advice and the tools on offer to you as a PhD student?

To sign-up to the Cheeky Scientist for career advice and training follow this link to their website. They offer two free e-books: “20 Transferable Skills for PhDs” and “Top 20 Industry Positions for PhDs”.

You can easily boost your communication and networking skills during your PhD by attending conferences. To help PhDs and postdocs get to conferences, Sparrho is now offering £500 Early Career Researcher Prizes to those who are presenting at an academic conference this year. To apply, follow this link to the 5-minute application form and use the Sparrho platform to share your research.

Sparrho Early Career Researcher Prize now accepting entries!
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