“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and will always solve the problems of the human race.” –Calvin Coolidge
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You can’t rely on your academic laurels to get a job industry
After I completed my postdoctoral fellowship at Tufts University, I had an impressive list of accomplishments: a PhD from MIT, 8 publications (7 of them first-author), and a long list of skills that were highly applicable in the pharmaceutical industry, particularly in the area of drug development. Yet, despite submitting nearly 50 resumes to biotech and pharma companies, I barely got a few phone interviews and no in-person interviews for several months. Why were employers reluctant to hire someone with a doctoral degree who had skills that were highly sought-after?
While I did not get in-person interviews, I continued networking at events and I also went out to coffee or lunch with professionals in my field. Through these networking events, I learned that the primary reason that employers were not interested in hiring me was that I was asking the wrong questions as I put my resume together. Years later, when I interviewed candidates for positions at my company, I saw that many PhD’s or postdocs straight out of academia were making the same mistakes that I had made when I started applying for jobs. Clearly, most schools do not teach you how to make your resume attractive to employers in industry.
You need to put on a hiring manager’s hat when you review your application package
When I started sending out resumes in reply to job ads, the primary question that I asked was: “Why is this a good company for me?” I looked through the list of required qualifications, and if I had most of them I put a resume and cover letter together, where I tried to impress the hiring manager with my skills and publications.
What I did right, was that I tailored each application package to a specific position, but the problem was that I did not read through my resume and cover letter with the eyes of a hiring manager. As I had never worked in industry before, I envisioned the hiring manager carefully reading through my entire application package and giving me a call after being impressed with my list of accomplishments.
Once I worked in industry, I realized that the hiring process worked a little differently. Scientific publications, honors, and degrees from brand-name universities are nice, but employers will only hire you if you can convince them that they can rely on you to help them to bring a product or service to the market. So, the question that I should have been asking is “What is the value that I bring to this company?” It is a subtle difference from “Why is this a good company for me?”, but a crucial one. Unless you can show employers that you will bring tremendous value to their company, they will not hire you.
The starting salary for many PhD level jobs in industry is close to $100,000, and with overhead and benefits you probably cost $200,000 per year to your employer. Does your resume and cover letter show that you can help the company make well over $200,000 in profit in one year? If you have never worked in industry, it will not be possible to give specific examples of how you brought value to a company in the past, but you can still package your academic experience to show that you are creative, take initiative, work well in teams, and have leadership skills.
Specific examples of leadership skills and technical expertise will be much more appreciated by companies than name-dropping famous professors that you have worked for. Most PhD’s put their supervisor’s names on their resumes, but don’t count on the hiring manager being knowing who they are. Even if they did, your supervisor’s accomplishments will not get you a six-figure job.
The 12 deadliest resume mistakes that repel employers
Some of these mistakes are obvious, yet I saw them frequently when I reviewed applications, so use it as a checklist when you go through your application package:
Mistake #1: Typos and grammatical errors – This is the third deadliest resume mistake (the deadliest is a tie between #11 and #12). If you are a perfectionist, this is your time to shine. If you are not, ask a friend to read through it. At the minimum, use your computer’s spelling and grammar checker. Resumes with typos and grammatical errors are not taken seriously, and will probably end up in the recycling bin.
Mistake #2:Not including a cover letter – Your resume only shows the highlights of your career and education. Instead of viewing the cover letter as an extra chore, think of it as your opportunity to explain how you would bring value to the company. Do research on the company and the group, and get as much information about the position as possible from your contact person or recruiter. This way you can show that you understand what skills and expertise they are looking for, and why you are the perfect fit for the position – remember only one person gets the job!
Mistake #3:Using a generic resume and cover letter, instead of tailoring them to your specific audience – Your resume is the first impression that you make on your potential employer, and you need to treat each application package as if it were your first choice. If you don’t, the hiring managers will probably pick up on your lack of clarity and applicable job skills, spelling and grammatical mistakes and they will eliminate you from the hiring process in a heartbeat.
Mistake #4:Not using specific keywords that are mentioned in the job description – In addition to tailoring your resume to each specific company, use the same keywords that they list in the job ads. Many resumes go through HR first and they are not experts in your field. They search resumes by keywords, and resumes with synonymous technical jargon (even if used interchangeably in your field) will not make the cut.
Mistake #5:Making your resume illegible – Hiring managers go through piles of resumes (in addition to their full-time jobs) and you are lucky if your resume gets 30 seconds. Resumes with paragraphs will probably give your reader a headache. Use bullet-points instead, so the hiring manager will understand your skill set in 30 seconds or less. Also, use matching fonts throughout, to make the resume easy on your readers’ eyes.
Mistake #6:Highlighting Duties Instead of Accomplishments – Phrases like “duties included” or “responsibilities included,” do not sound convincing. Also, a generic terms such as “worked in a for protein purification group” does not tell me anything about your qualifications. This is the place where you really need to emphasize your specific skill sets. Use action-words such as “Optimized protein purification process using XYZ method.” To stand out from the crowd, show how you solved a problem with specific examples that demonstrate your technical expertise.
Mistake #7:Your resume is too long, too short, or filled with fluff – Academic CV’s sometimes go on for many pages. Resumes for industry jobs are usually 1-2 pages, but the exact length depends on your specific qualifications. Many PhD’s have enough material for 2 pages, if they have publications (by the way, conference abstracts also count as publications too.) If you don’t have enough for 2 pages, summarize your career history in 1 page. It is better to be succint and highlight qualifications that are relevant for the job, than to try to fill 2 pages with “fluff ” such as “Great team-player”, or “Handles multi-tasking well.”
Mistake #8:A Generic Objective – Most resumes have an objective at the top, which will give hiring managers an idea of what you are looking for. A generic objective such as “Seeking a position that is challenging and advances my career,” is areal turn-off. Instead, use something specific for your field such as “Seeking a scientist position in the pharmaceutical industry to contribute technical expertise and research skills toward supporting drug discovery and development.” Friends or professional contacts can help you draft an objective that is convincing for your particular industry and career level.
Someone straight out a PhD program will have a very different objective than someone who has 5-10 years of industry experience. The good news is that you probably will not need to change your objective on each resume, as long as you are seeking jobs within the same industry sector and for the same types of positions. If you are pursuing research scientist and technical sales positions simultaneously, you will clearly need a different objective for each.
Mistake #9: Applying for a job that you are clearly not qualified for, just because you like the company – Let’s say there is a company that you are really excited about – the research is interesting, the benefits are amazing, and perhaps the commute is fantastic too. Unfortunately, you don’t have the qualifications for the only position they have open at the moment. You might think, “I am a PhD, I can learn anything,” and you apply through a friend for the job.
There are several dangers with this approach. First, you will probably not get the job, because companies are so specific regarding the skill sets that they are looking for. Second, you can only ask your friend so submit so many resumes for you, so if you were not successful the first time around, he/she might be reluctant to submit your resume for you again, as their skin is on the line too. Third, you might leave a bad impression on the company (especially if it is a small one), so if a suitable job opens up, they might not consider your resume a second time around.
CAUTION: There is a BIG difference between not being qualified at all, and not having ALL of the qualifications. The list of qualifications is the company’s wishlist. Most likely none of the candidates will have them all. If you have about half of the qualifications, the job description fits into your area of expertise, and is in line with your career advancement, then you might have a good chance of getting at least an interview with the company. If you apply through a friend or professional contact, ask for their advice whether that position would be a good fit for you.
Mistake #10: Having an unprofessional-sounding email address or incorrect contact information – I recommend using a personal rather than a .edu email address as some recruiters might call you months after you graduate and by that time your university email address might be deactivated. However, be sure to use an email address that sounds professional, preferably using your first and last name, or at least initials, depending on availability. Also, double-check your contact information. Some candidates included an incorrect phone number or email address, which made it nearly impossible for the hiring managers to contact them.
Mistake #11: Revealing confidential information from a previous employer or research group – It is important to give specific examples of your achievements, but there might be certain details which might be confidential, either because they have not been published yet or, in the case of a company, they are still in early development. Revealing confidential information can have very serious (possibly legal) consequences, and employers will certainly not want to hire you if you share confidential information from your previous work experience in your resume.
Mistake #12: Lying on your resume –It happens all the time. However, there is a spectrum. At one extreme a candidate might claim they worked somewhere, where they have not worked at all or at least not for the dates listed. Background checks will quickly reveal if you have been untruthful about dates of employment or your education.
At the other end, a candidate might just “massage” their qualifications, such as claiming to develop a method, when they only had a small contribution to the project. An exaggeration in this form could be revealed when hiring managers contact your references, and realize that you do not have all the qualifications that you claim to have. Or, they might not realize it and actually offer you a job that you are not qualified for. PhDs are usually expected to take leadership roles when they are hired. If your employer hands you responsibilities that you are not qualified for, it can quickly become a very unpleasant situation for all parties involved.
In this competitive job market, looking for a job is a full-time job. Putting together tailored resumes and cover letters for each position is both time and energy-consuming. Your job search will be more successful if you submit fewer, carefully-reviewed applications to jobs that you are qualified for through a personal contact, than to spew out 50-100 applications through the internet hoping that one of them will get you an interview – the chances are slim to none.
For more details on how to optimize your job application package and succeed in your job interview, see my previous articles:
What were your biggest challenges when you put your resumes together? If you have reviewed resumes from other people, what suggestions do you have for current job applicants? Please be specific as we have readers from all over the world who are HUNGRY for job-seeking advice.
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In the USA, PhD ABD is ludicrous only to the arrogant academic. PhD ABD gives very important information to non-academic employers. Namely, it signals rigorous training in the production of knowledge process, as attested by passing qualifying exams necessary for Candidacy. By definition Candidacy attests one has the tools to endeavor in that process; i.e., dissertation project. A Master's degrees' objective is different: it is training in specialized analysis. A distinction in title to reflect the distinction in training is therefore appropriate.
PhD ABD also signals that one has chosen to work in the productive sector v. in Academia. Plenty of reasons to make that choice!
Whether someone left the PhD program due to their inability to complete the dissertation/coursework successfully or their free choice is very easy to tease out (e.g., in an interview process, via transcripts showing performance, etc.).
So to the orthodox I say: be more open-minded. Show nuanced discernment. Note that your fundamentalism is against Academia's core mission!
In the end, a PhD ABD who knew he/she was in the wrong place and cut their losses is much better off (economically, and arguably socially and psychologically) than a 7-year frustrated post-doc that can sign PhD after their name! Due to structural problems in higher-ed that is where most PhDs land. The people vilifying the PhD ABD in pejorative terms here and elsewhere sound like the latter trying to prove that although they are unhappy, at least "they did not fail" like the PhD ABD.
As a PhD ABD I can attest that could not be further than the truth! I am much happier with my lot! One, by the way, which most people call remarkably successful!
Yours truly, M.M., PhD ABD