The secret to an effective job search for PhDs

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Have you been sending out hundreds of job applications?

Do you apply to any job that you are remotely qualified for?

You are doing the job search wrong.

The key to an effective job search is to know what you want!

This is not an easy task – you have probably spent the vast majority of your life training yourself, however very little (if any) of that training was aimed at what career you should pursue and would be happy in.

As an individual with a PhD, you are uniquely suited to a myriad of careers for both humanities and STEM scientists, from consulting, tech transfer, science communication, publishing and research & development. You possess many transferable skills, from project management to the ability to perform critical and analytical analysis. Given that there is such a large amount of choices out there for you – it can be very difficult to identify which career you actually want.

Your post-PhD job search is like dating, although in many ways dating may be easier! 

When you are on the dating market, you likely have already had a few partners in your life, you know what you don’t like and perhaps what you are really looking for. The hard work is in finding someone who has more good qualities that you desire then bad (obviously no-one is perfect!). A job search requires both these steps: you need to identify what you want to do and then find a job that fits those parameters.

Know thyself.

What do you want out of life?

Do you want a steady 9-5 job?

Are you really interested in translational research?

Do you hate working with other people?

To identify the best career path for you, you need to do an in depth, personal evaluation of yourself. What are you really good at? What do you absolutely hate? What inspires and excites you? Regardless of the career path, if you love what you do, you will likely be happier with your job and life and may be more successful in your career. To help you identify your personal likes and dislikes, there are many online tools geared specifically to PhDs! Tufts University has its own version of an Independent Development Plan but many others exist, such as the Science Careers IDP. These programs survey you on what you love and hate and the Science Careers IDP can also suggest potential career paths that you may enjoy based on your answers.

Don’t get me wrong – this is a difficult process. The more honest you are about yourself, the better the matches will be. Do you really like being at the bench? Do you enjoy managing people? Writing? You need to really evaluate yourself – no-one else can answer these questions.

Test the waters

 Once you have a list of several career paths, you should identify if that is really what you want to do.  The best way to do this is by talking to people in those career paths through informational interviews. This is a type of interview where you ask a person in the career you want what their job is like, how they got there and identify how best to position yourself to be in their shoes (some great questions are tips can be found here). This is NOT an opportunity to ask for a job. NEVER do this. If a job happens

to be available and the person thinks you are a good fit, they may suggest you apply, but never mention it prior to this. You don’t want to give your interviewee the impression that the only reason you wanted to talk to them is because you wanted to beg for a job.

An informational interview also has the added bonus of acting as a networking opportunity. Unlike a networking event where you may chat to someone for a few minutes in a distracting setting, you have the persons’ undivided attention. This gives you a great opportunity for them to get to know you and vice versa. This has the potential to expand your networking circle and improve your success in actually getting a job interview.

Did you know that ~90% of jobs in the USA are given to candidates you are known to someone within the company? In other words, if your application to a particular job is referred to the hiring manager or HR by an internal employee, your chances of being asked for an interview increase exponentially! The informational interview can help give you that in. In addition, at the end of your informational interview, you should ask them for other people you can talk to, thus giving you another person to do an interview with and further expanding your potential network. Also, always remember to send a Thank you note by old-fashioned snail mail in addition to an email. It’s a nice touch and will ensure you are remembered.

How do I find someone to talk to?

This is where networking events are useful. I have previously written about my tips and tricks on how to effectively network but there are many other articles about this online. The key at networking events is: if you are interested in a person you meet, whether it be at a seminar, a networking event or a career development event, feel free to ask them for an informational interview and remember to follow up with them within a day to schedule one! If you don’t get a chance to talk to them during the event, don’t be afraid to email them and ask them anyway!

If you are struggling to find people to interview in your field, use LinkedIn! I suggest first finding people that you have secondary or tertiary connections with and ask your “connector” to introduce you (this is actually a built in LinkedIn feature!). This has the added bonus of letting your LinkedIn friend know that you are interested in talking to people within that career path and they may suggest others you should also contact! If you don’t have any connectors that link to people you want to contact, you can cold LinkedIn email people. I have had very good success with this method but don’t be disappointed if you don’t get a ton of responses. Just be aware that a basic LI profile only allows you to send 5 messages a month!

Although it does take time to identify your dream career and build a network, it will drastically improve your chances of securing a position you actually love and will succeed in. Hiring managers are very wary of people who apply to every position available because that is a sign that you don’t know what you want and may not be happy in the job, suggesting you may not be the most productive employee. Take the time to do some soul searching and land your dream job!


Career Exploration for Ph.D.s in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Disciplines [Columbia University Center for Career Education]

Non-Academic Career Options for PhDs in the Humanities and Social Sciences
[Columbia University Center for Career Education]

Discover the 20+ transferable skills that make PhDs totally employable
[Jobs on Toast]

Tufts University Independent Development Plan (IDP)

Science Careers Independent Development Plan (IDP)

Networking and Informational Interviewing (pdf)
[Tufts University]

How to do the Networking Dance
[Adage of Ania]

This article was originally published on Adage of Ania on the 23rd of July 2015