I have a PhD and can’t get a job! What’s wrong?
When I finished my PhD, I jumped into a long drought of unemployment.
A family friend who heard I had left school very kindly offered me a job. The job was to be a general laborer on a construction site. I was living in my parents’ basement at the time and didn’t have any direction for my degree, and I considered it.
I listened as he gave me the description of the job: “You’ll have to clean up the equipment and make sure the signs are in place. You’d be doing a lot of independent work, putting up silt fences, manual labor, digging, stuff like that.”
I was almost in tears.
This was what it had come to. In desperation, I was considering a construction job that paid $16 an hour. I thought, surely this couldn’t be all that there is? Tell me my story doesn’t end like this!
It didn’t, and I ultimately turned the job down and chased something better. But, without a doubt, it was one of my points of employment rock bottom. I’d done a PhD, and it seemed like all I could do was to get a job that I could have gotten with a high-school diploma.
I meet a lot of PhDs who are in EXACTLY the place I was in. If you’re here right now, you know what I’m talking about. You’re unemployed with no direction. You are desperately hoping for someone to come and help you, but it feels like nobody will. If you have a PhD and can’t get a job, it seems that your best options are things like being a laborer, waiting tables, or answering phones.
Worst of all is the feeling of being alone. It’s feeling like you CAN rebuild your life, but not knowing where to start and feeling like you have nobody to talk to.
If this is you, I’ve been in your shoes. I understand what it’s like.
Here are the first four steps to take to change your life.
1. Change your mindset
Yes, I feel like a self-help guru here. And I’ll get you to some more “actionable” steps below.
Here’s why I think your mindset is vital.
PhDs get beat up when they go through an advanced degree. In some cases, a person who is ironically referred to as a “mentor” shreds their confidence. After years of being taught that they’re complete idiots in the academy, and being made to feel worthless by the death of a thousand cuts—not least of which is being paid peanuts for adjunct positions—there’s not much left.
Stepping out of academia into the “real world” and finding that your skills don’t seem to fit anywhere initially seems to confirm what you already believed about yourself: you’re worthless, not good enough to make it in academia, and have nothing to offer the real world either.
I have a PhD and can’t get a job.
Let me tell you something.
Lean in close so you can hear it.
You’re not worthless.
And, to quote Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, it’s not your fault.
You need to light the spark in your soul again. You know, the one that once believed you were great and had amazing things to offer the world.
This isn’t a “law of attraction” thing; I’m not telling you to positive think your way to a career.
But what I am saying is that there’s no way you will do well in building a career if you believe you’re worthless and have nothing to offer.
Every morning, I want you to sit somewhere with a journal, your phone, or something. Write down some things about your future self that you want to see come to pass—in the present tense.
I have a career I love that pays VERY well.
I’m a valuable employee that gets calls from all over the world.
My work pays well, but leaves me lots of time for my kids.
I don’t care what these are, they’re your goals. You get to choose them.
But don’t skip this. I’ve learned over time that change starts in the mind.
Your positive and empowered mind will make you unstoppable. Your defeated mind will make you defeated.
Start empowering your mind first, and the rest of your life will follow.
2. Identify where your skills meet the marketplace
I want you to take a few hours, even a full day if you can, and do a deep dive on LinkedIn. It’s an amazing platform, I can’t say enough about how powerful it is for those who have a PhD and can’t get a job.
This platform alone has everything you need to change your life: the people, the connections, the wisdom, the jobs. (Do create a profile if you don’t have one—I have a guide for that here.)
But for today, I want you to research.
Go find out the types of things that people are being paid to do. I often advise people to type their skills into the search bar at the top of LinkedIn and see which people come up. Go “creep” them and see the type of work they do. Look at their job history. Pay attention to how they talk about themselves and their work.
Start writing down job titles that might fit you. You NEED to figure out something you can do that people will pay for.
This might be research or writing—these are the usual suspects for PhDs. But it might also be stakeholder relations, event management, grant writing, project management. Keep an open mind, and make a list of things that people might way you to do.
Pro Tip. Do try to pay attention to things you think you might love doing. There’s no sense in doing jobs because you can, at least in the long term. Start to build a vision of your future.
3. Talk to 10 people
I talk about networking as being transformational for PhD job-hunting, and I believe it is.
But when I say networking, I don’t mean handing out business cards, or going to sketchy “networking events.”
I mean talking to 10 people. That’s it.
Over the course of the next 2 months, I want you to set this big, audacious goal.
Talk to 10 people who are doing something you find interesting. These will be the beginning of your network. Most of us don’t have powerful networks. We need to build them from scratch.
It will take a lot of confidence to reach out to them and ask for their time, and perhaps a little bit of humility too.
Here are 8 ways to find people to talk to:
- -Ask a prof you work with for a recommendation. Some profs have great networks outside of the academy.
- Contact the career center at your school to see if they have events or connections they could give you.
- Try your school’s alumni network, which will have both local events and listings of people who might be interesting.
- When you search on LinkedIn, reach out to connect to the interesting people you find. Send a note explaining that you’re a new grad trying to find your direction.
- Join a LinkedIn group for PhDs. This could be the Roostervane group, or one of the many others dedicated to PhDs. NOW—let me say, having run a group, that the conversation of the group is limited by the LinkedIn algorithm. Activity in groups doesn’t always show up in users’ news feeds. The better option is just to look at the group members and connect with those you find interesting.
- Talk to family, friends, and anybody else you already know about what they do. Ask lots of questions.
- Talk to people in public! If it’s your thing. I have kids, so I often strike up conversations with other parents at the park, asking about what they do. If you want to be really strategic, go to parks in the wealthy areas of your town. (If you don’t have kids, replace this with the dog park, church, a special-interest club, or any other place you can meet humans.)
- Follow interesting people on Twitter, Instagram, or another social platform—especially if they’re local. See if they’d be a good fit, and message them! Tell them you love their work and you’re curious about what they do.
4. Ask each of those ten people for advice on how to get hired
I made a list of informational interview questions you absolutely should ask them when you talk to them!
But one of the best would always be, “What advice do you have for someone trying to get to where you are?”
They’ll tell you instantly where to go. People in positions understand how to get there. They know where the gatekeepers are.
They’ll tell you if you need to take another course. They’ll tell you if there’s a certain person you need to talk to. They’ll know, for example, that their company always uses a certain job bank or looks for certain keywords on their resumes.
Best of all, they might keep you in mind for future opportunities. When their employer goes looking for someone to hire, there’s a much better chance that your name will go to the top of the list.
So right now you have a PhD and can’t get a job. Can I make a prediction? I predict that if you take these steps, you will have some serious traction on your career. If you do this, it will change your life.
But let me tell you one more thing.
Today, the problem is that you have a PhD and can’t get a job.
Once you get that first job, I want you to think a little bigger. Don’t stumble through your life and career. Roostervane is not about getting jobs, believe it or not. It’s about building a career with purpose.
So go get a job. But never stop building a bigger vision for your life and chase that.