May 8, 2020 | High-Flyers

High-flyers: While working with academics planning their first post-PhD jobs in the industry, one pattern comes back over and over again: the more of high-flyers is in academic terms, the more difficulties they have when looking for first jobs outside academia.

Jobs for PhDs Who Fly High: Do High-Flyers Experience Difficulties When Transitioning to Industry?

Industry jobs for PhDs – is it the same difficult for every PhD graduate to land them? While working with academics looking for their first post-PhD jobs in the industry, one pattern comes back. Namely, the more of high-flyers is in academic terms, the more difficulties they have when looking for jobs outside academia. 

On the contrary, the underdogs are usually much quicker and far more successful in crafting their career paths. Namely, those who are nowhere near that accomplished, disrespected by their bosses and considered poor performers in academic terms, all of a sudden blossom in industry. 

There are multiple reasons for this phenomenon. This blog posts lists eight of them. Hopefully, you can avoid these mental traps. If you feel like being a high-flyer, check through the list below. Some of these points might apply to you, and make the process of looking for jobs in industry much harder. Better prevent than heal!

1. Singularity

Research-wise, investigating your own mind is a form of a singularity. You just can’t be fully objective about yourself. If you have an academic education, you have probably developed a very systematic approach to problems. Such an approach helps in almost any area of life. However, it has one serious downside: assessing yourself becomes even harder. Namely, you’ll suffer from many confounders throughout the process. You will sabotage yourself and struggle with a ton of cognitive errors. So, if you have analytic mind, this might be a path through pain.

For this reason, many high-achievers postpone the necessity to think about their future for as long as they possibly can. They procrastinate job search and focus on more tangible problems related to their current research activities instead. They just don’t feel comfortable about approaching a question that can’t be answered using the scientific rigor: statistics and control condition.

High-flyers: Research-wise, investigating your own mind is a form of a singularity: you can’t be fully objective about yourself. If you have an academic education, it probably also means that you developed a very systematic approach to problems. Such a systematic approach helps in almost any area of life. But, it also has one serious downside: assessing yourself becomes even harder.

2. Comfort Zone

If you are in your comfort zone — in a place where you feel safe and sound — your mind might try to persuade you to stay. Even if you know that this solution won’t work for you forever – as at some point, your opportunities will dry out.. Even when you know that it not healthy for you in the long run… When your intuition tells you that there is some career path out there that might be even better for you… You still feel tempted to stay.

Our brains are hardwired to execute rudimentary, life-preserving actions such as eating, sleeping, or proliferating. Everything extra naturally causes fear. As a consequence, high-flyers are tempted to stay in the known environment. They need to win a huge internal battle before they take a step outside. 

As a result, they are extremely ambivalent and undecided about trying something else. Unlike them, the underdogs are aware that they need to go. There is no room for them to stay in academia. As a consequence, they are much more committed to the job search than the high-flyers. Unfortunately, job search requires lots of active effort and it requires full commitment for you to get good results. This is why any degree of ambivalence will work against you.

3. No Stop-Loss

Moreover, if you have achievements in some area, leaving that area feels like wasting all you have achieved so far. It just feels like a regress. After all, we all desire to feel important, accomplished, and influential in some area (as discussed in the blog post entitled “What Motivates You?“). If we feel accomplished in the academic community, why look for something else?

So, if you already have some achievement under your belt, you have a strong desire to continue in the same direction. In this situation, you might tend to ignore obvious “stop” signals such as statistics working against you. You might even ignore the fact that your ultimate goal (i.e., a full Professor position in STEM sciences) has many downsides. And that, in fact, it’s very far from what you could call a dream job.

4. No SWOT Analysis

Since they have always been praised, high-flyers usually don’t think too often about their weaknesses. While exploring your weaknesses is the key to avoid problems as a professional in the open job market. In academia, high-flyers managed to find jobs where they could exploit their strengths and thrive. They no longer need to think about how to survive in their working environment. 

When it comes to finding a job in industry, this lack of self-knowledge comes to the surface and backfires. Some high-flyers simply had the beginner’s luck while choosing their first working environment and got it right for the time being. Now, they assume that finding the right job is easy and choose the “happy go lucky” strategy. They apply for random positions hoping that they will magically find themselves in the right working culture again. Which often doesn’t happen.

5. Unfocused CV

To become an achiever in academic terms, you need to combine your analytic abilities with social and networking skills. Although this combination is valued in academia, it might be highly confusing to industry recruiters. While reading your resume, recruiters always attempt to imagine the person behind it. They might have an issue with classifying you as a professional based on your academic CV shortened into a resume format. 

In industry, there is no such category as “jobs for PhDs.” As a degree holder, you need to fit to the landscape of offered positions. Your academic title doesn’t matter to recruiters. Most positions are either management or specialistic. The recruiter aims to find a “safe” candidate who best fits the desired profile. Mishirings are very costly to companies. 

Therefore, they would rather go for a person who is a safe choice rather than put their bets on someone might be a loose cannon. Namely, someone who is clearly smart but might not mentally fit the position or be unfocused. So, while reading a resume composed of hard and soft skills 50/50, recruiters might have an issue with classifying the candidate and eventually give up on that person.

High-flyers: To become an achiever in academic terms, you need to combine your analytic abilities with social and networking skills. Although this combination is valued in academia, it might be highly confusing to industry recruiters.

6. Idealistic View of the World

Academia (a.k.a. the ivory tower) is a sort of a Shaolin monastery in which you are supposed to get trained for life. In a monastery, the most committed  (or, the most undistracted) monks are appreciated and rewarded. As they are the most focused on their practice, they will achieve the greatest level of personal development and reach enlightenment. The same holds in academia. Namely, the focus is highly appreciated. Those who commit to the academic lifestyle are often the same detached from the outer world as Shaolin monks.

Unfortunately, this detachment can cause that real-world life will feel like a cultural shock. As of now, you will need to learn a few things about the real world. Firstly, the ultimate goal of almost any project is to make profits. Secondly, there is a lot of under-the-table business going on (much more than in academia!). Thirdly, most people won’t reveal their true intentions. Lastly, it’s not the most hard-working people who climb the ladder in large companies and organizations to the top. Plus, the world is not just. It won’t necessarily reward you for being focused and committed to the cause.

On the contrary, academics who were less focused on their research usually have a more realistic view of the world. Those who developed side-hobbies, took care of their free time, and kept friends from outside academia during their academic career, know what life is all about and what to expect in industry. Subsequently, they adapt to the new environment outside academia much faster. 

7. Overconfidence

High-flyers often have a deep feeling of self-value. Don’t take it wrong: in general, it’s good to be self-confident. It’s good to develop your own, internal sense of value independent from what other people say. The problem starts when the high perceived self-value is not associated with any particular plan. It’s about the attitude, “I don’t know what I am going to do next but find me a job with a paycheck of 100k per year because I’m worth it.” Some high-flyers don’t even feel the need to do any introspection. They think that if they will list their achievements in their resume, the dream job will find them by itself. No, it won’t!

8. Strong Association With Jobs

High-flyers typically have a strong association with their jobs. People who do well in academia are often mentally close to their job. They live and breathe what they do. And, they are always prepared to voluntarily trade a lot of their free time to do more research. Research is the first thing they think about in the morning and the last thing they think about in the evening. In industry, it’s often hard to find an environment where everyone around you has that specific attitude to their job. In most working environments, people close the door behind at 5 pm and forget about working. This cultural clash can lead to lots of frustration.

It also means that the time necessary to find the right working environment for academic high-flyers is longer than for people who are mentally distant from their jobs and need to “have life” beyond their jobs. It’s great to have a close connection with your job. However, you need to remember that it will increase your job search time. While most high-flyers believe that “it will all be fine” and postpone their job search till the very last moment.

Jobs For PhDs Who Fly High: Should You Be Worried?

So, if you are an achiever as a PhD, should you worry? Not necessarily. It’s all about being conscious that employers don’t want PhDs but rather, the PhD holders. Your title and the academic achievements won’t matter as much as your genuine motivation to do the job, and the skills you bring with you. And, while transitioning to industry, you need to make up your mind and close the door behind. It’s time to go forward with your life instead of deliberating “what if.” There is new life ahead of you, and everything will be fine.

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Please cite as: Bielczyk, N. (2020, May 8th). High-Flyers. Retrieved from

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Please also check out our other articles dedicated to:

General Principles of Self-navigating in the Job Market


The Job Market for PhD Graduates

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