Just under two years ago I finished my PhD studies and wanted to move from academia into industry, which meant that I needed to find a new job. In this blog post I would like to describe what I learned during this journey because I have seen many friends and colleagues repeating the same mistakes I had done myself. A small disclaimer: the context is looking for a job (that requires at least a master’s degree) in Sweden, but some tips are also usable for other types of work and in other countries.
I started naively. I thought that my CV alone would be interesting enough to get me invited to interviews. I have both specific technical knowledge and the ability to take a step back from the details and view the bigger picture. During my PhD studies I learned how to present (both in writing and orally, both with technical detail and from a high level), how to work with very diverse people, how to work in a team that is geographically distributed, how to think critically etc. In addition, I have some achievements that I considered would make me stand out from the other candidates – I have lived in two countries, I can speak three languages with business proficiency (in addition to having passive knowledge of one more language) and I have a pilot license. I was aware that some employers might not recognize the value of having a PhD (“It is just more studying.”), but I was not interested in such employers anyway. I had a base version of my CV and cover letter, which I slightly tweaked for each job application, but did not invest too much effort into this because I thought they were good enough.
I rarely heard back after applying. Luckily for me, even before I realized that I needed help, I had enrolled into a program with Trygghetsstiftelsen (TSN) – a government organization that provides support for people who lost their job in the public sector (PhD students working at universities are, of course, employees in the public sector). This support included useful seminars and getting help from a job coach. With the knowledge I got at the seminars I tweaked my academic CV for industry, made an inventory of all my relevant skills and improved my LinkedIn profile. I also learned that only about 10% of the available jobs are publicly advertised, the rest are reachable exclusively by networking.
My job coach was a former recruiter and the advice I got from her was invaluable. I learned that a CV is usually browsed for about 7 to 15 seconds before deciding whether a candidate is suitable. The cover letter is only looked at if the CV was interesting. This means that you have to make it easy for the recruiter to understand why you are the right person for the job. Be brief and to the point. But also, do not forget to include personal information in the CV. Remember, the cover letter will only be checked if the CV is interesting on its own, and the recruiter needs to get an understanding of you as a professional and as an individual in less than 15 seconds. For an attractive job opening, you will be one of more than a hundred applicants, which means that the competition is fierce and you need to stand out. A good way to stand out (and sometimes the only way to get invited to an interview) is calling the recruiter and/or the future manager. During the call you should briefly motivate why you are the right person for the job and ask one or two intelligent questions. The point is that the recruiter remembers you. Once they go through the CVs, when reaching your CV hopefully they will remember the call and think “this was a nice person, I would like to interview her/him”. A good trick is to say “I hope you have had the chance to look at my CV” during the call, which will usually get the recruiter to reach for your CV immediately. One of my job coach’s colleagues had a simple heuristic – those who call would be invited to an interview. This might sound unfair, but recruiters do not have time to thoroughly review all the CVs they receive, and they are not necessarily looking for the best candidates to invite for an interview, but are instead happy with those that are good enough.
My job coach also helped me realize what kind of jobs would fit me, which made me broaden the search considerably compared to the limited set of jobs and companies I had considered when I started. If you are a member of a union, typically you get three hours of job coach support per year. Take this opportunity. I had no idea how useful and motivating it would be to talk to a job coach. Even if the only option to get a job coach is to pay out of your own pocket, do it, it is very well invested money.
In the end, here is a bonus tip for PhD students. There is no need to stress with looking for work at the same time as you are finishing your PhD thesis. Write the thesis in peace, defend it and then look for work. TSN has you covered with seminars and job coaching, but also financially – you get the base part of the unemployment allowance from your a-kassa (just remember that you have to opt for an a-kassa, there is no default protection), but TSN tops up the difference to the amount that corresponds to roughly 80% of your salary. For those working in the private sector, Trygghetsrådet is the equivalent of TSN there (just be careful, not all companies are covered by Trygghetsrådet).
This was just a brief summary, I only scratched the surface with the most important advice. There are great Web pages with tips on how to write a good CV and cover letter, how to call recruiters, how to network to find the job openings that are not publicly announced, how to use LinkedIn to look for work etc. Of course, getting invited to an interview is only the first step, but for me it turned out to be much more difficult than I had thought, which is why I chose to focus only on that part in this blog post. Mastering interviews is a science in its own, but a good way to get better at interviews is to get invited to many of them :-). Good luck in looking for work, I hope my advice will be useful!