PhD Stuck in dead-end first industry job. Options?

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PhD Stuck in dead-end first industry job. Options?

Postby PPY » Tue Sep 27, 2016 12:30 am


2 years ago, I moved from a barely-2-years-old post-doc into an industry job. The job was not ideal, but it was the only thing I had then, and I looked at it as a foot-in-the-door opportunity.
Now, I think accepting this job offer was the worst mistake of my professional life. It seems I have pigeon-holed myself into a non-scientific, operational, manufacturing-focused role which I feel is slowly closing doors on me. For the record my current compensation is a-ok, work environment is decent and I have no major non-technical complaints.

On the negative, I'm not really doing science (I know it sounds romantic, but it's technically true) and have to drag myself to work every day. On the positive, I'm getting "industry experience" and "people-management skills" (which I personally don't care about, but may be considered assets for future employers)

I have 2 questions:

1- What are my options to get out?
2- Is time spent at a "bad fit" (how some interviewers later referred to my current job) an issue in future positions? Basically does staying longer diminish my chances of "escape"?

I can think of the following options:

(1) Wait for the next best opportunity at the same level, in the right field: I have had 2 in-person interviews at other companies, one at my current company(lateral move to a different technical field), and some phone interviews here and there, but nothing panned out.

(2) Go back to another post-doc: I left my post-doc without a first-author paper, and hence, I don't have solid proof that I know some of the things I claim to know on my resume. The aim with this option would be to gain hard skills.

(3) Quit and start over somewhere else as a contractor (i.e. take an associate level job): This is similar to (2), but perhaps looks less desperate on my resume. We have quite a number of PhDs as contractors in RA/SRA level roles in my current company. The goal here would be career trajectory correction.

(4) ?

I'd appreciate some feedback from people who have had a longer experience in industry than me and perhaps seen how these moves can affect one's long-term career.
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Re: PhD Stuck in dead-end first industry job. Options?

Postby Ana » Tue Sep 27, 2016 7:20 am


Going back to a postdoc after having successfully transitioned out of that career stage is not a good option.

Even if your don’t particularly care about them you are right to highlight that your current position will be regarded as industry experience and people/management/organizational skills that are often either not present or not so clearly documented in academic trainees, so it is a plus.

I think for most of us what you describe is going to happen at different stages in our careers. Feeling you don’t like your job anymore and you pretty much need to drag yourself to your workplace every day. That doesn’t mean you have made a mistake, it is just part of life. And the way out of it is not to run back to a postdoc but to move on to something that turn into a story about moving forward. And I will elaborate on that story aspect.

You say some interviewers have called your current job a "bad fit". That tells me you are probably not telling your story the right way. See, the same reality can be framed in different ways and depending on how you tell your story people will get the perception that you are on a professional journey, growing and exploring different areas, or that you got stuck on a bad fit job. Beyond telling your story to people, for example to get a job, it is also important how you are telling the story to yourself. Framing our reality in different way can change not only the decisions that we make but how happy we feel about our own life.

In your posts back in 2014 you already feared you would be pigeon-holing yourself into a dead end position (current one). I think you should be able to reframe that. I’ve seen so many career transitions, some times multiple ones in the same person, that I don’t believe there is such thing as having closed all options for career change. You need to challenge those assumptions and see where the value of your postdoc and your industry jobs is, and how it could connect you to your desired position.

Do you know that situation when a person is thinking that their problems have no solutions and their friends see it very differently? part of it is because we tend to underestimate the difficulty of change when we are not going through it, granted, but part of it is because we can create that mental idea of what our life/problems look like and fail to see a lot of the things others can see. So my recommendation would be to talk to people, as much as you can, and get their perspective on your career so far and possible options. I think you need to challenge your current limiting beliefs on your career and that’s the best way to do it.

One of my colleagues when I worked in industry became a good friend of mine and my favourite one to bounce my worries on her. That’s because I’m very emotional and tend to worry, while she is very pragmatic and analytical, so she often saw the same situation from a totally different angle. At times that made me change my decisions, at times it didn’t, but every single time it helped me see that things are not white and black and that there are more options and ways to looking at it that I can imagine.

I think my post turned out more psychological than you were looking for so I hope it still helps you. Can I recommend you a book? it is called “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work” and based on how you are framing your career decisions I think it would be of great help.

Good luck,

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Re: PhD Stuck in dead-end first industry job. Options?

Postby D.X. » Tue Sep 27, 2016 7:42 am


Perhaps you can explain a bit more about what you're doing, but I agree with Ana's Points. Talk to others it is easy to feel the way you do and to be honest you'll feel that disconnect from science as you move up the ladder and that's most functions. As you move up the People Management part becomes more in scope and you'll have to be happy some some form of top-Level Expertise/exposure overtime.

In the short-term try to map out within your organization if there are opportunities to get more development or process optimization experience on the manufacturing side - in the short-term it may bring you back to some scientific mindset or way of thinking that you're looking to acheive, i agree some manufacturing jobs can become very repetitive and non-stimulating over time. If not in QA try that, it may seem Routine but you may have some interest chasing that reason for an out of specification or other Quality issue. You can also see if there are any Company boards/Task forces where you can serve as deputy and represent your function. You may not get what you want but you can get exposed to other functions and subject matter, i.e. regulatory, drug supply, technical production etc. where you can start building internal Networks and subsequently leverage them.

Outside of that do a map of your interest and then see how you can get there, I agree with Ana, post-doc does not make sense however not to say that may there something academia if they are doing any form of manufacturing Research with industry collaborations then maybe. but expert here.

Good luck.

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Re: PhD Stuck in dead-end first industry job. Options?

Postby PG » Tue Sep 27, 2016 10:38 am

Do you know what your long term goals are? Being in a job that you dont want to be in is of course not a good situation but the question is where do you want to go and how do you get there?

In general I agree with previous posters, going backwards in your career is usually not a good option, going to another postdoc after a two year postdoc is also usually not a good idea if it can be avoided so I would strongly advice to try to stay away from your option 2.

Option 1 seems like the obvious choice but as you say if you are in a role that is completely wrong as compared to what you want to do at some Point it will start hurting your chances. Still it is usually easiest to move laterally within a company as compared to for example getting an industry position from academia.

For option 3 I think that it depends on what type of position you can find. This doesnt necessarily mean that you need to find a position that is a step down from your current position or degree. There are plenty of contractors that work as Project leaders or in various technical Consulting roles that may be more in line with your future career goals.

Other options are dependent on your future career goals.
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Re: PhD Stuck in dead-end first industry job. Options?

Postby Dave Walker » Tue Sep 27, 2016 1:36 pm

I think there is good advice here from all perspectives. One thing I didn't notice in your post: what is your ultimate dream job? What would you really, actually like to do?

Instead of negative things (what's not working), can you think different (what do you like doing)?

Second, do you have enough experience to get to that job from here? If not, consider a career move into something that will get you some of that experience. Dave Jensen once said each new job on your career path should be a step closer to where you want to be if you can't reach there from here.

Finally, I see a big tell that other interviewers refer to your current role as a "bad fit." It sounds like you are not putting yourself in the best possible light, which hiring managers are very attuned to. The good news is that this is just a perspective thing that you can change.

I think Ana's point of us all being in your shoes is a really good one. It doesn't signal the end of the world or that you should be fired. It is a great time to get back in touch with the things that you most like to do.
"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder
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Re: PhD Stuck in dead-end first industry job. Options?

Postby RSD » Tue Sep 27, 2016 7:04 pm


I was in your position recently: 2 year postdoc, then a couple years in an industry job that was less than ideal, and offering little room for growth. I recommend taking option 4: don't wait for the next best opportunity, but actively pursue any and all opportunities that will lead you to your preferred job/career track. I applied to job postings, networked with former colleagues and recruiters, and pursued internal job transfers before eventually accepting an offer on my preferred career track.

Take a lateral move if it gets you closer to where you want to be, but I think moving back to a postdoc or to a associate level job would be a huge mistake.
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Re: PhD Stuck in dead-end first industry job. Options?

Postby PPY » Wed Sep 28, 2016 12:04 am

Thank you all for the feedback.

The reason for my unhappiness in the current role is exactly that quote from Dave Jensen (Thank you Dave Walker! I've been quoting it but didn't remember where I saw it): My current role is taking me very far from my ideal job, which is a traditional scientist role, i.e. lead a small group and work on certain problems, in a specific field I like. The key here is research and troubleshooting, not turning a wheel. One thing to note is that when I joined, the career trajectory deviated slightly from my dream job (the specific field I wanna be in). But after a reorganization wherein I became a manager, I was put to do something I absolutely have no interest and (worst) experience in. This is where I'm stuck at right now.

My complaints are NOT due to the (expected) routine of a job you do day in and day out, it's about not doing something that gets me closer to my dream job.

During the interviews I went to, I got the feeling (albeit very slightly) that my PhD/Post-Doc experience was good enough to get me the in-person interview, but fell short of landing me the job when in competition with peers. That's one reason I was thinking about a (preferably industry) post-doc or RA/SRA/contract jobs: Getting that last bit of training. In brief, I (claim) I know computational and experimental approaches in a certain field, but I'm master of none, and don't have hard proof for the latter.

I agree with rephrasing my current role in a more positive way to tell a story, but till now that story has been around why I'm leaving my current job. I'll think more about how to rephrase it in a more positive way, and welcome any general insights.


Thank you for sharing your experience. I am certainly following all options (except for RA/SRA-level contracts and postdoc) to try to get out. My only worry is that this takes time (there is a limited number of positions opening every day) and by considering re-training at the RA/SRA/post-doc levels, I can perhaps be a stronger candidate for when the perfect fit is available. In addition, if these options are not deal-breakers (which the consensus here suggests post-doc is), they put more "shots" in my "shotgun" approach.
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Re: PhD Stuck in dead-end first industry job. Options?

Postby PG » Wed Sep 28, 2016 2:55 am

Based on what your goals are my suggestion would be to stay in the position you have until you find something else but importantly you cant just wait for something to show up or only apply for advertised positions. Instead you need to take an active role trying to network your way either to a new position within the company you are currently working for since they sound like a good company to work for or with another company. In addition to looking at roles within research and development you might want to look at for example failure investigations or groups that sustain/support products already on the market ie groups within the company that works with solving problems but not necessarily developing new Products. Many companies also have groups that are specialised in for example transferring Products from Research and development into manufacturing. Finding one of these roles that are somewhat in between classical R&D position and a manufacturing/QC position that you might be in now might be easier than going into R&D directly and may also provide what you are looking for.

When you look at other companies it is often easier to move to a smaller, less known Company. They usually have at least a harder time finding staff as compared to well known companies and are often willing to compromise a bit more on the requirements for a certain position.

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