We’ve spoken with hundreds of CS PhDs about their job searches and what they’d do differently if they could do it again. Here are the top 6 takeaways.
#1 Expect your search to take more time than you expect
The #1 thing we’ve heard from recent CS PhD grads & post-docs: don’t underestimate how time-consuming and distracting recruiting can be - especially while you are trying to complete your PhD writing research projects, your thesis, preparing your defense, and graduating.
Recruiting is so mentally distracting that attempting to do PhD work during this time will likely be unproductive. The smarter strategy is to block out an entire month or a few weeks to solely focus on recruiting and do the same for finishing your PhD.
On the whole - if you already have strong connections to companies (likely from your lab or a previous internship), expect the job search to take 2-4 months. If you don’t have connections like these, expect the job search to take closer to 5-6 months.
We write in depth about having the right expectations and the costs of not here.
#2 Connections are more critical than you realize
40% of all hires that a company makes come from employee referrals, yet only 7% of their applications come from referrals. While it can feel easier to apply to jobs online, it’s actually 5x more effective to network and get a referral into the company.
Referrals also enable you to get hired 34% faster than applying via a job board or company’s career site.
However - many PhDs don’t have much of an industry network - so, how do you build one?
First - if you’ve been able to do industry internships, make sure to keep in touch with your manager and other senior individuals on the team. If you want to return to that company they’ll be able to help you start the process – and many of them will eventually move onto other companies so they can help you get in the door there, too.
Second - there does not need to be a job opening for you to build a connection with someone inside the company. There is generally a 3 to 6 month lag between a business need for a hire and a job opening posted. This means you can identify jobs that are open but not posted yet by building connections first. Reach out and have conversations with people whose careers seem interesting or whose research you’ve followed.
Third - expand your network by researching the teams behind the papers you are reading and connect with them online (through LinkedIn or by finding their email on their website). The top conferences (NeurIPS and ICML) are also excellent opportunities to make in person connections with teams and managers.
#3 Apply broadly so you have multiple offers
Many PhDs job search with the hope that they find the dream company they are passionate about. This can lead to what researcher Fobazi Ettarh calls “Vocational Awe” - where we put a certain career or job on a pedestal and, along the way, ignore red flags or give the company more loyalty than we need to.
In reality, looking for jobs means you’re entering the labor market – more akin to a transaction than looking for your soulmate.
Getting too attached to a specific company early on in your job search leads PhD grads to make irrational decisions – and not explore the full set of options available to them. Not only does this mean likely missing out on interesting job opportunities, but you also lower your
BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) in the process by focusing too narrowly on one opportunity.
When you applied to college you likely applied to a mix of schools (reach, safety, etc.). Do the same for your job search.
#4 The interview process is a sales pitch
When Robin Hui interviewed at Zoox for his first job out of MIT graduate school, he found all of the technical interview challenges interesting and fun so he accepted an offer there. He ended up leaving shortly after joining because the full time role was completely different from what he thought it would be.
Company interview processes are optimized to make you think that if you’re a good fit for them, they will be a good fit for you. The reality is that the interview process is a manicured representation of the company.
They are selling you, and - if you want to be confident you can stay in the role for a few years - it’s important for you to see past this to get important information.
Here are some questions to ask during the interview process to learn more about what it’s actually like to work there full-time:
- What work don’t team members enjoy doing?
- Where is the company struggling or unsuccessful?
- Where is there conflict or issues within the team you’d be joining?
- (To ask peers) What are the manager’s weaknesses? What differences do they have with the manager?
In short - you should be interviewing the company as much as the company is interviewing you. Here’s a blog post with more resources on how to do a reverse interview.
It’s easy to be misled by the exciting and interesting problems, vision, or culture a company shares during the interview process. In reality you should evaluate the company’s traction, your manager, and the team. Ultimately your manager dictates what you work on so the way to optimize for projects and satisfaction is to first select a good manager!
#5 Timing is critical. Manage your interview schedule.
Many of the PhDs we spoke to regretted not better managing their interview timelines – either by changing interview dates or slowing down the process.
Companies prioritize their interview order based on their preference of candidate and you should do the same.
Effective management of interview timelines allows you to pass more of your interviews, end up with more offers (and therefore more options for your career!), and put yourself in a better position to negotiate a great offer.
As an example - interviewing is a skill that you get significantly better at with practice. If you start interviewing with your top-choice company first - you’re less likely to get through the process than after you’ve already been interviewing with other companies for a few weeks.
You should also be aware that smaller companies are more able to accelerate interview processes than large tech companies so you should always start interviewing with bigger companies first (unless you’re just using an interview to practice).
We write in more depth about how to manage your interview schedule here.
#6 Negotiations start earlier than you think
Most CS PhDs believe that negotiations with a company begin once you receive a job offer. The reality is that recruiters are negotiating with you from the moment you apply – for example you might be asked for your salary expectations as early as your first interview.
Throughout the interview process they are collecting information about your BATNA and what sort of offer you might be willing to accept and then use that information to negotiate at the offer stage.
Be aware as you search!
Conclusion: Beware of the unknown unknowns!
Recruiting for full time jobs is a (just about) full-time process that for new graduates often has a lot of unknown unknowns. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and the earlier you start, the less stressful and more successful the process will be!
Here are more insights on how to run a job search from PhD to industry we recommend several blog posts: