I got my Physics PhD degree 5 months ago. I have been looking for jobs in Data Science, Machine Learning, and Deep Learning. I did data analysis and machine learning in my PhD; then I went to an AI career bootcamp at NYC and finished a deep learning project in 3 weeks. After that I expected to get jobs very soon. However, I did a few interviews but none of the companies gave me an offer; then I applied to more companies and never heard back. Meanwhile, many of my fellow participants who had little data science / machine learning experience received (more than one) offers.

Then I started to wonder why I (and nerds like me) don't get jobs?

I have more than enough technical skills and learning capacity to handle the jobs. My PhD advisor used to send me a dissertation of a few hundred pages at 5pm and ask me to present it on whiteboard the next day. Usually I can also implement the algorithm within a week.

Even though it is hard to believe that soft skills are far more important than technical skills, it has to be the truth. (I think Einstein said something similar but not about job hunting.)

But the questions are

  • What are soft skills exactly?
  • What does company cultural fit mean?
  • What is the right mindset of a successful candidate?

Unlike clearly defined technical skills, these terms are so vague that nerds cannot understand. There is also a paradox: if I had work experience then I would know these encrypted concepts, but I am looking for my first job.

[Edit: I'm not a jerk. I play well with others. I know the drills of being professional. It's like method acting. The interviewers can still read my thoughts, correctly or not, given that I show them my professionality. How should I prepare my mind to convey the correct subtexts (e.g. confidence, intelligence, friendliness) to the interviewer?]

I'm extremely frustrated by the fact that many technically talented candidates don't get dream jobs. Meanwhile, my saving is running low but the hope of landing a job is rapidly diminishing.

I really need your help...

  • 6
    Some frank feedback: I detect a sense of entitlement. Sure, you worked extremely hard to get a PhD and it's a notable achievement. You're clearly smart, but the interviewers must be seeing something that calls into question whether or not you can play well with others. The best engineers can design a solution AND translate nerd-speak into business-speak. Intrapersonal skills are arguably the most important (and overlooked) skills any corporate employee can cultivate. I've seen genuinely incompetent people in senior positions because they can influence and network...people just like them! – acpilot Jan 27 '19 at 4:07
  • If you browse this site, there is a large amount of concrete questions around job applications, starting from how to reply to emails regarding the application, being early or on time for interviews, about the questions in interviews, how to behave and dress, etc. I feel this question is quite broad. – bytepusher Jan 27 '19 at 4:40
  • Thank you @acpilot I totally agree. The career bootcamp already helped me with my pitch, and I did show my enthusiasm. I did all the "right" things but still it didn't work out. So I'm thinking whether there is something beyond those superficial rules, e.g. nice guys don't get girls but bad boys do. – Machine Jan 27 '19 at 5:08
  • @ChenChao there are many things beyond the superficial rules. Race and gender, for example ( theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/17/… ) play a big part in the UK still, and I can't imagine the USA being any better – Aaron F Jan 27 '19 at 9:09
  • 2
    Some might be offended by the claim that (all) "nerds" can't understand this. – Bernhard Barker Jan 27 '19 at 9:26

I have more than enough technical skills


Even though it is hard to believe that soft skills are far more important than technical skills


I would know these encrypted concepts

Sorry, I'm going to be a bit harsh here. I believe these sentences are indicative of your problem

  1. You think your technical skills are great.
  2. You believe that this is all that's required for the job.
  3. You consider all non-technical skills to be mostly irrelevant and have spent almost no time studying and learning these.

If this happens to be your attitude (which I don't know), then your chances of getting a job are quite low. Effective interview behavior and your search strategies are not "encrypted" at all: It's easily researched and 100s of well written articles have been published about this. Go read some.

Here are some pointers:

  1. You are not getting paid to have skills or do tasks: you are getting paid to produce results. A big part of the interview is about figuring out if you are result oriented. It's great to have examples of results that you achieved that can be measured objectively.
  2. Communication style & skill: a big part of any job is receiving and transmitting information. For example you should be able to explain your thesis in 30s, 2 minutes, or 10 to a technical person and a lay person. That's six different versions of explaining it and you should practice all six and learn when to use which.
  3. Technical skills from academia need to be "translated" to a business context: It's great that you have these skills, but you also need to explain how these are relevant to the job and how this will help the business to be more effective and successful.
  4. Point 3 will also require you to have done your homework about the prospective employer: do you know what they do and what they need? Make sure that you answer most questions in a way that's specific to the role and employer and not cookie cutter.
  5. Be nice, be easy to work with, be a team player.

Companies are looking at these soft skills because they are really, really important, which as been proven time and again. Interviewing and hiring costs a lot of time and money, they really don't want to waste. However, it doesn't matter how brilliant your are technically, if no wants to work with you or if no one can actually understand what you are talking about.


What are soft skills exactly?

Put simply, these are your social and people skills. Your ability to successfully communicate and interact with other humans (technical and non-technical). As you eluded to in your post, soft skills are very important in the workplace. Regardless of your technical prowess, if you are unable to work with a team you are useless to me as a manager. During interviews, make sure you're polite, making eye contact, giving plenty of details in your responses to questions, smiling and laughing, talking about how you worked with others, aren't condescending, etc. As a hiring manager, I'm judging your ability to participate in a conversation with me and explain your reasoning without getting defensive, aggressive, or cocky. I want to make sure you're capable of taking and giving feedback and that you're not going to be a total jerk or hermit on my team.

Simply searching for "soft skills" goes into much more detail on what's considered a soft skill and how you might be able to improve them. If you very introverted and shy, try joining some meetups or attending more social events to work on interacting with others. You can also ask friends and family to help you with mock interviews and to give you candid feedback to help improve your soft skills.

What does company cultural fit mean?

This is essentially whether or not you will fit in with the company and team. Ideally you believe in all the core values of the company and it's mission. Hiring managers like people that are passionate about both the job and company. You can fake it a bit, but you should genuinely believe in the company. When I hire someone, the thing that can make or break a candidate is their fit on my team. I want to make sure you're going to get along with the team and not add any stress to their lives by being a jerk or by not caring about your work.

What is the right mindset of a successful candidate?

Confident but never cocky. Focus on being personable, respectful, and attentive during the interview. It sounds like you know your field well and have the credentials, so don't worry about that. Some suggestions without knowing more about how you interview:

  • Try a little small talk with each interviewer. Even if you just ask how their day is going after you shake hands it shows that you're interested in them as a person. Take note of what they say as sometimes you'll hear things like "...kinda crazy, there's this big new project we're starting..." which gives you something to ask them about when it's your turn to ask questions. Not only do you get some inside info about what you might be working on, but it shows you listened to them and cared enough to find out more.
  • Make sure your responses are not shallow. Give details in your anecdotes, share your emotions as you're telling your stories ("I was soooooo excited when it finally worked!"), and leave some opportunity for follow-up questions. This not only adds to your credibility but also shows you can give enough details when working with teammates on solving problems.
  • Read the company core values, and really try to understand them and why they're important. Some companies, like Amazon, really emphasize these in their interviews and actively look for candidates to acknowledge them.
  • Make sure you're asking the interviewer questions. One of the biggest read flags for me is no or few questions for me. When someone says they have no questions for me you might as well just tell me you could care less about this job. They don't even need to be really good questions (though they should be), just ask a few!
  • Thank you very much for your informative answer! Your suggestions are genuine and actionable and confirm many of my hypotheses. – Machine Jan 27 '19 at 19:35
  • You're very welcome. Interviewing is a skill and it's hard to master! Over time you'll get better at it, so don't get discouraged. – irlrobot Jan 27 '19 at 20:26

I suspect rather than soft skills, per se, it's really a matter of economics and expectations.

I did data analysis and machine learning in my PhD; then I went to an AI career bootcamp at NYC and finished a deep learning project in 3 weeks. After that I expected to get jobs very soon.

This just screams "naive" to me. You did a "deep learning" project in only 3 weeks. That means you didn't learn very much, and so you can't expect to be competitive for jobs that truly require understanding neural networks.

Your bootcamp colleagues, on the other hand, seem to have a much weaker background, which means their expectations and their employers' expectations are much lower (and pay would be lower). They can get the basic data munging jobs that require more in terms of communications and understanding requirements than technical skills.

You're kind of between a rock and a hard place. You are clearly not suitable (in many employers' eyes anyway) for a basic data analyst position (they say "data scientist" but really it's only the name and tools that have changed). Yet you're not qualified for positions requiring a PhD in AI. You'll struggle to find a decent position because the range of positions you seem stereotypically qualified for are in relatively low supply compared to all the STEM MS/PhDs (not in AI) competing for them.

Regarding the soft skills like communication and understanding requirements, those are actual, valuable skills to any business. If you are weak at those, it's pretty easy to find out in an interview.

It's important to have the right mindset about these skills. Don't confuse correlation for causation. Sure a lot of people good at these things are friendly, enthusiastic, etc. but that's not ultimately what people are selecting for. I've met anti-social people that are just very good at communicating and understanding business needs. A fair number of super successful people are known as jerks, but you can't actually succeed at a high level without being able to communicate effectively.

I'm extremely frustrated by the fact that many technically talented candidates don't get dream jobs.

This is naive. The job market is driven by supply and demand. I'm getting the sense you think there is a conspiracy to block the truly qualified from getting jobs.

If someone that can code an algorithm off a paper in one week was greatly valued over a person who can figure out what the business needs and assign such a task to someone else, then the algorithm coder would be paid way more than his manager, which... is not usually the case.

In my experience, the algorithm coders are in excess supply compared to demand. You don't need many of them, and often they lack the ability to know the business context or the ability to deliver just what is needed. The people that are in demand and in less supply are people who figure out what needs to be done and yes, they may take... 3 weeks to do the thing you did in one week. But guess what, choosing the right thing to do is the more valuable skill. It's like when you did a PhD, some students had advisors that handed them stuff to code and other students had advisors that said, you figure out what you need to be doing. Turns out the latter is a lot harder.

  • Thank you for your answer. I agree with your analysis of the data science job market. – Machine Jan 27 '19 at 19:48

I assume that your focus in presenting yourself is similar as your focus in presenting yourself is here.

  • When presenting yourself, instead of saying what you did and what you can do, and to which "AI boot camp" you were going, state where in your previous professional/PHD life you solved a problem, evaluated from the outside to be well solved.

  • Be specific on that, e.g.: By using Machine learning in my PHD thesis, I enabled the identification of interesting datasets from a number of experiments too large to review manually

  • Be quantitative and concise. show clearly that you did not just to use a new method, but to achieve a certain goal (e.g. optimizing yield).

  • show that the goals which you aimed at could not/or badly be solved without using the method which you used.

  • avoid coming over as an "I do machine learning because it is cool" person. Say "I choose the methods where I see it fit"

E.g. "In order to get a sufficient amount of data, promising samples had to be picked from a large number of samples. Within the budget and time of the project, I had to automate the selection of samples - since the dataset was not well described by a model-based approach, i switched to machine learning".

  • Thank you for your answer! You are absolutely right. The non-tech people only care about the problem and the solution. – Machine Feb 1 '19 at 22:10
  1. I absolutely want you to succeed.

  2. PhDs are really important - I hire then as often as possible.

  3. Life is about one simple thing. Having products that make money.

Everything else is mouthy-air-talk.

Life is about one simple thing. Having products that make money.

Life is about one simple thing. Having products that make money.

"I'm extremely frustrated by the fact that many technically talented candidates don't get dream jobs. Meanwhile, my saving is running low but the hope of landing a job is rapidly diminishing.

"Technically talented" is a set of vibrations that come from the mouths of folks who can't make products that make money.

Life is about one simple thing. Having products that make money.

Life is about one simple thing. Having products that make money.

Please see point 1. Completely change your inner world view to focus only products that make money, and you yourself will have all the jobs you want. Like magic..

A tall person applies their God-given gift to winning gold medals in the high jump.

enter image description here

A tall person doesn't fuck about complaining that tall people should be thrown medals .............. because they are tall.

Your God-given technical gifts, such as a PhD, are fantastic.

What you now have to do is forget about that and think how you can jump over the bar.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .