"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why Employers Should Hire PhDs

UPDATE: See below.

Several of my fellow post-academic bloggers have lately been expressing the frustrations they're currently experiencing as they search for nonacademic employment. A Post-Academic in NYC writes here about the problem of being perceived as overqualified. Unemployed PhD for Hire writes here about the problem of fit, which is a problem on the academic job market, too, but outside academe it's more concrete. For example, it's hard to re-brand yourself as a career changer when your highly "transferable skills don't match up to the competition who have EXACTLY the experience/training/skill set that organizations are looking for."

As I see it, these are problems of perception and stereotyping on the part of employers, rather than problems post-academics bring with them to the job search, but because the end result is that post-academics end up on unemployment instead of gainfully employed, these problems decidedly become theirs. Here's the thing, though: While most unemployed post-academics will eventually find jobs (Hang in there, guys! It really is just a matter of time!), the real losers are the employers who overlook smart, talented people who are potentially their most outstanding workers, people who have the greatest likelihood of progressing within the organization, and those with the highest probability of making important contributions. Remember, somebody will eventually hire these people and reap the benefits. Why not let it be you?

In no particular order, here are some specific reasons why employers should hire PhDs:

They will work for food.
OK, this is not literally true. You do have to pay them a salary. However, since they have been working for so little for so long, you can probably get away with offering them less than the person they're replacing was earning. To a former adjunct whose salary has been $20K for the last 8 years, $40K looks pretty good, even if the person who previously held the position was making $50K (that is, as long as your post-academics do not know this, but why should they?). Now, your post-academics will eventually wise up to things and you'll have to give them more money or they'll leave, but you can certainly save a little in the short-term. And, eventually, you will want to pay them more in order to keep them because they will be doing a good job. Even if you give them a raise, you might still be paying them less than their predecessors. All around, it's a good deal!

UPDATE: I feel compelled to tell you I am speaking only partially ironically here. In fact, given your salary history, it is very likely your first nonacademic employer will lowball an offer. While some positions do have fixed, non-negotiable salaries, this is the exception rather than the rule. You can and should negotiate. Know what the salary range is for that job type in your location. If you get an offer that seems low, it probably is. Probably, it is less that your predecessor was getting. Within reason, ask for more. Trust me, that $5-$8K means A LOT more to you than it does to your would-be employer. You will get taken advantage of if you are too naive to look out for yourself. And this has longer term consequences. If you start making $40K when you could have started at $48-$50K, this will impact what you're offered for your next "next" job. And you can't afford this because you have a lot of lost time to make up for.

They are flexible and adaptable.
It must seem ideal to HR folks to find an "exact" match for an open position, someone who's done exactly the same job somewhere else but for whatever reason wants to change jobs. Score! This person would hit the ground running. You'd have to invest very little in training. Why would you NOT choose this person over a post-academic? You'd have to be crazy, right? Wrong. As great as it might seem at the outset, let's consider the long-term, a year or two or three or ten down the line. Do you want a robot who can only do EXACTLY the same thing over and over and over again? No! We all know policies and procedures change. We know that technology changes. We know upheaval in the ranks of the higher-ups means doing things differently for the plebes, and sooner or later, there's always a change at the top. Somebody who ONLY knows how to do EXACTLY the job you hire them for in the short-term will likely be much less able to roll with the punches. In fact, that may be why this person is looking for a new job in the first place. By contrast, your PhDs may require a little extra patience and training at the beginning but down the line they will be much more flexible and able to use that new software or write those documents in the new and improved way or figure out how to complete whatever new task or project it is you need them to. Why? Because their expertise isn't just in their subject knowledge. Their expertise is learning itself. Since the most important thing you learn in graduate school is how to learn, your post-academics are a major asset to a growing, thriving, evolving organization.

They are risk takers.
It takes guts to walk away from a career you've put the kind of effort and energy into that most post-academics have put into becoming professors. It takes guts to expose yourself to the unknowns of the nonacademic job market. It takes guts to work at getting a foothold by applying for entry-level jobs your undergraduate students are likelier to get interviews for than you are. It takes guts to turn your back on the work you love for the sake of your integrity, your sanity, and the chance to put poverty behind you. Risk takers are an asset to almost any industry. They are good at looking ahead and will do what they think is right and lead others to do the same. They innovate, whether we're talking about more efficient administrative procedures or better ways of building team cooperation or strategies for improving an organization's operations and progress. Do you want to hire people who are just good at doing the same thing over and over and over again? No, you want those who are forward thinking and embrace change.

They are resourceful, responsible, and capable of doing the job with minimal supervision.
PhD candidates, over the course of the many years it takes to complete the dissertation, may meet with their advisers and/or other committee members only a few times a year. Some advisers give virtually no feedback other than a thumbs up or thumbs down on any particular chapter. To get to the end of the process and successfully defend a dissertation, someone with a PhD had to draw upon unfathomable intellectual and emotional resources and take responsibility for doing whatever it took to get to the end of the project. When an adviser says, "This chapter doesn't work for me. Fix it," without saying what's wrong with it or how to fix it, a PhD candidate heads back to the library, back to the prose of the chapter itself, back to the logic that apparently didn't hold up under scrutiny, and figures out how to fix it.

They are good at problem solving.
In addition to the above paragraph, which is also an example of problem solving, curiosity and inquiry lead to research that answers questions or resolves problems. Moreover, having spent time as teachers, they've had to deal with student behavioral problems, like plagiarism, and pedagogical problems, like getting apathetic students to engage with the subject and participate in class discussions. Often, they've had to do these things with minimal support from supervisors.

They are smart.
Hiring a Ph.D. doesn't guarantee brilliance. Probably, you're not getting the next Albert Einstein. But you are getting somebody who came up with a research project independently and had the mental wherewithal to carry it out successfully. Content expertise aside (and, really, you don't care about the subject of their dissertation), completion of the project says this person, at the very least, has functional frontal lobes. While many job listings for general, merely-need-basic-capacity-to-think-to-succeed positions specify "B.A. preferred," the B.A., these days, no longer guarantees that someone actually does have a fully operational brain (as a former college instructor, I speak from experience!).

 They get stuff done.
 Ever wonder what it's like to undertake a major research project independently, work on it (or the preparation leading up to it) every day for the better part of a decade, prep to teach three classes  every week, grade 100 papers or exams every 2 weeks, prepare to present your work publicly at conferences you travel to 2-3 times a year, and submit your work to peer-reviewed journals -- all while earning a salary of around $20K? Yeah, I didn't think so. If you need stuff done, your PhD will get it done, more than likely at warp speed.

Lastly, let's not forget they are also steadfast and reliable (it took them a decade, give or take, of sisyphean toil to get where they are now, without any promise of rewards at the end except completion of a project very few people will ever know about), have integrity (it would have been easier to have just forged the damn diploma!(, and will immeasurably bolster your self-esteem by validating your choice NOT to pursue a PhD yourself!

So, what are you waiting for? Go out and hire a PhD today!

17th century handwritten doctoral diploma


  1. Can I print this post and send it along as part of my application with my cover letter and resume?

  2. Hehe. Sure! But probably you should just make the case succinctly in your letter :)

  3. I agree ... great post.

    I've actually never really thought about the "Ph.D. students are always learning and used to change and adapting to new things" angle before. I wonder how I can incorporate that into my resume/cover letter....hmmmm.

  4. Probably more in the cover letter, where you can specifically relate what you did in your old job/grad school to what you'd be doing at the new job. Illustrate the "transferable skills" idea with concrete examples.

  5. Hear hear. Bravo. I am definitely working some of this into my applications/interviews.

  6. Why wait for someone to hire you? If you really have all those qualities, start your own company. That is what I did with my Ph.D.! :)

  7. Good for you! That's certainly an option, but I actually have zero interest in running my own company. My aim is to save enough money to have the capital to get into day trading withn the next few years.