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Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Moving down the career ladder

­Jonathan—not his real name—had begun to get depressed about his progress in his job search. During the fourth year of his postdoc, he started to look at industry jobs, and at first it looked like a world of opportunity. But when he started watching the job ads closely, that’s not what he found.

Jonathan found plenty of job opportunities advertised at the bachelor’s and master’s-degree level, but he didn’t find many Ph.D.-level postings in his field. “I’m a Ph.D. biochemist, trained broadly but with a focus that stemmed from my initial intention to pursue an academic career. While I certainly have skills to offer companies, they are geared to certain techniques. That’s why, when I see a position advertised that requires skill in those areas, I’ll respond no matter what the job title might be.” His thought was, “Hey, if I take that B.S.-level job, it could be a foot in the door, an important first step toward a better position in the company.”

Ph.D. scientists who have managed to obtain lower-level positions often find themselves labeled as support staff and passed over for higher-level jobs.

Jonathan found (as many others have) that even though he is an ace at those techniques, he’s not the ideal candidate for jobs like that—far from it. He found this out the hard way, when a hiring manager admitted that she had tossed his CV without reading it. “It’s not a Ph.D. position,” the woman says.

Are you overqualified?

The discovery that you’re overqualified for many advertised jobs often comes as a rude shock. You’ve seen the ads, as Jonathan did, seeking skills in your area of expertise—but the employer hasn’t specified a Ph.D. Instead, the employer is seeking someone with a Bachelor of Science or a Master of Science degree. That’s not ideal, but you have those degrees, too, so why not apply?

“Each of our labs has openings for B.S. or M.S.-level scientists who play a key role in our research effort. But those labs also have positions for Ph.D.s, and the two are completely separate roles,” says a client of mine, a human resources (HR) manager for a multinational R&D institution.

I told the client a story that Jonathan shared with me: Jonathan called a networking contact and found himself speaking to the hiring manager for a position he had applied to previously. He asked why his application hadn’t succeeded, and the hiring manager gave him an answer: He was overqualified for the position.

My client gasped audibly when I relayed that story. This was, apparently, a violation of standard protocol: Managers should “know better than to provide a lot of color,” my client says. Apparently, they’re not supposed to reveal that much about why they didn’t hire you. That’s why you rarely get a direct answer to questions like that. My HR contact, though, shared more information with me about being overqualified, so now I can share it with you.

“B.S. and, in many cases, master’s positions as well are support roles. Yes, they use the same techniques, but there is far less creative input into the experimental design, and certainly less input on critical thinking in comparison to what would be present in a job occupied by a Ph.D. scientist,” he says.

A path with little upward mobility

A sideways move to a new career ladder, and a different type of career, can be a good thing. A few years from now, you might, for example, make a lateral move into business development and leave R&D behind. But most companies don’t fill their Ph.D.-level positions from the support team, my HR contact indicated; they fill them from outside the company. Ph.D. scientists who have managed to obtain lower-level positions often find themselves labeled as support staff and passed over for higher-level jobs.

Not that there are very many of them. “We get a lot of Ph.D.s applying to positions that don’t require a Ph.D., and we choose not to proceed with those candidates for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it isn’t a good move for them, either,” my contact says.

Sure, you can move from research associate I to research associate II, but is that why you got a Ph.D.? You may even enjoy the work for a while, but the day will come when you find yourself watching your Ph.D. colleagues as they file in to a planning meeting you aren’t invited to. They’ll be designing the experiments, and you’ll be the hands that do the work. You’re likely to be working for a manager who knows far less science than you do.

Sound frustrating? It is—and that’s the core problem for the employer. It’s risky to hire someone who is likely to become bitter, who will regret having taken a job and feels qualified for much more. If the employer had hired that scientist with a Bachelor of Science as planned, she or he would likely be in that job for years, with a clear career track on the support ladder and opportunities for advancement into other B.S. and M.S.-level roles.

In contrast, after a few months at a job like that, most Ph.D.-level scientists are back in the job market. What’s worse, they’re likely to find that market even more challenging than before, because hiring managers for Ph.D.-level positions will wonder why they are working at a lower-level job than their degree says they’re capable of.

It haunts you throughout your career

The main reason lower-level positions are appealing to Ph.D.-level scientists is that they’re visible; so many more of them are advertised. They may look like an opportunity to get your foot in the door and become an internal candidate for a better job, but it usually doesn’t work out that way. For years, I’ve watched HR staff review CVs; if there’s an oddball job listed on that CV, even if it’s 10 years old, they ask about it. Those research assistant or technical associate II positions stick out; they’re magnets for tough interview questions.

So go ahead: Apply for that B.S.-level job. If they hire you, you’ll be guaranteeing pain during every job interview you have for the next decade or so, and you’ll likely lose out on some good opportunities along the way.