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Overqualified or underqualified?

After Michelle Milstein was awarded a Ph.D., her friends and family assumed she would be immune to unemployment. So when her lab at the University of Michigan lost some of its funding and her postdoc position evaporated, those closest to her were shocked. It shocked them even more when she didn’t find a new position right away.

So Milstein went out on the job market, assuming that her Ph.D. would be an asset. Those three letters after her name, after all, stood for something: nearly a decade of training and the tenacity, resourcefulness, and smarts to research, write, and defend a dissertation. “I wasn’t expecting a job to be handed to me, but I thought my doctorate would at least be worth something,” she says.

You would think companies would be thrilled to have such a highly trained workforce at their fingertips.

—Alison Fisher

As unemployment stretched from weeks into months, Milstein decided that her Ph.D. was working against her. “Places don’t want to hire a Ph.D., who they will have to untrain, and then retrain. They want someone with a bachelor’s or master’s degree who doesn’t have any bad habits and will likely be willing to work for less pay,” Milstein says.

On the one hand, Milstein learned she had not received training in the skills she needed to readily find work outside of academia. On the other hand she was, in a different sense, overqualified for every job she applied for. How could she be both overqualified and underqualified? As her job search continued, she asked herself this question over and over.

The problem, she decided, is with the nature of doctoral programs. They train you very well in the area of your dissertation topic and award you an impressive degree, so you’re overqualified on paper. Yet they often—usually—fail to provide the additional training that makes a candidate broadly employable. That impressive degree was becoming a ball and chain, and Milstein had no idea what to do next.

She isn’t alone. As science funding contracts, more scientists than ever are seeking jobs beyond academia. With just 20% of Ph.D. recipients—fewer in some fields—eventually getting tenure-track faculty jobs, they have little choice. But even as companies are hiring—even at a time of widespread claims of a shortage of candidates with scientific and technical skills—those with the most advanced training are finding themselves with few opportunities.

Impressive but not useful

“You would think companies would be thrilled to have such a highly trained workforce at their fingertips,” says Alison Fisher, who left academia in 2008 after completing a postdoc with the U.S. Department of Agriculture at a site near San Francisco. The problem, Fisher decided, isn’t so much that she lacks skills; the challenge is figuring out how to prove to employers that you have the training and skills they’re looking for.

At first, Fisher naively thought she could complete the transition out of academia and find full-time employment in about 6 months. “I was open to lots of different careers. I talked to everyone, did informational interviews, went to career fairs,” she says. A biotech recruiter at one career fair looked at her resume and acknowledged it was impressive—but added that it was not useful for most jobs. “He said that he would have no idea what to do with me because I would need to be trained, and no one wants to hire someone that needs to be trained,” she said. “It was really sobering.”

Getting past the screeners

When Sarah—not her real name—graduated from a major research university with a Ph.D. in cellular biology, she already knew that she didn’t want to go into academia. She began applying for jobs online but never heard anything back. Friends told her this wasn’t unusual and encouraged her to keep trying. Eventually, she snagged an interview with an organization she wanted to work with—not via an online application but through a mutual acquaintance. The interview seemed to go well, and the manager encouraged her to apply online for the position. Sarah gave the manager a puzzled look. “I already applied online. Didn’t you get my application?” she asked.

The manager’s reply was shocking: “human resources usually throws out applications from Ph.D.s because they think Ph.D.s will bolt as soon as something better comes around,” the manager admitted to her. The manager didn’t share that view: “I enjoy having Ph.D.s around,” she told Sarah. In a flash, Sarah understood two things: HR gatekeepers may be screening out Ph.D.s’ applications before hiring managers get to see them, and at least some hiring managers are more receptive to the idea of hiring Ph.D.s.

Defeating misconceptions

Danielle Haney, a Ph.D. who now works as a consultant with ETHOS Health Communications, says that misconceptions about Ph.D.s are common in industry. “People think that you can’t see the big picture and that you can’t work with others,” Haney says.

Overcoming such misconceptions requires repackaging yourself, Haney says. “You need to show people you have transferable skills.” How do you do that? Get together with like-minded peers and brainstorm. Rewrite your resumes and give each other tips, Haney urges.

For instance: Instead of listing every publication you’ve ever authored, as you would for an academic job, summarize your research. Use that valuable resume space to illustrate skills, especially in writing, communications, and leadership—skills that are valuable to any company, no matter what degree you have. Your awareness that you have these skills, and your ability to sell them on your resume, is a clear indication that you are capable of transferring them to new tasks. That might be enough to convince a reticent hiring manager to give you a chance.

Haney also urges applicants to include on their resumes experience obtained outside of the lab. Haney did her Ph.D. research on AIDS and did volunteer work with HIV-positive adolescents. She also volunteered in the local school system to help underprivileged kids learn about science and to increase their interest in science-related careers. She did it because it was fulfilling and rewarding, but highlighting it on her resume helped her find a job.

Sarah echoes Haney’s advice about getting (and advertising) experience outside of the lab. While she was still a Ph.D. student, Sarah wanted to take a certificate course in science policy. Her adviser refused to let her enroll. “She said that it would distract from my work in the lab. But it would have been a major help in the freelance consulting work I’m doing now, and I really regret not pushing my case more or even just going ahead and enrolling anyway,” Sarah says.

An array of nonlab experience may help demonstrate an openness to new experience and skills, which may reduce an employer’s hesitation about hiring someone who looks overqualified on paper.

In her own job search, Fisher found that “overqualified” was a relative term. Sure, she had mastered tasks far more technically challenging than most she was likely to be asked to do in most jobs. Yet she lacked the computer programming skills that some biotech jobs required. Having those skills—and others—would have made her seem well-rounded instead of lopsided, with exceptional skills in only one area. (Some people call it getting “T-shaped” or, similarly, “pi-shaped.”) “Tech skills not only tend to bring people a job, but they can also lead to higher salaries,” Fisher says.

Fisher finally found her dream job the old-fashioned way: by networking. She got to know another mother in her son’s preschool class. She—the other mother—was a manager with a job opening, and Fisher realized that it was for just the career she was looking for, with lots of opportunities for detail-oriented, analytical work. Fisher wasn’t fully trained for the post, but she emphasized the skills she had learned during the course of her Ph.D. research: collaboration, attention to detail, troubleshooting ability, tenacity, and project management. The mother/hiring manager saw that Fisher was a quick learner and decided to give her a chance. “It’s easy to want to focus on your specific area of research on your resume, but most workplaces want to see what skills you have, rather than your expertise in one small area of research,” Fisher says.

Several years later, Fisher believes she is far more satisfied than she would have been if she had stuck to a more traditional Ph.D. career path. Still, some nonacademic employers cling tenaciously to their preconceived notions about what Ph.D. scientists can’t do. “There seems to be an inability or unwillingness of nonacademic employers to understand how research experience and skills can and do transfer outside the lab,” Milstein says.

Milstein’s story doesn’t yet have a happy ending, but the story’s not over yet. She continues her job hunt, hoping that soon she’ll find an employer who can see her Ph.D. for what it is: an indication of competence and a definite asset. “The skills and experience a scientist gains from a professional career in academia can absolutely be applied and be a huge advantage in any other career, science or otherwise. However, the hurdle we face is that people outside of academia aren't able to make the connection, and only see science and lab work,” she says. The Ph.D. job-hunters job—and it often is a difficult job—is to convince employers to give you a chance to show what you can do.

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