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When Ph.D. stands for Problematic Hiring Detriment

A couple years ago, I attended a conference called “Engineering a Blockbuster Career.” It was run by a biomedical institute, so I assumed—correctly, thankfully—that “Blockbuster” was being used as an adjective, as opposed to a reference to a job at a video rental store.

Attendees asked the panelists how to overcome various roadblocks in their career searches: “How can I network if I don’t know anybody?” “How can I find a position despite lack of experience?” And, strangely, several people asked a question that sounded so counterintuitive that it was almost laughable.

“How,” they asked, “do I find an employer willing to overlook my most flagrant disadvantage: my Ph.D.?”

I had always assumed that a science Ph.D. was a ticket to higher-level, higher-paying, more prestigious jobs. After all, why else would anyone spend years of impoverished misery to obtain one?

Heck, a Ph.D. is pretty much required if you want to become an industry supervisor, or a tenure-track professor, or whatever other designation makes you feel authoritative. Doesn’t that alone make it beneficial?

But a surprising number of science job seekers on the front lines at this conference found their Ph.D.s to be not just irrelevant, but outright detriments. Hiring managers were rejecting their applications, saying that they’d love to offer them a job but, darn it all, this Ph.D. was getting in the way.

What unholy farce was this? Were the applicants letting their bitterness lead to exaggerations about the difficult job market? Or were these hiring managers under the mistaken impression that a Ph.D. is supposed to end your employability (hence, I suppose, the term “terminal degree”)? Sure, Ph.D. holders may have quirks—not to mention a few unrealistic assumptions, like the belief that our dissertations will be read by more than zero people—but we’re smart, dedicated people who would be an asset to any workplace. Wouldn’t we?

It turns out that it depends on who you’re asking. In the years since, I’ve confirmed that the perception of the detrimental doctorate is, in fact, a real phenomenon. So what’s a Doctor of Philosophy in this position to do? The first step is to understand what, exactly, is going on.

Generally, the rejected applicants fell into two categories.

The first included scientists hoping to leave research and join a field in which a Ph.D. was uncommon. They reported having to confront the stereotype of the hyperfocused graduate student or postdoc who knows absolutely everything about isothermal titration microcalorimetry but when tying their shoelaces still has to repeat “over, under, around, and through; meet Mister Bunny Rabbit, pull and through.”

And it’s true that some scientists narrow their expertise so severely that their resumes are one line long—albeit a complicated and impressive line. But hiring managers should appreciate that obsessing over a single topic can be a hugely positive quality, especially if you can hire the Ph.D. holder to obsess over your company’s topic.

The second category seemed crueler: Ph.D. holders who wanted to continue doing research yet found themselves rejected on the basis of that nonsensical word “overqualified.”

They apply for bachelor’s- or master’s-level jobs, knowing full well that they’re proposing to move down the career ladder. Maybe they’re currently jobless and would gladly take a position simply to have paid employment. Maybe they just want to work on a fascinating project or get a foot in the proverbial lab door. Maybe personal factors led them to decide that they’d prefer a relatively low-pressure job. 

You’d think any hiring manager would jump at the chance to employ a Ph.D. in such a position—they’d get a more qualified candidate who has openly declared that they’re OK with the lower salary and title. Yet this is the point where the Ph.D. holder is dismissed as “overqualified.”

YOU: I’d be happy to take this job, and I’d do it quite well.

THEM: You don’t want it.

YOU: I insist that I do.

THEM: You wouldn’t enjoy the work, and you’d balk at the pay.

YOU: With all due respect, that’s for me to decide.

THEM: Nope.

YOU: Well … shoot. Then I guess I’ll just sit here and eat my grilled cheese.

THEM: You don’t want grilled cheese.

In other words, they think you think you’re too good for them. And good luck convincing them that you’re willing to accept the lower salary. In their eyes, you’re a snooty up-and-coming executive who snubs any offer that doesn’t include the private airport to which all Ph.D.s are presumably accustomed.

One friend of mine says an interviewer outright told her that he preferred to hire young twentysomethings, not post-Ph.D. scientists, because they (the twentysomethings) would be more willing to do the grunt work. What this interviewer failed to understand, she said, was that so much of science, at all levels, is grunt work.

If a Ph.D. is bad, a postdoc can be even worse. Another friend told me that a hiring manager he knows says it’s especially common to reject anyone who’s done a postdoctoral fellowship because such candidates are regarded as “failed academics” who are “settling” for the job. In other words, only a scientist seeking the tenure track would do a postdoc; only a scientist denied that tenure-track position would seek alternative employment; and any scientist in such a situation must reek with the stench of failure.

Even if you get the job, you may still face the stigma of the Ph.D. Yet another friend told me that he left academia with his Ph.D. in sociology to work for the federal government. He’s now the only Ph.D. in an office full of lawyers who pigeonhole him as the “numbers guy” or “data expert.” As a result, he says, he’s often passed over for opportunities to lead projects that would require “‘doers’ rather than ‘thinkers.’”

To be fair, there are valid reasons to reject candidates based on their advanced degrees and training. A Ph.D. holder in a low-level job is less likely to embrace that role for life, and no one wants to hire a candidate who might leave soon. Plenty of applicants probably assure the hiring manager that they’re happy with a less senior role—then spend their days surprised and annoyed at their lack of autonomy. And it’s not always easy for those indoctrinated by academic training to mentally switch their priorities and motivations to match those of their new employer.

If you’re a Ph.D. candidate, recipient, or even someone considering the degree, where does this leave you?

You can take the rosy outlook, as one scientist encouraged earlier this month, advising readers not to be discouraged by the “misconception” that a Ph.D. can be a liability. The author cited his own career path, in which he benefited from ignoring the doubters and treating his degree as an asset. And it’s true that completing a Ph.D. often means developing valuable skills—such as managing projects, interpreting data, solving problems, and hiding from your boss behind a file cabinet—that can be used in a variety of workplaces. Highlighting these aspects of your experience (except the hiding) may help you overcome the anti-Ph.D. hurdle.

But we can’t dismiss the real experience that many scientists have had—of being told we’ve toiled and studied and learned, only to make ourselves less desirable in the workforce. Oops. Such is the wacky world of science careers we’ve signed up for.

So if you’re pursuing a doctorate, or even just considering one, be aware that anti-Ph.D. sentiment is real. Don’t go nuts and delete your dissertation or anything, but if you find yourself applying for a job that doesn’t require a Ph.D., think carefully how you portray yours.

I wish I could recommend a course of action beyond that, but I can’t. I’m overqualified.

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