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Career Advice

How to beat PhD job market stereotypes

You know you’re not the next contestant on Beauty and the Geek. So why keep letting employers think that way?


With a PhD in hand (and having survived countless years of writing all night, vying for your supervisor’s time, and sharing a shoebox-sized office space with three other people), you are finally ready to look for work.

Surely you’ve heard tales of the world outside from peers who entered the workforce years ago with bachelor or master’s degrees. Surely you, with your PhD, will have little trouble convincing someone to hire you. You’re smart; you have skills to offer – and not just technical skills. So what’s the problem?

As an academic looking for work in industry you will likely battle countless assumptions and stereotypes. Many of those stereotypes are never overtly or directly expressed.

Rather, like most stereotypes, they are simply accepted and silently influence those making hiring decisions. Take a wrong step and you are adding fuel to the fire. You are now Joe Smith, PhD. In some employer’s minds you have donned coke-bottle glasses, shed your social skills, added bow-tie aficionado to your list of hobbies, and crept away to your dingy basement lab.

Take control of your image

Countering unspoken stereotypes will require careful thought and action on your part. Put yourself in the employer’s shoes. Consider what they are looking for in an employee and tailor your presentation to them. You are the job seeker; the responsibility for finding work is yours.

Do not expect employers to understand the merits of your degree or your research without explanation.

In your eagerness to impress, try not to become your own worst enemy. Contacting an employer, giving a detailed account of your teaching and research experience and asking what opportunities might be a good fit for you is not the best approach.

Many employers do not have experience hiring advanced-degree holders. They hear PhD and instantly give you the mental axe based on what, to them, seems like sound reasoning: he won’t be happy with some of the detail-oriented tasks required, she’s spent the last five years doing research and she won’t be doing that here, he knows an awful lot about widgets but I can’t really see him leading a team.

A more successful approach would be to investigate what the organization does and edit your presentation accordingly. Yes, you have spent countless hours slaving over your research. In fact it was the centre of your existence for many years.

But, the details of your research are not likely to interest a prospective employer, particularly if you are making a shift into a different field. Quite simply, employers want to know if you are equipped to handle the business they do each day. Offering anything more than that can trigger stereotypes and expedite you to the reject pile.

Look good on paper

So how do you edit your presentation? First, think about the work search tools you are using.

In academia, a seven-page CV and a two-page cover letter is the norm. Non-academic employers look for concise documents that clearly exhibit your knowledge of the business and your unique ability to address the needs of the employer. Unlike a CV, a well-written resumé and cover letter place emphasis only on relevant skills.

Use the limited space offered by the resumé and cover letter to present concrete examples of how you can address the needs of the organization. Don’t list every paper you have written. Rather, tell the employer that the 12 papers you published prove your ability to research a topic, extract useful and relevant information and communicate that information in a format that is appropriate for the reader.

Likewise, tell the employer that you have explained complex concepts, evaluated performance and navigated conflicts — rather than state you were a TA who marked exams, assigned grades and argued with students who disagreed.

This is not about stretching or exaggerating the truth; it is about presenting information in a way that is meaningful to the employer.

It is what all job seekers, not just advanced-degree holders, are required to do. You must make the effort. Do not expect the employer to make all the connections themselves.

It’s all in the delivery

Think carefully about how you present on paper and in person and lead with your strongest. I offered a past client with a PhD in Food Science similar advice. After luckless months of sending out resumés and following up with a phone call, Stacy reversed her approach.

She used her naturally outgoing personality to connect with employers in person before following up with a targeted resumé. Doing so helped Stacy dispel the myth that as an academic she would lack eloquence and the ability to do business with vendors and customers. Within weeks, she was employed as a consultant at an engineering and environmental services firm.

When presenting yourself in person, construct an explanation of your research that makes sense to a layperson. You should be able to summarize your research in a few sentences and still have a conscious audience at the end.

Think about the message you want to send. Are you a PhD in Education who has coordinated research projects or a Project Manager with a PhD in English? Are you offering a credible reason for your pursuit of a career outside academia? Your narrative should provide evidence that you are making a sound decision and a deliberate career choice.

A firm professional handshake, eye contact and a sincere smile go a long way in breaking down stereotypes of the socially awkward, introverted academic. In fact, some researchers state that up to 90 percent of communication is non-verbal.

Before attending networking events we spend a great amount of time figuring out what we are going to say; shouldn’t we also figure out what we are not saying?

Shed your own stereotypes

Comparing industry and academia is akin to comparing two different cultures. Employers might hold beliefs built on oversimplified or generalized characteristics held by very few members in the academic community.

The interesting thing is that more than one set of stereotypes is at play. Consider the possibility that your work search might be influenced by the stereotypes you hold about the non-academic job marketplace, industry as a whole, or even a particular employer.

Have you ever thought business is all about the bottom line and not about people? Does a part of you believe employers are unapproachable and will write you off without even having a conversation with you? Do you believe a technology company would overlook someone with an arts degree or a non-profit organization would not hire someone with a science degree?

The best way to combat stereotypes is to educate yourself and look for positive role models. The more information you have contrary to beliefs that are hindering you, the better.

Talk to advanced-degree holders who have successfully made the leap into industry, Learn which skills are the most sought after in your field of interest. Speak to employers about their hiring practices. Ask questions in your interviews, and only accept a job if you have strong feeling that it will be a good fit for you.

Blessie Mathew is the manager, career education at CAPS, University of Alberta’s career centre.


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