Is job hunting with a PhD -really- that bad?
May 31, 2018 8:01 PM   Subscribe

The time has come. I'm nearing the end of my PhD, am definitely at the end of my funding, and need to look for work. I don't want to stay in academia. I've heard a lot about hiring managers bypassing PhDs but is this actually the case?

People say pretty often that the job market is especially tough for (humanities/social science) PhDs due to our overspecialization and lack of work experience. I've read a lot of advice about selling the skills I've acquired during my degree - quant, writing, teaching, research, copyediting, etc etc. and have certainly taken it to heart, but I remain skeptical of my chances because of everything I've heard.

In terms of specifics, I'm an archaeology PhD candidate with zero interest in pursuing academia further. I've been looking at university administration (though they often require 3-4 years administrative experience), transitioning to data science (though it'll take me another year or so to feel confident enough with my programming skills to apply for those positions), data analysis, and whatever else seems vaguely possible. It feels like I have a lot of skills in general but none of them are super advanced. It also feels like I am somehow lacking one or a few key components listed on job descriptions. I do realize that you don't have to fill *all* qualifications listed though so I'm still applying regardless and hoping for the best.

That being said, what were your job hunting experiences like when you stepped out of academia for the first time? Or if you're a hiring manager, are you likely to overlook a freshly minted PhD because of the reasons listed above? Is it really THAT much harder than job hunting with a Master's, or job hunting in general? I want to know all of your success and non-success stories! If I need to do a coding bootcamp I'll do it, but I'd like to hold off on more schooling for awhile if possible (if there were a Python/data science one around me I'd totally take that but right now it's just web dev and UX. Currently just teaching myself while working on my dissertation).

Also - I have some issues with archaeological work in industry and my research experience at a location outside of my home country makes me less desirable in any case, so please no suggestions there!
posted by thebots to Work & Money (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: lack of work experience.
I've read a lot of advice about selling the skills I've acquired during my degree - quant, writing, teaching, research, copyediting,

ph.d.s don't lack work experience! you've been an employee of some university all this time! you spent years and years doing stuff, you can't acquire skills otherwise. don't undersell your experience doing all these things as mere "skills"! you have years of teaching experience (and if you're not interested in more teaching, describe it -- accurately -- as management, among other things. that's one thing running a college classroom is.) you have writing and editing and research _experience._ skills too, sure, but don't say it in a way that makes you sound untried and untested. you're not.

I lack follow-through and thus only have a master's degree, but people say the same things about those (to a lesser extent.) I have never had any trouble finding a job any time I needed one. and it's not because I interview well or am good at things. degrees are a status symbol and either irrelevant or a plus, unless you become paralyzed with shame when a curious interviewer asks you about yours. being "overqualified" is sometimes (rarely) an impediment; it's usually an excuse for something else that a hiring manager knows better than to say out loud.

the only catch is that the kinds of jobs that are easy for any M.A. or Ph.D. to get are not necessarily ones that advanced degree-holders think are worthy of them (or to be nicer about it, the kind of jobs that quickly pay off student loans.)

People say pretty often that the job market is especially tough for (humanities/social science) PhDs due to our overspecialization and lack of work experience.

the kind of people who say this could stand to enroll in an intensive reality seminar to learn about people with just a high school diploma. or without one. what they say is true if you will only accept a position doing everything professors do, except not at a university. but largely nonsense if what you really want is a job.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:36 PM on May 31, 2018 [5 favorites]

I don't think that lack of work history will be a problem for you. I'm not sure what quant means, but writing, teaching, research, and copy editing all sound like work to me. So what if you did it at school? Experience doesn't mean that you have to have done it an actual, shiny workplace with a big boss putting coins in your piggy bank. Some people have gotten jobs from resumes that have things like volunteering or internships. Good luck with your job search.
posted by Social Science Nerd at 8:43 PM on May 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As a hiring manager there'd be two things I'd be looking out for. The first is that you are applying not because you so much want my job but because you are sick of archaeology. Being positive about my position and also your grad school experience is what I'd want to see.

The second is signs that once you're in the door you'd get upset you aren't getting the respect or responsibility due to you for your superior education. I really don't get any sense of that being in your personality from your post but it'd be general worry for a n applicant with a not-related PhD and no other major work experience.

Honestly I can't imagine worrying about it at all once you're even a few years out. Or maybe I care a little but it's a net positive because it shows focus and ability to learn. Also FWIW the PhD's I know who have made the leap to other or vaguely related fields really don't seem to have had that much trouble.
posted by mark k at 10:00 PM on May 31, 2018 [6 favorites]

If you can stomach the work and can code switch into business culture, you might consider looking into consulting gigs, e.g., McKinsey, BCG, et cetera. They have a history of recruiting PhDs and professional degree holders, in which case they would NOT consider your time as a PhD as wasted:
posted by Keter at 12:06 AM on June 1, 2018

You may be vastly underestimating your quant skills. Don't sell yourself short. I just got a "good" industry job with a PhD but it took me awhile. Start looking now. Talk to your connections. You may have just missed career fair season, can you stay through next season? Can you go to a PhD or postdoc job seminar thing? Do you have a career counselor through your university? Just look. You have loads of skills. You can use them now to get a job that pays you like 100% more than a postdoc. Yay!
posted by Kalmya at 2:41 AM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Check this out.
posted by mareli at 2:47 AM on June 1, 2018

I could have written this question, apart from my PhD was in engineering, and I graduated during the Great Recession. In some ways you're right - it is harder, because of what people assume about you from seeing "PhD" on your CV. I transitioned to a skills-based CV but I think you've got the skills-highlighting side covered.

For me it's been about matching what I could clearly demonstrate I was good at with the right sort of role, which is the tricky part. Think about what it is that you really want to do, rather than the roles they will accept you for, and look at how you can show them that you can already do it. Be patient, because you will need someone on the hiring panel who can see what a gem you are rather than be put off!
posted by london explorer girl at 3:16 AM on June 1, 2018

I transitioned to a career in statistics after a PhD in psychology. Ten years later I’m actually a nonfaculty statistician in academia, doing academic work for my bread and butter, but I’ve also worked in institutional research and in the private sector. Everyone says the first post-PhD job is the hardest to find, and I would say that is true - but for me even that wasn’t so bad. Some people do have a harder time, and I’m not sure what makes the difference.

Other colleagues from my PhD years have variously gone into data science, consulting, and nonfaculty roles like mine. If it’s helpful to read stories of what works, you’re welcome to memail me for more details. There’s also another web community,, that was very helpful to me in my first search. It has some detailed first person accounts of how to get from A to B (including one I wrote) but they are behind a paywall; you could check to see if your university has a subscription. There’s also a message board there that’s free to use, but the regular posters these days tend toward dire stories rather than success stories.

Finally, the book “So what are you going to do with that?” (Basalla and Debelius IIRC) was super valuable in helping me turn my CV (and things not on the CV) into a resume.
posted by eirias at 3:36 AM on June 1, 2018

Best answer: Your concern is not unfounded. I worked for a company that was in the business of, to put it abstractly, technology transfer. We produced documents at the everyday reader level that implemented ideas produced by PhDs and engineers. The company would not hire a PhD because their experience was that PhDs couldn't/wouldn't communicate at the level of the common man.

Whatever they say they look for, what a hiring manager wants is someone who can do a task and get it to completion as quickly and simply as possible, and at an appropriate level of sophistication. You might look back over your work and find some examples that reflect these characteristics that you can offer up in interviews.

Stress communication skills, and don't be condescending or patronizing.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:07 AM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Social science PhDs probably fare better than Humanities given that they have training in quant methods and analytics. So yeah...transitioning to data science (which is what I've done) or any realm of assessment seems to be the way to go outside of academia and your PhD will look great. I have a M.A. in Communication (which to some is a humanities field and others a social science field...I consider it a social science field) but snagged a job in institutional research when I graduated simply because I was the computer wonk and quant nerd in my department and ran an experiment for my thesis. I'm freelancing with clients in random fields while I earn my M.S. in Data Science.

Build a portfolio and a GitHub with projects and do some freelancing (granted I've been doing this for 3 years now and its only just now paying off), eventually you'll get noticed. Maybe try to get an internship or an apprenticeship (they exist). I'm not so sure about bootcamps really...but a graduate certificate in Data Science from a reputable university might be better if not cheaper (I think Colorado State University offers one for 7k...most bootcamps cost 10k or more if I recall).
posted by Young Kullervo at 10:38 AM on June 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

People say pretty often that the job market is especially tough for (humanities/social science) PhDs due to our overspecialization and lack of work experience

I have a PhD in the humanities and have worked with many people with PhDs in the humanities in the private sector. I started as a researcher/analyst/consultant, and then worked for a time as an writer and editor in a marketing setting. I've also worked as a business analyst and am now in UX and digital strategy. In all of these jobs, the skills that helped me earn a PhD are valuable and have, in many cases, helped me stand out. Being able to prep and teach classes to hundreds of undergrads have made presenting to a board room full of "stakeholders" far from intimidating.

PhDs in the humanities are not over-specialized. On the contrary, they often have an exceptionally broad base of knowledge because completing a PhD requires a wide range of different skills and the ability to shift between different disciplines and contexts as well as the capacity to learn almost constantly. It's over-specialization only if you think about it in academic terms, e.g. that you are a specialist on the subject of your dissertation. But that's just one project you worked on among many, which required your ability to marshal a wide range of skills.

The first thing I would recommend is to stop thinking about this as finishing or leaving school and getting a new job. You are making a career change. You've been working as an academic for several years now and are changing careers. You absolutely have transferable skills, but you need to understand how to talk about them in a way non-academics will understand. Your PhD is not a qualification in and of itself. It's evidence of your ability to apply a set of skills that you have at a very high level in an extremely rigorous setting.
posted by synecdoche at 4:37 PM on June 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm part of a hiring team, and the group sometimes dismisses candidates with PhDs and Masters because the assumption is that the candidate wants to or needs to be making far more than my very small and very niche company would ever be able to afford to pay them. My boss (who has the final say in all hires) tends to not believe people who say they'd be happy working for tens of thousands less than they might be at another company (which is bullshit and is a separate issue of its own), so we tend to not interview you in the first place. There have been exceptions, but they are rare. It's some sort of reverse degree classism.
posted by ElectricGoat at 5:06 PM on June 1, 2018

I was tenured. I left because I wanted to live where I wanted and I wanted a raise occasionally. I got a Salesforce certification and I’ve been working pro bono for almost a year. I’m about to get my first job. It took awhile but my earning power basically doubled. Honestly the Salesforce thing got me the interview. My communication skills got me the job. Which is to say, you might have to skill up to get them to look at you, but after that the stuff you already know will make you seem extremely valuable.
posted by songs_about_rainbows at 6:07 PM on June 1, 2018

Best answer: I have a PhD in English and I have worked in university administration for 15 years. It does take a few years to gain experience and the pay is low to start out with--as low as 30,000 at my institution. But once you're in, in an entry level advisor or student services-type job, you can work your way up the food chain, and your PhD will be valued (at least I've found that's true).
posted by feste at 6:27 PM on June 1, 2018

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