Friday, April 27, 2012

Job opportunties for PhDs?

If you read any academic/career blogs for the PhD audience, you are probably aware of the debate about the over-production of PhDs.  Are there too many?  What jobs are they supposed to get?  For some fields (chemistry especially), there is an painful mismatch between training and industry needs.  Chemjobber started some nice dialogue about the opportunity costs of grad school in response to a Chronicle Article by Jon Bardin, a chemistry grad student and science writer who talked with excitement about the many directions a person can take graduate training.  I agree, there are many places you can take a PhD, teaching high school for example, but many of those positions don't require the PhD which can make a burnt out graduate feel like the years of toil were for naught.  DocFreeride responded very candidly about the risks of going to graduate school (it's not a guarantee for a job).  These are all great articles, and I would encourage you to look at the comments section of each.

Some may point to the low unemployment rate for those with PhDs as evidence that there is not a mismatch.  First, remind yourself that this number only accounts for those who have had a job that pays into unemployment- grad students and post-docs in between positions don't count.  I would like to respond to this, as a technically 'employed' PhD.  Someone asked me recently on a particularly optimistic day if getting my PhD was worth it.  And I responded that I'll always be able to find work (editing papers for China or taking contracts, for example), but as someone who has invested so much time in my professional development, I have ambitions to find a fulfilling career.  And that has proven to be much harder than I might have thought.

I was meeting recently with a couple of other out of work scientists (casualties of the boom-bust Seattle Biotech market).  One of them walked me through his current career plan: 
Plan A- Dream job as a scientist.
Plan B- Full time work using transferable and technical skills.
Plan C- Contract work using any transferable skills.
Plan D- any type of work.  His unemployment is running out, so Plan D is a major focus.

I was starting to complain that I had just achieved Plan D- I can pay my bills, but now I spend all my time running around like a crazy person between 3 jobs and networking events and try to spend a few minutes sending out applications.  This is not the dream- I never aspired to be a full-time job hunter.... but both of these scientists (politely) told me to stuff it.  They knew too many scientists who had lost their homes, spouses and lives as a result of not being able to find a job of any sort.  Am I really career savvy for taking a part-time job?  Is the most important skill that I learned as a graduate student the ability to work diligently on seemingly pointless tasks?

Well, it is one the skills I learned, but I prefer to think that my analytical ability and aptitude for critical thinking were more important.  Another skill I learned is the importance of jumping through hoops when necessary (as expressed by the great @GeneWrangler).  When I told these guys I was thinking about getting my CAPM, they were skeptical that I would learn anything I didn't already know.  And that's not the point- you don't always get certified to learn things, sometimes you get certified to prove you are a joiner, that you can put up with the necessary Bureaucratic Stuff (BS) to get the job done.  A tolerance for BS is important in some jobs, like it or not.  Yes, it would be awesome if we could all be fairly evaluated based on our potential for success stemming from a thoughtfully objective assessment of our strengths.  But in reality, we just have to find a way to be the right person, in the right place at the right time.  I'm not willing to leave that to chance, so I am committed to polishing my candidacy in as many ways as I can in an effort to be ready for when opportunities present themselves.  To me, having my PhD means I have the skills to overcome the issues that my field and job market have.  I'm not sure what the solution looks like at the moment, but I have spent years looking for something with a much lower probability of success, so I know I got this.

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