What is this ‘anti-PhD’ attitude about?


Lately, more and more students want a non-academic job when they finish their PhD. Anecdotally, some graduates seem to be experiencing the PhD as a barrier to employment, not an enabler. In fact, I’ve heard so much negative talk about how employers react to PhD holders over the years that it seemed important to start looking at this phenomenon more closely. We’ve just started doing some work, interviewing recruiters and hiring managers, and I thought I would share some (very preliminary) research findings with you.

In case you don’t know, I’m actually an academic and for 10% of my time each week I study, well – research. Since 2014 I’ve been researching post PhD employability exclusively because I think it’s an important, but under-researched, problem. In 2014 I started working with my friend Dr Rachael Pitt (@thefellowette on Twitter) on academic employment. Rachael noticed that academic job ads asked for a ridiculous number of skills. We simply collected a bunch of academic job ads and coded them to find out what academic employers seemed to be looking for when hiring a PhD graduate. This research resulted in a paper called “Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions”, part of which I shared on the blog here.

(Please do not confuse this paper with the recent book called ‘How to be an academic superhero’, which I won’t link to because I think it’s bad. This author read and quoted our research, but clearly didn’t really understand it, so his book mostly reinforces old fashioned, unhelpful ideas like ‘publish or perish’. If you want a good book on the topic of finding and securing an academic job, I recommend The Professor is In).

The obvious next step was to do a similar analysis of non-academic jobs, but we had to find them first. If you type in ‘PhD’ to a database like Seek.com, you’ll see pages and pages of academic jobs and precious little else. To solve this problem, I worked with my ANU colleagues Dr Will Grant and Associate Professor Hanna Suominen. We used machine learning (specifically natural language processing) to design an algorithm that was capable of ‘reading’ millions of job ads to find ads that were suggestive of PhD level research skills, but did not explicitly ask for a PhD. If you’re interested in reading more about this work, it’s documented in our paper “A machine learning analysis of the demand for non academic  job opportunities for PhD graduates in Australia”.

As it turns out, our analysis showed that 80% of Australian employers looking to hire someone with high-level research skills do not ask for a PhD. This fact is, in itself, is an important finding. If most employers don’t think that putting ‘PhD’ in a job ad is a good way to attract the best candidates to apply for research jobs, what do they think is important? We set about asking recruiters and hiring managers this question.

Recruiters and HR professional are important gatekeepers in the employment process; either doing the shortlisting or producing the ‘long list’ from which the shortlist is formed. As it turned out, getting these interviews was hard: harder than doing machine learning in some ways. Recruiters are busy people; difficult to reach and seemingly reluctant to give their precious time to researchers asking about their practice. We tried to place some 80 calls, but only eight so far have agreed to a phone interview, but what I found out during these conversations was fascinating.

Recruiters are looking for evidence you can do the job advertised. My participants told me repeatedly that experience was highly valued, over and above qualifications. Qualifications were regarded with suspicion, and the PhD was no exception. Just because you can demonstrate you have learned something, doesn’t mean you can do it well in practice. Recruiters told me that lack of experience was the primary reason why PhD graduates are often passed over in the shortlisting process, despite having plenty of evidence they can run a research project from start to finish. Since I see the PhD as a clear demonstration of work experience in doing research, I found this attitude mystifying, until I started to realise that what counts as experience depends on the way ‘work’ is understood.

I started to tune in on the words and phrases recruiters use to describe their understanding of the PhD and academia. A discourse analysis revealed that these recruiters saw academia not as a workplace, but as another ‘world’, almost completely separate from the commercial workforce (one even said academia is ‘another planet’ and academics as ‘aliens’). If these important gatekeepers don’t see the university as a workplace, they will not tend to see PhD as work. Alternatively, they will position the PhD as work that happened under such different conditions that it just doesn’t count as ‘actual experience’.

My social science training cautioned me to take a deep breath and not get outraged. I’ve been taught to take my research participants at their word, not assume they are labouring under a ‘false consciousness’ about their actions. I must assume my participants are telling me the truth, from their perspective, which enables me to ask a more important question: why might some recruiters form the opinion that academia is not a ‘real workplace’?

My friend @nontweetingnigel once told me that his PhD was ‘a job no one else would pay me to do” and I think he’s right. Work conditions in academia value inquiry and creation of new knowledge, so we take on the most difficult questions and problems. The aim of academic research is to answer questions, but we also value your ability to find more questions. We tend to be pretty relaxed about how long that process takes. By contrast, most non-academic employers value utility over novelty and depth. In my discussions with employers, employer groups and my latest discussions with recruiters most have told me they want the answers to questions – and relatively quickly. Projects are likely to be carried out under significant time constraints, closing out further questions as much as possible. Unlike academia, commercial reports are designed to be read by people in a hurry and tend to be short (never 100,000 words long!). Thus, viewed from the commercial side of the fence, academic research, with its long project timelines and documents, must appear more leisurely and less task focussed than research carried out for profit. We don’t experience it that way, but what is at stake here is not our perception of reality – it’s theirs.

This is a satisfying analysis, but I don’t think this is the whole explanation for anti-PhD sentiment. I got several comments along the lines that PhD graduates were ” a bit peculiar” and tried to probe this attitude more closely. One recruiter told me he used to routinely put CVs with PhDs into a shortlists at the start of his career but now is more circumspect. He noticed that some hiring managers would immediately throw resumes with a PhD on them out, or force him into into into arguing the case to hire the PhD candidate (from his point of view, a waste of time). He has now developed a “sense for when the hiring manager is open-minded” and will choose whether or not to present a PhD graduate not on fitness for purpose, but on the attitude of the hiring manager. I asked why he thought that hiring managers might become ‘anti-PhD’ on principle, and he used words to the effect that “hiring managers only have to experience one difficult PhD graduate and they never want another one”.

On the face to it, automatically assuming someone is going to be ‘difficult’ because they have a PhD seems fundamentally unfair. PhD graduates are people, and people should be treated as people – right? Sadly, in the employment process, people are often not treated as people but as representatives of a ‘type’. So what sort of ‘type’ is the PhD graduate? I’d suggest, in the popular imagination, The PhD graduate is someone like Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory: intelligent, but odd with difficulties fitting in socially. Of course, most of us are not at all like Sheldon Cooper, but many people do not encounter PhD graduates in their everyday life – at least not enough to counter the effects of this stereotype. It’s easy to forget when you are surrounded by Doctors all day that comparatively few people graduate from the degree each year and make up a vanishingly small proportion of the population. PhD graduates are therefore representatives of a minority group and are facing the ordinary problems minorities face when trying to enter areas of the workforce where they are under-represented.

I suspect what is going on here is similar to how racism, ageism and ableism distort the hiring process: discrimination. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest your name and gender will affect whether your CV finds its way to the top of the pile – it seems the PhD, in some circumstances, has a similar effect. The PhD marks you out as special and different, but sometimes being special and different is not to your advantage.

How can we counter this discrimination? I’m not sure. I am planning another post on how people ‘hide’ their PhD in the application paperwork, but for now, I’m interested in your thoughts and experiences. Have you experienced ani-PhD sentiment when attempting to find a job, or just in everyday life? If you want a non-academic job, what do you think you can do to counter this stereotyping in the way you present yourself in your CV and resume?