Nice Degree - Shame About The Job

"There are no ivory towers here, you know. You'll have to do your own photocopying..."
- interviewer to recent PhD, 1992
Not many postgraduate students have their own personal secretaries. The quote above shows just one of the misconceptions encountered by such students seeking employment outside academia. In this article we discuss these misconceptions and how you can counter them; they are generally more likely to be encountered by PhD students, but MSc, MA and other postgraduate students may also find the advice useful.

Postgraduates are ...

...too expensive

Often, postgraduates are seen to be asking for more -- more money, more perks, more status -- than graduates, with little or no justification for doing so. If you are applying for jobs through an agency, you should make sure that they are not doing this. Be certain that your expectations for salary and so forth are reasonable - if you are asking for more than a graduate doing a similar job would receive, you should have good reasons for this.

... too bright

Many people believe that you have to be a genius to get a PhD. This is not, of course, the case. You should have a short explanation of your work, without too much jargon, ready for the inevitable question about the topic of your thesis; this is not to imply that you should patronize or talk down to your interviewer. Such tactics are the quickest way to lose yourself the job.

Since you are not applying for an academic job, it is probably best not to place too much importance on papers published and conferences attended, except to show that you have report-writing and presentation skills.

... too academic

Employers may be wary of hiring postgraduates because they have little or no industrial experience, yet these same employers willingly hire graduates with the same lack of contact with the outside world. They often worry that, after spending an extra three years in academia, postgraduates will not be able to adjust to the demands of a commercial or industrial environment. It is useful to be able to demonstrate that you have at least some experience of taking orders and working to deadlines.

... overqualified

It is usually the case that, when an employer tells you that you are overqualified for her job, she means that she feels you will be bored in that job. Assuming that you do not believe this is the case, the best counter to this is to point out things about the job that mesh with your past experience and to be generally enthusiastic about the job, without appearing false or gushing.

... workshy

Some people believe that they three years of funding for a research degree is a licence to sit about and do nothing for that time. This point will obviously be harder to counter if you have overrun severely; although taking longer than three years to complete your work is by no means unusual and is almost the norm in some subjects, it is useful to have some concrete reason to cite for the delay. If, for whatever reason, you did not actually complete your studies, you will need to show a particularly good reason for this.

In general it is probably best to point to the large piece of original work that you have produced, and perhaps mention the hours that you worked during the last few months before the submission of your thesis.

... pampered

Employers may feel that postgraduates have been sheltered from the realities of working life, giving rise to statements such as that quoted at the beginning of this article. Pointing out a few of the realities of postgraduate life - inadequate grants, overcrowded office space, insufficient facilities - should clear this up fairly quickly.

Is it worth fibbing about it?

Absolutely not. Having a blank space on your CV will inevitably spark an employer's curiosity - they may well assume that you have been in prison or something even less desirable. Never conceal your postgraduate work; such a move will be seen as excessive modesty on your part and is likely to cast doubt on the rest of the details on your CV.

If they really can't deal with it

If your prospective employers seem to be exhibiting several of the attitudes listed above, you should seriously consider whether you would be happy in their job. It may just be one interviewer whose attitude is overwhelmingly negative, or it may be a feeling which permeates the whole company. In either case, talking to others within the company should help you decide whether you can live with the situation or not.

Finally ...

Bear in mind that your second degree may not be worth much to your prospective employer. However, don't play it down too much; you spent one, two, three or more years working on it. Belittling your work will convince your interviewers of what they may already think - that the time spent on another degree was wasted. Stress the skills that you gained during the course, rather than the specific knowledge, and you should be able to persuade them that you will be an asset to them, rather than a liability who must be cosseted, Good luck!

Melanie Dymond Harper did a PhD in mathematics at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College from October 1989 to September 1992. Then she started looking for a job, and met interviewers with every one of the attitudes above!

© Copyright Melanie Dymond Harper, 1994, 1996.
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