Letter: Want a job? Don't mention the PhD

August 17, 2001

The biggest handicap in the job market is a PhD. A doctorate is no longer enough to secure an academic post, so many postgraduates are turning to the commercial sector. But in that world a PhD is about as desirable as leprosy.

Since getting my PhD last November, I have lost count of the number of jobs I have applied for. With almost 20 years' experience in computing and journalism, I assumed I would soon find work. But I am getting sick of the word "overqualified" in rejection letters. Interviews start with the question: "Why would someone with a PhD want this job?" My reply of, "To earn a living," somehow does not seem to be the right answer.

I am not alone. Most of my fellow postgrads are on the dole or eking out a precarious living by getting the odd few hours teaching or research.

One colleague who is a teacher decided to return to his former profession. Despite most inner London schools being desperate for teachers, he was told: "Schools won't employ you - you're too expensive now you've got a PhD".

Employers are reluctant to take on people who they see as having lived in some academic ivory tower for the past few years. They assume anyone with a PhD will have no useful skills and will be incapable of coping with the pressures of work.

But getting a PhD involves more than just sitting in a library for three or four years. We have many marketable skills. As part of my studies, I organised two large international conferences, set up web pages and databases, published articles and gave presentations to up to 200 people.

My experience is not unusual. Even in traditional disciplines such as English and the classics, postgrads are expected to teach, organise conferences and develop a range of computer skills. Meanwhile most are trying to hold down jobs. Far from being locked away in an ivory tower, the average postgrad can be found working behind a bar or at a supermarket checkout to fund his or her studies. Balancing academic work with multiple part-time jobs requires finely honed organisational skills most employers would find extremely useful.

But employers do not see it that way. One postgrad despairingly told me that she was thinking of removing her qualifications from her CV. She said:

"I've found the perfect way to improve my job prospects. I won't mention the PhD, and if anyone wants to know what I've been doing for the past four years I'll tell them I was in prison!" Surely things can't be that bad?

Chris Willis
London

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