Overeducated and Unemployed

“You’re too damn educated.”

I recall my grandfather, a WWII veteran of Normandy, telling me this after I earned a doctoral degree. It was his way of telling me that I was not working hard enough. To him, education was not helping me develop experience like working long hours, weeks, and years in a career.

Born and raised in rural Indiana, he knew grit and hard work. Having quit school in eighth grade to support his family, he earned paltry pay at best, farming his whole life. That’s 65 years of hard, physical labor. My other grandfather? He spent 61 years on the line at Allison Transmission, building with his bare hands. Though their stories seem a bit archaic, one common thread exists between them that was foreign to me. They were working so hard that they did not think about – or prepare for – a different future.

Unlike my grandfather, I spent ten years in post-secondary schools. During that time, I prepared for and imagined that my one and only dream job was teaching, which did not pan out for me. I now have plenty of time to think about other careers. Being unemployed has simultaneously been the most miserable and the most freeing time of my life. I feel disconnected and invisible to employers.  On the flip side, I can apply to innumerable job postings with a chai tea latte in a cozy café. I can also read books for pleasure, participate in sports, and try out new hobbies. None of which has helped me find a job, but it helps me cope. I can’t help but ask myself:  What am I doing wrong? What can I do to improve my chances of being hired sooner rather than later?

My grandfather was right. Being “overeducated” in a sluggish job market for Ph.D. scientists seems like the kiss of death. In a blog post for the Huffington Post, Courtney Branham admits considering “taking my degree off of my resume and pretending it never happened.” Many college graduates and advanced degree holders are not even using the specialized skills they developed in school. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York (via Slate) reports this is the case for over 40 percent of employed college graduates. Economists from Duke and University of North Carolina suggest that overeducated workers in the same job actually earn a lower salary than their less educated counterparts. Should we lie about our education?

Why lie about something good? Because it’s hurting me in the job hunt. Recently, I was rejected from several entry-level jobs that require only a bachelor’s degree and pay a livable wage. These potential employers have told me, “You’ll be bored here,” “We need someone with relevant experience,” and “We don’t hire people with doctoral degrees.” My all-time favorite response is, “We’re looking for someone full-time and long term. We believe that you will leave us too soon.”

We hadn’t even started our relationship, and you’re saying that I’m going to leave you? These excuses left me jaded and lacking any real feedback for improving my potential for hire. Here, it’s two rights making a wrong. My higher education and potential for upward mobility made me less attractive. This aside, what’s the answer to get an “I do” from a potential employer?

Networking and knowing people in your desired job or field. Final answer. You must have someone vouch for you. In fact, in a 2010 survey, Right Management (part of the Manpower Group) reported that 41% of their 59,000 clients found their job through networking. NPR’s Wendy Kaufman interviewed Career Horizons president Matt Youngquist regarding networking, and his comments are eye-opening. “At least 70 percent, if not 80 percent, of jobs are not published. And yet most people — they are spending 70 or 80 percent of their time surfing the net versus getting out there, talking to employers, taking some chances [and] realizing that the vast majority of hiring is friends and acquaintances hiring other trusted friends and acquaintances.”

Many years ago, my grandfather didn’t need to network – everyone in his small town knew who he was and knew his yield was good. Today, no matter how attractive your resume is, your quality as a future employee cannot be expressed convincingly enough without networking. Keep in mind that these people share their office space and work projects with you. Not to mention half of their wakeful hours. We can’t blame them for wanting to make an informed decision. So put yourself out there. That’s what I’ve been doing most recently. I have bought my friends coffee and chatted with them about their jobs. I have also asked for their contacts to help me broadening my own. As a result, I have learned of cool jobs that I never knew existed. I’ve also been connected with people who may vouch for me.

A separate issue that I’ve encountered in finding jobs, specifically as a doctoral chemist, is the minimum requirement. In many cases, this means one year of relevant field experience. How do we land entry-level jobs fresh out of school? In 2012, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) realized the need to train Ph.D. educated scientists seeking jobs outside of academia. The Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training, or BEST, program aims to provide training for biomedical graduate students and postdocs to seek research work outside of academia. The program budget is $11 million over two years for strictly biomedical research and has reached only 17 institutions across the nation, but it’s a promising first step. Sadly, so many of us – including myself – needed this program when it wasn’t there. With its limited reach, I can’t help but think this program is a Band-Aid on a laceration. We need more work to narrow the gap between what employers want and what science job applicants have to offer.

A recent article in Nature magazine suggests that graduate students and postdocs do not have the necessary information regarding job requirements for academic and non-academic positions. The authors go so far as to say that government funding agencies, specifically the NIH and National Science Foundation, “should track career outcomes for academics and beyond, and gather data to compare people with and without PhDs in similar industries or capacities so that potential candidates can assess whether a PhD programme is likely to pay off.” Academic programs should focus on students developing transferable and adaptable skills while funding agencies should provide employment outlook. It’s a great idea for future PhD scientists, but it won’t likely impact those of us currently seeking jobs.

My academic program did not push this idea, so many of us relied on advisors and older students for guidance once we hit the job market. My highly specialized skills developed in research labs are not widely transferable. However, my qualities of leadership and teamwork are transferable and desirable. It’s on me to network and promote these desirable skills.

Additionally, it may be helpful to seek positions that guarantee on-the-job training or offer their own educational services. Employers such as McKinsey, Google, and even the federal government have programs for recent graduates. Though some of these positions begin lower in salary, recent graduates can still get their foot in the door with full-time employment. I also have thrown my hat in the ring for positions like these.

There is light at the end of the job searching tunnel. As for myself and others, we need to do what my grandfather did with a modern spin. Work hard – but keep networking. Seek out experience and wisdom beyond our education. Because no one ever said, “You’re too damn wise.”


Photo credit: Flazingo CC BY-SA 2.0

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4 comments

  • Dr. Fenton Heirtzler

    Hi, while I agree with most of what your have written here (http://www.capitalchemist.org/2015/03/overeducated-and-unemployed/), I wanted to point out several glitches:

    1. The NPR interview with “Career Horizons president Matt Youngquist” which you quote, is four (4) years out of date.
    2. It isn’t just PhD-level chemists who are “fresh out of school” who are having trouble finding half-way stable employment. Also those who have been around, and are no where near retirement are afflicted.
    3. The basic issue is that there are too many PhD being generated in the physical sciences, while at the same time, the number of job openings in academia and industry is stagnant. That is why salaries for PhD-level chemists have not gone anywhere. That is why one has no chance at a tenure-track job anymore, unless you’ve attended an elite university.

  • Spencer

    I am a recent bachelor’s level chemist with the same issue and I agree that networking is the answer. Dr. Fenton Heirtzlater, shut up. You’ve got this author. While the good doctor may be right about the stagnant job market he forgets the creativity of our scientific minds. It is our duty to innovate and that is what led us to science and to seek a life different from our grandfathers. The world is ours!

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