Dr. Pip Wright - Life after a PhD: is it all smooth sailing? (Part 2)


Pip Wright

 

What Dr. Inger Mewburn (Part 1: The teaching landscape) says about employer perceptions of people with PhDs really resonates with me. Oddly enough, it’s not just the 'fresh' PhDs that have to deal with it. I’ve worked across a number of industries and, in my experience, employer perception of my PhD was something that could never be predicted and that I still have to think carefully about.

Here's what I mean; while interviewing for my first post-PhD job, my future boss told me he had a real battle with the company owner over whether to hire a PhD. It wasn’t because the owner thought I had nothing to offer – it was because he was fearful that I was too smart for the role and would be bored, would leave, would think the company was stupid. I couldn’t believe it! I was keenly aware that I had no ‘real-world’ experience and was so desperate for someone to take a chance on me. It’s a funny feeling when you find yourself having to beg for a role and convince a future employer that you’re actually a lot less capable than they think. I stayed with that company for 3.5 years and am still extremely grateful that my boss won the fight. Do I think my PhD helped me once I had the job? Not really. Not partially, anyway.

My second job was for a corporate consulting firm. They too had reservations about hiring a PhD but this time it was for different reasons. During one of my interviews I was asked, ‘How would you feel about not telling people you have a PhD?’ The interviewer – a senior consultant – went on to explain that it would make life much easier for me with future clients if I didn’t wear a ‘PhD target’ and that it would be best, for as long as I worked for them, if I just pretended it didn’t exist. I look back now and think that was terrible advice, but at the time – if I’m honest – I totally agreed with him as my PhD didn’t appear to be doing me any favours.

Employer perceptions of PhDs can be a funny thing. Are they warranted? Not always, but certainly yes, sometimes. I certainly didn’t come out of my PhD feeling like I had any real-world skills. I was very unconfident. But I did learn. And I learnt fast. That’s one thing I did know how to do and that my PhD taught me: if you don’t learn you don’t succeed and there’s no one else who’s going to do it for you.

I’ve now been at Pearson for 5 years and I can finally fess up to the fact that I have a PhD. Even so, that took 3 years and quite some convincing before I added the credential to my name. I’m glad I work for a company that values both my academic and my professional background and am fortunate enough to be in a role where I get to apply skills from both areas. I think in any profession you need to earn your stripes. PhDs are neither exception nor rule in that respect. Just because we gain a title doesn’t mean that we have what employers are looking for.

Would I hire a PhD now? Certainly. Would I have reservations about whether they have real-world skills? It would depend on the role. It would be dishonest of me not to say that. Employers should have reservations. Universities should have reservations. Candidates and PhDs should have reservations. That’s the only way we can have an open dialogue and make sure that PhDs can transition in a meaningful way to the non-academic workforce. Regardless of my reservations, I would be confident that I had hired a learner and – with the right attitude – they would be able to continue learning.

The university I went to had a tradition of giving PhD candidates an inflated helium balloon when they formally submitted their thesis. On the day I submitted, the tank of helium had run out so instead the poor student admin officer handed me a plastic stick with a single, deflated balloon attached to its end. That’s kind of how it felt getting my PhD: full of colour and potential but that I needed a little help to inflate.

Pip Wright Balloons


 

Dr Inger Mewburn - The teaching landscape of Higher Education (Part 1)