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May 22, 2006

Would You Hire a Ph.D.?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I suppose I'm extrapolating from my own personality and experience in graduate school. Lord knows it took me a long time to get my mind halfway back to normal afterwards. As a result, if I were still in the demographic data business and was hiring, I'd be more cautious when evaluating candidates with doctorates than I would with people with lesser degrees.

Not that there's anything categorically wrong with Ph.D.s, mind you.

No question that the typical Ph.D. has above-average intelligence; that's a valuable trait for the data game. Plus, earning a doctorate normally requires persistence, another useful trait.

But Ph.D. holders can carry less-desirable baggage, especially those whose degrees are not in hard-science or engineering fields. This risk is higher the more recently-minted the Ph.D. is.

One potential problem with brand-new Ph.D.s has to do with that recently-completed dissertation. It can take two or more years to get through the process. This can do serious damage to one's sense of time if one is dropped into a business research setting. (I'm not talking about pharmaceutical testing and other intrinsically long-term research here.)

As stated, a dissertation can take years. Government research projects can take months. Business research often can be expressed in terms of weeks. There's a serious gap between weeks and years, and some bright Ph.D.s can have trouble with this.

Dissertations are supposed to be practically perfect. The Ph.D. candidate can spend large chunks of time submitting draft chapters to his dissertation committee members who are seemingly never quite satisfied with this detail or that. Of course the world doesn't need Ph.D.s who are sloppy researchers, but the new doctors might have difficulty grasping the notion that imperfect research can be good enough. Most will understand this sooner or later: a few might never get it.

So one item I'd want to tease out during a job interview would be how wedded the person was to the ideal of uncompromising quality. If the person was adamant regarding quality, then I'd probe regarding flexibility and practicality on other matters. If I detected such traits, I might figure that he could be weaned from perfectionism.

A potential problem for social-science Ph.D.s is too strong a commitment to Theory. This can come from the classroom or seminar, but the first dissertation chapter typically deals with previous research ("the literature") and setting up the hypothesis to be tested in later chapters, so Theory is usually a big deal from this source as well. Theory is not a bad thing, but practicality normally trumps it in business settings. The job candidate should show a sense of perspective/flexibility on this.

It wasn't much the case in my grad school days, but nowadays a number of academic disciplines have been hijacked by political movements. While it's hard to imagine a diehard deconstructionist applying for a private-sector research job, I'm certain I'd never hire such a person if he came calling: he'd only be a source of trouble for me and my clients.

So, if Ph.D.s are suspect, what about Bachelors or Masters degrees?

If the job required knowledge of scientific procedures, I suppose I would favor a candidate with a Masters, provided he'd had the appropriate coursework. And if I needed somebody to do demography, a Masters with a concentration in that field would be ideal.

But having only a Bachelors degree would be perfectly fine in many cases. Demography isn't rocket science; it can be picked up with a little reading provided there is some on-the-job training and mentoring. So yes I might hire someone with a Liberal Arts degree if there was some scientific coursework and math in the mix and proper personality traits were in place.

Sadly, based almost entirely on anecdotal evidence, I'm beginning to worry that undergraduates have been corrupted by both their teachers and curriculum revisions of the last few decades. For example, like me, my son got his BA from the University of Washington, but his training in English was more haphazard than mine.

Fortunately character counts, so if all else failed, I'd hire on that basis (most else being equal).



posted by Donald at May 22, 2006


On a U of Chicago bulletin board there used to be a time-yellowed snippet from the newspaper about a grad student who finished his thesis, finally got it past his committee (which had had to be reconstituted several times as members of it transferred, left or died over the years), and at last went to his advisor's office with an ax and chopped him into bits.

My little attached seminary finally got a new sensible dean who quietly converted many of his thesis-less doctoral-candidate students (including myself) into an invented category of MA earners and "cut them loose." The rage and paralysis this resolved is hard to overestimate. The quip at the U of Chicago is that people finish their coursework in three years and work on their thesis for the rest of their lives.

The state of knowledge is so different from that when doctoral degrees were invented that grad school has become a patronage system meant to provide slave labor. No one is much impressed. It is post-doc and publication or... yawn.

The burst of post-construction and post-colonial theory was like the Sixties: an overdue harrowing which is now preventing what it was meant to enable.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 22, 2006 11:34 AM

At the risk of stirring up some controversy, I've long suspected that some - not, you will note, all - people who get Ph.D.'s do so not because they're so genuinely devoted to learning, but because they're frightened of facing the "real world" and prefer to remain students as long as possible. There's something safe and comforting about remaining a perpetual student long after most of one's classmates have had to face reality in the form of jobs and housing and buying cars and paying bills, especially when one can live off of incidental earnings supplemented by family money while pursuing the degree. I see this sort risk-avoidance mindset as being not particularly compatible with the demands of the working world and therefore something that would give me pause before hiring a Ph.D.

Posted by: Peter on May 22, 2006 11:44 AM

I second Mary and Peter. And I confess to being wary of overeducated know-it-alls in general. I read somewhere not very reliable that PhD's are generally a little more dim (in a, yawn, IQ sense) than people with less-exalted degrees. Even if it's not true, i ought to be. God, hanging out with PhD's -- what a drag. People who spend their lives trying to sort out who's smartest. What a dumb way to pass the time.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 22, 2006 11:52 AM

Peter -- I don't see any of what you wrote as in any way controversial.

Posted by: jult52 on May 22, 2006 12:05 PM

Peter -- And then there are people who get multiple Masters degrees. I knew of a few such cases when I was in grad school; some of these guys were pushing (or had pushed past) 40.

Getting degrees in different disciplines is not always a bad thing: think engineering degree and law degree -- a combo that some employers can find highly valuable.

I'm not sure about today, but in my day many universities set a time-limit for getting a Ph.D. -- seven years is a number that comes to mind for getting past the written exams phase. And I knew students who were getting close to hitting said limit.

In many cases, postponing taking the written Ph.D. exams was a matter of pure fear. In others it was semi-rational. This is because Sociology can be a B.S. discipline and one prof's take on a sub-field could be a lot different from another's. So grad students often tried to take a class or two from profs known to be exam-readers. And if a prof stopped being a reader for, say, Social Stratification, then students often flocked to class taught by his replacement.

I was releieved to get away from that zoo.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 22, 2006 1:19 PM

Practical? I spoke with the same institution at which I got my master's about a PhD program (temporary insanity on my part) a few years ago. Wanting to use it in a pragmatice business setting was a disqualifier for even getting into the program! They only wanted academic researchers who wanted a teaching job at a "research university" (whatever that exactly means) and who wanted to publish in academic journals. A practical use for the degree was a horrifying waste of the degree to them. I am not kidding. They self-select people who only want the degree theoretically.

Posted by: annette on May 22, 2006 2:06 PM

I don't mind career students as long as they realize and acknowledge that that is what they are. When I went back to school, I met some people pursuing their 2nd and 3rd degrees, had no practical plans on using them, and were quite content to be learning and working low-impact jobs. In fact, they were the happiest lot I encountered at school.

I'll agree that self-important people, regardless of credentials, are highly annoying and should be avoided at all costs.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 22, 2006 3:20 PM

Re: practicality of earning PhD.
Donald, I know eaxctly what you're saying, about "eternal learning" phase. At my sister's wedding, her bridesmaid was 1-year into PhD program in biochemistry. 10 years later, now married with 3 children and [very, very patient] husband, she's still not finished.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 22, 2006 3:33 PM


Posted by: Tatyana on May 22, 2006 3:34 PM

Gaakh -- how to respond without seeming like an overeducated know-it-all?? While I completely recognize Donald's characterization with respect to *some* Ph.D.'s I know, it certainly doesn't apply to all. Yes, some of us never wanted to leave school and so enrolled -- and yes, some of us got our heads stuck in the clouds of theory and never could come back down to the nuts-and-bolts of the real world, but others, not so much. I finished my program in 4 years, got out as fast as I could, and back to what constitutes reality for me -- a professorship, followed by a movement into administration, where believe me, lit or cognitive theory is not something I rely on every day of the week. After having completed my brilliant and perfect dissertation (in 1 year from start to finish, including social science research), I learned about as quickly as anyone could that the way to survive in the world of work, whether academia or business, was to learn to do a "good enough" job -- department chairs and academic affairs VP's seemed to be thrilled if I turned in something on time that represented a 75-85% effort, which was all I could manage and keep my head afloat.

On the other hand, I have a friend who started before I did, took 10 years to get out, never did a thing with her dissertation because she couldn't make it perfect, and in 15 years in the academy has never ever turned in a project on time, but when she does, it's brilliant and she's completely exhausted and has to stay home for several weeks afterwards. She's now going on medical leave because she's completely and utterly burned out. I think this has much more to do with her personality than with whether she has a Ph.D. or her Ph.D. program somehow caused her to be this way. It's her own pathology.

Me? I'm pretty much fun to hang out with, and you'd be damned lucky to hire me. Ask anyone.

Posted by: missgrundy on May 22, 2006 5:16 PM

Miss G. -- C'mon, now. As a former-grad-student in good standing I carefully used the words "can," "potential," "supposed," and "seemingly" for posterior-coverage.

... Now if I only could perfect that "one-hand-other-hand" routine ...

And it's fun having you hanging out in our Comments section.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 22, 2006 6:35 PM

I am currently doing my Ph.D part time. I have been working for the past 8 years and work life has provided for me immensely, my home, my bike, a comfortable life.So I work full time.

So let me tell you the Ph.D began because I wanted to stay alive intellectually and morally. I was wasting most of my time trapped in an office cubicle, that just wanted a good job. What would most interest me and redeem me from this drudge of the serial good jobs I've been doing - a Ph.D degree was the option.

I don't fool myself doing a Ph.D, I work full time 12 hours a day, the Ph.D guarantees me no great job, a hike in salary. Nothing at all. I don't even care about the Dr. title.

But I go back to why I started a Ph.D - I want to stay alive intellectually and morally. It allows me to put energies into a worthwhile project. It is as simple as that. No complicated reasons for pursuing a Ph.D and now it just becomes a matter of discipline and challenge.

If I figured that a company wouldn't hire me because I was overqualified, I would never put in my doctoral work on the resume. If I figured it would give me an edge - Why not?

Pursuing a Ph.D is like training for the Ironman, at first it is a challenge, the highs, the lows, the Why-did-I-get-into-this phase and then just get it over with - You are an Ironman.


Posted by: Cecilia on May 22, 2006 10:44 PM

So let me tell you the Ph.D began because I wanted to stay alive intellectually and morally. I was wasting most of my time trapped in an office cubicle doing serially good jobs.

What would most interest me and redeem me from this drudge - a Ph.D degree was the option.I am doing all this while maintaining a 11 hour work day.The job pays better.

The Ph.D is in no way going to help me in the work place. Go back to why I started a Ph.D - I want to stay alive intellectually and morally. It allows me to put energies into a worthwhile project. It is as simple as that. No complicated reasons for pursuing a Ph.D and now it just becomes a challenge.

Getting a Ph.D fo me is like training for the Ironman. The initial high, the lows, the doubts, the giving-up,family and personal time disruption, then the just-get-it-done phase - You an Ironman.

Would you hire me Donald? Bet you would.

Miss Grundy your smart

Posted by: cecilia on May 22, 2006 11:05 PM


You hit the nail on the head. Even some "social science" and certainly any "black/women's/etc." studies folks with just a BA wouldn't even get an interview when I'm involved in the hiring process.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on May 23, 2006 5:48 PM

Good thing you know how to cover your post with hedges, Donald -- I think my post was more about expressing frustration with colleagues who ARE like what you describe. They're not everyone, but they are a significant enough chunk that it becomes frustrating for those higher up the food chain (which I now am) who are actually trying to get something done in academia. Herding cats doesn't begin to describe it. The question is whether academia makes those people that way, or whether they're attracted to academia in the first place because they're that way. Something I don't have time to ponder right now, because I'm doing an analysis of office utilization, after which I will engage in knock-down, drag-out fights with people who are not utilizing theirs appropriately.

Cecelia, I do understand everything you're saying, and folks who haven't done it really don't understand the Ironman aspect of it, the sheer endurance test as they make you jump over (or crawl under) hurdle after hurdle, year after year. Then once you've survived that, if you do get an academic job, you are literally on probation for 6 years, and have to prove yourself over and over again, before you're a permanent employee . . . is it any wonder that we phds are a little weird and touchy?

Posted by: missgrundy on May 24, 2006 2:49 PM


If you're saying that some people only get Ph.D.'s because they just don't want to make the transition out of school, sure I guess that happens occasionally, although I have yet to meet a person like that. Everyone I know thinks I'm crazy for wanting more education, they are desperate to get out of school and start earning money.

Also, I think the suggestion that the "real world" is hard and the academic world is easy is just nutty. I'm not sure that's what you were saying, but there is no question it takes far more effort and luck to land a tenured professorship in almost any field these days than to land an equivalent paying corporate job.

Business success is much more related to social skills and less to cognitive competence, so it is difficult to compare difficulty. Here is one way to think about it however: In general a highly intelligent nerdy type will have to work harder to earn a professorship than a highly charismatic extrovert of substandard intelligence would have to work to earn a good corporate job. Especially if she's doing pharmaceutical marketing =). The sheer number of business jobs available pretty much assures the truth of this conjecture.

Members of the "real world" (or more accurately the business world) seem to have some pretty negative perceptions of the Ph.D. holder. While some of these perceptions probably apply to some PhD's, they seem to be missing the real point of pursueing a PhD: Making a contribution to humanity.

Hacking away in some office on little profit-building projects doesn't leave you a mark in history. It doesn't even help anyone besides your company, your shareholders, and a few costumers; and in a very superficial way. Try bragging to your kids about your latest projects at your corporate job. You would have an easier (although still not easy) time impressing upon them the importance of your work in an academic position. Professors will typically command more prestige in the community as well.

Writing a dissertation and publishing articles makes a real mark. It doesn't matter the size of the mark, it's the fact that you made one. The publication of a new discovery or new thought, however minor, earns you a place in intellectual history. It also contributes to all sorts of other lofty goals like personal fulfillment, pursuit of the contemplative life, etc.

Laypeople seem to completely overlook the public service aspect of the Ph.D., which is in fact the main attraction for me.

There is another practical issue that hasn't been brought up here, but that some of my professors have mentioned. If you are pursuing a masters anyway, you have a unique chance to spend a few more years and get a Ph.D. It is a hassle to try to return later and get one if you need it in 20 years for a promotion in a technical field. Also, masters students tend to be given second-class treatment compared to Ph.D. students.

Posted by: James on June 15, 2006 2:06 PM

"highly charismatic extrovert of substandard intelligence"

The first part of that statement negates the second. Merely a different type of intelligence. Also, PhDs aren't doing God's work, mostly. They are making minor contributions to fields in much the same way a corporate drone is making a minor contribution, although the latter most likely will get no recognition for it.

I agree that tenured posts are hard to come by, but I would say a big reason for that is scarcity of open positions. Also, an equivilant position in the corporate world would be a high level executive, not middle management, and those high-level jobs are not easy to come by either.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 15, 2006 3:23 PM

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