In my last blog, I talked a little bit about the article in the December 2010 issue of The Economist and now I’d like to talk a little bit about one of the unpleasant ramifications of the problem that article highlighted. The numbers are daunting in that between 2005 and 2009 there were 100,000 PhDs awarded but only 16,000 new professorships. Considering that it is likely that this has been going on for much longer than this time period, it is easy to see how the competition for academic jobs has become so fierce and the number of people feeling stuck in postdocs has gotten so large. Understandably, there is a lot of frustration and concern out there about job prospects.
As my colleagues and I at SciPhD.com have been working with institutes on trying to address some basic business skill training for postdocs and grad students to help them transition to industry positions, I’ve noticed a rather disturbing trend, namely frustrated job seekers venting their anger very inappropriately. Don’t get me wrong, trying to find a new position is an exceedingly difficult task, and a fair amount of frustration is to be expected. But what I’m seeing is taking that frustration many steps further and blaming the business world for “not understanding” and railing against corporate executives both for their perceived educational deficiencies (I’ve seen people go off on CEOs for not having a PhD) and for being short-sighted because companies emphasize skills other than research.
Why is this a problem? Well, if people are willing to vent like this online (which I see very often) or in person (which also happens), it is very possible this anger is also coming across in interviews or even before. While online communities have their place, participants do have to realize that what they post there doesn’t go away, and can be found. Googling potential candidates is now standard practice at most companies.
From the standpoint of a hiring manager in industry, every hire comes with two major decisions. First, can this candidate do the job? And second, can this candidate work with the existing team? Mistakes on either of those counts can be time-consuming and expensive for the company. The rule of thumb in industry is that the expenses associated with hiring someone are usually about 1.5X their salary, so having to hire and then replace someone can easily chew through a budget in short order. So if background research on a person shows a lot of anger or misunderstanding of how businesses in general operate, it is not going to help that candidate’s chances. Similarly if you do land an interview and come across as dismissive of the company or its employees, you’re not going to have much of a chance.
If you do have questions or concerns about a company or a position, be sure to frame your conversation in a positive manner. For example, if you don’t think a line of research is what you would like to do, maybe the way to start the conversation is “Why is the company approaching the problem from that angle” instead of “That really is a dumb way to solve the problem and you should do this instead”. Positive language can have a very significant impact on how you are perceived.
Transitioning to the business world is hard enough. Don’t compound the problem by being a toxic academic.