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The Ph.D.-Industry Gap

Imagine you’re a brand-new Porsche in 2011. You’re sitting in a dealership, being test-driven by many enamored consumers but never purchased. Later you hear that the 2011 Toyota Camry outsold the Lexus 1.5 to 1, the Cadillac 2 to 1, and the Porsche 10 to 1. You ask yourself: Was it worth being an impressive, expensive car, if no one ever buys you?

That ironic situation is very real for many Ph.D.’s. I faced it myself after getting my master’s and doctorate in computer science from Stanford University, where I built software that revolutionized the study of human movement, became an early expert and core developer of software featured in Scientific American, and was one of four Ph.D.’s chosen from Stanford’s engineering school for a research award.

Having learned after numerous discussions with professors that an academic career wasn’t realistic for my area of focus, I turned my attention to industry. Stanford’s tech-oriented departments drill into their students the idea that they will have no trouble getting a job in industry: The average Ph.D. student gets three job offers.

So I absorbed career advice. I did informational interviews. I received help and guidance from professors, who emphatically reassured me that I could easily get an industry job. I had my résumés submitted and vouched for by employees working in many of the companies where I applied. I prepared hard for interviews. Then the hard truth crashed down on me.

Despite having programmed computers since age 8, I was rejected from about 20 programming jobs. Despite being intimately involved in the management, marketing, user feedback, and design of a widely used software package supported by the National Institutes of Health, and endorsed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, I was unable to land a product-management job. Despite having processed large amounts of data using optimization, statistics, and control theory, my interviews for data-science jobs didn’t pan out either.

I reached out for advice. No one could pinpoint anything I was doing wrong. Professors and industry veterans inferred I must be saying something really crazy to destroy myself in 30-plus interviews: There was “no way” a person with my credentials could be denied so many jobs. However, I had said nothing crazy. My interviews had largely gone smoothly. And I did eventually land a job closely related to my Ph.D. But the opportunity didn’t arise until a year after finishing my doctorate. Before that lucky break, my accomplishments and efforts weren’t paying off.

Why?

As a scientist, I had already been gathering data about that question. Each time I was rejected from a job, I asked the companies for reasons. They were often vague, but two patterns emerged: (1) Companies hesitated to hire a Ph.D. with no industry experience (no big surprise) even if they had selected you for an interview and you did well (surprise!). And (2) my Ph.D. background, while impressive, just didn’t fit the profile of a data scientist (whose background is usually in machine learning or statistics), a product manager (Ph.D.’s couldn’t even apply for Google’s Associate Product Manager Program until recently), or a programmer (my experience writing code at a university, even on a product with 47,000 unique downloads, didn’t count as coding “experience”).

It was like being a chameleon and trying to get jobs where you had to be red, blue, or black. Yes, you’re capable of becoming any of those colors, but companies would rather hire animals that already were those specific colors. My unusual Ph.D.—in contrast to my professors’ beliefs—severely limited my career options in industry, despite my software background and my Stanford computer-science degrees (which are widely considered synonymous with wild success in Silicon Valley’s tech scene).

I eventually realized that, like many Ph.D.’s in many other fields, I had fallen into the Ph.D.-industry gap—i.e., the gap between highly specialized Ph.D. training and corporate-world expectations of hiring candidates who are industry friendly. Even in “lucrative” fields like computer science, job postings that say things like “Ph.D. or dropped out of Ph.D. a plus” show just how wide that gap really is.

So we have today’s employment climate. At one end, companies hire whoever can get the job done, like consumers buying reliable, affordable sedans. At the other end, universities, including deeply industry-savvy ones like Stanford, pump out Ph.D.’s who, like luxury cars, are too specialized and expensive for most employers.

I don’t believe that “top” graduates are entitled to jobs, or that going to a “top” university makes you “better” than anyone else, or that I “deserved” an easier job search. However, my story vividly shows that even the powerful “Stanford computer science” label can fail to overcome the industry skepticism of hiring a Ph.D. whose experience seems too academic and not industry friendly enough.

Awareness of that industry perception is alarmingly low: Even the world’s most respected, business-savvy professors can misjudge companies’ valuations of the doctoral degrees they so thoughtfully hand out. We need to talk about that publicly. When taxpayer dollars pay to produce large numbers of Ph.D.’s, only to have them struggle to contribute to the economy, society as a whole loses.

Chand John is a software engineer, entrepreneur, and biomechanist. He will be writing occasionally for the Ph.D. Placement Project blog on nonacademic careers for Ph.D.’s, and steps they can take to adjust to the industry job market and workplace.

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