Education and Experience are Not Mutually Exclusive: Job Market Pet Peeves

While looking at positions that allow me to jump off the sinking ship of academia, I’ve seen plenty of rewarding, fun, and excitingly challenging job announcements out there. Most of them require two to five years of experience in the field, and I’ve looked at those, said ‘yep, I qualify’, and turned in the application. I can’t say what happens after, but here’s the type of experience I thought I could safely check off, which met with a surprisingly negative response:

  • communicating complex technical issues to a diverse audience
  • social media and online outreach
  • project management
  • volunteer coordination
  • budget management
  • community engagement
  • mentoring and training employees
  • grant management and program development

When did I learn these tasks? In graduate school. And here’s where I can feel the doors shut on interest in my application. After applying for positions doing any one of the careers listed above, I’ve met the following responses many times:

You don’t have enough experience

Down to the very logistics of the application form, experience and education are supposed to be mutually exclusive. You get training in school, but perform the task on the job. However, graduate school does not fall into categories so easily. During the first year or so, graduate students take a host of classes, many of which are methods or analytic training for what they’ll do later in their research. But the transition between training and practice happens shortly thereafter, and while still in ‘student’ status. For example, I took a number of qualitative methods courses and a workshop on facilitation. The very next month I turned applied those lessons in applied research, facilitating meetings of research participants, collecting perspectives through interviews, and creating a participatory map activity. I completed all of this as part of the same project in the same role at my university. Yet, there’s no box in online resumes to put experience gained under graduate school. Sometimes you can’t put separate listings for education and experience during the same timeframe, or split up the time spent in classes from the time spent implementing skills learned. Therefore, I’ve been declared ineligible for jobs with two or three years experience required, even though I spent four doing the exact task required. Granted, a PhD is a unique conundrum because, unlike other forms of student-hood, working towards a dissertation is – on the day-to-day – more like working than studying.

You’re overqualified

Receiving this response right after the ‘you don’t have enough experience’ creates a huge catch-22. Employers worry that someone with a PhD applying for an entry-level job will be unhappy, leave soon after hire, or will demand an unfeasible salary. There’s never a place to express my appreciation for the tasks in the job description or the fact that I would be happy doing them, without these forms of cynicism following closely behind. It’s also frustrating because I have yet to gain some skills that come with all entry-level jobs: working closely under a supervisor, working efficiently under deadlines, or working with clients. While a handful of graduate students have these opportunities as students, I did not, and would love the opportunity to learn those skills, even in an entry-level job. I understand what I’m applying for. A few have reacted to this sentiment by leaving the PhD entirely off of their resumes or at least thinking carefully of when it might be appropriate to do so.

Don’t you want to be a professor?

This one particularly irks me, as in the current state of academic employment, we should encourage any and all PhD-holders to think outside the box to find career fulfillment outside the ivory tower. Yes, I taught some classes – and am very proud of that experience and accomplishment. I might choose to continue teaching as a contract instructor alongside my career. I hear students appreciate the real-world perspective. But right now, I value the lifestyle other careers offer and the skill sets I can gain in the role of practitioner. Please don’t second-guess me on that.

A network of understanding professionals.

I’ve learned to lean on my professional network – people who understand the nature of a PhD and what it really means to be transitioning out of the tenure-track pipeline (and why that might be the smartest move of all). These people can recommend employers that understand research experience – the fundamental core of PhD training – is a huge asset in a variety of careers. I’d love to see this groups of employers grow, and that’s why I’m motivated to tell my story. Let’s make a PhD something to talk about, rather than the elephant in the room.

  1. Thank you very much for telling this story! This problem can be compounded by the seemingly-favored “computer aided” application selection tools that many organizations are using. If you don’t have the appropriate buzzword or keyword in your application, its tossed categorically, without a person ever having looked at it. Also, many job competitions don’t offer applicants much feedback – about why their applications did or didn’t work, which leaves a void learning opportunity for the job-seeker. Unfortunately these problems are compounded by the number of applications often received for jobs, especially in “desirable” geographic locations. I join you in hoping for more dialogue and more respect for PhD education as training.

  2. Yes! Yes! Yes! When I was searching for a non-academia job soon after I completed my PhD, I felt like I was in some weird no-man’s land with too much education and not enough experience (at least on paper). It all worked out, but the process was incredibly frustrating. Fortunately, there are some employers out there who understand the value of not only research skills, but the myriad of other skills that are gained as part of the PhD process. I just wish that those employers were easier to find, especially for people who are still in the process of building their networks.