Porsches to Nowhere

Monday, September 23, 2013

Chand John writes a short piece that ought to be required reading for anyone considering graduate school or having doubts about finishing it. He begins his description of the "Ph.D.-Industry Gap" with the following apt metaphor:

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?
He goes on to describe what he concluded from data he collected from his own exasperating job search, and sums it up with yet another metaphor:
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). [bold added]
John is describing a real problem, but I find myself pondering its causes. I think there can be the kind of gap he decribes, but cultural and political factors are combining to make it both more common in fact and appear to be more common.

Appear to be more common? Yes, and John's chameleon analogy leads me to say so. While there will always be jobs for which an immediate need will call for a very specific type of experience, I think these are really a much smaller fraction of jobs than it seems in today's job market. This market is severely broken on at least two levels. (John's piece is really only concerned with the second of these, in which companies hire for specific skills, rather than talent.) I think this part of the problem is cultural: Many people, strongly influenced by credentialism, are reluctant to go out on a limb to evaluate talent and advocate an unusual candidate. (Paul Graham sees this as a problem to which large organizations are prone, but I think the cultural penetrance of Pragmatism is also at play to make it crop up elsewhere.)

It is more straightforward to see how gaps can be more common. Our government has been distorting the market for Ph.D.'s in science for decades, as I have mentioned here before. Even if companies got their HR bureacracies out of the way and started evaluating job candidates for talent, so many people have been funneled into acquiring terminal degrees for so long that candidates with doctorates are much cheaper than they should be. How many people who have talent, but have honed their skills in the wrong part of a marketable field -- or even in the wrong field altogether -- would there be were there not so many perverse incentives in place to do so?

There are too many Ph.D.'s out there, they are often trained to do things the market doesn't demand, and many companies are fixated on hiring for skills rather than talent. Those are facts that too many grad students take too lightly when they consider them at all.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

Often times a company will have already picked out the candidate it wants but feel the need to interview others. Baring a terrible performance from the top candidate, he/she gets the job.

'...severely limited my career options...'

'hiring for skills rather than talent'

He may find his unusual training is a benefit AFTER he lands his first job. At least where I work, skills will get you the job but talent will allow you to keep the job, progress, customize what you do, get promoted etc.

Gus Van Horn said...

I think you're right, and that does put his article into a perspective I should have been able to see.

That is, it's probably harder for many Ph.D.'s to get their foot into the door, at least initially. It would be interesting to see what John might say a few years from now, particularly if he tries changing jobs within his industry a few times.

Perhaps having the Ph.D, is ultimately not the big handicap he makes it out to be (or it just is for the first transitional job search after academia), but he may have (or support) a case that many Ph.D.'s have been a waste of time.

Anonymous said...

I would never take advise from a college professor. That was the writer's first mistake. They know nothing about the real world. They are perfectly ensconced in a university environment, where rules of the world don't apply.

Bookish Babe

Gus Van Horn said...


You have a point, but don't forget the occasional corporate/industrial type who teaches a few classes on the side.

One math professor from my undergrad days stands out as someone I wish I had listened to.