Have you reached ‘peak academia’?

Have you reached 'peak academia'?

Many people believe there’s a correlation between the length of time spent studying and the job market – so that the longer you study for, the more your employability improves. I’ve heard this equation repeated by several researchers I’ve spoken to.

Unfortunately it’s only true up to a point.

Speaking from the perspective of an employer outside of academia, I’m interested in hearing about your relevant work experience, as well as about your qualifications. And the longer you’re in academia, the less direct work experience you’ll have, by definition.

That doesn’t mean you have *no* relevant experience, it’s just that you have less experience in my industry, and more experience of working in universities. Which means that both you and I have to work harder to determine how your qualifications and experience are relevant to the vacancy I’m seeking to fill.

So the (correct) assumption you had while you were in high school – that getting a first degree will improve your employability overall – doesn’t necessarily hold for subsequent degrees.

It’s better to think in terms of ‘peak academia’, when you have about the right balance of qualifications and work experience (e.g. part-time jobs and internships), for many graduate-level jobs. Go past that – in my opinion past Masters degree level – and there are diminishing returns for your employability outside of academia (for many subjects, at least).

That’s not to say that researchers aren’t eminently employable, as of course they are – but in my opinion the ‘halo’ effects of education start to diminish, the longer you’re in it (and many employers do see a PhD as education rather than as a job).

Think about the other candidates who’re applying for the same jobs as you, who are in their mid-to-late twenties or older – they’re going to have a nice track record of responsibilities and achievements in that industry. Which proves to the hiring manager that they can already do the job well. It’s this relative lack of direct work experience that starts to count against researchers, the longer they stay in academia – and qualifications don’t make up the deficit.

So let go of the idea that more degrees means improved employability. If you’re doing a PhD or post-doc, you need to start investing time and effort in a wider range of activities, to build up your employability. This can involve:

– Getting relevant work experience;

– Conducting informational interviews to understand more about your target industry; and

– Networking with the right people in that industry.

Check out my five-step process for finding a job outside of academia, for more details about the steps you should take.