Friday, September 19, 2014

ScienceCareers: Ph.Ds, don't apply for BS/MS positions

This piece in ScienceCareers is rather hard to read. It's about Ph.D. scientists who apply for B.S/M.S.-level positions, written by a scientific recruiter:
The discovery that you’re overqualified for many advertised jobs often comes as a rude shock. You’ve seen the ads, as Jonathan did, seeking skills in your area of expertise—but the employer hasn’t specified a Ph.D. Instead, the employer is seeking someone with a Bachelor of Science or a Master of Science degree. That’s not ideal, but you have those degrees, too, so why not apply? 
“Each of our labs has openings for B.S. or M.S.-level scientists who play a key role in our research effort. But those labs also have positions for Ph.D.s, and the two are completely separate roles,” says a client of mine, a human resources (HR) manager for a multinational R&D institution. 
I told the client a story that Jonathan shared with me: Jonathan called a networking contact and found himself speaking to the hiring manager for a position he had applied to previously. He asked why his application hadn’t succeeded, and the hiring manager gave him an answer: He was overqualified for the position. 
My client gasped audibly when I relayed that story. This was, apparently, a violation of standard protocol: Managers should “know better than to provide a lot of color,” my client says. Apparently, they’re not supposed to reveal that much about why they didn’t hire you. That’s why you rarely get a direct answer to questions like that. My HR contact, though, shared more information with me about being overqualified, so now I can share it with you.  
Read the whole thing, if only so you can share in my irritation.

I can't help but agree with Mr. Jensen that applying for and accepting a B.S./M.S.-level position is rather unwise, in that it is a dramatically different role than Ph.D.s. What I am surprised at his choice to not talk about why they might be applying for these roles, i.e. they can't find work as Ph.D.-level research scientists.

Finally, it's sad that, in our lawyer/lawsuit-phobic* culture,  we apparently can't tell applicants what we think about them. It's good for companies, sure, but it sure leaves the applicant confused. We need to be giving people feedback, even it's unpleasant. I am not really one to suggest changes to federal law, but it seems to me that passing a law to offer employers limited immunity to lawsuits in exchange for telling applicants (especially on-site interviewees) their weaknesses would be a good idea.

UPDATE: Anon0919140334P rather effectively repudiates Mr. Jensen:
Wow... I'm sure glad I didn't follow this guy's advice 8 years ago when I applied to my current company. I am a PhD chemist, and had been working as a postdoc in a national lab. I applied for a BS/MS posting because it was exactly in line with what I wanted to do and looked like a nearly perfect match for my skill sets. The only drawback was that they were looking for someone at a lower degree level. When I interviewed, I learned that the position was a replacement for a technician who had left the company. The group was looking to increase its skill level, and thought a BS/MS was the right slot for the job. 
I convinced them I'd be a better choice, and though there were some growing pains initially (group didn't function properly at first when I changed the role from technician to scientist), I was eventually promoted to lead the group. I've been doing that for the past four years. I also make significantly above the ACS salary median for PhDs, so it's not like I locked myself into a low-paying role by applying for an MS position. 
I've been on several recent hiring committees, and in many cases we consider candidates with different degree levels. I actually interviewed someone today. In his company, the only people who advance up the science ladder are PhDs, and he's looking to get out of there specifically because of that culture (has a BS + 15 years of technical & managerial experience). He stated that one of the reasons he applied for this position is because he's heard that it's still possible to advance in our company without a doctorate. This is definitely true, and is supported by the fact that two of our current top scientists have MS degrees.  
I therefore take a stance that's opposite from Jensen's: If you have a PhD and there's an MS level position that looks attractive, you should absolutely apply for it. If the company has the right culture, you might just get the job and find yourself in a place you can spend the rest of your career.
I think the trick is, most large enough companies have HR/hiring cultures that are more like Jensen's client and less like Anon's. More's the pity. 

41 comments:

  1. Sure, I agree having Ph.D.s in B.S. positions is non-ideal. But it seems to me that a fixed policy against hiring that way can be damaging to both parties. The companies could benefit from having additional skills and experience in the position. The employee might be grateful just to have a job, especially if there are limitations geographically.

    The "overqualified" problem is something that more people should know about before starting grad school. I can't make the Ph.D. disappear, but I still have bills to pay.

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  2. I feel this is perenially relevant:

    http://philip.greenspun.com/humor/phd-expunging

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    Replies
    1. I have actually considered this. No joke.

      Delete
  3. "a B.S./M.S.-level position...is a dramatically different role than Ph.D.s"

    It depends on the organization, on the individual, and on the job. Blanket policies are the product of lazy H.R. departments who have been given far too much power.

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  4. I'm not a manager, but I do have a huge say over technician hiring decisions in our small group.

    I also avoid PhD resumes for technician roles, for a number of reasons:
    1) They may become bitter at lack of position and opportunity.
    2) They may want to have more than a technician's say in the direction of the research. I really like working with technicians that have a lot of input and challenge everything, and that you can ask to follow up on projects independently. However, in the end I should be making the difficult scientific decisions, since I'm the one held responsible for the progress of my projects.
    3) They will get bored of the repetitive, tiresome, but high-skill cap and important work technicians perform.


    Don't be mad at the companies for doing this, be mad at the academic research complex for spitting out and discarding PhD students in the name of inexpensively-generated research.


    What's also funny is that I talk this way now, but I'm sure that in 5 years when I'm unemployed and incapable of finding another job, I'll wish it wasn't this way.

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    Replies
    1. Oh and my company does hire some MS as scientists if they have a lot of experience.

      Delete
    2. 1) Don't assume they will be bitter. After seeing the lives of some of the more ambitious professors at grad school, many of us don't want to be the chief CEO. We want a job that pays a decent salary, reasonable working conditions, and allows us to use some portion of our training in science.
      2) Perhaps. Nurses questions doctors. Every guy in a bar thinks he knows more than the politicians, pro football coach, etc. All managers have employees who think they know better. The role of leadership is deciding how much input to take, how much explanation to give your support staff, and how to stick with the decisions you make.
      3) If they can survive 5 years of boring, tiresome seminars (is there any other kind in grad school?) they can handle some boredom and repetition.

      Delete
  5. Wow... I'm sure glad I didn't follow this guy's advice 8 years ago when I applied to my current company. I am a PhD chemist, and had been working as a postdoc in a national lab. I applied for a BS/MS posting because it was exactly in line with what I wanted to do and looked like a nearly perfect match for my skill sets. The only drawback was that they were looking for someone at a lower degree level. When I interviewed, I learned that the position was a replacement for a technician who had left the company. The group was looking to increase its skill level, and thought a BS/MS was the right slot for the job. I convinced them I'd be a better choice, and though there were some growing pains initially (group didn't function properly at first when I changed the role from technician to scientist), I was eventually promoted to lead the group. I've been doing that for the past four years. I also make significantly above the ACS salary median for PhDs, so it's not like I locked myself into a low-paying role by applying for an MS position.

    I've been on several recent hiring committees, and in many cases we consider candidates with different degree levels. I actually interviewed someone today. In his company, the only people who advance up the science ladder are PhDs, and he's looking to get out of there specifically because of that culture (has a BS + 15 years of technical & managerial experience). He stated that one of the reasons he applied for this position is because he's heard that it's still possible to advance in our company without a doctorate. This is definitely true, and is supported by the fact that two of our current top scientists have MS degrees.

    I therefore take a stance that's opposite from Jensen's: If you have a PhD and there's an MS level position that looks attractive, you should absolutely apply for it. If the company has the right culture, you might just get the job and find yourself in a place you can spend the rest of your career.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Would you recommend using the cover letter to also explain why you are applying for a MSc-level position as a PhD chemist?

      Delete
    2. I wouldn't focus on the degree difference in the cover letter. Keep the emphasis on why you are a good fit for the job. Analogy: when someone pulls out a weapon in the work place, the general suggestion in trying to talk with them in a way that minimizes injury is to not focus on the weapon. :)

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  6. I am a MS/MBA with 7+ years industry experience doing PhD level work, but my company has a thick ceiling to break through for PhD title/pay. I am seriously considering changing jobs. Any advice on how to find/apply for PhD level jobs with a MS? What is usually meant by the term "PhD or equivalent?" I just started looking and have noticed this term in a few positions....

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  7. Sounds like one more good reason not to do a Ph.D.

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  8. As a biomed Ph.D working in a BS level position, I both agree and disagree with Jensen's position. It is frustrating working as a pair hands for a manager that might have less expertise than onself. However, I do not see how this is much different than being an academic postdoc. Academic postdoc positions are currently difficult to obtain and low paying. Why not do similar work for a slightly higher salary and better hours? We all have bills to pay, and choosing unemployment rather than a job in which one is overqualified does not make sense to me. If I doomed myself to a life of monotonous manual labor, so be it. It's better than spending years mooching off my spouse's salary while attempting to compete for Ph.D level positions.

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  9. When I was a younger lad looking for my first gig with an advanced degree, the interviewer told me, "Don't you think you're overqualified for this job?"

    I replied, "Yes, but I'm also overqualified for unemployment and welfare too."

    Maybe I'm just a smart-ass at times.

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  10. I'm wondering if it's acceptable for a PhD to apply for a MS position (one where they don't want a BS candidate), especially if they're a fresh PhD and the MS position requires experience. But, that's a bit of nuance and is probably outside of what was being discussed.

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  11. If your PhD is not good enough to warrant a job as a entry level PhD, you will not be considered for highly competitive MS + experience positions. Those positions are filled by MS chemists from top schools and experience at top companies.

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    1. But wait, aren't MS holders the people that couldn't/didn't want to finish a PhD? How does your statement hold water? "Sorry, we don't want a PhD. We want someone that couldn't/didn't want to complete a PhD. We want people with fewer/less KSAs." Then you send in the lobbyists to urge lawmakers to increase funding for STEM because you can't find qualified candidates? Did the guy with a PhD learn an inferior or defective form of science compared to the person who earned a MS at a top-tier school? I wonder if the MS went to the same place as the PhD if they could have completed the PhD there instead?

      Anon@2:57pm at least makes logical arguments against hiring a PhD. You have not.

      Delete
    2. Exactly. MS chemists didn't finish a PhD - they stopped at a degree for which the positions ask. PhDs all think they are special and different and will convince a company that they can move up later after they see how wonderful they are once they get one foot in the door.

      If you went to some rinky dink college for your PhD you are less qualified than a new grad MS from a good school. If you do not have experience in big pharma you are not going to convince the hiring manager that you are just as good as someone who successfully produced drugs or drug candidates. Take a look over at In the Pipeline. If you really think that you are more qualified than the tens of thousands of BS and MS chemists who were laid off by pharma despite their many contributions to businesses you are so full of yourself that you deserve unemployment.

      Delete
    3. What a boatload of crap! People hired and not hired for all kinds of reasons and "how good your PhD is" is hardly ever on the list.

      Delete
    4. Where you went to get your PhD is irrelevant as far as training goes. What going to a recognized school does is get you instant connections and consideration. My PI was good friends with a manager at a big pharm company. The manager told my PI that he couldn't consider any of his students because they didn't go to one of the approved schools on the companies list.

      Delete
    5. Sometimes it does not even have to do with the quality of school - a manager at a largish Midwest company once told me they consider coastal degrees a flight risk and avoid hiring such candidates.

      Delete
    6. Please stop hinting at the idea that MS "could not" finish a PhD. Do you mean that it was too hard? You need to be really, really, really dumb for that.

      I saw some dude that we use to call "starvin marvin" in grad school who could barely "connect" with people, was walking around barefoot and eating dry, uncooked spaguetti, walk away with a PhD from a top-tier school. And no, he was not a poorly understood genius. He was a dumb deadbeat.

      The reason why most of the people I know did not finish their PhD is because of personal (psychological) problems. Stop tapping yourself on the back too much. You are not a neurosurgeon, or an Olympic athlete. Geeez.

      Delete
    7. Hey, "Anonymous 12:45 PM", I've heard lots of rumors flying around about pedigree discrimination at big pharma companies, but no-one has actually stated the names of those companies. It would be good to know their names, so that people don't waste their precious time applying to them. Would you mind sharing the name of the company that you are referring to here?

      Thanks!

      Delete
    8. GC I am not the same Anon and do not know about the present landscape but back in 80s & 90s I would say there was rampant Big Name/Big School prejudice established pretty much at all Major Pharmas plus even Big Oil/Chemical companies who where highly selective and incestuous. The difference then there more jobs available meaning required dipping in to wider pools from the great unwashed, and frankly probably found many who turned out better than some of those with aristocratic heritages. My impression is that the prejudice is less ingrained these days but lingers still in general practices of identifying and vetting candidates.

      If looking for a job I am not sure would consider it a waste of time to still apply anyway although must not get ones hopes up too much being aware the competition may have a leg up already if they have a "better" background due to School/PI elitism (US version of a Class System).

      Delete
  12. "over-qualified" is often used as a code reason in discriminatory situations. It can mean you're too old. Or that you're female. Or that they didn't like your personality. Or that they want to let you down gently. It means nothing.

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  13. One detail which really pisses me off relates to European companies having major industrial presence in the US, for example Switzerland (e.g. Roche/Genentech, Novartis or Ciba). In Switzerland (but also others) age discrimination is codified. This means that if you are a foreigner older than approximately 35, you can't work there. On the other hand, the same companies will proudly display their EE statements for their US jobs. Of course they will never state this in their form-rejection letters, but it is nevertheless the default reason.

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  14. STEM funding is head up by lobbyists from universities. Gotta keep that Ponzi scheme going!

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  15. Here is a point of view from the real world, as it exactly happened to me.
    Have a MS degree + 12 years big pharma background. Got a job in a small-midsize firm for 112K$ / year and enough stocks to retire on.

    They could have given this job to a PhD. Hiring managers don’t really care about all the bull crap that is discussed here. You want to know why I had the job based on what the manager told me? Here is a dose of truth and realism for yah: because I made it clear that I am a bench chemist and will always be a bench chemist.

    Cies are sick and tired of investing in a PhD that will put in 1-2 years of average work before causing some “static” about having direct reports, attending self-serving conferences oversee and what’s the timeline before I become a VP? Here are the words that were spoken to me from someone hiring in this biz: “PhD’s are becoming a poor investment”.

    I don’t spend my days buffing up slides for the Gordon conference. I make sh*t happen at the bench. Sure there are PhD’s exactly like that. But too bad. If you don’t like being judged according to the lowest common denominators of your peers, than welcome to my god damn world.

    Credentialism is un-american. Thank you America.

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    Replies
    1. I am anon from 2:57 pm, Sep 19.

      Very good post, I agree that making things happen in the lab is the most important part of being a scientist, regardless of degree. All successful projects of mine start with me in the lab.

      However I want to challenge you on whether bench scientists are actually valued. I've had this back and forth with my manager (VP R&D), where a) I say I'd like to have mixed science and management responsibilities so that I will earn more, b) he says I could also consider a pure research scientist track, which will equally well reward my demonstrated research talent, and c) I tell him I am doubtful. My paycheck has yet to rid me of that doubt.

      To give a military analogy, the higher non-commissioned ranks have two streams, for example in the Marines the equal pay grade First Sergeant (leadership) versus Master Sergeant (technical leadership). I really doubt that if I take the pure scientist stream (with no direct reports, but of course help from technicians in day to day work) I will see the same pay level as with a management position (if I could obtain one).

      Delete
    2. Of course I agree...

      No matter the degree, we all report to an MBA from Harvard. Don't we? I know of someone with the same background as me who got an MBA, a P.M.P. certification and a six sigma black belt, whatever the hell that is. She is making 50% more money than me, and keep on climbing.

      We are the cotton-field pickers of this business.

      Delete
    3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    4. BTM, a little civility, please.

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    5. I did it! I did it! YESSSSSSSS.........................

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    6. You are making me very curious about the comments which were deleted....

      Delete
  16. You know what surgeons do after 2 decades of training? Surgeries. They don’t sit in an office and “manage” a nurse opening the chest of a patient who then write a report to the surgeon about what went wrong.
    You know what Bobby Flay does after 30 years of training? He is still in the kitchen, chopping and grilling. He does not sit in an office “managing” a McDonald graduates cooking for a 5 star restaurant and writing a report about why the Montecristo steak tasted like crap.
    Why are top University trained scientists so disgusted about their craft that they want to move on after graduation?
    Everybody knows the answer to that. And the system will be put to rest before it can reform itself.

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    1. I would venture that most well established surgeons end up performing their craft only as scheduled on one or two days a week for which handsomely rewarded. As far as Bobby Flay I imagine even though he does still actually cook the majority of the preparation, monitoring and plating tasks are handled by sous chefs and others.
      While I can't argue many scientist end up moving on it's often as much about advancement and pay scales capabilities than dissatisfaction with the work (however working under MBAs who do not understand and appreciate any science can wear done even the most enthusiastic researcher). Everyone can't be a superstar but would bet many scientists would continue in science fields if they knew they were contributing plus would be valued and rewarded for the efforts

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  17. The whole piece is nonsensical - he writes it as if someone actually considers these candidates. In reality these applications are weeded out by automatic filters long before a real person sees them.

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    1. I agree that most unassisted applicants (for any position) never are likely to get true consideration as in this day and age where initial resume screening is performed by automated software/key word matching and/or HR "Professionals" both which would typical would discard any "PhDs" if the job description states BS/MS level. At the same time in some cases it may be the PhD candidate is truly not a suitable match to the duties and environment however I have often observed that most companies will want PhD level skills yet are unwilling to pay at customary PhD rates because can get "cheaper" BS/MS people. The common system appears to me as such where PhDs are often overvalued while BS/MS people, especially with experience, are undervalued relative to want the can do now but more so in potential future contributions.

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  18. I'm a PhD chemist that applied for an R&D Managerial position that only required a Master's degree. Similar to the anonymous poster above, I got the position. The company I'm at isn't really experienced with PhDs. Their biggest fear was that someone with a PhD might look down upon lab techs. In our R&D department we have everything from college drop-outs to PhDs with post-doctoral experience. One of the PhDs even did his post-doc with a nobel prize winner. I think a big part of the job market is the luck of the draw. The only reason I applied at this company was because of its geographical location, which happens to be in the same place my wife (also a PhD) resides.

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  19. We'd be better off if the culture changed so that these two kinds of roles weren't known as "BS/MS" and "Ph.D." You need people who spend most of their time at the bench, and you need people who spend time managing others and determining strategic direction. Assigning people to these roles with a rigid hierarchy based solely on highest degree earned doesn't make any sense. A good MS scientist can contribute more to either of those roles (depending on the particular talents and aptitudes of the person) than a bad Ph.D. scientist, and vice versa. The degree by itself doesn't really mean a lot, but yet it locks a person into a role with either a firm ceiling or a firm floor.

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  20. A friend recently tried to hire a researcher for a time-sensitive project. He says he did not really care what the degree the candidate would have as long as he could do the job. The HR started out by throwing out all PhD applicants, I understand on that basis that the money offered did not match pay scale for PhD's they have in their system. Long story short, the project is in the full swing and no one got hired.

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