Overqualification in Employment

David Dussault on the value of PhD, the needs of the employers and why a career trajectory should not be linear

videos | April 26, 2021

I think about competitiveness or outpricing yourself in the market. It’s something, again, that we talked about earlier in terms of structures: what’s the value of a PhD? When you get a PhD, where are you supposed to go? This is all linear at some point. I remember going into a bachelor’s program, and the thing was that once you got out of the bachelor’s, you would get an interview, go to your job, and then if you want to go for a higher qualification, you get a master’s, and that master’s would get you a better job or something like this. So it was always, let’s say, intimately linked together.

Now, all of a sudden, that sort of linkage is gone; those predetermined landing spots where there was a higher job or the next degree level have actually been broken. It’s much more fluid. If you look at PhDs, a lot of my ex-colleagues who I work with are not in academia anymore, so when we have our alumni meetings, or we go to conferences and we rub elbows together, we all find out that we’re asking, ‘Where are you now?’, whereas before you would think that there was just this line, it was cradle to grave in a way that once you did a PhD, you’d be in academia for the rest of your life.

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It’s all value for money at this point, as much as I would like to say that it’s not. Organizations are pressed to employ fewer resources more effectively, so for an entry-level position, you’re not going to hire someone with a PhD; they’ve priced themselves out of the market.

In fact, a lot of people were telling me it’s better not to have the PhD on your CV if you’re going to go for an entry-level position, and that was from their own experience. I, fortunately, didn’t have to face that, but it is out there, and again, it calls into question what these degrees are for. I think a master’s degree (I was considering it maybe five years ago) is more of a professional degree. If a bachelor’s degree gets you maybe something in terms of an internship, when you graduate, the master’s would be that sort of degree that gets you a particular job or gets you into an interview. But it’s not good enough anymore.

I think the degree speaks less and more real-world experience is valued. You have to keep your eyes on many things at once, there are many moving parts.

So we can’t do it all for our students. Students have to be aware of the world around them, and I think we’re asking them to do a very, very difficult job very early on, which is not only to be self-aware, what you bring to the table, what you lack in terms of skills and what you need to improve upon: we also have to ask them to go out there and convince someone to employ themselves. I have students come to me because I have several other projects outside the university that I’m working on, and they come to me and say: ‘David, I’d like to work with you on this’, and my first question is: okay, what can you do for me? I can’t think of a job position for you: you need to look at what we’re doing in this project, and you need to tell me where you fit. For most 19–20-year-olds, that’s a pretty daunting question to ask, and it’s a very normal one.

I think that’s where we should be starting when we discuss competitiveness. Are you pricing yourself out of the market? Are you too experienced? Maybe we shouldn’t be talking about degrees, but we should be talking about what you can do for me; we should be emphasizing the skills more, the paperless. I’m not saying that the degree is valueless: I think we have to link it, we have to redefine it, and in that way, when it comes time to do a job interview, they could sit there and say: all right, you’ve got the PhD, you’ve got all this experience, we see that that can fit what we’re looking into. Or it could be the opposite: well, you have a bachelor’s degree, but you have all this work experience in this particular field, and you have the skill set that matches up what we’re looking for, so then you could take them with less of a degree and more experience. There’s no one sort of alchemy that works here.

And again, we’re asking the companies, and we’re asking employers or these potential employers to be aware of what they need. That’s also a discussion I was having prior to the interview with my colleagues: companies don’t know what they need at the moment. If they were able to plan 15-20 years ago on a five-year plan, now we’re looking at the annual report, which happens once a year, and then we’re looking at the quarterly reports, and then we’re looking at the reporting systems within the companies to see if they’re actually doing what they need to do.

So if you’re on that micro level already of planning, how can you sit there and say: okay, we’re going to need these sorts of people in the next couple of years? Because you’re focused on the here and now, not on the future.

So our timelines have been, let’s say, compressed, and when you have shorter timelines, it becomes much more difficult to plan for how you’re going to hire people later on and what you’re going to hire them for. It’s a classic problem, but I think it’s become more acute because we have less time to actually determine what we need. That’s when you get this whole sort of mismatch as well: people applying for jobs that they’re overqualified for, or people applying for jobs that they’re underqualified for, or the companies just basically saying, ‘we don’t know what we need, but we need someone’.

When I was working in the energy sector, my biggest weakness was that I didn’t know numbers. I hate numbers. My mom’s an accountant; she knows numbers; I’m allergic to them – statistics, all these types of things, regression analysis… I’m fluent with the lexicon, and I’m fantastic with understanding how it works, but ask me to do it – forget it. Apply numbers to real life? Nope. One of my friends (who’s now a director of the company where I worked) was telling me, ‘We need both: I need someone that understands the markets from a structural perspective, the energy market, how it works qualitatively, but then I need them to translate it into numbers’. That’s where this sort of competitive advantage lies; those people are very, very, very few.

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So the labour market has also become very, very specific in terms of the people that they need, and that’s on a case-by-case, it’s on an immediate basis. You can’t plan for anything. You can understand that the window of opportunity for people who are looking for jobs and trying to study at the same point in time to prepare for the job market can lead to them studying for eight years, and then their degree doesn’t translate into a long-term position. That’s really, really tough, it’s very tough.

It all goes back to the discussion about mindset. When I tell my students here what they need to do when they walk away, they have to be prepared to do something else than what they started out with, that their career trajectory is not going to be linear. We talked about how long you stay in a particular position, and that’s become shorter. So, at some point in time, they could land a dream job, and after two or three years, they’re out because it’s not the company’s fault; it’s just that the job doesn’t give them the level of satisfaction anymore. So they need to be prepared to go back, maybe to a place where they were before, or they have to find something else.

So I think flexibility of mind is important. Our guys have to walk out with the idea that maybe it’s okay to say, ‘No, this is not the job that I want; this is not what I thought I wanted to do, so I have to do something else’. In my parents’ generation, my generation was the sort of failure that was seen as a negative. Nowadays, I think it’s an invaluable skill to be able to say: no, that’s not what I want. I want to go and do something else, and I know how to do it; I just need these things to be in place so I can actually pursue that career. Going into a particular PhD program or something like that or a master’s program or any higher educational endeavour might not give that to you because it’s still formal. There needs to be something to supplement the formal education that people get.

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PhD in Political Science, School of Advanced Studies, University of Tyumen
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