Overqualified

The NY Times today notes that Google is unusual in that it actively recruits Ph.D.s:

Until recently, when computer science students completed their long Ph.D. training and stepped into daylight, they were treated warily by industry employers. American business has had to overcome its longtime suspicion of intellect. “Why I Never Hire Brilliant Men,” an article published in the 1920’s in the American magazine, is a typical specimen of an earlier era. In modern times, computer scientists are hired, but a doctorate can still be viewed as the sign of a character defect, its holder best isolated in an aerie.

There are potentially a lot of reasons, I suspect, it is hard for a Ph.D. to get a “regular” job. Whether stated or not, often the reason is that they are “overqualified.” It’s easy to take this as a euphemism for something else, but it may not be.

It may be that employers are intimidated by someone who is certifiably better educated than they are. It may be that they need someone who is better at thinking inside the box. While there are MBA programs that stress innovation, many do simply train bright people to do things the way they “ought” to be done.

But at a basic level, I think most employers are worried that the Ph.D. will leave their position. They might, for example, be rapidly promoted in an organization that seeks out merit of various sorts. Or, more likely, they will become bored with their job and quit or become less focused. I think this is a very rational reason not to hire a Ph.D.

From the perspective of the “common knowledge” within many businesses, the Ph.D. is a mark of the incompetent. Why would anyone spend from 3 to 7 (to 12) years pursuing a degree, paying outrageous sums of tuition, living in a hovel, working 18-hour days, when they could have been jump-starting their careers? If you can’t understand the motivation of someone, it’s difficult to manage them.

I think Google’s success has been to understand that motivation. For many, I suspect the lure of being granted a fifth of your work day to tinkering on a personal project, while it may exist, would be easily trumped by a higher salary or stock options. It remains to be seen if running a company like an academic or research institution is a profitable way to do business, but it is an interesting way to make use of a human resource.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 6/14/2004 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Is it possible that any tendency not to hire Ph.D.’s stems from a tendency to be more pessimistic (negative attributional style) in Martin Seligman’s terminology?

  2. Alex
    Posted 6/14/2004 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    There’s a couple of questions in there. The first is whether it’s true that those with grad degrees are more pessimistic, the second is whether they are seen that way.

    On the first, I don’t doubt that grad students may present a more negative attributional style, and indeed, I would be surprised to find that the rates of depression among graduate students wasn’t also much higher than in the wider population. But among the faculty I know, the view is much more optomistic. They don’t tend to take on some of the attributions (self, global) that are linked to pessimism.

    Aside from Seligman, though, there may be something of the style that graduate study engenders that doesn’t translate well to the outside world. Grad students are steeped in skepticism, and an inoportune “why?” can be as annoying from an adult, I suppose, as it can from a child. There is also a tendancy toward both irony, sometimes mixed with sarcasm, that can be interpretted as being critical.

    I do know members of faculty who can tend toward negative attributional style when discussing university administration and policies, but when talking on other subject, including their areas of research, I just don’t see it.

One Trackback

  1. By Blog de Halavais on 6/14/2004 at 10:03 pm

    The Pirate with a Ph.D.
    I was looking over an earlier post about the the temperment of professors, and was reminded of the “Sixth Sally”…

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