Tuesday, April 03, 2007
In a discussion in the comments section last week, one freeway flyer commented that he keeps adjuncting for a living because whenever he tries to find a non-academic job, he's turned away for being 'overqualified.' He can't get a tenure-track line, due to the lovely economics of higher ed, but non-academic employers assume (accurately or not) that he'd decamp at a moment's notice for an academic job, so they don't want to invest their time and training in him. (Presumably, many non-academic employers – and non-academics generally – have a much rosier picture of the economics of higher education than is actually the case.)
I ran into that one myself a lot in grad school. Since summer courses were few and far between, and TA stipends didn't cover July or August, I had to find regular scut jobs to pay the rent. I got turned away from a surprising number of very low-wage, low-skill places, on the grounds that they didn't want someone who would be gone in a few months.
The 'overqualified' term is unfortunate, since it's sort of inaccurate. On its face, it's a direct assault on any notion that employment and merit are somehow correlated – if the best applicant always wins, then 'overqualified' should be a nonsense term. But it's usually really more about fear of flight risk, a clumsy sort of psychoanalysis about likelihood of sustained motivation, and, sometimes, letting people down easy.
Flight risk is a very tricky reality. I'll admit, I've been on both sides of this one. When I was at Proprietary U, I was on several search committees on which some very strong candidates didn't get interviews because it was painfully obvious, to us, that they wouldn't stick around for more than a year. That might seem arbitrary, but there's a very real cost to high employee turnover. Between search costs and learning curves, you don't hit the sweet spot of productivity immediately. I don't think it takes nearly as long as some of my tenured faculty like to believe, but it's rare to hit it in the first year. Even for experienced instructors, there's usually an adjustment period to a new setting. From the employer's side, if you know you're being 'settled for,' you're the port in the storm and no more than that, then you can expect bare-minimum performance, iffy attitude, and the need to advertise again next year.
At least there, we were in the same industry in which we suspected the candidate wanted to work. I'd imagine the misgivings would be even greater for non-academic employers. If Adjunct Bob showed up at my marketing company, doctorate in hand, with years of ongoing teaching experience, I'd be wary. Did Adjunct Bob have an epiphany, or is he just looking for a spot to land until the job he actually wants comes along? If I'm not desperate, I could see not wanting to take the chance.
The psychological issues here are major and sticky. What can be passed off as 'flight risk' may be fear of being overshadowed. Or the fear of flight risk may be out of proportion to the actual likelihood of someone leaving – I suspect that's true more often than people think. As Bitch likes to say, we aren't brains on sticks; sometimes people take positions that aren't immediately obvious fits on paper, because there are other factors in their lives – spousal ties, family ties, whatever – that offset the apparent imbalance. The employer can't ask about those, though, so information not available is information not considered, even when it would actually be relevant.
And it's fundamentally degrading, as an applicant, to have your motives questioned. How do you respond to “I'm just not sure you'd be happy here.”? Especially if part of you agrees?
(This is where my inner Scandinavian gets his back up. My private thoughts, personal demons, and deep motives are my own, thank you very much. As long as I behave appropriately, how I feel about it is none of your damn business. This is also why I experience motivational speakers as unethical and coercive.)
I think the disparity between the popular image of what it means to have a doctorate, and the actual economic realities of higher education (especially in traditional fields), is making this issue much more salient than it should be. If job opportunities were thick on a ground, the obtuseness of one prospective employer wouldn't matter all that much – you'd just move on to the next one. But full-time jobs aren't thick on the ground. Worse, the shortage of full-time academic jobs is often a secret to non-academics, who just assume that education is the key to success. So an unlucky would-have-been-English professor may be shut out of tenure track opportunities by sheer numbers, and shut out of good corporate gigs out of a misplaced sense of flight risk. This just plain sucks.
Has anyone out there found a good response to the 'overqualified' line?
If you come across as sincerely wanting the job (rather than using it as a placeholder until something else comes along), you should at least get consideration. It shows that you have thought about the same issues that the employer has.
As a secondary suggestion, make sure your resume looks like a resume, rather than an CV. You don't want it to scream academic.
And there are pay cuts and then there are pay cuts. Most starting salaries for entry level corporate jobs where I live are in the 20's and 30's. If an applicant has made, say, in the 40's -- either as an adjunct, or as a full time non-tenure track -- then explaining why one would be willing to take such a drastic pay cut is not going to be easy. And it isn't that the corporate job is going to assume you will go back to academe; they simply assume, perhaps rightly, that you will leave for more money at the first opportunity.
Another thing I've exerrienced is that often the people doing the hiring do not have any illusions about the grandeur of the entry level position. They know it sucks. That's why they want fresh faced 22 year-olds for those slots. Woe be to the 30-something, or (gasp) 40-something academic with a Ph.D. applying for some generic office admin. asst. gig.
And this brings me to another insight. Many friends in the corporate world have told me, completely straight faced, to leave my Ph.D. off of my resume when applying for entry level work. I don't have a problem doing that, but it rasies another, and often deeper problem; namely, how to explain that huge gap in my employment history when I was in grad. school, and after when I was teaching at "elite" SLAC.
And the funny thing here is I haven't even broached the non-academic world's general skepticism and disdain for "intellectual types" with no apparent marketable skills.
And DD nails it when he mentions the wide gap betwen the academic and non-academic world in terms of their perception(s) about education. Most don't kow about adjunctification, and they don't really get it when you explain it -- or they just flat out don't believe you and figure you're covering for something.
I've come to the conlcusion that the only real option for Ph.D.'s is some sort of re-training. In other words, go back to school, which isn't always feasible.
Now, of course, that brings up the question of how you get experience without previous experience. :) I'd suggest a 2-month contract gig, interning, or working in that field at a nonprofit. (Make that flexible adjunct's schedule work for you!)
The internship, contract gig, or whatever will also get you thinking and talking like a native. In my second career as a Web designer, I found I had to learn how to imitate a marketing professional if required--if I didn't, my clients would ignore me, and we'd never get the project done.
The "job" title of research assistant also helped explain the move into a new field. It seems that most of the people doing the hiring lately have bought into the idea that research at a university is lonely and boring... of course you would want to leave for something more exciting/interesting!
Just some things I've noticed as a few of my friends from grad school (hard sciences mostly) have made the move from adjuncting to jobs that don't want a Ph.D.
I assume we expect a pay and status cut down to the bottom of the totem pole ---- which means we'll be competing against our own fresh-out-of-school students ---- and I'm not sure that us older and overeducated ones would have an advantage. Young inexperienced newbies are not only cheaper, but haven't built up the same ability to be jaded or challenge (or sometimes even recognize) systems and their power relations, i.e. an excited newbie with a first job will put up with a lot more shit.
One possible solution might be to move into "semiacademic" industries (grant writing, certain nonprofits or research organizations? any others?) and businesses where some people have PhDs and therefore understand what that means a little bit more. But then you can run the risk of whether your terminal degree outranks that of your potential boss, which will also keep you from getting hired.
Another good book is "What color is your parachute". You can't change careers if your attitude about your skill set classes with their attitude about your attitude and skill set. You have to sell yourself as a positive addition that brings critical thinking and analytic skills. That is how my niece turned a history degree into a job working with actuaries in the (pseudonomous) insurance industry.
The second is not to start out at the bottom. Consult, if you've got enough of a reputation, or slip in at the "skilled white collar" level (editing, design, etc.) where possible. People are going to reasonably ask, "Are you going to be happy being treated like you're just as qualified as the guy you taught six months ago?"
That link to the Amazon book looked pretty useful.
My resume clearly demonstrated my experience and interest in social services administration, but the concerns mentioned in your post (and some of the comments) seem to have carried more weight with those potential employers.
As annoying as this experience was for me, I imagine things are even worse for Ph.Ds who have been adjuncting for a while. The perception seems to be that lots of people go to law school and then end up doing things other than practicing law, but people who get Ph.Ds either end up teaching or something is wrong with them.
And about those "offsetting" parameters that they cannot ask about? Eh, no.
On the (acad.) job market for TT positions, I got lucky and had 14 flyouts, and Every.Single.School asked if I had "a partner or OTHER mobility constraints" or something along the lines.
My male colleagues fared a little bit better, but come on. Saying "well, we can't ask so we don't even want to call this person" is just a lazy excuse.
Apart from outright asking like I experienced, one could say "you seem to be very well qualified compared to the job description. What in particular makes you interested?" Then they can make the private decision to say "family issues in this area" or just prepare a better canned answer.
It's definitely important not to underestimate the position level one can manage, though. I applied for an office manager job, desperate to find some kind of work and only having experience as an exec assistant or waitress. I got the 'overqualified' speech, and then the offer of a position in sales support and training, at the lowest end of the salary range, with a promise of a review in 3 months (after which I was making the top end). My boss, who had a Poli Sci BA, said he figured someone with an MA and teaching experience could learn quickly and do the job. He was right.
They are bagging groceries and taking orders at McDonalds.