The PhD and Employment in the Third Industrial Revolution

The nature of work is changing. As we stand knee-deep in the Third Industrial Revolution, the internet of things (IoT), and the sharing economy, it is clear that the way people work is vastly different than it was 20 years ago, when the internet was relatively shiny and new. Consider Accenture’s predictions that people will be managing robots in the near future, and that humans’ biggest contributions will be in making judgements about data rather than creating knowledge. 

The introduction, adoption, and explosion of technology across sectors has certainly “disrupted” how we do our jobs, but it has also transformed the jobs themselves and the way we find new talent. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Bentley University’s labour market study Future-Proof Your Career. Bentley hired an analytics firm to scour millions of job postings, and the results paint a clear picture of the new employment landscape. Career paths are no longer linear. Rather than hiring employees for standalone positions like web developer, employers now choose to hire people who have web development skills plus other desirable abilities. While uncertain, this turn of events offers great opportunities for job seekers because it broadens the pool of potential positions — if they know how to look for them. And this is exactly where higher education gets bogged down.

Universities train graduate students to become professors and researchers. Period. We know the majority of students who graduate with doctorates do not go on to become tenured professors. But many students do directly apply their degrees to careers outside of academia as researchers, policy analysts, R&D professionals, and more. But what happens when those fairly linear roles are not needed? 

Graduate students are already confused by the hiring markets in and outside of academia, so adding another layer of complexity to the process just complicates the issue. Campus career centres and graduate career educators needs to do a better job of explaining how the hiring process works. We focus entirely too much on resumes and cover letters, and too little on the mechanics of hiring, staffing, and understanding labour market conditions. We need to tell graduate students and postdoctoral fellows what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.

A few simple truths:

Relocation is not just a hallmark of academia.

As Randstad’s analysis of hiring conditions across Canada suggests, not all job markets are created equal. For example, when everyone headed west for jobs in oil and gas during the boom, they had the advantage. Now that this market has slowed, it is more difficult for candidates to secure a position in Calgary, but it might be easier in other locations. Job seekers need to look for geographic regions where fewer candidates are applying for positions in order to regain the advantage in the hiring process.

Graduate skills are transferable, but only if an employer can understand them.

Large organizations use software to process applications. If an applicant’s resume and cover letter are written in academic jargon, the software won’t understand whether the experience corresponds with what the employer wants. Employers will choose skills over degrees every time, unless a degree is required for licensing. 

Ignore job titles.

Job titles are misleading, and the same title can mean very different things across sectors and organizations. “Policy Analyst” is not a universal term. Occupational directories like Canada’s NOC can debunk much of the misinformation about careers beyond academia.  

Jobs aren’t forever.

Unlike tenure-track positions that might offer employment for an entire career, most jobs will not work for more than a few years. Smaller employers may offer the opportunity to reshape or adapt existing roles, and larger organizations provide internal mobility to employees. Regardless of the size of the organization, a graduate’s first post-academic position will not be the last, and it should be treated as a stepping stone rather than the end goal. 

Educating graduate students will only take higher education so far. In order to truly address the problem, universities need to build stronger relationships with employers. It isn’t enough to simply increase recruitment; higher education needs to help employers understand the varied skills and experiences that graduate students bring to an organization. 

Some employers already recognize the value of hiring graduate students, as is the case with large consulting firms that have talent pipelines to attract applicants with PhDs, MDs, and JDs. Unfortunately, those organizations are rare, and too many are missing this pool of potential candidates because they aren’t looking.  PhD employment rates in Canada are already strong, but universities can impact the quality of those roles and the process of securing the positions if we are proactive. Engaged employers have a better understanding of a university’s programs, curriculum, and learning outcomes, and by connecting with students they have an emotional investment in seeing them succeed. Developing these types of relationships would benefit employers as well by providing them with a large and varied pool of candidates who will bring innovation, skills and new ideas to their business in this swiftly changing economy. 

After all, as Twitter’s Head of Talent Acquisition Stephen Wells puts it, “If you’re looking in the same places at the same people, you’re missing out on gaining diverse perspectives.” And the Third Industrial Revolution is definitely not about doing the same old things.

Catherine Maybrey is a career development practitioner with over 10 years' experience specializing in higher education, and the owner of CM Coaching Services.

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