why don’t managers appreciate transferable skills?

A reader writes:

I got a PhD in medieval studies. Not exactly the most practical field, but I learned a lot about abstract thinking, analytical skills, and data mining. Transcribing and translating medieval Latin isn’t exactly easy, after all.

However, it took me over a year and a half to find a job in the private field. And what happened? I’ve excelled so much that, since I was hired, my entire department had its budget doubled, and my manager has credited me with most of our success.

I’m not trying to brag, but I want to make a point: nowadays, if you have a degree in making green widgets, hiring managers will throw your application in the trash if the job is making brown widgets. This is simply messed up and stupid. The fact is that there are a lot of very intelligent, well-educated people who could easily do great jobs if they were given a chance.

So my question: why can’t managers appreciate transferrable skills and hire more very qualified, intelligent people?

Because you’re unproven, and you’re competing against candidates who are proven.

In this job market, there are tons of well-qualified candidates for nearly every opening. Employers have no incentive to take a risk on someone without a track record in what they’re looking for when they have plenty of good candidates who do have that track record.

It’s like asking why you’d hire the smart, warm nanny applicant who has a track record of doing a good job taking care of kids over the smart, warm nanny applicant who has only cared for animals in the past. There are some transferable skills there — but you’re probably going to go with the person with the track record actually doing the work you’re hiring for, unless there’s something about the other person that really impresses you, enough to trump the experience issue. The other candidate might have turned out to be fantastic at the job — but you’d rather not let your kids be her testing ground.

And it’s not like it’s a question of smart, capable people with no direct experience but transferable skills against not-so-smart-or-capable people with direct experience. There are smart, capable people in both groups, so of course the smart, capable people with direct experience are the most attractive.

Furthermore, hiring is in part about managing risk. You might decide in some extenuating circumstances to take a risk on someone untested, but it’s certainly no way to hire as a matter of general routine. That doesn’t mean that the people you’re rejecting would all have performed poorly; it just means that you’re going with the more certain option.

Now, none of this means that hiring managers never take a chance on people who are less tested. They do — you’re a prime example of that. But surely you can understand why that’s more the exception than the rule when employers have plenty of options, right?

{ 355 comments… read them below }

  1. Joey*

    Because actions speak louder than words. We only believe they’re transferable skills if you can prove it.

    1. EM*

      Or some candidates of transferable skills aren’t highlighting exactly which skills are transferable and exactly how they are transferable in their cover letter and resume.

      1. Julie*

        I completely agree! I used to think it was obvious to anyone reading my resume that certain skills were transferable to other types of work and that it might be insulting to hiring managers to specifically spell it out. But now that I’ve been reading AAM for a little while, I know that hiring managers have very little time to spend on each resume and that they’re not going to read them closely enough to connect the dots themselves, and in fact it’s not their job to do that – it’s mine. It makes perfect sense now, but for some reason, I never understood that before.

  2. Sharon*

    While Allison is right, let me play Devil’s Advocate and pose the opposite:

    Sometimes jobs do go unfilled because the company tries to hold out for someone with 9 years experience manufacturing lime green (pantone #1234567) widgets that are 1 inch in diameter and 3 millimeters thick, who has HVAC experience and speaks fluent Mandarin. In IT this kind of thing is extremely common.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I know people love to argue that that’s common (the “purple squirrel” argument that I’ve seen a lot lately), but if the vacancy were a real problem for the employer, they’d find a way to fill the position. Yes, there are some places that are so poorly managed that they’d let a mission-critical position stay open for ages because they’re looking for something that doesn’t exist, but in most places (even moderately poorly managed ones), it means that either the position just isn’t that crucial or someone hasn’t explained sufficiently why it’s crucial.

      1. FormerManager*

        Plus, it’s often better to hold out for a candidate with a better track record. The worst job I ever held, I found out through the grapevine they hired me even though they thought I was only “okay” since all the other candidates were awful. Not long into the job, the skills that seemed transferable weren’t really. The role really needed someone to hit the ground running.

        So, from a candidate’s perspective, I’d rather go into a job that the managers are reasonably sure I could excel and thrive as opposed to being in a role where there are doubts about my ability to do well.

      2. -X-*

        “if the vacancy were a real problem for the employer, they’d find a way to fill the position. ”

        Not necessarily. We know companies make mistakes all the time, and in some cases it’s not immediately evident the costs associated with leaving a position vacant for long time (lower morale of other stuff, worse customer service hurting reputation, poor filing/maintenance activities), so the managers underestimate it.

        In my organization, it seems some managers see the immediate savings of having a position vacant and not hidden costs.

      3. Lora*

        In that case the next time I hear any executive or politician whine that “we have a shortage of STEM grads,” I shall simply refer them here.

        Actually I will refer them to the petroleum/fracking industry, where a real shortage (as opposed to “we just don’t feel like paying someone truly smart”) has led to engineers from non-energy disciplines being paid six figures to start fresh out of college with no experience, and many, many cross-training programs provided by the employers.

        1. the gold digger*

          Yes, usually the complaint that “we can’t find an American with these skills” means “We can’t find an American with these skills willing to work for the wages we want to pay.”

          An experienced welder should make a lot more than $12 an hour.

            1. -X-*

              Companies that want welders say they can’t find them and don’t find them at that price.

              1. Jamie*

                Well, if there are any welders reading I would worry about getting additional skills because the trend is more and more toward robotics. One mig welding robot can replace 5 welders making 15-20 per hour.

                And yes, if a company needs employees who can do X and there are plenty of them, but not for what you’re paying, then you may be too far below market to attract talent. But some jobs will always have an inherent value to the company below what is considered a livable wage.

                I remember seeing a news thing on America’s biggest retailer a while back about the way it’s not being fair to employees. There were a lot of valid concerns (unpaid OT, working off clock, issues with some women being discriminated against, etc. – all heinous if true) but lumped in there with all the complaints against the retailer was a guy who had worked in their warehouse – he said he made $11 per hour and that wasn’t enough to support his family because he had a wife and 4 kids. They showed his home and yes, it was sparse…but who told him every single job will pay enough to solely support a family of six comfortably? That’s a fairy tale – just because people work hard and are decent human beings doesn’t mean every position should pull in at least 80K.

                Some ideas are nice in theory, but when trying to run a business if you pay more than the positions are worth you won’t be in business long. It’s just not sustainable.

                1. Jazzy Red*

                  “Well, if there are any welders reading I would worry about getting additional skills because the trend is more and more toward robotics. One mig welding robot can replace 5 welders making 15-20 per hour.”

                  I think this would apply more to in-factory work. There are plenty of applications that need welders on-site.

              2. Lora*

                Because welding requires schooling and certifications and has an initial investment by the future welder, while other jobs that pay $12/hour do not have this requirement. If someone is choosing between Welding (with a personal investment in time and training) vs. Forklift Driving (minimal training provided by employer), when Welding pays $12/hour and Forklift Driving pays $14/hour, it is in their rational interest as an economic actor to choose the latter.

                Same thing as “Waaaaah shortage of STEM grads” really: If you’re good at math and analytical thinking and have the wherewithal to get into an Ivy League school, you are much better off financially investing 6 years into an MBA than 12-15 years into a PhD in science.

                Capitalize the gains and socialize the losses seems to be the motto of most companies though.

                1. OrneryPR*

                  Capitalize the gains and socialize the losses seems to be the motto of most companies though.

                2. Editor*

                  I’ve also read (and sorry, I can’t find it just now) that all this hyping of STEM jobs overlooks some facts about jobs in those fields. Specifically, that there are a lot of low-level jobs in biological sciences and more women choose jobs in biological sciences, so not all STEM jobs are lucrative.

                  Someone who wants a profitable STEM career should apparently avoid the biological sciences and choose engineering or math for a better long-term return.

                3. EM*

                  I agree with Editor. I got a B.S. in biology in 2001. When I started college, I was thinking I’d get a Ph.D. in biology and be a professor (just like my aunt– I’m a woman, btw), but my mentor in college helped me to realize that I’m just not that into research. When I graduated with my B.S., I started looking at jobs available to people with my background, and most of the postings I saw were lab technicians in biotech or pharma sales. I knew neither were for me, so I got my M.S. in a related field, and am gainfully employed in the consulting world. I’ll never make as much as my husband, a software engineer, or even an engineer at my same company, doing similar tasks, and that’s okay with me. I didn’t go into this field for the money. I do it because I love it. Seriously. I don’t have to work, yet I choose to do so.

            2. the gold digger*

              Do you really want the person who welded your car, a pipeline, or a ship to be the guy who could make almost as much money working a much easier job at McDonald’s?

      1. Anne*

        Over here in the UK, there really is an IT talent shortage. You should’ve seen some of the candidates we interviewed during our last round of hiring. Oi vey.

        1. Jamie*

          There are a lot of IT people from the UK on Spiceworks…a place to keep in mind for posting an ad next time you’re hiring.

      2. brian h*

        a lot of the hiring is done through employment agencies, its in thier interest for there to be a ‘skill shortage’ thay can ask more for the guy the ‘happen to find’
        ‘I duno, orange widget makers are hard to find, but low! we found this guy! youre luck you used us. worthevery penny’

    2. Joey*

      Sometimes the trade off to hire someone that needs to be trained isn’t worth it. If its truly critical and you let it go unfilled for a long time there’s an argument to be made that it must not be that critical. Otherwise you would have figured something else out.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Exactly. And often the longer something stays open and you’re doing just fine without it, the more it can seem to make sense to only hire if you can find someone truly great.

        1. Yup*

          Unfortunately though, some places stretch existing staff beyond sustainable limits and then make the argument that the new position isn’t needed. In the short-term, the need is met. But they’re playing awfully close to the edge with quality and burnout, and generating even more insecurity when someone leaves (because that was doing 1.5 jobs).

          I’m not saying this is the case across the board. Just pointing out that workload assessments need to be thoughtful and self-critical.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Sure, but they’re making a business decision that they judge to be in their best interest either way — it’s not really about “we can’t find talent”; it’s about “this way is working out well enough for us.”

        2. Anonymous*

          That argument overlooks something huge: not all businesses are actually good at what they do. By definition, most of them are only average, and some are downright bad. Sometimes the peons are actually right when they say that a business is losing out by leaving a position open. There’s a huge continuum for businesses, ranging from “about to close” to “barely keeping afloat” to “wildly profitable.” The rational-actor argument only holds water so long as your actors are rational – and that is just not the case all the time.

          I went to a restaurant (a burger place, not some ritzy thing) this week that exemplifies this problem. When I arrived, the waiting room was pretty full. The dining tables were half empty. They simply didn’t have enough staff – I waited for 30 minutes for a seat. During that time, 4 families came in the door, balked at the waiting room queue, and turned around. Another 2 families left before their name came up on the waiting list. When I finally did get a seat, the dining room was still half empty, and it took my waiter ages to deal with me because he had far too many tables to keep up. After that experience, I’ll never go there again.

          But this small restaurant has been in business at this location for years. It will probably still be there for years to come. It could be making more money (specifically, my money) with more staff, but it must make enough money under current conditions to keep whoever owns it happy.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Right, but that’s sort of the point: If whoever owns the business is happy with how it’s performing, then it’s perfectly reasonable for them to decide to tolerate a longer vacancy.

          2. Louis*

            Also, you need to keep in mind that the larger volume you would get wouldn’t necessarly means mon cash.

            The corst of you staff is one variable that you have to take into consideration in your total cost.

            If you pay your staff 10$ / hours you and you make a profit of 2$ / plate served. All est being equal, paying your staff more will lower your profit / plate.

            The increase in volume of sales need to make up for the loss of profit / unit

  3. frustrated*

    frustrated because: I am in a similar situation as the OP. Advanced degree in X. But work experience in Y. Unfortunately, Y no longer exists so I couldn’t go back to doing that even if I wanted to. However, significant overlap in knowledge, skills, and abilities between X and Y. They are in the same general field, just different specialties. I have been trying for nearly a year to get employment in X.

    My situation frustrates me, but I am also frustrated by the larger employment situation. Some people, including AAM, continue to state “In this job market, there are tons of well-qualified candidates for nearly every opening. ” Fine. I get that. And I’ve lost out on interviews because of that.

    But at the same time, we keep hearing about this so-called “talent shortage”. Truthfully, I think it is a made-up problem. The real problem is that most hiring managers and/or human resources screeners think there are “tons of well-qualified candidates for nearly every opening” and refuse to see that someone who excels in making green widgets may do an excellent job in making brown widgets. In fact, the green widget maker may be the best candidate because of potential.

    Returning to my situation, I was great at Y even though my advanced degree was in X. How in the world did I even get a job doing Y with a degree in X? Because my employer saw my potential and felt I would succeed after a short learning period, probably better than someone with experience in Y. Employers aren’t doing that now. And that’s a huge problem.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      To whatever extent there’s a talent shortage, it’s because employers are deciding that they’d rather have a vacancy than hire someone who doesn’t bring some specific combination of whatever they’re looking for. If the vacancy started causing them more pain than the prospect of taking a risk on someone untested, then they’d change their actions. But if they don’t, then what they’re saying is that it doesn’t make business sense for them, and that’s not an inherently unreasonable stance.

      1. frustrated*

        This original post really touched a nerve because, for the first time ever, I am having trouble finding work because I do not have the exact work experience sought, even though it is very, very closely related. This has never happened to me – each time I’ve switched employers, it was to do something quite different from what I was doing before. Like I mentioned in my original post, they saw my potential.

        I get what you’re saying, Allison, I really do. I’ve been on the other side of the table enough times that I know it’s often preferable to do without rather than deal with a “warm body” or worse. But I think what’s happening now is short-sighted. My opinion only. I believe it is a symptom of the belief that the perfect person is out there … if only we hold out long enough!!!

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          And, as an IT person, there is also the H1-B issue. That allows a bigger pool to find the perfect person, allows them to hold out to finding the exact match, and bonus! allows them to pay a bit less for that perfect person. It’s frustrating because they claim it’s because the talent isn’t here, and I think that is partially a red herring. Sometimes they could get someone that is pretty close from their smaller pool, someone who will be an excellent employee, but they hold out for the caramel database admin and won’t hire any of the excellent local chocolate database admins who are looking for work.

          I’d be more likely to believe it was legitimate if I saw less unemployed IT people who I know are good, or if the H1-Bs I’ve worked with were more excellent than the other co-workers. It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but it does make me question.

          1. Judy*

            And some times they don’t hire from the smaller pool, just to prove that they need to go to the larger one.

            Even in engineering rather than IT, the % of people “not from around here” has grown significantly in the last 10 years or so. Some groups at my company are nearly 50%. Having people show up from out of the country on a Monday after a RIF (over 40 == out of here) was completed on Friday makes you cynical.

          2. AB*

            I’m in IT and always wonder when people talk about lower salaries for H1-B. In my previous job I had access to the database of salaries for IT professionals (PM, developer, QA, BA) and the salary for both H1-B and residents / citizens in NYC was exactly the same. The only difference is that the H1-B people had more difficult leaving a job (due to the bureaucracy of changing visa sponsorship). But the salary for the role didn’t change based on whether the person was working under a visa or not.

            1. Lora*

              I’m in biotech and yes, they do pay less. There’s a local law about posting the salaries of H1b hires publicly here because of that–they are supposed to be posted where everyone can see, typically next to the OSHA posters and whatnot, for a time period after the person is hired.

              Don’t think the people on H1bs are overjoyed about that state of affairs. They just tend to hide it.

              Technically they are *supposed* to pay the same as they would pay a local; at least that is what they say on the application. In real life…not so much. It is significantly less, anywhere from 20% to 50% less depending on organization.

          3. Mike C.*

            Same in the lab sciences. My last employer would take H1-B visa holders for basic bench work that could be done by any recent biology major. But the H1-B didn’t mind living in apartments owned by the lab owner, or working 10+ hour days 6-7 days per week. Because they all believed that if they crossed the boss once, they’d be deported.

            I wonder when he’s going to start printing company scrip.

          4. Jessa*

            And sometimes they write that crazy requirement to specifically fill it with a visa person.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          ” I believe it is a symptom of the belief that the perfect person is out there … if only we hold out long enough!!!”

          If those jobs you’re applying for are all staying open, maybe. But probably most of them are getting filled. It’s just an issue of a job market with lots of good candidates.

    2. Sue*

      I could not agree with you more, I get sick in tired of hearing about this “talent shortage” when in reality, I start asking the employer questions like what are you looking for and then they say I want someone who has at least 10 plus years and a degree in this very specific job and I want to pay them min wage and they wonder why they are not getting anyone…

      1. Lynn*

        My favorite is things like “10 years experience developing iPhone apps”. In 2003… there were no iPhones… so… ???

          1. Michael*

            It also suggests that the companies would be better off if these qualified, experienced HR people were replaced with IT people with transferrable skills!

            1. Jamie*

              Speaking as an IT who had to do duty as interim HR in the past let me just say…good luck getting anyone to make the switch. :)

              Most of us prefer the T in IT to the H in HR – besides…do you really want someone like me planning the company cook-outs? I’d give everyone a gift certificate to BK and tell them to eat on their own time. No muss, no fuss.

              1. Michael*

                If you’re trying to convince me you’d be bad at HR, you’re failing. Where’s my BK gift certificate?!

              2. Manda*

                So why can’t they meet in the middle somewhere? Have an IT manager assist HR with writing up job postings, and let them have an active role in interviewing/hiring for those roles.

                1. Michael*

                  That’s not meeting in the middle–that’s helping the HR dron do their job because they’re incompetent.

          2. Jazzy Red*

            HR should never write ads for any job openings. It’s crazy what HR will put into an ad that has no bearing whatsoever on the actual work.

            I’m not a big fan of HR.

      2. Kathryn T.*

        I have seen the same job posted for close to a year now: it’s listed as a Technical Writer job, but they want 10+ years writing experience, 8+ years C++ development experience, 5+ years SharePoint administration experience, 5+ years of Photoshop and graphic design experience, plus video development and production and fluency in Mandarin or Japanese. For $41k/year.

        yeah, good luck with that.

          1. Kathryn T.*

            Right? I think that’s at LEAST three jobs, the cheapest of which is a $60K a year job. But I bet those folks are muttering angrily about the so-called “talent shortage.”

    3. Jamie*

      Where are you hearing about a talent shortage? Everything I read points to a glut of talent making it an employer’s market.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        I think it’s something Yahoo! makes up in their career articles.

        Even with the so-called nursing shortage, a friend of mine could not find a job outside of hospice in a certain area of the country, even with years of experience in cardiac care.

        I never believe these talent shortage rumors. Even if there is a shortage, it will correct before you get trained in that field.

        1. Ann O'Nemity*

          Eh, I think talent shortages do exist, but it’s usually not on the systemic level the media purports. In some cases, it’s about geographic mismatches – there may be a shortage in LA but there’s an oversupply in NY. In other cases, I’ve seen employers cry “talent shortage” because they have no internal training program whatsoever so they’re looking for a perfect skill match. And finally, I’ve seen specific instances of the “purple squirrel,” where no sane employee with a graduate degree and 10+ yrs experience is going to settle for $24k.

          1. Elizabeth*

            Or, more likely, there’s a shortage in big cities and an oversupply in rural areas, or vice versa. Rural areas are likely to have shortages in things that have to exist locally everywhere (like doctors or middle school science teachers) and be oversupplied in things that don’t (like history professors or international relations journalists).

        2. Kimberlee, Esq.*

          My friend in nursing says the same thing… it’s not so much that there is a shortage, the profession just didn’t contract in the same way that others did, at least not until deeper in the recession (though she told me, as of a year ago, that it was indeed contracting and going into nursing is by no means the guarantee that it is said to be of employment).

          1. Tina*

            It’s true, nursing is not the “automatic job” that many people seem to think it is. I’ve seen more new grad nursing students in my office the past 3 years than I had in the previous 7. They’d prefer large, urban teaching hospitals, but many of those places have cut or reduced their new grad nursing programs. Students have to relocate geographically, or look at nursing jobs in areas such as community health centers, assisted living facilities, etc., which isn’t really where they want to be.

      2. frustrated*

        I am in California and that’s all we hear about in business news regarding, in particular, high tech and alternative energy technologies. This year, the annual H1B visa cap is expected to be reached within a couple of weeks – “talent shortage”.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yeah, I think it’s basically BS and agree with AnotherAlison that it’s something the media loves to turn into a story when it’s really not one.

          Companies like H1Bs because they can pay them less, not because there’s no local talent. (And yes, that’s totally contrary to how that visa program is supposed to work, but its abuses are well documented.)

        2. Jamie*

          Yeah – you can’t go by the H1B – that’s song and dance to save money…it’s not like we’ve run out of skilled IT people in the US. Hell, Alison could supply a fair number of them just from this blog.

          1. frustrated*

            Exactly – why I believe this so-called “talent shortage” is a bunch of made-up crap. There are plenty of talented people out there, I just think the way recruiting is being done now does not do a good job of matching talent with openings.

            1. Heather*

              I think you are right – especially with the ridiculous online applications that want a yes or no to “do you have 6 years of experience in this field” and if you have 4, you’re tossed out.

              Maybe this is the recruiting industry’s version of the dot-com craze, and companies are using technology because they can, not because they should. And someday the “shiny new toy!” attitude will wear off and companies will figure out that there are still some things you need human judgment for?

        3. moss*

          Did anyone else get irritated at Zoe Chase’s description of skilled IT, on NPR, as “computer guys”? HELLO, there are plenty of female skilled IT people.

          1. Jamie*

            If I got irritated every time people shorthanded IT to assume male I’d have died from aggravation a long time ago.

            I just include myself in the “guys” and it doesn’t bother me.

            1. Susie*

              It bothers me. Picture how angry/offended most men would get if you called a mixed group of people “you gals”.

          2. S.L. Albert*

            It’s also a New Jersey thing. “You guys” is the plural form of “you”. It gets transferred to everything.

        1. KayDay*

          …and now my comment makes no sense since it’s below the others, so I guess I will have to use complete sentences now….
          The reported talent shortage is supposed to be in skilled manufacturing jobs…given that that’s about as far from what I do as possible, I cannot comment as to how true or not it is.

        2. -X-*

          The second article nails it “Some of the complaints about skill shortages boil down to the fact that employers can’t get candidates to accept jobs at the wages offered.”

        3. Bess*

          A big part of the problem wrt skilled manufacturing jobs is that employers want to hire people who are already trained, and they’re finding that such a group of people no longer exists. I completely understand why employers don’t want to invest in training — it’s horribly expensive, you don’t know how well the finished product (person) is going to turn out, and the employer often doesn’t have a way to ensure the person doesn’t get trained at company A and then leave immediately for a higher-paying job at company B. However, if the choice is between not bearing the cost of training and not filling needed positions or bearing the cost of training and being able to fill those positions, I would think that bearing the cost of training would ultimately be the attractive option. However, I’m obviously incorrect, because manufacturers don’t seem to be doing that. They are obviously able to get buy without filling said positions, although they do complain about it a lot.

          1. Jamie*

            Some are – we do. I am not speaking for all, but we recruit talent from the local colleges (CAD, engineering) and we pay tuition so they can work and continue to go to school part time.

            I’m not saying this is even the norm – but if the interest and potential is there it’s a partnership to take it the rest of the way and then it’s win-win.

            Where a lot of manufactures struggle is with the entry level positions in factory. Those are very hard to fill.

            1. Bess*

              Yes, I should have been clear that I was referring more to factory floor jobs (often entry-level) that require job-specific training but are not something that you can go to school for.

              Sewing is a hobby of mine, and I know a number of sewing contractors. They’re always complaining that they can’t get trained stitchers. I ask why they don’t train them themselves, and get reasons 1, 2, and 3 above. Which I do understand! I just think that if it’s a job where on-the-job training is the only way to become trained, and companies aren’t willing to invest in on-the-job training, they shouldn’t complain that there aren’t trained people waiting to be hired. SOMEONE has to train them.

            2. AnotherAlison*

              I’ll speak on behalf of all engineering colleges with my knowledge of 5 of ’em: They are very happy to partner with local industry. It’s a huge initiative, and the dept. chair we just hired (I say we but I’m just a lowly advisory board member, lol) was hired in part for his success in establishing industry-university partnerships. We give you money to do your thing, you train people to do our thing. It IS a win-win.

              1. Long Time Admin*

                The world’s largest retailer has been doing that with the local community college. As you say, win-win.

                1. Long Time Admin*

                  This is regarding their Home Office, which employs about 10,000 people, not the cashiers at the stores. They also have a lot of in-house training, and everyone is expected to take classes every year.

          2. Editor*

            Can’t a company that offers training to a worker have the worker sign an agreement to stay on for a certain length of time or repay the cost of training? I thought that was a legal exchange — training for exclusivity/do not compete.

            I don’t understand why companies aren’t using it — it seems to me that “losing” the employee is just an excuse not to set up the training program or do the legal work to retain the employee.

        4. Mike C.*

          That first article really speaks to me. My employer pays for significant amounts of training, and they end up with the skilled and flexible employees they need that stay with the company for years and years.

          In fact, most folks here will say that the training/education program here is a reason to stay!

          It’s nothing but short-sightedness.

      3. LMW*

        I’ve actually worked on a few articles about the talent shortage, and it’s most due to brand new technology that people aren’t trained for. For example: X manufacturing corp just purchased a brand new whichamacallit maker. It’s the first one of it’s kind to be installed, and therefore no one has any experience using it – a talent shortage. But then, the articles I worked on went on to talk about how you get around this – are there skills transferable from thingamajig makers? Great. Train those people on the new tech. Maybe thingamajig makers are obsolete…then there’s a whole group of people looking for employment that have transferable skills and might be a great match for these brand new roles.

        1. not really a talent shortage*

          This is a common fact of innovation. As new technologies are created, people will need to be trained. This goes back all throughout our history and is nothing new. What’s new is calling it a “talent shortage”, rather than what you discuss – looking for transferable skills and training. Imagine that!

      4. -X-*

        I heard it in some mass media as the economy collapsed as efforts as part of an effort to suggest that unemployment in the US was not that bad and that people on unemployment were being too picky. “There are job openings but they are not being filled!”

      5. Michael*

        Peter Brooks in the New York Times talks about the talent shortage all the time. We’re not educated, experienced, qualified enough. Of course, this is a journalist writing about economics–the irony is probably lost on him, though.

        1. -X-*

          I think you mean David Brooks. Totally wrong on so many things, but very good at sounding reasonable and well-informed.

    4. AnotherAlison*

      I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. Like you getting a job in Y with X degree, I successfully transferred into 2 distinct positions requiring different skills & experience after orginally having experience in mechanical engineering. I was able to get at least 50% there with transferrable skills, and the hiring managers gave me the benefit of the doubt that I could pick up the other 50% because surely if I had been successful in the oh-so-difficult Engineering job, I could do this. : )

      I also agree with the nonexistent talent shortage. I think the real reason people aren’t hiring is that we’ve made technological advances in the past 5 yrs that require fewer candidates (as well as different candidates). In mechanical engineering, a lot of the manual work an entry level engineer would do 5-10 yrs ago — checking drawings, manual quantity take-offs, data entry into an engineering software program — is automated now. I can run a project with fewer people & produce the same results. I might need some more programming people because we’re asking for more customization and interface in our software, but it’s not a 1-for-1 tradeoff of staff headcount.

      1. Trixie*

        I think AnotherAlison makes a great point here. Some degrees are more “transferable” than others. Many companies that aren’t engineering companies hire people with engineering degrees because they assume those people will be very logical and pick up on new things quickly, etc. This definitely doesn’t seem to apply to someone with a degree in English, etc.

        1. Wilton Businessman*

          Yes and no. Some of the most creative IT people I ever hired were English Lit majors. But those were entry-level hires and not experienced professionals.

          1. Manda*

            How does an English major ever go about getting even an entry-level job in IT? Are you talking about people in, say, administration at IT companies, or what? =S

    5. Hooptie*

      Some of the biggest hiring mistakes I’ve ever made were based on a candidate’s potential rather than their proven skill set.

        1. KS*

          GEEZ! Yes. Yes yes yes. A year ago my VP hired a new grad for his potential and his upbeat attitude. Flash-forward and we’ve got an employee who can’t really do anything, is not responsible for his own mistakes and cannot understand why he hasn’t been promoted to director-level. Bad management–sure–but ARG!

          1. -X-*

            But here’s the thing – you say he’s not responsible for his own mistakes and thinks he should be promoted.

            That shows that actually he didn’t have potential. He had bad attitude. So even by those measures, and not the specific skills measures, it was a bad hire.

            Real potential means good attitude plus some demonstrated ability to lead/manage/produce in another domain (possibly even school), though not with specific skills or accomplishments in the business at hand. The ability to learn and grown and adapt. It doesn’t mean “Oh, he seemed so nice and smart.”

      1. frustrated*

        Really? Because I’ve had the opposite experience. Of course, I don’t disregard essential skills. For example, if I need someone to analyze abcx and that person has a proven track record of doing excellent analysis of abcy, then I see great potential – and that person can learn the difference between x and y, especially if they are very closely related. However, I wouldn’t consider someone with no analytical experience for this position, no matter what. There are limits to potential.

        1. Wilton Businessman*

          Yeah, but you didn’t hire the ice-cream-scooper to analyze abcx because you thought she had a good work ethic.

          1. FormerManager*

            Plus, from someone who was hired as an ice cream scooper to analyze abcx, it was a terrible situation from an employee standpoint.

          2. frustrated*

            Of course it’s a mistake to hire on potential with a complete skills mismatch. The ice-cream scooper to analyst example is a bit of a stretch, wouldn’t you agree?

            I am talking about a situation in which a candidate is a 85-95% match on skills and abilities and then looking at potential in addition to those skills. Not just potential alone. Weighing various factors based on what I think is best for the business.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Someone who’s an 85-95% match on skills/experience probably isn’t your typical “transferable skills” candidate. That’s a pretty high match; loads of candidates who get hired are somewhere in there. But the OP, for example, sounds like he was not.

              1. FormerManager*

                Also, my experience has been that what candidates think is “transferable” often isn’t. For example, when I hired for my last job, a lot of candidates would argue that having skill X meant they could do Y, when our experience was that it was not transferable. The few times we did hire the X skillsets, none of them panned out.

                But 85-95%? I would have been happy with that!

            2. Wilton Businessman*

              95% match are you kidding me? I’d hire that person in a second. I’m usually pretty happy with a 51% match.

              1. Jamie*

                I agree – 85-95 percent is a solid match in my book as well. That’s not even an argument.

                1. Jamie*

                  Very possibly. That’s why I personally think it’s important to differentiate in ads between requirements and preferred skills.

                  If I list 10 applications and someone is excellent at 9 of them….but has zero experience with SQL…well they will probably think they are 90% qualified…but for me if 90% of what I really need is wrapped up in SQL then it’s not even close.

                  But yes, if a candidate came in and had 95% of what was actually needed I’d consider that a damn near perfect match.

            3. fposte*

              Expanding on what I said to Jamie–I do think that an applicant’s idea of a match isn’t necessarily the same as the employer’s. I’m hiring right now, and we have quite a few applicants who seem very capable in a lot of areas and probably think they’re 90%. But they’re missing a really key characteristic that we can easily get in people who are just as skilled, so they’re nowhere near 90% to me.

              To put it into terms relevant to the OP: teaching undergraduate English is a transferrable skill and reading critically is a transferrable skill. But that doesn’t mean that a specialist in the modernist novel has 95% of the qualifications for a medieval lit job, or that it makes sense to hire the novel specialist to teach medieval lit when there are plenty of medieval lit specialists available.

              1. Girl Thursday*

                This is very late. But damn, when I saw this, it made me roll my eyes. I had a friend who wanted to apply for a teaching job–a full-time version of the undergrad writing adjunct position she had. Even though she had a relevant, on-the-spot Masters degree, she was not allowed to apply because the cutoff was a PhD. The PhD they hired (out of 800) was a medievalist.

                And that’s higher ed. You’re already a 100% match. You have the degree. You’re doing the job. You are evaluated well. But it makes no difference. You can’t even APPLY for the job.

        2. HR Guy*

          I’d like to reiterate Alison’s points:
          (1) It’s not about an applicant’s potential, it’s about finding the candidate that you need to fill this job at this particular moment in time. A reasonable employer isn’t going to risk hiring someone with potential when they have an acceptable pool of applicants to choose from with the skill set they need.
          (2) If the employer decides that they can survive without that position for a while (and not burn out their understaffed employees, of course) then why not wait for that purple squirrel to come along?
          Hiring takes time, money and resources. Employers want to find the best candidate while using the least amount of resources possible. Hiring, like all other aspects of business, works best when you find the efficiency to expend X amount of energy to the best result possible. Disclaimer: I know that good hiring doesn’t always work like this, but for the purposes of the post I’m speaking ideally.

        3. Joey*

          This is kind of the crux of the question. Where do you draw the line on transferable skills? I don’t think you can tell employers where that line should be drawn. They have the right to draw it on their own. And if they draw it wrong the market will correct it one way or another.

    6. Elizabeth*

      I often get a lot of resumes whose resumes read like the situation you’re describing, only there’s no way for me to truly know why they’re applying for my posted job because they haven’t actually said anything about transferrable skills, switching sectors, or anything else in the cover letter. I might actually be inclined to give someone at least an interview if there’s a well written cover letter that goes with a resume of this sort, but I so rarely get them that I stick to people who already have the skills I’m looking for.

      1. Lily*

        Yes! I don’t know if they are simply mass mailing their resumes everywhere or if they really have thought about the fit.

  4. TRB*

    I really like this question. My significant other is not in this same situation (I wish he was honestly!) but seems to think he can just get by on what he says he can do versus actually learning the skills to prove it. He has never had a career job and is in school currently and thinks he can run his own business now when he doesn’t even have any experience.

    In the OP’s case, I do agree this is unfortunate because you do have skills that are transferable and people should be willing to take a risk at some point. But the world just doesn’t work like that most of the time and in order to make money, we have to deal with the twisted requirements of our society, not just in work but in anything. The more skills you can acquire in different areas gives you more chance of getting what you want.

  5. Jamie*

    In the OPs instance I think it’s great that your employer took a chance on you and it worked out for all involved – but aside from the logic of choosing a proven track record over a gamble – there is another problem when the skills or education is in a radically different area.

    We make widgets. If someone went to all the time and expense of getting a PhD in medieval studies it would stand to reason that’s where their interests lie. How happy would be they be using their analytical skills honed in their area of interest in analyzing data about widgets. How to make them more efficiently, how to improve widgets…

    Now, I don’t know that you can get a degree in widget making, but it’s so far removed from what is clearly a major enough interest to sink years and tons of money into a degree which is wholly irrelevant to widgets…the concern that you’ll get bored and leave the second you have a chance to make medieval widgets would be a red flag.

    That said – we have a guy in engineering with a degree in philosophy…so people can stumble into other fields…but the concern is absolutely there that if you love X why on earth do you want to make Y your life’s work. You’d need a great answer for that.

    1. Joey*

      And it’s particularly sad, at least for me, I don’t think a degree is a very good indicator of how smart someone is or how well they will perform. Ive seen far too many people that made me wonder how in the hell they got their degree. Work accomplishments are a far better predictor.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        But in 2009-2013, people with unrelated degrees can’t get their foot in the door to get work accomplishments.

        The psychology guy might be a better procurement agent than the MBA guy, but we’ll never know because no one will hire him first.

        1. Joey*

          Employers aren’t in business to give people chances. They’re in business to maximize profits which means minimizing risk or at minimum taking calculated risks.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          But what would you change? Have companies start hiring untested, unproven candidates and training them in the hopes that they might end up being better than the tested, proven candidate? It doesn’t really make sense.

          1. AnotherAlison*

            I didn’t say I disagreed with the practice. That’s why I don’t have a psychology degree – I wanted something that easily led to a career job. But, something’s gotta give to get the masses of unemployed new grads working.

            Management consulting does it. Finance does it. There are other, better indicators to use as a signal for intelligence and dedication than a 4-year degree, or a degree in a certain discipline. From my understanding, the 4-yr degree became a requirement because of a lawsuit about racial discrimination in hiring preventing employers from using aptitude tests (the tests were biased – this was the 1960s, I believe).

            I’m not suggesting employers should randomly “give people chances” but why not develop another process that would ultimately be a better indicator than college degrees? Air traffic control used to give people aptitude tests (better testing must have eliminated bias at some point) & put them through training, and a large percent would wash out by design. (I think they may require bachelors degrees now too, but that did not used to be the case, even 10 yrs ago). Hire a lot of unpaid interns & run them through hoops to figure out who is best suited? Require GMAT scores? I don’t know.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Well, because employers have a process that for the most part works just fine for them: looking at an applicant’s track record and experience. They don’t feel like they need a solution here; it’s working just fine for them.

              The problem and the thing that needs to change is schools/society pumping out grads in fields that they’re unlikely to get work in.

              1. Joey*

                Or even more generically they need to stop pumping out grads that aren’t prepared for any professional job.

                1. AnotherAlison*

                  Did you see on the news today a McD’s in Mass. was requiring a bachelors for cashiers?

                  So, the corrollary to schools not pumping out grads unprepared for professional jobs would be for industry to not require degrees for non-professional jobs.

                  You have a certain group of students who are not that academically inclined or interested in school, so they’re going to end up in General Studies or something similar. A BA-GS degree with a 2.0 is not a quick path to a great corporate job, but I think kids feel like they have to get a degree now, just in something, to compete at all. Not everyone can do a professional degree.

                  (I really don’t think we’re far apart in our opinions & I’m not trying to argue. I have a good job with 2 useful degrees, my husband has a good career with a certificate in electrical technology, and I have to navigate this path in a couple years with my teenager without knowing if a degree is really worth it for him or not. . .so I’m frustrated!)

                2. Josh S*

                  Geez, you barely need to be literate to work the POS as a cashier at a McD’s — all the buttons have images, not words. To require a BA/BS for that (not to mention the low pay and crappy hours) is patently ridiculous.

                  Methinks somebody just wanted to get on TV.

                3. Jamie*

                  Josh – what’s POS in the sense you’re using it? I’ve only seen that as “piece of shit” and that doesn’t make sense in this context.

                  And my daughter is the rare person who loves her McJob – because they are awesome at working around her school schedule and she really likes working with the public. And for the record she can both read and count – but she will die laughing when I tell her this. For her this is something to do while in school…not a job she’d go to school to attain.

                  Oh – secrets of the trade…a shamrock shake with a splash of choc syrup tastes just like a frozen Mint Meltaway from Fanny May. It’s that kind of trade info that makes me glad I’ve got a spy on the inside!

                4. Josh S*


                  Everyone else beat me to it, but in retail POS = Point of Sale = the device used to scan all the products and holds the cash, etc. (You may also see POP = Point of Purchase from time to time, but that’s more for people who market the gum and magazines that you find at POP displays…)

                  As for secret menu items and inside information, I’m a big fan of “the 10:35” an egg McMuffin (or bagel, your choice) with hamburger patty as the meat. Only available during the narrow window (around 10:35am, hence the name) when there is still egg left over, but they’ve switched on the meat grill.

                  And my mother works at McD’s corporate, in the Customer Service dept. So not only does our family get to hear some of the inside info on secret menu items, we also get to hear plenty of crazy stories of crazy McD’s customers. :) Fun times!

              2. AnotherAlison*

                Working just fine for them for now, anyway.
                Having a large percentage of the population unemployed isn’t good for anyone.

            2. Kaz*

              It’s not the job of individual companies to employ these new grads who don’t have any job skills. It’s a problem for the economy, sure, but not the responsibility of the companies who are hiring to award jobs based on need.

    2. Rob Bird*

      I agree completly Jamie. If someone has a degree in an unrelated field, why take the chance on them when they spent all that time/effort/money on getting that degree?

      My degree is in Criminal Justice, and I no longer work in that field. But I can explain why I no longer wish to work in that field and how what I did relates to the position you are hiring for.

      1. Sascha*

        For me, the risk increases with the level of the degree. There are tons of people out there with a Bachelors or Associates in something that is not related to what they do – like me, for example. I get that often people fall into careers that weren’t part of the original plan when they got their degree. But when you start seeing applicants with Masters and PhDs in specific fields, it makes you wonder, like Jamie said. Why spend all the time, money, and effort on a PhD in a particular field? Of course, you could have just done that for personal enrichment, but I don’t know that up-front.

          1. Sascha*

            If they were applying for a spot on my team at my current company, no. If you have the money to get a PhD in a non-related field and are applying for jobs at my level…well something is off. No one applies for a job at my level just for fun. :)

            1. KellyK*

              The fact that you were able, at some point in your life, to get a PhD for personal enrichment doesn’t necessarily say anything about your financial circumstances now. Someone who was willing to TA and live primarily on ramen for the sake of an academic pursuit as a single 20-something might have very different priorities as a 30-something with a kid.

    3. Lucy J*

      It’s really odd to assume that no one’s interests ever change. Or to assume that people are not capable of multiple interests.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It’s a pretty normal concern in hiring, where you have relatively few data points about someone and so you have to go on the ones you have.

      2. Jamie*

        It’s not assuming interests don’t change – but going to the expense and effort to get a PhD is more than a casual interest and would absolutely have to be addressed.

        If someone here was hiring for a non-profit development position (that’s the fundraising people, right?) and I submitted my resume which shows a whole lot of accomplishments but all achieved behind a bank of monitors none of which involve fundraising I would assume my resume would be deleted immediately as either assuming I’d applied in error or as a major WTF unless I had the world’s most compelling cover letter explaining why I have finally decided to switch careers to a job involving huge amounts of interaction with strangers and no IT skills required.

        I wouldn’t trust anyone who wouldn’t question that.

    4. Daisy*

      ‘Now, I don’t know that you can get a degree in widget making, but it’s so far removed from what is clearly a major enough interest to sink years and tons of money into a degree which is wholly irrelevant to widgets…the concern that you’ll get bored and leave the second you have a chance to make medieval widgets would be a red flag.’

      By the time someone with a PhD is looking at a job in widgets, it generally means the ‘related job’ boat has sailed. If you don’t get a postdoc position very shortly after finishing the doctorate, the chances of ever doing so are very slim. From the PhD’s point of view it’s terrifying to think that not getting a job in the very oversubscribed career path you took a punt on at the age of 22, means you’ll never get a job anywhere, ever.
      (also, ‘sinking money’: noone with any sense whatsoever pays to do a PhD.)

      1. Katie the Fed*

        “By the time someone with a PhD is looking at a job in widgets, it generally means the ‘related job’ boat has sailed. If you don’t get a postdoc position very shortly after finishing the doctorate, the chances of ever doing so are very slim. From the PhD’s point of view it’s terrifying to think that not getting a job in the very oversubscribed career path you took a punt on at the age of 22, means you’ll never get a job anywhere, ever.”

        It should be terrifying. It IS terrifying. Nobody with a lick of sense should be pursuing a PhD in one of these fields in this day and age. The academic job market is a mess. Tenured positions are disappearing, supply of newly minted PhDs far outweighs demand, and there is virtually no chance of landing a coveted tenure-track position.

        1. A Teacher*

          Here I disagree with you slightly, as a public school teacher, the only way for me to “bump” up in pay is to pursue additional graduate level or post-graduate hours. As an athletic trainer I am required to get CEU and the graduate hour route is the best value to keep my license. To me it makes more sense to pursue another degree rather than a bunch of unrelated graduate courses that will cost me as much or more money. I currently have 2 master’s degrees. The first was basically an expectation in the original field I went into (athletic training–it is a 5-7,000 starting pay difference between a B.S. and M.S. and more than 75% of us have the M.S.). The second is in teaching, I actually need both to do my job because I teach career edcuation with a focus in the health sciences and we operate on federal perkins funding/STEM money. I also teach dual credit through the junior college. Which means I needed 5 years experience AND a state license in a medical field along with a master’s in my field of oringal study. After a major digress, I’m looking at a 3rd master’s program,probably a MPH, mainly because I don’t want to do my Ph.D. yet. Its not because I’m looking forward to going back to school but in order to keep a license and earn a pay raise I have to. Some fields just work that way.

        2. K*

          Eh, if it’s fully funded, there should be time to pursue other things afterwards. So you’re 28 or 30 instead of 22 when starting on an entry level career. That really shouldn’t be the kiss of death. The question is whether you’ll be happy starting at the bottom; you shouldn’t expect to skip rungs.

      2. S.L. Albert*

        Just because they haven’t paid any money doesn’t mean they haven’t invested any costs in the degree. The time spent attaining it and the forgone wages count as expenses and investments into the degree.

        1. Daisy*

          By ‘paying for it’ I included those things. I mean that noone should do it without having living expenses covered. Scholarships are not that much, but usually more than a minimum wage job (a good bit more in my case). Noone I know is supporting themselves, that would be extremely foolish. But graduating into a market like this, earning a reasonable wage for continuing as a student looks like a pretty good deal. It’s later that it comes back to bite you, when you realise you’ve scuppered your chances of a decent wage in the future.

      3. fposte*

        You’re talking sciences, I think; plenty of people still pay (or borrow) to do PhDs in most non-STEM fields, at least in the U.S.

  6. Rob Bird*

    I do believe there is a talant shortage, but it appears to be in specific industries that require specific skill sets and aren’t available locally.

    The one that seems to come up very often is employers needing CAD/CAM education and experience. There are quite a few people in my area that have that, but they are unwilling to uproot their families to move to where the jobs are.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      Even within CAD/CAM, though, employers want specific programs. Embarrassed to say that I’m not up with what’s current, but if you’re using Microstation for piping design, you won’t look at an automotive designer who used Catia. (I certainly won’t, because that guy worked for me once and it was a huge clusterfudge, as Alison said.) Before that guy, I would have argued that someone who knew one could easily pick up the other, but now I’m less certain.

      1. Chris*

        Man, when my Solidworks license expired, it…wasn’t quite as bad as the first time watching when Littlefoot’s mom died. But…


  7. Anon*

    I think part of the issue too is how education was pushed to a lot of people who are entering the job market: “Do what you love” and “Graduating from college will help you get a great job.”

    I think that what it comes down to is that what we now call a ‘liberal arts’ education was once the province of the wealthy, who could afford to send their children to be educated in Latin or Greek or other subjects of limited practical use. It was, frankly, a status symbol to have a child go to university–and in many ways it still is. But status symbols don’t help you get a job, and honestly, a lot of BAs are next to useless for actually landing a job, let alone a career. Of all my friends who graduated with me, I can’t name a single one who is actually using their field of study in their jobs or careers. And that’s the problem: unless you have the leisure and money to go to university purely for the status or for the pleasure of learning, post high school education should be about training you for a job or a career, whether that’s being an academic, a psychologist, or a plumber.

    (That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with thinking that you want to have one career and discovering that it’s *really* not for you, but ideally, your educational experience should help you figure that out. For example, if you thought you wanted to be a doctor but you can’t pass biology, you might be in the wrong field, and it’s better to know quickly than to have your first job in your career and hate it.)

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Amen to all of this. I love the blog “100 Reasons Not to go to Grad School” because it really delves into everything wrong with modern academia and the academic job market.

      You should only pursue a PhD in a liberal art or humanities because you are independently wealthy and have the leisure to do it.

      Quite frankly, I’d look at someone with a PhD in medieval history as probably a little out of touch with reality. Not a bad person or worker, but I’d wonder why they thought that degree was a good idea and why they didn’t pursue a career in academia.

      1. The IT Manager*

        I didn’t want to say it first, but feel the same as Katie the Fed. To me a PHD in medieval studies does not signify a “well qualified, intelligent” person. I question the real world intelligence of someone expecting a PHD in medieval studies to qualify them for a job in a private company.

        But I have said before on this blog that I think that the intent of college (for most students) is to provide skills to get a good job and toward than end students should consider the practicality of their field of study.

        It’s fine if you want to study an impractical subject for the love of learning, but don’t be frustrated if your degree doesn’t lead to a job that pays well enough to pay off your student loans easily. That’s a practical consideration that potential students should take into account before starting their program.

      2. Lils*

        Looking in from the outside at the PhD world (I work in academia and am married to a history PhD), my advice would be, if you’re getting a humanities PhD, a) you had better be extremely focused all along on transitioning into the work world, and b) don’t focus on tenure-track jobs. My husband leveraged the crap out of his network, published a ton, became experienced in related, employable areas, spoke at conferences, and landed a great job long before he got hooded. He is on track to have a great career that will allow us to pay off his loans–and yes, he has plenty–in a moderate amount of time AND he’s employable in a variety of areas. His friends who set their hopes on tenure-track jobs and didn’t wisely network are struggling on adjunct salaries.

        Your career and that of your spouse will be sorely limited if you can’t apply your degree beyond academia…but you have to plan and work toward that goal way before you graduate.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          This is very true. I have a friend with a PhD in political science, but his was quantitative poli sci. He was able to use his skills in data and statistics to land a non-academic job, but he also got a lot of grief from his fellow academics for wanting to pursue that track.

          1. Lils*

            Yes, as far as I can see, at least in the humanities, there is a bit of a stigma for getting off the tenure track. But what I also see is a lot of tenure-track profs who are trapped into working in non-desirable locations, in dysfunctional departments, because they landed their “dream” job and can’t leverage their degree into doing anything else. And spouses who are trapped with them! Tenure honestly seems more limiting than freeing to me these days. I’m really proud of my husband for finding applicable interests outside of the norm.

        2. Lore*

          Agreed: I stopped at ABD when it became clear not only that the prospects in academia were dim, but that I didn’t want to stay in the field anyway. But the teaching experience as well as the editing, research, and proofreading skills I learned along the way (in the jobs I had in summers and in addition to my teaching position) are what enabled me to get other work when I walked away.

      3. Mike C.*

        Just because a life pursuit isn’t profitable or doesn’t further one’s job skills in the most optimal manner doesn’t mean the individual is dumb for pursuing it.

        1. Rana*


          Thank you! Yes, it’s important to make a living, but to insist that all activities and goals must be practical and profitable to be considered valuable is a really limited way of looking at life.

      4. Rana*

        I’d wonder why they thought that degree was a good idea and why they didn’t pursue a career in academia.

        Perhaps because when they entered grad school, they fully intended to do just that, only to learn by the time they graduated that it was no longer possible? I have a lot of people in my cohort who are in that boat. All through grad school we were told – and had little reason to doubt – that there was going to be an increase in the number of academic positions available due to a combination of retirements and increasing enrollments. But what happened was that the market changed, in very significant ways. In particular, administrations shifted from hiring two-three full-time tenure-track faculty to hiring eight-ten part-time adjuncts, and you simply cannot make a living as an adjunct.

        So then what does one do?

        1. Katie the Fed*

          As a hiring manager, then I would want to see that the person took steps to make themselves more marketable – probably by pursuing things that aren’t as attractive in academia (teaching, publishing in non-academic journals, interning, working at a think tank, etc). A career jump is possible, but you have to work toward it and market yourself that way.

          1. Rana*

            I’m going to pause to bitterly laugh a bit at those suggestions. Teaching is pretty much the only marketable skill in that set, and it’s only good for adjuncting; if you don’t have an education degree, you aren’t allowed to teach in the public schools. Interning isn’t open to people who aren’t new grads, and most internships are aimed at BS and BA grads, not doctoral ones. Ditto on the other things.

            This may well be useful advice for brand-new graduates, or ones in the sciences, but for us older humanities folks? Hah. Sorry. I wish it worked that way, but it doesn’t. I have ten years of making the attempt to prove otherwise.

            1. fposte*

              I don’t think that’s entirely true, though. There are a lot of kinds of teaching, not just either high school or college–that’s the point I think Katie is making. I think that options are more limited in some subject fields than others, and also some institutions are less attuned to options than others; I’m not saying that PhDs are coin of the realm and everybody can do this. But I am, as I think you know, a fellow humanities PhD, and I do know people who have done and are doing what Katie is talking about (and even I kind of have, I suppose).

              1. Rana*

                True, but I have twenty years of teaching experience, and all it seems to get me is more under-paid, no-benefits adjunct work.

                In terms of transferable skills, that experience has given me some really solid skills in editing and communication – which I use in my own business – but that’s not what the average employer sees when they look at it. If it’s not attached to specific, in-field experience, it’s largely useless. People hiring editors don’t want to hire former adjuncts; they want to hire editors.

                1. fposte*

                  Yeah, it doesn’t work for everybody, and of course I have no idea what kind of training/teaching you’ve been applying for unsuccessfully outside of universities and high schools. The two-career family complicates things too, I’m sure.

                  But I still think you’re making a bigger transferable leap than I meant. The people I know went from editing in academia to editing out of academia, or teaching in academia to teaching out of it, or admin in to admin out–they didn’t cross both software and platform, if you will.

                2. Rana*

                  Ah, gotcha. I was primarily trying to get out of teaching – I’m good at it but I find it soul-sucking under adjuncting conditions – but it was complicated by also having to find a field that a historian’s other skills would transfer to. As I said, I couldn’t find one; most of those areas are in worse shape than the academic market. So I work for myself now.

                3. fposte*

                  And I think English-where I did my degree–genuinely does offer more possibilities than some other subjects. You’d still be a fool to do a doctorate in it merely in hope of springboarding another career, but people really do manage to draw on it in interesting ways.

                4. Lulula*

                  @fposte interesting re: English degree – while when I was in college many years ago, I constantly heard that it was an infinitely useful and desirable major to pursue, I haven’t found that to be the case. Most people scoff at that decision (just happened to me yesterday). Except other English majors. Although I do only have a BA, so maybe that’s part of it…

          2. Mike C.*

            Why in the heck do you believe that a published article in a non-academic journal is worth anything?

            “Yes, your research wasn’t peer-reviewed at all, but the check cleared, so here’s your article!”

      5. Michael*

        And if you were in competition with OP’s employer, you’d lose their added revenue due to OP’s productivity because you think a PhD in medieval history makes someone out of touch with reality.

        So this hypothetical demonstrates why close-minded hiring managers lose their companies money more than anything else.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Or she might have hired someone else who was also great, but had a more traditional background for the job. There’s nothing here to indicate that wouldn’t be the case.

          1. Michael*

            Or she might have hired Peter Pan who handed out golden tickets to Candyland to all their customers.

            We don’t know who she would have hired–but we DO know that she would NOT have hired someone who boosted a competitor’s top line.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              In most hiring processes, good candidates end up not getting hired. When there’s one slot and multiple good candidates, potentially great people are going to get rejected. I think most hiring managers have made their peace with that.

            2. fposte*

              And that’s almost always going to be true in a competitive market–there will be a person who could improve things for you that you didn’t hire. But if you’re decent at hiring, you’re almost always hiring somebody *else* who improves things. The ability to improve isn’t zero-sum–the fact that the OP improved productivity doesn’t mean that the people he competed against wouldn’t do the same.

    2. K*

      I think this is true for PhDs but not for BAs/BSs. Or – it might become true, but it hasn’t been for quite a while. Statistically speaking, people with college degrees have more than made up the cost of that degree in increased wages, regardless of what subject it was in. And in the most current recession, people without college degrees have been hit much harder than people with. Things might change, but we don’t have evidence they’ve changed yet.

      Nor do I think something is only useful if you’re working in that particular field.

      1. E.R*

        I agree with K. I also worry about the long-term effects of a society where people don’t study history, chemistry, or politics, etc. unless they are 100% dedicated to pursuing that exact path as a career. I have a double-major BA in subjects most people would deem “useless”, and while the year I spent in community college in a job-specific program after graduation helped launch my career, my BA is still so relevant to my work and life. I feel lucky that I had the opportunity to do it (tuition was lower and job prospects were better then), as I fear future generations wont have the “luxury”, and we may all suffer for it.

        1. K*

          Indeed; I’m a lawyer now, but I “use” my anthropology degree on a daily basis and it unquestionably makes me better at my job. I don’t think that it was a “luxury” just because I’m not working as an anthropologist now. At least, it shouldn’t be and I don’t want to live in a society where it’s classified as such.

          Student debt is a problem; the solution to that is not just to tell kids they shouldn’t bother with a liberal arts degree unless they want to be an academic and move on with our lives.

          1. Jamie*

            That may be a nice sentiment for society as a whole, but as someone with two kids in college and the last one headed there this fall I am not paying for a liberal arts degree. I’m a big fan of being well read, life long learning, all of that…but right now they are in school to focus on what will give them a leg up in getting a job and being self-supporting.

            After they have secured a place for themselves in the world and gotten settled they can pursue a wide variety of intellectual pursuits…but I do see college the minimum requirement (what a HS diploma used to be in past generations) and while there are no guarantees some paths are more practical than others.

            And I am one of the philistines who resents some of the required core classes. I have used stuff from my accounting, business, and stats to put money in my bank account. Knowing who Rene Descartes is came in handy exactly once when Jeopardy was on and I got to show off by knowing the answer to some question. Music appreciation – I don’t know how one uses that to make a living, but it was something I had to take because I needed a humanities elective and it fit my schedule. If it was something in which I was interested, I could have pursued that on my own after I was employed.

            1. K*

              I actually disagree with this. It’s not about knowing who Rene Descartes was. It’s about learning systematic ways of critical thinking which are much harder to do on your own but which, like foreign languages, are much easier to pick up once you’ve had some experience. So taking anthropology as an example – since that’s what I primarily studied – the value was not that I learned about marriage patterns in Papua New Guinea. It was that I learned about how anthropologists study marriage patterns in Papua New Guinea – how they take qualitative and narrative-based data and apply theoretical frameworks to analyze that. And now, as a lawyer in a highly technical industry, I can take that quantitative data and turn it into a narrative that makes the case for my client. I learned how to immerse myself in a given perspective and then to turn it inside out and look at that critically from the outside. It makes me unquestionably better at my job. I know the same is true in different ways for my colleagues who majored in things like history and philosophy (or physics or engineering).

              If I had gone straight to a practical field, I’d be missing an awful lot of that. There are jobs where it doesn’t matter (and of course nobody is obligated to pay for anything), and in this economy, limiting debt is always a good idea. But long term, I think success often comes from having a solid handle on the types of fundamental principles that are taught in a liberal arts education and then showing you can apply them through things like internships, jobs while in school, volunteer work, etc.

              1. E.R*

                I understand where Jamie is coming from, in that with high tuition and a competitive job market, it makes sense that you take a more direct approach to your career. The difference between my parents’ experience in university (very low tuition – the government of Canada paid for most of it and working in the summer covered all your expenses for the year. And once you got that degree, there were tonnes of good jobs), and my own (higher tuition, but you could manage if you work all year round and had a little help from your folks. And you need to think very strategically about how to get a job after you graduate). As it continues to go in that direction, we have to change the way we think about higher education.

                That being said, I stand behind my original point that we will likely be worse off when we have a society of people who did not study liberal arts subjects beyond high school. K’s point about using them in your career is true, and I could draw a parallel to my own, but also we will need to think about how to make people informed citizens about their world without the possibility of widespread liberal arts education. Something tells me the media (and I work in it) isn’t the answer.

                1. K*

                  Yep – and to a certain extent it’s a chicken-and-egg problem. The reason I always speak up in discussions like this is not because I don’t think student debt and the cost of education is a huge problem that everyone needs to be mindful of when going off to college now. It’s because so often that argument seems to be combined with “liberal arts is just a luxury anyway.” And I agree with you – we will be worse off as a society if that becomes the standard view. I think we need to figure out how we can give kids options regardless of how wealthy their parents are.

                  This isn’t to say I think everyone needs a liberal arts degree; I think part of figuring this out should definitely be figuring out how kids who want to get a practical or technical degree and then get a job can do that too. Just, I don’t think these things should be allocated according to parental wealth; someone with aptitude and potential for the liberal arts should have a realistic opportunity to pursue that just as someone with aptitude and potential for engineering or the skilled trades should have a realistic opportunity to pursue them.

                2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  “That being said, I stand behind my original point that we will likely be worse off when we have a society of people who did not study liberal arts subjects beyond high school. K’s point about using them in your career is true, and I could draw a parallel to my own, but also we will need to think about how to make people informed citizens about their world without the possibility of widespread liberal arts education. “

                  I agree with this very much. I don’t think expecting employers to hire less qualified candidates is the answer, but I very, very much agree with the concern. (In fact, I think we already lack an informed citizenry, and have for some time, and it’s a huge problem.)

                3. Jamie*

                  K – I agree wholeheartedly that there should be different and valid paths for young people starting out to best prepare based on their talents and aptitude. Trust me – I feel the pain of this one sized fits all college things every day as a parent.

                  I guess I’m looking at it through a purely selfish and practical lens. Go back 100+ years and in that society a well born young woman was expected to make a good match. Whether she loved him or not was irrelevant – it was her job to marry well to protect and hopefully increase the family assets.

                  It’s fabulous that we aren’t locked into that kind of marriage as a career anymore and people can marry or not as they see fit based on reasons other than money. I would love to see a society like you’re talking about where education for the sake of itself was valued and people could be self-supporting contributors to society without marching lockstep through the exact same system. There is nothing about that with which I have any argument at all.

                  But again, selfish and practical, just as I would be if I were a mother of daughters 100 years ago: If he’s a decent person marry him – learn to love him later…because as awful as the practicality is it’s preferable to poverty and lifetime of dependence and financial instability.

              2. MentalEngineer*

                You know, I was going to write an impassioned defense of philosophy as a useful major, but you beat me to it. Next you’ll have me reconsidering lawyers! ;)

              3. Katie the Fed*

                I went to a liberal arts school and have a sort of impractical major (political science), so I do agree with the necessity of learning HOW to think, beyond just learning a specific trade. But I think you’re at a point of dimishing returns when you move past masters degree realm into PhD realm. At that point you’re getting so specialized that I don’t know additional learning benefits a career beyond academia.

                1. Chris*

                  (Note: I’m not really replying here to Katie the Fed, but there just doesn’t seem to be a good place to leave a comment about this issue.)

                  Regarding college and getting an education, the thing is, this exists:


                  and this exists:


                  Basically, you can learn whatever the hell you want to learn from Plato to Incompressible Flow as long as you have a computer with a working Internet connection. With forums about everything and anything (I’ve found LinkedIn groups useful for this particular reason: to find people to talk about suitable interests).

                  [The exception to this rule is hands-on stuff such as, as someone brought up earlier, welding, which really can’t be taught in an Internet setting.]

            2. the gold digger*

              English major with an operations MBA here.

              In B school, you learn the tools to solve business problems.

              That’s the easy part – knowing what the problem is and what the technical solution is.

              The hard part is convincing people to implement the solution. It usually requires that people change what they do. Most people hate that.

              What the English degree gave me was the ability to analyze why people do what they do and how to communicate my findings. Qualitative analysis + quantitative analysis + good communications skills = good combination for business world.

              1. the gold digger*

                That said, I would have a hard time recommending someone major in English today.

                I have, however, seen two job postings in the past month asking specifically for an English major.

                My heart leapt.

                1. E.R*

                  The answer to saving the liberal arts lies somewhere, broadly, in lowering tuition in the interest of society but raising standards (read: lowering enrollment) for students with a genuine intellectual curiosity, passion, and ability for the liberal arts. The degree(s) would then be more rare, but would hopefully mean something more too. Liberal arts students who really dig in are well equipped to be leaders and high level thinkers in lots of industries, for sure.

                  With the system and job market as it is now, I would have a hard time recommending an English major to someone too (and that was one of my “useless” majors – and I loved it!). Though if they were passionate and determined, they should still go for it.

            3. Lils*

              I agree with Jamie and with Katie the Fed’s comment below.

              imho, most liberal arts degrees are too limiting in the present and future economy. Critical thinking skills are, well, critical–and they can be learned across a variety of disciplines. K’s comment shows how she learned a lot of cool things in her anthro degree–but I did too in my more practical science and professional degrees.

              While liberal arts study is important to our society, I think that it ought to be far more emphasized at a young age and less in college. Critical thinking ought to be ingrained by late adolescence. I’m more concerned about how schools are cutting arts and Latin, students are not being taught Geometry proofs anymore, and the standard secondary humanities (*and* science curriculum) is just terrible.

              That being said, we should probably broaden our definition of what’s practical. Humanities, science, and social science research methods courses should be more prevalent, probably even required…not sure about non-major arts appreciation courses.

                1. Anonymous*

                  Haha, I have inadvertently revealed how long it’s been since I did proofs myself! Good one!

            4. Mike C.*

              This is incredibly short-sighted. I have a BS in mathematics and biology from a “liberal arts” engineering college. Yeah, we’re talking mathematical modeling, genomics, computational bio, all that good “practical” shit.

              I was required to spend a full third of my degree in the liberal arts. Scientists and mathematicians and engineers need to understand how to communicate, and how to understand how their work affects their communities and societies. It’s not impractical in the slightest, and my education wouldn’t have been complete without it.

              This is really important stuff here!

              The reason people are having a hard time getting work isn’t because they don’t have the right education, it’s because of more systematic reasons. There is no “magic bullet” major your kids can take to guarantee them a good job.

              1. Rana*

                The reason people are having a hard time getting work isn’t because they don’t have the right education, it’s because of more systematic reasons. There is no “magic bullet” major your kids can take to guarantee them a good job.


              2. The gold digger*

                My husband is a EE. His dad was an English professor who tolerates no mistakes. (I get an upset stomach every time I send his mom and dad an email because I know his dad will find something to criticize.) My husband is an excellent writer and an excellent speaker and he knows the technical stuff as well.

                When my husband was considering asking for a leave of absence to run for office, I asked a friend of ours, who is a VP in an engineering company, if they would just tell my husband to quit – they would replace him.

                Our friend said it would take six months to replace my husband because of his combination of technical skills and communications skills.

                It is a very good combination to have.

            5. Editor*

              @ Jamie re music appreciation:

              The problem isn’t that the requirement for studying a liberal art was useless. The problem was the courses available to you didn’t teach you the liberal arts skills we’re talking about here. The college didn’t put enough thought into scheduling and into the courses it offered to provide the benefits the faculty claimed they wanted you to receive. There are a lot of faculty members who have undermined their own institutions through careless scheduling, ineffective courses, and lackadaisical administration.

              My husband had the opposite problem in college. He chose a practical major in computer science/mathematics. When he graduated he couldn’t find a job because employers wanted Cobol instead of Fortran. I took some courses in comp sci too, and when I complained to a professor we’d both had and suggested they could offer a half-credit course in Cobol just so people could pay off their student loans, the faculty member exploded with anger and informed me he didn’t teach in trade school, he was a tenured faculty member in the Ivy League. (Yeah, and a jerk, too.)

              There’s a big disconnect in U.S. higher education between what professors, particularly at top colleges, think the goal of a bachelor’s degree is and what ordinary people think a bachelor’s degree is for./first rant

              To get back to music, when I was in school there was a woman at a local store who made fun of kids in band. Although childless, she informed parents they were wasting their money on instruments and lessons and she pointed out to kids they’d never play their instruments after high school. She didn’t seem to feel there was any benefit to being in band during school that would help the student then or later — she just said it was all a waste of money. I thought of her often over the years when my husband and I played in community bands and made friends, listened to other bands and enjoyed them, and watched our kids make long-term friends in band. When my husband died, my daughter read an amazing tribute from a friend she’d made in high school band telling about how being my daughter’s friend had turned her around academically and how my husband’s willingness to help her with homework made a major difference in her life. The friend is now has an associate degree after a long slog and is independent and supporting herself. I think dismissing the liberal arts is a big mistake — and yes, I know high school band isn’t liberal arts — but a lot of music students are told their field is worthless. A band teacher isn’t worthless and high school band can be as formative and important in character formation as basketball or English or shop class. /second rant

              1. Jamie*

                I never meant to imply that music education wasn’t valuable for some people. I believe it’s a great thing for those who have the interest. My point was taking issue with the way the system is set up to require a certain amount of electives in certain disciplines…and I’m not the only one who took whatever met the criteria because it fit the requirement and my schedule. Waste of my time and my dad’s money.

                My problem is with the restrictions, not music. One of my sons absolutely loved his art appreciation and art history classes…and his film classes. He can speak in such depth and with such interest about this stuff and I am glad those are available to him. I don’t know if I’d be able to stay awake in art appreciation. I don’t get it, I don’t see what other people see when they look at art. I’m a clod who likes art if it looks nice over my couch. My son, however, hates math. It’s where his learning disabilities conspire against him and he will probably never feel the sense of peace and order I feel when a complex formula is solved. Yet because of requirements he has to take alegebra and learn to solve quadratic equations that he will likely never use once the class is passed.

                It will be as useful to him as music appreciation was to be – my only point was it would be great if we could loosen the boxes a little bit and let people educate themselves according to their interests and attitudes.

                I know a lot of people who are glad they were in band. I threw my flute away in 5th grade after week two of lessons because I knew I had no talent and it was absolute torture for me…and I didn’t see the point in working so hard at something I would suck at.

                Everyone is different and what enhances one persons life is a nightmare requirement for another.

    3. Sascha*

      Yes, yes, and yes. I think we also need to redefine “doing what you love.” Many people define this as a specific career, not tasks. For example, Sally might say “I love being a teacher,” but then gets into the school system and hates it. But if she said, “I love helping someone understand a complex idea,” that opens the door to a multitude of options that aren’t necessarily “teacher.” (Hopefully that made sense.)

      1. Jamie*

        Makes perfect sense and I have been drilling that into my kids in college (and heading there.) Don’t pick a “profession” but more figure out where your aptitude and talents lie and what won’t make you want to drink if you do it for 40+ hours a week. Then look at your options and major in something practical.

        1. Andrew*

          The problem with this is that no one knows what will be considered “practical ” in the future. In as short a time as it takes to graduate from college, the skills taught by that practical major could have become irrelevant.

          1. Mike C.*

            Bingo. Blaming students for not being able to predict the job market (or the economy at large) in 5 years time is a bit much.

            1. Anonymous*

              It’s a LOT much, considering professional economists fail to accurately project conditions over 12 months.

  8. PEBCAK*

    It’s not just a risk, though, it’s also a training investment, and the productivity lost while someone gets up to speed. If you hire someone who will take three months to learn widget making, you have done worse that waiting two more months to hire someone who already knows it.

    1. Joey*

      Actually its usually far worse than that. When you pay someone to learn for two months its far more expensive than leaving a position vacant for two months because you’re out whatever additional monies it costs to train in addition to the salary of the person being trained.

      1. Jamie*

        Great point. People often think a new employee is at 0 on the value apex day one – but they are actually in the negative because they are using resources and providing no value.

        1. Mike C.*

          Speak for yourself! There are plenty of new employees that are able to be productive on day one.

          1. Jamie*

            Very few jobs beyond entry level. And I am always only speaking for myself, I assumed we all do and a disclaimer was unnecessary. Apparently I was wrong.

  9. Wilton Businessman*

    Hiring is not an exact science. It is a very expensive process and a bad hiring decision magnifies that expense many times over.

    Hiring managers want somebody that fits in well with the organization and they don’t have to spend too much time educating to the point of being productive. While you may be an expert in translating ancient Latin, I need you to work on my project plan without having to show you what dependent tasks are.

    The other problem with people with “transferable skills” is they want to come in at the salary that the guy with 5 years experience has. Sometimes it equates, sometimes it doesn’t, but I can’t risk paying you $90K because you have the potential to run my projects. If I am impressed, I might offer you $50K and pair you with somebody who will teach you what you need to know to get to that $90K level, but I pay for results not potential.

    1. Jamie*

      The salary thing is a two way street. I’m unusual in that I didn’t even get my first real job until I was 37 – but my employer took a huge chance on me. I wouldn’t hire me now with the skills I had then, but it was 2008 before it all blew up and I was the best of all of four applicants…the thing was they took a huge risk and I took a much smaller salary at the time. I didn’t have all they needed, but I did have a lot of other things they wanted (like a passion for optimization charts and isoquants – don’t judge me).

      The thing is in four years I’ve doubled my starting salary…(actually under 1K shy of doubling it – kind of killing me that it’s not an even number… and no my OCD isn’t in full bloom today). They took a risk in giving me a chance, I took a risk in assuming they would be good to their word if things worked out – but if I had demanded top dollar out of the gate I’d have been shown the door.

      Sometimes we all have to pay our dues more than once.

      1. the gold digger*

        Jamie, my husband fills the gas tank to even dollar amounts. And he rounds tips up to even dollar amounts.

        I love optimization. And I loathe inefficiency. I spent all my time in the multiple-server, multiple-line immigration queue in Dubai seething at the unfairness of it all, especially when they kept opening new lines and taking people from the end of the line to the front.

  10. anon e. mouse*

    I think the real question is why you thought getting a degree in Medieval Studies would help you get a job in the private (or public really) sector. I certainly hope you didn’t take out loans for that..

    1. Jane*

      Is that really an issue when the OP has a job and appears to be successful? How about people going into law school or journalism school right now? Or how about people getting degrees in masters / certificate programs for “social media”?

      1. Malissa*

        There are programs for social media studies? I learn something new everyday from this Blog.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes, it’s an issue!

        First, it sounds like the OP stumbled into a pretty unusual situation though where someone took a chance on him that wouldn’t be typical of what you’d usually expect.

        Second, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone go into a journalism program; you don’t need it to be a journalist (as we’ve talked about here a lot before). Law school is a huge risk right now if you’re not in a top school, given the glut of lawyers on the market.

        1. College Career Counselor*

          Absolutely agreed with Alison re: law school. If you’re not getting close to a full scholarship, don’t go. And even then, consider the job market. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that there are some 220k law jobs opening for the 2010-2020 period. Sounds great, right? Law schools graduate approximately 45k students per year, so that means that by 2020, there will be 450k law graduates in that pool.

          Put another way, there are likely 2 law grads for every JD-requiring job out there, which are bad odds if you’ve got a ton of debt or graduated from a low-ranked school. Those odds are actually better than some PhD programs, where the numbers are smaller, but so is the available pool of PhD teaching and research positions.

          1. K*

            I would say if you’re not getting close to a full scholarship OR you didn’t get into one of the five or so schools that offers seriously good low income protection plans (Harvard, Yale, Stanford – possibly a couple of others).

    2. K*

      He probably didn’t but, you know, life doesn’t always go according to plan. Hiring managers aren’t obligated to hire any given person, but on a broader level, we’d all be better served if we lived in a society that was flush enough in jobs that people like the OP could find jobs in the private sector (we have lived in such a society before and hopefully will again).

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’m not sure we have lived in that society before — it used to be that a much, much smaller segment of the population got graduate degrees, let alone PhDs.

        1. K*

          I wasn’t talking about the specifics so much; but that when the economy is closer to full employment, people who aren’t the “perfect” candidate for a given job have a better chance of being productively employed.

          I don’t think getting a PhD in something is a good idea except under really specific circumstances, but I do think we’re all better off in the kind of economy where people who got a PhD in something but don’t go to academia can have a rewarding and productive career instead of working a minimum wage service job; that doesn’t really benefit anyone.

    3. College Career Counselor*

      I’m pretty sure that the OP didn’t pursue the PhD in Medieval Studies to get a job in the private sector. In fact, I think it’s likely the case s/he was interested in the subject, wanted to become an academic and followed the path necessary to do that. What the OP didn’t know (because the grad department hid the ball and/or outright lied about employment outcomes, faculty or other advisors may have given bad information, etc.) was that the academic job market is terrible in humanities, that there are hundreds of applicants for every position.

      Last I saw, there were about far more graduates than there were PhD jobs available because grad departments admit more students than the “market” will bear. In fact, many faculty are laughably unaware of the job market (unless they’ve been on it themselves in the past 15 years).

      This is a person who ultimately succeeded, but who wondered why it was so difficult to get employers to look beyond the job description. Lots of reasons as AAM and others have said (don’t need to, acceptable applicant pool, proven candidates). I completely agree with those. To that, I would add that employers don’t understand the skillset a PhD (research, analytical, persistent, etc.) brings to the table. They likely also think, “Oh, this person is likely to run off if they find a professorship somewhere.”

      Chances are, the medieval studies PhD has been on the job market, doing 1 year visiting assistant/lecturer gigs for the past 3-8 years. What the employer doesn’t realize is that this person has given up the academic dream and is looking to move on to something else and try to get some value out of the time and effort spent on the degree (vs. leaving it off the resume and having a 8-12 year gap, including the time spent as a VAP). While I would agree that desperation is not an attractive quality in an applicant, I would also say that plenty of employers (especially if they’ve had some churn in positions) could stand to take a closer look at someone “non-traditional.”

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        “I’m pretty sure that the OP didn’t pursue the PhD in Medieval Studies to get a job in the private sector.”

        Agreed — but I think people are reacting to his surprise that it was difficult to do so once he decided he wanted to.

        “What the OP didn’t know (because the grad department hid the ball and/or outright lied about employment outcomes, faculty or other advisors may have given bad information, etc.) was that the academic job market is terrible in humanities, that there are hundreds of applicants for every position.”

        Assuming he graduated in the last few years, I’m not sure how he could have not known. The media is full of stories about this — it would be really hard to be in that field and not know this is the situation.

        (That’s not intended to sound snotty.)

        1. College Career Counselor*

          Not taken as snotty in the slightest. I agree there’s a fair amount of self-deception/delusion in the grad school world. Part of the problem is this thinking: “My advisor told me I’d be good at this, and I want to do it, so I will be the one to beat the odds and land a tenure-track position.”

          The issue is that you have NO real idea if you’re off base because at no point in the process of scholarship, research and earning your PhD do you have any real sense of whether you’re going to be able to do that. There should be some kind of conference/activity/something that below a certain measure (I have no idea what this metric would be), you should take the terminal master’s, reclaim your life and go find something else to do.

          1. Ann O'Nemity*

            CCC, your post reminded me of the other part of the problem – the needs of the dept/professors! It is in most professors’ best interests to attract and admit graduate students. It’s an important indicator for rankings for departments. And departments need graduate students to teach their classes and work in labs. In many – or most – cases, this is NOT in the best interest of the student! So we have a system in which it is in the best interest of professors to actually mislead students about their future job opportunities. And then we blame the students for not being in touch with reality.

      2. Athlum*

        CCC said: To that, I would add that employers don’t understand the skillset a PhD (research, analytical, persistent, etc.) brings to the table. They likely also think, “Oh, this person is likely to run off if they find a professorship somewhere.”

        This, this, seconding this so hard. This is why the cover letter is absolutely essential — someone with a doctorate should be able to explain the relevance of their skills AND their desire to leave the academy in basic, non-jargony terms so it’s painfully clear to hiring managers what they can do and how their skills (and, often, 6-10 years of experience!) are relevant to the position.

    4. CoffeeLover*

      I never understood why people got degrees like that. If it really interests you, then get a minor and reserve your major for something that employers are looking for. I know the education system is technically about learning and not solely there to get you a job, but unfortunately that’s the reality of life. I loved philosophy, so I got a minor in it and to be honest I learned more about applying my knowledge and problem solving in philosophy than I did from my business classes (which were basically about memorization). It wasn’t my philosophy degree that got me jobs though. Of course if your goal is to teach or research then that’s different, but I’ve talked to so many people getting essentially useless degrees who are just going through the motions and honestly have no idea what they’ll do with it after graduation. I’m frustrated for them.

      As for the PhD front, it can be a negative for some professions. My friend is an engineer managing other engineers. He has a man with a PhD who once wrote something the size of a dissertation to give to a client who wanted a one page summary. Now I’m not saying all PhD’s will do this, but this just outlines that employers don’t necessarily think you’re learning applicable-for-work skills when getting your PhD.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          The problem, though is that if you point-blank ask most people in the process of getting the degree if they’re okay with the idea that it might end up being solely for personal fulfillment and education, and it not being part of their career path, most will not be happy with that. The expectations are often mismatched with the reality. That’s the part that troubles me.

          1. The IT Manager*

            YES! THIS! If someone gets a non-marketable degree for the joy and pleasure of learning, more power to them. I am tired of hearing of and from people who are frustrated that their degree was not a golden ticket to a well-paying job that allows them to pay off their college loans and live a middle-class (or better) life. I am frustrated that that information is not getting out so many college graduates are blindsided when suddenly confronted by the fact that their expectations do not match reality.

            1. -X-*

              ” golden ticket to a well-paying job ”

              Who says that? What recent college grads say that?

                1. -X-*

                  I’ve heard people express frustration getting a job after working hard in college, doing internships, etc. I haven’t heard anyone out of college, especially with a “non-marketable degree” say they thought it would be easy (“golden ticket”).

                  I have heard people with recent law degrees and other professional degrees say that sort of thing.

          2. Cormick*

            I have a friend who studied Medieval Studies, too, and complains she can’t find work even though she has good transferable skills. And she has a huge amount of student debt.

            I also got a degree in a Master’s degree that had little employment potential (Arts related). The big difference is:

            1. I had enough money to pay for it completely out of my pocket.
            2. I did it because I enjoyed it and never expected to be employed in the Arts field.

            In fact, I work in a completely different field and would never want to work in Arts for a living. However, most people are like my friend: in debt and angry that nobody will hire them even though they have a PhD in something like Arts or Medieval Studies.

            1. Lynne*

              I double majored in Medieval Studies and Classics in undergrad. I loved it, and I don’t regret it at all, even though I’m still paying off my student loans. But I haven’t based my career on that degree; I went to library school afterward.

              In retrospect, even though it’s turned out well for me, it would’ve been more sensible of my younger self to make my second major something like computer science, rather than sticking entirely to the humanities. But at the same time, I understand why I made the choices I did; the idea of just studying what you love and letting the future take care of itself is very seductive. Besides, graduation seems rather far away and hypothetical at the time when you’re making these decisions (unless you’re a mature student, which I wasn’t).

      1. the gold digger*

        wrote something the size of a dissertation to give to a client who wanted a one page summary

        My verbose engineer husband, who won’t use one word when ten will do, was preparing for a TV interview last fall when he was running for state-level office. He gave his practice answer and the coach said, “That’s good!”

        My husband – blesshisheart – said, “But was it long enough?”

        1. College Career Counselor*

          That’s why they’re called “sound bites” and not “sound Smörgåsbords”! ;-)

      2. Mike C.*

        Oh come on, your example is incredibly bad. I too once gave upper management a more detailed analysis than they were expecting. You know what happened? The big boss stopped by, better explained what he really needed (and what he didn’t) and it wasn’t a problem anymore!

        Are you telling me that because someone has a PhD that they can never learn from their mistakes or that the PhD forces them into mistakes that others would never make?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think the example was meant more to illustrate that in some cases, academia actually instills bad habits (or at least bad by the work world’s standards) that can be hard to train people out of. I can think of a couple of PhDs I worked with who could not write short to save their lives, but thought they were fantastic because academia had rewarded their approach, and couldn’t be trained out of it. On the other hand, my sister (who has a PhD) is a great writer. It just depends — but I understand why people fear it, because once you see it it enough, you get wary.

          1. Rana*

            But is that academia’s fault? In my field, one has to write a lot of book reviews, and most of those have word limits of 800 words or less – for books of 400 pages or more. And these are substantive reviews, noting both the strengths and weaknesses of the texts, not simply summarizing the main points. Trust me, you get very good at concision under that set of expectations.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I do think it’s academia’s fault, when it teaches/rewards long and wordy writing, yes! I’ve had painful struggles to un-teach the writing habits people learned in college and grad school. Not everyone, certainly, but enough of them that I’m willing to place blame there.

              1. Rana*

                I do have to wonder, though, because no one I know encourages that sort of thing. Students may well take away the wrong message from being asked to write a 20 page paper, but those sorts of assignments aren’t 20 pages just to be “long and wordy” – they are 20 pages because the arguments students are expected to make require that amount of research, explanation, description of evidence, and so on. And it’s worth noting that if you assign long papers, you also have to grade them, so you’d better be damn well certain that there’s not a more efficient way to teach the students those skills.

                Ditto for dissertations. Could they be condensed? Yes, most of them, probably. But I don’t know a single person who tells their graduate students “be sure to write lots and lots” or rewards students for being wordy – most of my own professors were pretty harsh about people who blathered away without getting to the point.

                The upshot is that many academic assignments may well run “long” and “wordy” in the eyes of students who lack the intellectual experience to recognize the difference between in-depth, detailed work and running on at length just to reach an arbitrary page count. But that doesn’t mean they’re being taught to do that. It only means that they’re not being taught not to do it, which is a different thing.

                So I don’t doubt that you get a lot of wordy crap from people who claim that they were expected to write wordy crap. But that’s more likely a misunderstanding of what they were expected to do, than the result of a deliberate set of lessons in being wordy for its own sake.

                1. Rana*

                  And here’s the short version: just because students think their professors wanted them to write papers that were long and wordy, doesn’t mean that this is what professors actually wanted them to do.

                2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  I know that academia isn’t explicitly telling students “write long/wordy.” But that’s the lesson lots of people take away from that environment.

                3. Joey*

                  You know if professors prefaced assignments with “give me a well written one pager on it” students would be much better prepared for the work world.

                4. Rana*

                  Unfortunately, Joey, what you’d get is one page of blather from most of them, if what I experienced was typical.

                  I had one series of assignments where students were asked to build up an argument from scratch in very small increments – one week we focused on thesis statements, one on choosing evidence, one on describing the evidence with one or two sentences, and so on – nothing more than a paragraph – and their work was just as bad as it was on the long papers. And most of them wrote far more than they were required to, to boot.

                5. Rana*

                  Also, if your goal is to teach your students to write complex and nuanced arguments on a complicated topic involving multiple actors and across decades of change, you can’t do it with a one page paper. Senior academics, with a deep and broad knowledge of their fields, and many years of experience at distilling information for students and colleagues, can sometimes manage it, but newbie writers who are still trying to grasp the concept of summarizing evidence and explaining clearly what they think about it? No friggin’ way.

              2. Ellie H.*

                That’s not good academia, though. “Academia” doesn’t reinforce overly wordy writing. Badly practiced academia (that is, bad teaching or mentoring) does. You could argue that academics aren’t good enough to practice their profession, but I think it’s unfair to paint “academia” at large with that brush.

            2. fposte*

              800 words isn’t concise in most fields, though. My book reviews top out at 300, and they’re long for my field, but when I work with academics, they still have trimmable fat in their style at that length. Even at its best, academic writing prizes nuance over economy. Which is fair when it works, but it also means that students who don’t get to the nuance still don’t really get taught about economy.

              That’s a broad generalization, of course; I have friends and colleagues who teach in excellent writing programs that do focus on such things (and business writing often sucks in its own special way, too). But I also think writing programs are a separate issue from the general academic run, and that academia in general doesn’t focus on directness and clarity the way the nonacademic world means directness and clarity–and that’s the mismatch we’re talking about.

              1. K*

                I’m not in academia but a 300 word book review doesn’t actually seem that useful. Sometimes I feel like business writing generally goes way, way too far the other way (and the convention appears to be to spend a lot of the few words that are allowed on repetition).

      3. Lulula*

        But not everyone is good at the types of fields that are now perceived as marketable – people will gravitate towards their strengths and interests, and probably avoid guaranteed D’s in “more marketable” subjects. And as we’ve seen, marketable one day is useless the next, so at some point I think many just latch on to the idea that *some* degree is better than none and hope for the best. Perhaps once humans achieve extensive clairvoyant abilities, we will finally be able to choose educational paths that will provide us all with lucrative jobs for our lifetimes…

  11. Katie the Fed*

    if you’re in an academic field like medieval history, you’re really training to enter academia. Of course academia is such a cluster at this point that the best case scenario for most newly minted PhDs in the humanities or liberals arts is being an adjunct professor making barely more than minimum wage. Supply is way outpacing demand in those fields.

    So you try to enter the regular labor market, and find you would have actually been better served with only a masters degree than a PhD, because the more specialized you become on some obscure thread of history, the less marketable you are in general.

    It’s a mess. I would never recommend anyone get a PhD in the humanities or liberal arts these days unless they were independently wealthy.

  12. Anonymous*

    As much as I love to read it, this blog often makes me wonder how anyone ever gets a job. I am in my late 20s and as much as I would love to “branch out” a bit and use my skills in more diverse context, I don’t even apply for jobs that aren’t a very, very close match to what I currently do. Older folks seem to have a much different point of view on this topic.

    1. Manda*

      Judging by the ads, they often only want people who are a very close match. They seem to want you to have done basically the same job at a similar business. I’ve seen numerous ads for low level administrative/reception jobs where they want someone who has worked in the same industry. Maybe that’s helpful when the role requires a lot of experience, but apparently if you’ve done data entry, filed papers, and answered the phone at a different sort of business, you’re not good enough to do it at their company.

  13. MP*

    Another thing for the OP and others to consider: Are you doing a REALLY good job of making your case about what hiring managers SHOULD take a chance on you?

    This comes back to Alison’s “write a really good cover letter” refrain — it won’t work in all cases, of course, but a good letter that does a lot of the work for them, explicitly making connections between your skills and how they’re transferable, will make you that much more likely to overcome their hesitation.

    1. Jubilance*


      I recently made a career switch and was able to change careers, but I did utilizing the great advice from AAM, starting with making a convincing argument about WHY my skills were transferable in my cover letter & resume. I didn’t just leave it to chance & hope that hiring managers were able to see that my experience as a chemist gave me more skills than just how to make solutions & use lab equipment. I had to spell it out exactly.

      I think its easier to make that case for transferrable skills when you’ve been working. Fresh out of school, and a highly specific PhD program at that, I think it’s much harder to make the case of transferrable skills when you haven’t been proven yet in the working world.

  14. Malissa*

    I’m thinking a PhD in Medieval Studies sounds really cool. It also shows a great love for the subject. So if I were hiring the big red flag would be, is this person really interested in doing something else. Am I going to lose them if the local Ren fest has an opening for a director? Especially when I’m looking at tons of other people who have degrees in chocolate teapot making. Yes they may only be four year degrees that don’t demonstrate the level of analysis and research that is required of a successful PhD candidate, but their passion may actually be in the chocolate teapot making field.
    Now I know that’s a hard perception to fight against. I’ve been doing it for a while now myself. But as the OP has shown, the fight can be won.

  15. Bess*

    A bit off-topic, but I have a job interview tomorrow for a position I’ve been working towards for several years. I haven’t taken the usual training/career path that is normal for this kind of job, but with the advice on this blog, I was able to write a cover letter and resume that laid out a persuasive case as to why I would be a good fit for the job, even though my qualifications aren’t typical. So, two things:

    1) Thank you, thank you, thank you, Alison, for all your advice, including answering my question a few weeks ago about cutting down an academic CV into something more typical of the non-academic job market. I have no doubt that it was my persuasive cover letter and clear resume that got me the interview, and they wouldn’t have been either if it weren’t for your advice (and the advice of commenters, as well).

    2) Not having the exact qualifications isn’t a guarantee of getting your resume binned immediately. In this case, I’m a STEM graduate moving from working in a more theoretical area to a more applied area, so it isn’t a dramatic change, but it is a change. I haven’t gotten the job yet, obviously, but an interview is the first step. So it is possible to not be exactly qualified and still get your foot in the door.

  16. km*

    I feel like this comes back to the same explanation for so many job seeking misconceptions: there’s a difference between being well-qualified and most qualified.

  17. Lanya*

    OP, you said yourself that a PhD in Medieval Studies is not the most practical field. So you have to keep in mind that employers are not going to look at that title, even if it’s a doctorate, and automatically think any of your skills will be transferable. They may first be blindsided by the idea of you running around in a Renaissance Faire costume wielding large metal weapons.

    I’m not trying make fun of you; I’m just being up-front that you may need to market yourself differently – otherwise you are are fighting against some serious preconceived notions that you will have to work hard to get your audicene past in order to even have a conversation about how your skills may be transferable.

    I would never suggest lying on a resume, but if you could re-word your PhD to something more vague, like PhD in History with concentration in the Middle Ages, or PhD in 14th Century History, might be less of a hurdle for your prospective interviewers.

    1. fposte*

      In most cases, you can’t really do that without actually lying, because it’s very specific in your records what your PhD is in and what part of the university granted it. The dissertation title you’d just leave off entirely.

  18. Katie the Fed*

    ” They may first be blindsided by the idea of you running around in a Renaissance Faire costume wielding large metal weapons.”

    Yes, and I feel bad about putting academia on blast, but, here goes:

    Most of the people I know in specialized, obscure academic fields are…shall we say…eccentric. I don’t know if it’s because the type of people who want to do that are already a little…different, or if being in such a community makes them that way, but…yeah. The people I know in those types of fields, who I love dearly, would not fit in too well in a regular workplace. And the ability to fit in and have good people skills is going to be crucial in any workplace. Of course there are perfectly normal people in academia, but you’ve got that bias working against you too.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      In defense of PhDs in medieval history, my sister has one. She taught for a while, realized that job market meant that she’d always be stuck in a geographic location she didn’t want to be in, and left academia. She did tech writing for a while and now does nonprofit marketing. She’s pretty normal :)

      Of course, in her defense, she got hers years ago when the bottom was just starting to fall out of the academia job market.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        I’m coming off harsher than I intend. I’m not saying everyone is a weirdo in academia. But I think there’s a bit of a correlation between the longer you stay in that world and the more socially…unique…you become, in many cases. It’s that way in any isolated field.

        1. fposte*

          Sure, and academics has a deserved rep for tolerating eccentricity, so a lot of it goes unremarked.

          But I think that people looking at the non-academic/academic division tend to stack the deck a little sometimes. I worked with a ton of weirdos in the private sector, and you know as well as I do that the government work force is … not free from quirks.

          I think a bigger challenge might be the loss of flexibility on so many fronts. That’s one of my favorite things about working in academia and the main compensation for the lower paycheck. Even if somebody’s only experience of academia is as a grad student, there’s a ton of flexibility on dress, on workday scheduling, etc. that it’d require a real mental reset to live without.

    2. Jamie*

      Ahhh…some people think those in the IT field are eccentric and a little odd as well. Of course nothing could be further from the truth – we’re all totally normal.

      1. Scott M*

        Speak for yourself.. I’m totally weird :)

        But I can fake ‘normal’ pretty well.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          That’s why interviewing is so important. A lot of people can’t even fake being socially normal during a 30-minute interview.

    3. Jean*

      Gotta jump in here because I’m the mom of a teen with autism (his version aka Asperger’s) and ADHD. We’re also genetically related, which means that I’m entitled to observe that
      a) since his diagnosis, I’ve noticed that both sides of our child’s family have a variety of scientists, intellectuals, eccentrics, unable-to-sit-still folks, and similar riffraff (just kidding about the riffraff part)
      b) a lot of really bright people can also be really, really quirky to the point of having very few of the usual socializing skills

      Since the incidence of autism is increasing, we “neurotypicals” (fancy term for what was formally called “normal people”) are either going to have to learn how to absorb our quirky fellow travellers into our workplaces, or else we’ll be having to spend a lot of social resources on providing minimal support for increasingly frustrated & unhappy adults (who actually have a lot to contribute).
      Okay, rant over. Maybe I should get my own blog?

    4. Lils*

      Academics are *selected* to be intense and argumentative. You can’t get far into your humanities or science advanced degree without being kind of an a-hole about your ideas–at least in the academic context. It’s all defensive nitpicking about minutiae and semantics. The programs train you to be a didactic know-it-all. If you’ve ever been to an academic happy hour or conference session, I’m sure you’ve witnessed some bad behavior. Sometimes the debate is fun (if it’s your field, especially) and sometimes it’s just appalling.

      Lots of people are able to put these behaviors aside and still be great mentors, managers, and co-workers, but the stereotype exists for a reason. I think it’s something to think about as you’re crafting cover letters and interviewing–show that you can be personable and work well with others.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        yes, that perfectly captures what I was getting at. But again, I’m biased here. I left a PhD track in political science because I just hated everything about academia – the people I worked with, the pedantic nature of conversations, the ever-more-specific specialties, all of it. I know there are perfectly normal people who survive in that environment, but it’s just not my bag, baby!

        1. LN*

          I did the same thing. I got to the point (ABD) where I realized I couldn’t write a dissertation about a tiny bit of the universe when I am an information junkie. I love research of all kinds but I still am having trouble getting a job because I never have all the requirements listed in the job announcements. My brain just doesn’t get qualitative methods and I have difficulty learning without a live person standing in front of the class. I also live with depression but I’m trying to tell myself that, after working at two well-known corporations, I probably need to start at entry-level again. That’s difficult when I see younger kids (!) coming out of library school with skills I didn’t know I needed. And changing directions in the library science field is tough without more schooling and internships–and internships are only going to current students; plus my husband and I need the money. Sorry to vent..I just not sure where to turn to next.

  19. Just a Reader*

    It’s also worth noting that the skills for getting a degree, even a difficult degree, do not translate into work skills unless you’re in academia.

    1. Athlum*

      Except for when they do: for example, when the (non-academic) job involves information gathering, data analysis, writing…

  20. Citizen of Metropolis*

    This whole thread makes me sad. Someone with a PhD has learned how to learn, and they should get credit for having the perseverance, dedication and sheer hard work it takes. The American workplace has turned into a process of fitting an endless number of cogs into a sharply limited number of wheels. There is very little room for imagination and innovation, and I think this is a dangerous mindset. There’s a saying that if all you ask for is what you’ve always had, that’s all you will ever get. I want more for my country than that. If I were a hiring manager, I’d want more for my company than that. The OP’s story proves that if a hiring manager has the guts to take a risk on a candidate that isn’t just a shiny new cog, it can work out to everyone’s benefit.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Why does it make you sad that employers prefer to hire the candidates who have a proven track record in the work that they need done, and why should those candidates be overlooked at the expense of untested ones? That’s a serious question, not rhetorical.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      well that seems like a bit of hyperbole.

      I’d have no qualms about hiring a newly minted graduate with a BA or MA in history, English, or something else in the humanities for an entry-level position, provided they had some good interning experience and other qualities I’d look for. But a very specialized PhD in a narrow topic – I’d really have questions about how they’d fit in the workplace.

    3. Just a Reader*

      That’s nice in theory, but a lot of companies don’t have time or bandwidth to teach someone the ropes of a job. Entry level is one thing; expecting academic skills to translate into the workplace and provide benefit over candidates who can jump in with both feet are another.

      It’s up to each candidate to make themselves as valuable and attractive as possible–so a degree plus internships and volunteering goes a lot further than “skills learned while earning a degree.” It’s not closed minded to need someone who has proven they can do the job.

      1. Just a Reader*

        Oh, and I have to disagree that there’s little room for imagination or innovation, and that those things only come from highly educated candidates.

        I work for a giant company full of “cogs” and there’s plenty of innovation and room for out-of-the-box thinking.

    4. fposte*

      I have a PhD myself, and I’m very pleased with the life it’s given me, and I still think you’re overvaluing its meaning and taking its broader inapplicability to be a statement about the world that I really don’t think it is. It’s not a choice between cogs in the wheel and PhDs.

      And the thing is, I suspect that you yourself don’t hire for learning how to learn or creative vision either–your surgeon, your tax preparer, your roofer are probably not PhDs keen to transfer their skills to a different area while charging the same rate as an experienced professional.

    5. A Bug!*

      But you could write just as easily from the perspective of the well-suited candidate with relevant experience but no post-secondary education if that candidate was passed over for a person with a PhD in an unrelated field.

      “I opted out of formal education because I needed to support my family. I’ve worked hard for the past ten years, gaining skills and experience and I was passed over for a freshly-graduated PhD in an unrelated field who has no real-world experience.

      Now I’m being told I need to go back to school to get a degree, any degree, just to prove to employers that I ‘know how to learn’. Doesn’t my resume already do that?”

      Job market sucks for pretty much everybody right now, unless you’re fortunate enough to have been born into a privileged family. Of course everybody deserves a chance, but when the number of people far outstrip the number of chances, how do you decide who actually gets one?

      (Of course, maybe you were just kind of railing at the state of things generally, and saying that we need more opportunities period rather than redistributing the opportunities available. In which case, yeah, I’m with you.)

    6. Cormick*

      “Someone with a PhD has learned how to learn, and they should get credit for having the perseverance, dedication and sheer hard work it takes.”

      That’s what getting a diploma means: your hard work is recognized. As for it being a guarantee you’ll be able to transition into Business Management if you studied Art History: no guarantees and no reason why I should give the PhD an extra gold star for their PhD alone.

    7. Yvi*

      “Someone with a PhD has learned how to learn”

      So have most people with a degree in the field they want to work in. What sets someone with a PhD in an unrelated field apart?

  21. Meg*

    “Transferable skills” isn’t… really transferable. Either it’s the same skills, or it’s not, and you can learn them.

    Going to the green widget maker applying to be a brown widget maker. So what skills does the green widget maker have? Read blueprints? Make blueprints? Can read labels to mix plastic together? Are these really “transferable skills” or or they required skills for the brown widget maker too?

    My district manager only wanted to hire people who had experience selling cell phones. That’s too broad of a requirement, I told him. Why not look for people with customer services skills and/or commission-based sales experience? He hires one guy with cell phone experience. I hired 4 people with commission-based sales experience and/or customer service skills. Granted, his one guy turned into an area manager (assistant district manager, basically). Of the 4 people I hired, three are now store managers and the fourth is a top salesperson for the company (and she was the one with customer service skills and no sales experience).

    So it’s really asking yourself, as a manager, what skills does this job require and does this candidate have them? I guess I don’t really understand the term “transferable skills.” Just a weird term for me to use. I think of it as like, “Can you bake?” “No, but I can cook on the grill! It’s still cooking! Transferable skill!” And that’s just… not the same.

    1. Jamie*

      I would consider a transferable skill like if you have a background in financial analysis selling a company on how you can use that skill to analyze their production data or market research. Same basic skill set (logic/stats), but different application.

      Or if you are an expert at ERP A – if I am using ERP H it would help for you to point out that they are both Oracle based and that you are familiar with the differences between the GUIS but the back end admin is similar is the following ways…

      Because that would say that you know the difference, know the similarities and have assessed the learning curve as best you can and won’t sit there pouting because ERP A sucks because it isn’t like H.

      Project Management where you have managerial responsibilities over people and trying to parlay that into getting a shot at managing direct reports by showing in what ways this gives you some skills in hands on management and holding people accountable, getting the best out of people, mentoring, etc.

  22. nyxalinth*

    http://gawker.com/5993623/no-mcdonalds-is-not-requiring-potential-cashiers-to-have-a-bachelors-degree Apparently, the McDonalds thing was clever trolling, at least that’s how it seems to me.

    As for the whole “Baaaaw, we can’t find talent!” thing, I think it’s just a sugar coated way of saying “We can’t ind the talent we want that will work for us for 1/3 the minimum salary that their profession usually makes, but we’ll look like huge douchecanoes if we say it like that.”

    1. Anne-Marie*

      That’s exactly what they sound like- because it’s huge douchecanoe behaviour!

      1. nyxalinth*

        Agreed. either I have become old and cynical, or my ability to translate things into their real meaning has become a transferable skill :D

  23. Tina*

    If someone hasn’t already said it, the story about McDonald’s in MA asking for a college degree was inaccurate. The job was posted on an independent job board, which confirmed that the posting had incorrect information, but it had already been picked up by various media sources.

  24. HR Pufnstuf*

    “Purple Squirrel”
    Now I know what some hiring managers insist on me finding.

  25. Anonymous*

    I’ve been teaching/advising high school students, but would prefer advising college or university students or holding an admin position. Do I need to flesh out in detail how my advising skills are transferable?

  26. Citizen of Metropolis*

    It makes me sad because it’s so limiting for *everyone*. Yes, your shiny new cog might function very well and produce exactly the result you want, but what if a slightly different cog might work better, and you don’t know that because you rejected every cog that wasn’t exactly like the one you needed to replace? Every person or company who might have benefited from the improved cog just lost the potential for something brilliant. There was a time when penicillin was only bread mold.

    It makes me sad because nobody enters the workplace with 5 years experience making chocolate teapots. Everybody has to start somewhere; these days, a lot of people wind up starting their professional lives over, and fight the uphill battle of no experience in making teapots and ageism. I’ve been there and done that, and I will be forever greatful to the person who gave me my start in round two.

    It makes me sad because most jobs see a college degree as the barest minimum of educational requirements. College is expensive, and we are creating a debt-laden, discouraged generation who learn the hard way that the basic degree earns them nothing in the workplace, because every other candidate has both the degree AND the experience, and hiring managers are too risk adverse to even give them an interview.

    I’m not saying that the proven performers should be pushed aside; all I’m saying is that beginners need a chance too. It’s only fair. And yes, I know life isn’t fair, but that’s no excuse. It’s only decent to try to make it as fair as it can possibly be.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think you are probably looking at this from the perspective of not having done a lot of hiring. (If I’m wrong, I stand corrected.)

      I get 300+ candidates when I advertise a position. Should I interview them all? No, of course not; that’s not realistic. So I need to make decisions about who’s likely to be best matched with what I need. When I have candidates who are a fairly close match, it really doesn’t make sense to spend my time interviewing others who aren’t. I can’t give everyone a chance; I need to focus on the people most likely to have what I need. That’s just good sense.

      Does that mean that I will miss out sometimes on someone who would have been great? Yes, absolutely it does. But I can’t talk to all 300 — or even to half of them — to find someone who might be a diamond in the rough, particularly when I have other diamonds right in front of me, ready to get started.

      1. Lore*

        But I suspect you’re much better at focusing on the people most likely to have what you need than most hiring managers! A friend of mine is currently hiring for an entry-level admin position that happens to be in a legal department. They’re getting resumes from lawyers. My friend, who actually supervises the job, knows that an actual entry-level person with some knowledge of the field is far, far better suited for this position than an attorney. His boss thinks, “Hey, if an attorney wants this job, we should hire him.” That’s the kind of thing that prevents qualified people from getting entry-level jobs. (Anecdotal, yes, but I’ve seen the same thing happen at my workplace.)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Okay, sure, but I still think my response above to Citizen of Metropolis stands — it’s true no matter how skilled you are at hiring. You can’t talk to everyone and you can’t give people a chance at the expense of focusing on the candidates you judge most likely to fit what you need.

        2. Portia de Belmont*

          I work in the law and I know first hand that it’s not anecdotal, it’s cold hard fact. Your friend’s boss is profoundly wrong; while these days an attorney will take the job, that attorney will be miserable in the job. My job is managing several young attorneys working below their paygrade and skill set. They are all great human beings and hard workers, but I know that I’ll lose them as soon as they can locate ANYTHING better, and I will spend a lot of time finding and training their replacements, usually on very little notice.

          1. Anonymous*

            That’s true of any employee, regardless of education or experience. Everyone is looking for the next rung up.

        3. Victoria Nonprofit*

          Oh, THIS. The last time I was on a team that needed to hire an admin, everyone kept falling for the candidates who were frankly similar in background to the program staff – just screwed by the then-current hiring environment. We desperately needed a skill admin, not a policy analyst for whom this was the closest they could get to my job.

      2. Anonymous*

        This is my biggest problem in making the leap from working at a high school to working at a college/university. I was recently interviewed (skype) for two positions by a Dean at the Big H university. At the end of the interview, I asked her what she thought were my strengths and weaknesses as a candidate for either of the positions, and she bascially said as Allison did above. She pointed out that my background was ‘very intriguing and diverse’ but that 1) everyone and their mother wanted to work at the Big H–some for the wrong reasons—and 2) there were many candidates who, for many years, had been doing exactly the sort of things she was seeking. So though my skills were transferable, I would struggle in the pool to overcome those had been using those skills on the university level.

        Of course, I scrambled to assuage her concerns but to no avail.

        1. Gallerina*

          Hi Anon,

          I don’t know what area of the University you were looking to work in, but I work for “The Big O University” in Alumni Relations & Development and I got the job after working in a prep school, and that was my only experience in that field.

          Don’t lose heart! I did make an almost lateral move to get my foot in the door and started on a 6th month contract, but it IS possible. I don’t know about Big H, but here, once you’re in, you’re in and people move about a lot within the system.

      3. AB*

        Alison gives a great example. It’s not as if most managers are creating job posts, receiving tons of applications from people with degrees in Medieval Studies or Ancient Languages, and just saying, “oh, well, no one has any experience in marketing chocolate teapots, so I’ll just keep the position open”.

        In most cases, managers merely look at the pool of applicants and make a decision about who to bring for an interview, often ignoring anyone with a profile that doesn’t fit the job description — unless an amazing cover letter changes their opinion.

    2. Editor*

      A decade or so ago, I would have agreed with Citizen of Metropolis. Now that I’ve done a tiny bit of hiring and some supervising, I lean more toward Alison’s view.

      What bothers me more in the U.S. is that we don’t seem to have come up with a way to use more brain power and pay for it outside of conventional hiring. For instance, writing has become devalued because so many people write for free because we haven’t come up with a way to pay for incidental writing.

      We also haven’t come up with a way for readers to pay for incidental writing by earning money in other venues. For instance, over the years I’ve dealt with software products and other businesses that annoyed me so much I wrote a letter saying, hey, why don’t you do this? In regard to such letters before the Internet, I actually got letters back saying here’s you letter, we don’t take ideas from customers. There was no way they wanted to navigate legal liability issues. There was no generally accepted way for them to say, well, 10 people have suggested this improvement and if it pays off we’ll give each of you a lump sum of x and be done with it.

      There are probably lots of improvements that can be made to products and processes that aren’t being made. How pathetic is it that Matt Yglesias at Slate is bragging about how great his new drug store is because, among other things, they have an employee with an iPad who can do some inventory tweaking to find the product the customer wants to buy?

      Why can’t I find a way to suggest improvements to the car I bought last fall? Why won’t the company where I buy clothes regularly take suggestions from me a season ahead so I have a chance of buying what I want? Why can’t I find anyone who has the power to make a useful index in an auto manual? Why do microwave ovens — which have different amounts of power — not have some scale so 1 minute of high power is the same from oven to oven even if underpowered ovens take more than a minute to provide a minute of power, or why don’t the ovens say on the front whether the oven is 600 watts or 1100 watts or whatever?

      1. fposte*

        Because not enough people want to pay a significant percentage more for goods to get those benefits.

        1. Lora*

          Data to support this assertion. Please show your work.

          Totally with Editor on this one. I actually make my own of a LOT of things most people purchase on the grounds of I’m Not Paying For A Piece Of Crap Made By Slave Labor. I would be willing to pay, and have paid, for items made by fair trade and items which meet my expectations and have decent quality: Frye boots, Dharma Trading Co clothing, Local Harvest vendors, Mercedes-Benz, craft fair vendors, etc. I find that these purchases are cheaper in the long run because quality lasts. And some things are cheap and so mechanically simple they don’t require the same level of re-purchasing or repair: Bodum coffee makers, for example.

          The new thing in engineering is that 3D printing has come a long way–you can make your own plastic widgetry so that when a part breaks, it can be replaced and repaired rather than having to replace the entire item. The design programs for them have become quite easy to learn, not a huge CAD/CNC ordeal to make stuff like it used to be.

          This makes design changes easy as you no longer have scale to worry about. In the old model of “engineer makes a product design, transfers it to China/India/Indonesia where Economies Of Scale are applied, company makes parts by the million and sells them for (margin),” you had to have a design that would have broad, bland, generic appeal and make as many customers minimally disgruntled (as opposed to enthusiastic fans) because your minimal production run was so costly.

          This is really not the case anymore. Furthermore if you have such minimal overhead for product design and manufacturing, there is no need for many of the executive functions of companies, which are truly support functions rather than the…fundamental mission of the company, if you know what I mean.

          I think there are definitely people willing to pay for this level of customization, because it really isn’t THAT much when the overhead and support functions are stripped away.

  27. Rana*

    This entire conversation explains why I ended up a freelancer, and why I doubt I will ever be employable again.

    (Ph.D. in History, 1999.)

  28. nooeey*

    And there’s a prime example of one of the many issues of the corporate workforce: we’re not seen as humans, we’re seen as bloodbots with narrowly definable skill sets that either do or do not match company needs.

    1. AB*

      Can you explain your rationale a little better?

      The fact that you select some candidates and not others to interview (based on things like related experience and education) doesn’t mean you are treating people like “bloodbots”. Those being interviewed are as human as the ones being left out of the recruiting process because they didn’t make a compelling cause for why they’d be a good match for the position.

      1. fposte*

        Seconded, big time. It really troubles me when people selectively sympathize with people like this, as if the hardworking and talented people who *did* get hired don’t need sympathy and only succeeded because they have no soul.

  29. AG*

    I think the biggest issue sin’t why they won’t hire someone with transferable skills when there are people with direct experience available, its why don’t they hire someone with transferable skills when there is *nobody* available.

    There are an astronomical amount of job openings considering the unemployment rate right now. Like Alison said, hiring is about managing risk, but with the economy improving one can’t help but feel like there are a lot of HR and Management types who are seriously overestimating that risk.

    It reminds me of college basketball. This season, I read many an article about why scoring in college basketball is down. One of the reasons listed is coaching. No coach wants to be the guy who got fired from a job that pays 6 or 7 figures because they took a risk that didn’t work, so unless they have one of the 0.01% of players with NBA potential, they’re not going to just give a kid the ball and tell him to go out and make a play. A lot of coaches even have players dribble the ball right over to the bench before they call timeout, even though there’s no real reason to do so.

    Then come NCAA tournament time, what happens? Florida Gulf Coast, aka “Dunk City” absolutely runs Georgetown, a team that runs the rigid Princeton Offense, off the court in a flurry of dunks and alley oops. When all is said and done it wouldn’t surprise me to find the next great company was the one who decided to take a chance on people when everybody else was spinning their wheels, reposting the same position over and over.

    1. AB*

      At least in my field, I don’t see companies reposting the same position over and over.

      I’ve helped some ex-colleagues find new jobs recently, and some job searches did take long (~ 5 months) to complete. But the reason for the delay wasn’t because the company was waiting for a “purple squirrel”, but rather because bringing a new (especially if inexperienced) individual to the team creates issues. They made a verbal offer and took the job posting offline, but needed to come up with a plan to train the new hire in a system they are unfamiliar with. I’ve seen new hires complain because they didn’t have anything to do for months in the new job, but then if the company takes its time to prepare before bringing a new person in, they are not being reasonable either.

      I’m not saying there aren’t cases of jobs that remain open because the company refuses to be flexible in the requirements regarding experience or credentials, or is offering a salary that is too low. (Like Alison has pointed out before, the position may not be that critical, or they’d be changing the requirements to find a suitable candidate).

      But at least in the companies I know and consult for, jobs are either filled in a matter of months, if not weeks, or put on hold because something changed and the company is no longer in a position to hire.

  30. Liz T*

    Too many people are viewing this as the OP’s background being somehow unappealing. Alison isn’t saying that; she’s saying that other candidates are likely to be MORE appealing. The OP’s background is less desirable *given the presumable availability* of equal-quality, more directly experienced candidates.

    1. Rana*

      Alison may be saying that – and I don’t disagree with her in this particular case – but I can say from experience that people who are dismissive of humanities Ph.D.s are not hard to find. It leaves the holder of one in a conundrum; either you foreground it, in order to sell the skills that come with it, in which case you get accused of being a snobby, impractical egghead, or you try to downplay it, in which case employers wonder what you did with your time. There are exceptions, yes, but outside of certain specialized fields where a doctorate is prerequisite, it’s not going to be an asset. And if you lack in-field experience for the specific job you’re applying for, it’s not just a non-asset; it’s an actual detriment.

      Basically, if the job doesn’t specifically require it, it’s going to be an uphill battle convincing an employer that having a doctorate makes you an acceptable candidate, let alone a desirable one.

  31. Snufkin*

    The Great Recession has unfortunately screwed us all when it comes to having transferable skills and ability to learn/take on new skills as assets. Besides having so many more people out there in the pool of potential candidates, they’re under pressure to get it even more work done with less budget/staff. There’s no longer as much room for somebody to learn on the job. I made the leap from libraries and IT about 6 years ago with transferable skills. I’ve definitely noticed that the past few years, if you don’t have specific experience with [—-], you’re not going to get an interview.

    That said, I used to work with somebody who was an ABD in Medieval Studies/Old English languages and served as the department webmaster/developer. I’d guess having a background in linguistics led itself to learning how to do programming, but she built a lot of stuff that demonstrated her specific skills in those areas. If there’s a specific area you’re looking to move into, it’ll probably take doing some continuing education classes, volunteering, and producing some tangible results (along with professional references) to help hiring managers see you have the skills and experience they need for that position.

  32. Kristi*

    Unless it was 1) a requirement of the position or 2) an applicant was trying to explain a resume gap, why not omit a Phd from the resume altogether? You’re certainly not required by law to include it.

    1. Rana*

      Two words: online applications. Especially the kind with the little slot that says “highest degree earned.”

      The other thing is that sometimes the Ph.D. is all you have to offer in the absence of other experience – hence the question about transferable skills. Plus, if you get the job and it comes out later that you have a doctorate and didn’t tell anyone, people can get very weird about it.

      There are no good options, if you’re applying for a position where a doctorate is not a specific requirement.

    2. Zed*

      Well, for most people who have a PhD, that degree WAS their job for 5-10 years. Even research/teaching assistantships, which look more like traditional employment, are a) tied to the degree and b) generally part-time. So leaving off a Phd probably would mean a rather large resume gap…

  33. Any*

    As a hiring manager, what I would like to hire are individuals who are smart, hardworking, and show up to work. I do not care about experience necessarily. That being said, I would like to see interview questions that test intelligence. I have never had a candidate tell me they are not hardworking, nor have I had many references say their former/current employees are lazy, which leave me wishing I had some questions targeted at identifying intelligence.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, you can’t just ask straight out if someone is smart or hard-working. (Well, you can, but it won’t be useful.) You have to look for evidence of it in their background — their level of achievement, the way they discuss things. Ask them probing questions that get them talking, which will let you see how they think. Etc.

  34. Steve G*

    the recession limits which skills are useful, so many transferable skills won’t matter til it ends.

    Now, the transferable skills people want are:
    1) Have you ever sold anything?
    2) Do you have experience dealing with high maintenance customers?

  35. Tinker*

    I think this is a case where employers are taking the blame for what is really more of a systemic problem, because they happen to be the people who touch the problem last.

    Because of the way our economy and society are structured, people who do not successfully focus on certain marketable skills and the ability to sell them (inclusive generally of certain standard forms of proof) are having a hard time getting by. This is a problem because not everyone has the capacity to develop said skills even if they know in advance what the correct skills are, and also many people are advised very poorly as to which skills to pursue.

    The problem is then compounded by the incarnation of the “work ethic” where personal virtue and income are seen as roughly equivalent — in both directions, from the person saying “I am virtuous and yet unemployed, therefore you are doing wrong” and the people saying “you are unemployed, therefore not virtuous”.

    Meanwhile, the employer is at least attempting to pick people according to their prospects for immediate usefulness, which is what is called for by their position in the overall system. The fact that the system as a whole produces poor outcomes is largely not their fault.

  36. Yvi*

    What I always don’t like about these types of discussion is the implication that these “transferable skills”, like communication, analytical skills, the ability to quickly absorb new information or write documents, is something that the other applicants, who have a more traditional education for what they are applying to, lack.

    I have a MSc in a natural science and now work in IT, so I know getting into a new field is hard. But “I learned a lot about abstract thinking, analytical skills, and data mining” is true for many, many people, not just those that have a PhD in a social science or language or something like that. My degree certainly also taught me that, but I also learned programming.

    1. Anne*

      Sometimes those transferable skills ARE in short supply in a field, or in a particular geographic area, though.

      I also now work at an IT company… but my degree is in Philosophy. Transferable skills? Sure – logic, research, explaining complex ideas, writing well. I honestly didn’t think those would be big selling points. And yet, I’m usually asked to go over proposals important emails before they’re sent out… because honestly, from the way they write, you could be forgiven for thinking that most of our development team are not native English speakers.

      So, you never know. It’s always worth mentioning what you’re good at.

      1. Anne*

        There was supposed to be an “and” between “proposals” and “important emails”.


  37. Cormick*

    We were recently hiring for a writer at my job and I’ll note two things:
    1. Most candidates (about 90% of them) had bad or boring cover letters that didn’t sell their skills.
    2. Many candidates also had poorly formatted resumes.
    These weren’t just fresh grads, either. There were many levels of experience. Please, please, look at your cover letter and resume with a lot of care. It’s very hard for me to know if the English major has any actual experience *writing* stories if you don’t say it.

    Also: We had a ton of candidates, many not qualified. Although we didn’t require a degree in Communications, saying you want to take the leap from being an Accountant to a Writer, and not showing some progression towards that goal (having a blog, freelancing as a writer, etc) is not going to work. Show, don’t tell, right? Most people don’t show.

    Of the four candidates we interviewed I’ll note only one had a Communications degree. The rest had studied something else (French Literature, Women’s Studies, etc). This means the competition for some positions is greater than you think. Not only are you competing against everyone who specifically studied that discipline (like Communications grads), but people in semi-related fields (English, Creative Writing) and completely unrelated fields (Biologist). So if you’re not getting a call and you are a Medieval Studies grad…well, what can I say, there might be literally another Medieval Studies grad in the pile with you who is better qualified.

  38. Anonymous*

    In 2008, it WAS pretty easy to get a job based on transferable skills. That’s not the job market anymore.

  39. Secret*

    Personally, I absolutely love people who have poorly written resumes and cover letters. It makes it so much easier for people like me to find a job.

  40. Max*

    I find that one of the hardest transferable skills to find these days especially in the banking and I.T industry are pure soft skills. You get many great well educated applicants with lot’s of experience but many lack considerable soft skills that will allow them to become great leaders and push things through across the matrix. In fact as you get promoted towards the top of a company your tech skills become less important and your transferable soft skills are much more valuable since it’s all about people management.

    Another thing that is silly is when job ads specifically list something like X amount of years of experience (usually 10 years). To be honest a candidate who ticks all the job criteria with 5 years experience can easily outshine someone who is going for the same role with 10-15 years experience. Applicants with too many years experience going for middle management roles is rather scary since it show lacks of progression. The focus should be on skill sets and not years in a job.

  41. ELAINE*

    Bahahahhaa! Its like the Art business out there.

    Oh she can paint a block of cheese so well But Can she paint a block of butter?????
    Its so pathetic really. Ive worked for the greatest animation studio on the planet and can create any style but employers are so “tunnel visioned” You cant get out of your original niche. An animation artist will find it hard getting into another Art Dept. My niche has long since extinct due to computer technology so getting into another field is like trying to draw blood from a stone.

Comments are closed.