Will an engineering PhD over-qualify me for jobs?

“If I get a PhD in engineering, will I have trouble finding a job after I graduate?”

This question dominates the minds of many prospective (and current!) PhD students in engineering.

You can easily picture it: the hiring manager looks at your resume and sees those three letters next to your name, scoffs, then chucks your overqualified credentials in the reject pile. “Does she really think we’d pay more for a PhD who’s probably gonna bail on us after a faculty position opens up somewhere? Ha. And she’d probably be too independent and difficult to manage as well. No way.”

I can relate to this concern. It’s one of the reasons I initially got my Master’s in Aerospace Engineering instead of my PhD. Well, that and I thought it would be a great idea to go find a job smack in the middle of the Great Recession in 2009 – one of my finest moments.

Actually, people really are rejected for having a PhD all the time. BUT. The question you must ask yourself: would I really have been happy in that job? If you have the skills and dedication to get a PhD in engineering, are you really gonna be satisfied working somewhere that doesn’t value the knowledge and skills of a PhD graduate?

After I graduated with my Master’s and started working in industry, guess who I saw working on and leading the most interesting projects? Yep, people with PhDs. And they weren’t just waiting for a faculty position to open up! In fact, the vast majority of people with engineering PhDs do not work in academia at all. Nor do they have any desire to.

Here’s an alternative line of thinking you’ll find in many hiring managers: “Whoa, a qualified PhD! We’ve been looking for someone like this for YEARS now! It is so crazy hard to find PhDs in this field. She’ll probably be able to help us lead at least three projects right off the bat…” If you’re looking at the right organizations, you’ll find much more of this line of thinking than the “PhD’s are too expensive, difficult to manage, and big flight risks” mindset you’ve heard about elsewhere. 

And there are many more places that strongly desire PhDs than you probably realize, especially outside academia. People with PhDs are found in much higher concentrations at the more prestigious research organizations, where you sometimes need a PhD to even be considered (just as in academia). These places also tend to have a strong and stable culture.

Obviously if you’re looking at private companies that are less focused on research, you will find fewer PhDs, but even in these places there are numerous exceptions. The top companies realize the value of R&D and will fund it accordingly.

One phrase you’ll hear often: a PhD closes some doors and opens others. So it really depends on what kind of door you want to go through. In my (very biased) opinion, if you can successfully get through an engineering PhD program, I think you’ll find the open doors are now much more aligned with your interests.

Once you get through those shiny now-opened doors, I think you’ll find you are now more likely to enjoy your role and career than you would have been with the roles behind the now-closed doors. Your greater depth of knowledge will allow you to dig deeper and find the most interesting problems, and you’ll be better equipped to tackle those problems. Thus you are more likely to find yourself working passionately on the most interesting and challenging problems your organization has. And much less likely to work on rote tasks that bore the hell out of you. After all, few organizations will hire a PhD (typically at a higher salary) to waste that talent on menial tasks.

And let’s say some funds become available for travel to a technical conference. Guess who tends to be awarded those funds, all other factors equal? Yep, those with PhDs and thus the background to get much more value out of a conference. And thus not only do you get some great trips and valuable exposure to evolving industry trends paid for, but you get to spend time with colleagues and friends from grad school that you no longer live near.

Bottom line: there are plenty of reasons to not pursue a PhD in engineering (e.g. eating nothing but peanut butter sandwiches for 10 days straight while you study for quals), but I would not worry about if you’ll find employment after you finish. You’ll be fine. Better than fine actually: you’ll probably be doing more interesting work for more money and with more autonomy than you could have achieved otherwise.

Some additional perspectives on finding employment with a PhD, as well as some of the pros and cons you will face in the workforce after putting those three letters after your name:

This is the first in a series of posts I plan to write about engineering grad school, covering some of the ideas I discuss in my book “Engineering Your PhD(affiliate link).

If you have questions or comments, please feel free to leave a comment below. You’re also welcome to shoot me a note via the “Contact” tab above.

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One comment on “Will an engineering PhD over-qualify me for jobs?
  1. Rob says:

    Sounds like great advice. One can never have too much education!!

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