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Engineering PhD: frustrated and unemployed

  1. Aug 4, 2011 #1
    I recently finished an engineering Ph.D. in the area of heat and mass transfer. I graduated from a top-ten engineering school. I have average publications but I am only 25 years old and know I have a lot of potential. Both my grad and undergrad GPA > 3.8.

    I have been looking for a job for almost a year and I have found nothing. I have applied for everything: postdocs at universities, industrial jobs, faculty positions, national laboratory jobs, postdoctoral fellowships, and even financial analyst positions. Literally I have sent out hundreds of resumes and made many dozens of phone calls.

    I have done my best to seek help and advice from my contacts and personal connections. I had two very successful internships at national laboratories and I have great relationships with many professors. However, I have not been able to find a position.

    I know my resume is solid and my interview skills are at least average. In 2007, after I got my Masters, I applied for five jobs. I interviewed for every position and received several offers. I decided to forgo the offers and pursue my Ph.D. Right now the major problem is that I can’t even get interviews.

    I am so frustrated. I am also tired of writing proposals only to see them rejected with no explanation.

    I am on the verge of bankruptcy. I cannot pay my bills. I have been making less than $1300 a month working part time. My credit gets worse and worse. I had to have an emergency surgery a couple of years ago and I have many unpaid medical bills. At this point, I am worried that when I do land a job offer I will be denied the opportunity because of my abysmal credit.

    I am confident that I am a great candidate. I really need some anonymous advice. What am I doing wrong?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 4, 2011 #2
    It is truly unfortunate to see people work so long and hard on a subject as difficult as physics, earn advanced degrees, and then encounter difficulty finding employment. I see this in many threads in these forums.

    You mentioned you had several job offers after you earned your masters. Was there items on your resume at that time that you have removed?
  4. Aug 4, 2011 #3


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    It doesn't sound like you're doing anything wrong.

    You could try changing your game a little. While I understant that it works for some people, I've never been a fan of the shotgun approach to looking for a job (emailing out hundreds of resumes).

    What's worked for me has been more of a sniper approach. Take your time to research a position well to find out (a) if you're qualified and (b) if it's something you really want to do. Contact anyone you can who may have some background information on the position. Then find out who is making the hiring decision and contact that person directly. And then follow up. In my experience, resumes are just place holders.
  5. Aug 5, 2011 #4
    I feel your pain, I have a physics phd and have been unemployed for nearly as long. My recommendation for the meantime is to swallow any pride you have and find an upscale restaurant (or a bar, if you have any experience bartending) and wait tables. You'll clear way more money then what you are making now. I pull in 1200 in tips some weekends. Its a bit late in the season (generally places pull in extra staff beginning of summer), but you can probably find some places that need reliable workers.

    You could try removing your phd from your resume. I downgraded my resume/CV to just a masters (and listed teaching and research as job experiences) and am getting twice as many job interviews as I was before. I still haven't landed anything, but more interviews has to be increasing the odds. A few head hunters have suggested I give up on traditional technical work completely, and focus on business analytics (finance isn't big in my geographic area), which is a pill I haven't been able to swallow quite yet, but I'm getting sick of mixing drinks.
  6. Aug 5, 2011 #5
    People don't want to believe it, but you really can educate yourself out of opportunities, a lot of firms simply don't want to hire highly trained individuals anymore because they're "overqualified". These days an education isn't a golden ticket for even a modest middle class income. I have a very, very pessimistic outlook for my economic future and simply don't know anymore what is going to happen when I get out of grad school. Europe and North America are falling apart big time economically, and it may take decades to recover. You may have to start looking overseas or like others have said, work a terrible job to make ends meet and find work in a different field all together.
  7. Aug 5, 2011 #6


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    Grave, if things are bad in the USA and Europe I don't think you can expect it to be any better elsewhere.
  8. Aug 5, 2011 #7


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    Not true. China, boom. Done.
  9. Aug 5, 2011 #8
    And they have good reasons for doing that. If you hire someone that is more qualified than the position calls for, then when/if the economy improves, they'll leave or ask for more money, whereas if you hire someone without qualifications, they are stuck.

    The other thing is that you run into social issues if you have an employee thinks that they are more qualified than their supervisor. It could be true. It could not be true, but either way it's a tricky problem.

    And then you could be misqualified. Just because I have a Ph.D. doesn't mean that I'm a competent bank teller or shoe salesman.

    A decade is a long time economically speaking. One reason to be optimistic is that the Great Depression lasted for "only" about 10 years. Also things can only fall so far before people get mad and try to do something about it, and you can only make so many mistakes before you run out of stupid things to do.

    The problem with looking for work overseas is that other countries may not take you. China and India have booming economies, but the governments have their hands full with returnees, and are not interested in taking on more people than they have to. China will not issue work visas to people with less than two years of work experience.

    Also what China did isn't particularly original. What it effectively did was to print massive amounts of money, do lots of deficit spending, to stop unemployment. There are people that thing that because of this that the Chinese economy will blow up. They might be right, but if the Chinese economy doesn't blow up, then there will be a lot of pressure on Europe and NA to copy China.
  10. Aug 5, 2011 #9


    Don’t know if there is any relationship or if I am the only one to spot the connection. Is it not worth investigating?
  11. Aug 5, 2011 #10
    This may seem heartless, but I am glad you posted as it gives engineers a look into the current job market. To have done so much good work over nearly a decade only to be shunned by employers would be infuriating. This definitely solidifies my decision to finish my masters and get out.

    In terms of your job search, I would focus heavily on skills (Matlab, C, modeling software) and key courses that are related to the job being applied for. And certainly have a good summary of your experience and goals as they directly relate to the position.
    Also, are you an EIT or PE?
  12. Aug 5, 2011 #11

    You think that for engineers matlab and c are the most important things to master?
    What more ,by the way?

    Also, i do believe that in todays world is better to get out with a masters than to go to the phd!
  13. Aug 5, 2011 #12
    I'm not so sure.

    1) I would like to see some real evidence that people with masters degrees are having an easier time getting jobs than Ph.D.'s. This *isn't* true for people that I know personally since the situation is that people with Ph.D.'s are having a tough time, but people with masters degrees are having it even tougher. Also, every labor statistic that I've seen says that the unemployment rate for Ph.D.'s is below people with masters degrees.

    If you have someone with a masters degree say that they have no problem getting jobs, I'll listen closely to them and try to figure out what that means, but I haven't seen anyone actually say this, and I've looked. Note here that the job market in 2007 is wildly different from the market today. Unemployment in 2007 was 4.6%. Latest number was 9.1% and that likely undercounts.

    2) A lot of the reason people think that a Ph.D. will hurt you is that that ends up happening is that the employer looks at the resume and says "overqualified." This does happen and that knocks the Ph.D. out of the running, but then you have a room full of people with masters degrees scrambling after the same jobs.
  14. Aug 5, 2011 #13


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    It depends on who those the hiring. One of my friends completed a PhD in Engineering, and within 5-6 months, She was able to find a job. Now, the committee hiring was full of PhDs. I think that helps significantly!.
  15. Aug 5, 2011 #14
    It depends on what area are those Ph.D's!In engineering most jobs aren't nearly as demanding as a specific physics jobs.

    Obviously that for physics related jobs the more knowledge you got and the more "intelligent"(finishing with great GPA) you are, hence the Ph.D, it means more opportunities because that area is in itself related to development, evolution etc...

    While in engineering , the job in itself is more soft, more down to earth!
    Nothing out of the reach for the majority of the science related majors science wannabes!

    With the pure hard sciences such as math and physics the story is way to diferent!
    Its more about what you really are and is more to who can, not to who wants!

    Obviously when talking about physics and math majors in non direct related jobs such as finance jobs, things are different!

    I don't have many friends with science related majors but i do know that the great majority of medium to big companies have the Ph.D's jobs already "given".
    Also, most companies would prefer accepting a masters rather than a Ph.D with the same kind of skills!

    It happens more and more, and sometimes i hear or see histories of "overqualified" people who won't accept settle for a "lesser" job!

    Or the company just doesn't want to spend a bit more because of having him!
  16. Aug 5, 2011 #15

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    A PhD in engineering is a rather unusual degree - it's intended to lead one towards an academic or at least research position, rather than as a practicing engineer: that degree is Mech. E. or Chem. E. or E.E. The natural path forward is as a postdoc.

    What does your thesis advisor say about why you can't find a postdoc?
  17. Aug 5, 2011 #16
    In my little corner of the world, a PhD doesn't earn you any more credibility than someone with On The Job experience would have. I know some people in my line of work with PhD certificates and they're no better off than anyone else.

    Engineering is very much a hands-on field. There are many practical things that you just can't learn in a classroom. If you are closer to the theoretical side of the field, that's great, but the money and jobs are usually in more practical hands-on places.

    If you haven't done so already, take the EIT. Take whatever work you can find, but be sure to write something for a magazine or a major blog site on the Internet. It doesn't have to be academic. In fact it may be better if it isn't.

    I see it often: people get so focused on school that they forget it is merely a means to an end. It is your foot in the door towards a career. If the career is in academia, a PhD is a good thing. Other than academia, however, a PhD isn't usually something industry would look for.
  18. Aug 6, 2011 #17
    It could be because a lot of engineering jobs are less interested in academic qualifications than someone who can demonstrate that they will fit into the team and perform the job at hand well. Your qualifications may be irrelevant for the job you're applying to. Of all the projects that I've seen, people with only undergraduate degrees were able to perform the heat and mass transfer work.

    And also, as others have said, the natural progression from a PhD is to academia, not industry. A bachelors is nearly always enough for industry.
  19. Aug 6, 2011 #18
  20. Aug 7, 2011 #19


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    The economy is certainly difficult at the moment, and industry/government positions are few and far between. However, I am surprised that you have found difficulty in landing a post-doc position. Academic post-doc positions seem to always be available -- especially for U.S. citizens working on energy or defense-related projects (many of which involve transfer process modeling).

    If you were to do a search in Google Scholar for areas directly and indirectly related to your expertise, and pull up a list of ten authors who have published recently in these fields, and then contact them to see if they have any post-doc funding -- you might find some leads.
  21. Aug 7, 2011 #20
    In my corner (software and finance) what ends up happening is that what you did as a Ph.D. gets counted as "work experience" so Ph.D. = masters + 3-5 years experience.

    This depends on the culture. In my family, people got Ph.D.'s for the sake of getting the Ph.D., and getting a career really wasn't part of the bargain. My general advice is if you are concerned only about career, then a Ph.D. isn't worth it. Now if you have non-career reasons for getting a Ph.D. it's different.

    This is also very society/culture dependent.

    I do know one person that was a geologist who was in technical software sales and ended up doing a part-time Ph.D. in petroleum engineering for career reasons. The reason is that we did a lot of business selling oil software to the Middle East and East Asia, and in that area, having the word "Doctor" in front of your name gets a *LOT* of respect and influence so it helps him sell software there. Because people with Ph.D.'s are very highly respected in the Middle East and East Asia, having one will help you get hired in the oil/gas world.
  22. Aug 8, 2011 #21
    Just to add something to the discussion about PhDs in industry.

    Companies that emphasize R&D often seek PhDs. I have seen this at several companies I have worked for. They prefer a PhD for certain research positions.
  23. Aug 9, 2011 #22
    All of these posts apply to Engineering PhDs, correct? I assume the ballgame is a bit different for Physics PhDs.
  24. Aug 9, 2011 #23
    I have seen situations in which an advanced chemical process development involves both PhD chemists and PhD chemical engineers. If your PhD was in physics, and you wanted an R&D job in industry, I would think with some effort and planning you could receive serious consideration for these openings.
  25. Aug 9, 2011 #24
    It depends on your specialty. My anecdotes would suggest engineers have a bit of an easier time finding work in industry, both because their phd programs tend to require internships where they make some connections, and because they fit into a 'slot' that the company is used to dealing with.

    Lots of companies know what to do with an electrical engineer but have no idea what to do with a high energy physicists, for instance.
  26. Aug 9, 2011 #25
    Thanks for the feedback. I'm still an undergraduate student, and I'm working on two degrees -- one in Physics and one in Chemical Engineering. Still thinking about graduate school.
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