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Other The Experience Dilemma

  1. Oct 27, 2016 #1
    Hello everyone,

    First off, the topic I'm about to introduce is a general one, and applies everywhere, not just in North America. The issue I would like to introduce is the experience requirement for every single position. Some people here responded to this as a secondary discussion to another thread I opened, but I would like to introduce it in a separate thread. It was said that these requirements are just wish lists. I think this is true because it's very difficult to find someone who meets all the requirements. However, it's also true that there will always be someone who has some experience in some of the requirements. So, I think companies select the best fit among the applicants, not the best fit that meets all the requirements; the selection is relative not absolute.

    I've realized this issue as I'm making a transition from academia (as a postdoctoral researcher) to the industry where I have zero experience, and my PhD field isn't in demand. I'm trying to find a job in software development or hardware design because I have some background in computer (I'm also applying for data science because I'm relatively good at statistics from my PhD). I've been rejected even for entry level positions in software development, although some stated clearly that the employees will go through 3-4 months of training (I thought those people could select me, but I was wrong). They say entry level on C# for example in the title of the position, but when you read the details, you find that they need experience in SQL, JavaScript, JQuery, HTML, CSS, Linux, .... etc. It's frustrating.

    I watched a documentary about jobs in Canada, and a specialist addressed this issue by saying that every dollar a company invests in an employee in training, the return will be on average $1.75. This is to say, a company which trains its employees will never loose. Of course, in an economy and a mindset where money is the sole driving force in the market, it's better to find someone who already knows than someone who needs to go under some training to maximize benefits.

    Admittedly, I'm not the first one to experience this, but I think there should be some kind of systematic way (for example a collaboration between government and the job market) to absorb people with no experiences and give them quota so to speak. I was reading some experiences, and some people applied for jobs for 1 year, and even then some didn't find a job. I think 1 year to find a job is too much.

    I'm learning by myself now, and it's very slow and scattered because I'm not sure what language I will be working on. There are many programming languages. I know a few, but I have no problem learning other languages because all have similar concepts. I just need to learn the syntax of the new language. For example I'm now learning Java, but I know C#, so Java for me is very easy, because both are very similar, even in syntax. I brought this up because I once looked to take a course on SQL for example, and the course costs around $1000 dollars for less than three months. Even if I take SQL, it won't be enough alone, because every position requires multiple languages and skills. Then I need to take other courses, which I cannot afford in time and money at this stage. On the other hand, if a company is willing to train me for a couple of months with a very narrow objective, that would be perfect and easy for me and affordable (I will accept minimal payment while training just to cover my living expenses just to get started). What I'm trying to say is that, I may not have the experience now, but I can learn what's needed very quickly. I believe this is true for many people as well, not just me.

    Internships are one way to go, but I have to mention that I'm not young, and not a new graduate, so internships aren't options for me. Also, I read some employers say explicitly in their ads 3-4 years experience (no internships)!! Even internships don't count sometimes.

    I would like to hear what others think about this.

    Last edited: Oct 27, 2016
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 27, 2016 #2
    I think your example should be used as a warning for young people - don't waste your time on PhD/academia/academic degree. More or less your position is a reasult of your very own mistakes. You choose academia route, you choose a field thats is not marketable, you've woken up from your dream when you are 35 or so. You have high expectations but no skills. What do you expect? In the eyes of HR person you are a failure. For an entry level position why should they choose you instead of fresh CS graduate who can accept interships and lower salary?

    You should lower your expectations and try QA route or IT help desk or try big IT companies who hire fresh graduates and have their own technologies and languages. They are willing to hire people with no skills because they need to train new employee anyway. Remove PhD from your CV.
  4. Oct 27, 2016 #3

    Dr Transport

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    if you remove your PhD from your CV, then you have a hole that isn't accounted for and that looks worse.
  5. Oct 27, 2016 #4
    After I completed my PhD, most potential employers looked at my 5.5 years in a research lab environment as practical experience doing the kinds of things they would be hiring me to do. But I was careful to help them see it that way by having a "skills" section on my resume describing some main areas of experience including: computer programming, data analysis, theoretical modeling, test and measurement with an array of instrumentation and software tools.

    If one has earned a PhD in a STEM field, you most likely have considerable experience that should be valuable to many employers. The challenge is to communicate that to them. I had different resumes for different kinds of positions. My resume for software development jobs presented my experience differently from my resume for test and measurement jobs. Both were different from my resume for teaching jobs.
  6. Oct 27, 2016 #5
    True but he can write "contract/short-term jobs not related to IT" rather than PhD instead. You can't lie but you can make an impression of ex flip-burger guy who want to improve his life and go into IT. I think in HR's eye it's much better than a failed scientist.
  7. Oct 27, 2016 #6


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    I interview a lot of PhD's trying to enter data science. The most common and brutal mistake they make is that they often fail to translate their research skills into the key buzz terms. The second most common mistake is that they talk so much about their research is that they forget to take the part no one cares about (i.e. the details) and talk more about the process of cleaning data, analyzing it, and testing it.

    Secondly, I never hire PhD's for entry level positions. Your PhD is generally 3-5 years of work experience. It literally makes no sense what-so-ever to hire you for a job that I can get an undergraduate fresh out of college to do with 6 months of training.

    Thirdly, if your goal is to enter a more analytic space, then yes you need to know a myriad of programming languages. SQL, Python and R, maybe Scala/Spark. Any company that is looking for more is looking for a unicorn. Odds are they simply want you to be extremely proficient in one and familiar with the rest.

    Fourth, if you are looking for a software design job, you're hurting yourself. Since you don't make sense for an entry level Software job, and you lack experience for a mid-level software job, you're in a weird mix. Believe it or not, most if not all mid level software engineers are, at the very least, rather familiar with everything you listed programming wise.

    Fifth, most programming jobs are not really about the programming language. In an interview, I may ask you some basic questions about a language, but i'm more concerned with how you choose to structure programs. So yes learn the language, but that's the easy part. The hard part is using the language well in a paradigm that makes sense.

    Sixth, no one doubts that you can learn it all. The question really comes down to "will this guy stay after he's done training?" I can spend 6-10 months teaching you everything I know. So after 1 year of working for me, you are now a qualified applicant with real work experience and dozens of projects under your belt. You have a PhD. That makes you liable to jump. I've taken that risk and i've been burned. Most managers have been too, thus we avoid it.

    Seventh, all the advice goes out the window for smaller companies. I've only worked for fortune 50 and above companies. From what I know smaller-medium size companies give more wiggle room. HR at large corps is rather brutal on the guideline we have to follow when it comes to hiring.
  8. Oct 27, 2016 #7
    This is terrible advice. In addition to leaving a red-flag hole in the resume, it is done with deceptive intent, and will come back to bite the candidate. The truth will come out. If the candidate is lying about not having a PhD, what else is he lying about? That will be the thought racing through the minds of the hiring managers.
  9. Oct 27, 2016 #8
    I'm sorry, but why did you assume that I'm a "failed scientist"? I can continue in the academia, but finding a job in the industry in the long-run is more stable. I don't want to keep jumping each year or 6 months from university to university for postdoc positions for God knows how many years before I find a position in a university for teaching. Also, salary-wise, it's better. But I'm not a failed scientist.

    And as others said, removing my PhD from my resume will be worse than having it.
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2016
  10. Oct 27, 2016 #9
    All are good points. But I want to comment on the sixth point because I think it's on the heart of the discussion. Someone will be burned eventually. This is inevitable, unless the necessary steps are taken to keep him/her by improving his/her status. When you get an experienced person, this means that he/she has left his/her previous company where they gained (more) experience, but used it to jump to another place (your place). If everyone is afraid to train fresh or inexperienced employee because they may jump and leave them, no fresh employee will ever gain experience. Also, as I mentioned before, studies showed that training employee is beneficial to the trainer. They don't loose anything.

    Regarding the 7th point, I've applied to small as well as large companies, and you are right, all the interviews I got were from small companies (11-20) employees. Large companies like Bell/Telus/Ericsson don't even consider my application.
  11. Oct 27, 2016 #10
    I work in entertainment design industry. I have always skipped my physics degree in my resume - I don't write my brithdate and in education section I only mention art school. I wasn't lying about anything and no one has ever asked. Skipping something doesn't mean lying. I think resume is all about specific job. If OP did something unrelated to IT - why even bother to mention it? HR (at least in my case) really don't care. But maybe you are right - my case is different than OP's.

    I didn't. I have said that HR will probably think that. If you want them to think otherwise - build your most powerful weapon - online portfolio (for example on GitHub). Enhance your CV with various projects and university or online coursers (even free one) - that will demonstrate your skills and interest in IT.
  12. Oct 27, 2016 #11
    I have about 9 years gap between my B.Sc degree in computer Engineering and my PhD in Electrical Engineering. What should I say if they asked what I was doing in these 9 years? To be honest, I thought to remove it at some point, but then I thought again that would make things seem worse because I have to lie to come up with a cohesive story.

    I'm trying to strengthen my CV in software programming/data science by learning concepts and languages, and I created an account on GitHub, but this will take time.
  13. Oct 27, 2016 #12


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    I don't think any decent manager is against training employees. However, you want a return on your investment. No one is under the delusion that every employee is going to stay forever or even a medium term of time. However, I want to maximize the probability that someone will stay. If I hire a new undergraduate out of college, then s/he's on par with all his/er peers. S/he'll more than likely learn and advance at the same pace for his/er peers. Thus when the opportunity for them to jump arrives, I can, at the very least, be competitive in counter offers and room for growth.

    A PhD on the other hand is trickier. I have a slot of a position at a certain level. Even if I think you are a level A employee, if your slot is a level C. I cannot just promote you to that slot. I literally need to go up front t 2 VP (My boss and HR VP) and 1 SVP and justify the creation of a level A slot of my group. After that's approved, I need to have you apply to it AND leave it open for the rest of the company to apply to it. So what ends up happening is that when you come to me with a new job offer at a higher pay grade and position, there's literally nothing I can do it match it. Especially, if the new job aligns more closely to your PhD field than being a generic backend java developer.

    The moral of the story is, not being hired a large company is less about you, and more about risk mitigation.
  14. Oct 27, 2016 #13
    From what I understand from the discussion so far is that my PhD is a stumbling block rather than a stepping stone to get to the industry. Once an interviewer asked me what I expect as a salary because "you know PhDs are not like undergraduates". I think I didn't answer this question appropriately at the time (I said I prefer to have this discussion later if things go well), but I should've said that: "although I have a PhD, I have no experience". What I'm trying to say is that I think you are right, employers look at PhDs differently. But for me I realize I don't have experience, so these even each others. If I had a PhD in machine learning for example, then yes, I would ask for more in Data Science jobs for example, like a senior position, but with my specialty, I think it's more reasonable to go with junior positions, and I can accept that.
  15. Oct 27, 2016 #14


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    OK MarneMath, then let me ask you this. The OP is based in Canada (and has finished his PhD in electrical engineering in Canada), but all of his experience up to this point has been in wireless communication (largely theoretical in nature), with no practical industry experience.

    You have already stated that if he is looking for a software development job that he is hurting himself. You have already stated that managers like yourself are risk averse to take on a PhD because of the liability to jump.

    You've pretty much concluded that a PhD is not worth the investment. So the question then is this -- what should the OP do about it? What should the OP do to make himself more competitive, so that he can find a job position within a reasonable time frame (i.e. ~3-6 months from now, since he has already been searching for a couple of months)?
  16. Oct 27, 2016 #15


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    Where do you get the impression that I think having a PhD is not worth the investment? Simply because I say that for a large company, it's unreasonable to hire a PhD at an entry level software position? There exist PhD who are qualified for software engineering positions., but more so towards the mid-senior level. What a person chooses to do while in graduate school to prepare for life after graduate school is an individual choice. For example, I hired a young lady with a PhD in Biology who became my Chief Data Modeler. During graduate school, she became an expert in graph databases and data mining. Did her research directly translate into our industry? No, but her skill sets did.

    That's really the point i'm driving here. The content of the PhD isn't important to me. What is important is the ability to take your experience and make it relevant. This person has skills that correspond to real actionable skills that employers want. However, like most PhD's I interview, this individual is selling themselves short because academics are terrible at selling themselves. This person did something that is difficult for x many years. Within those years there has to be something that is worth talking about that will impress someone that'll allow them to gain some type of analytic role.

    What this person should do to make themselves more competitive? Honestly, I doubt much. Learn python or R pretty well. Focus on statistics. Do a couple of Kaggles and they should be fine. Secondly, coffee meet-ups. Find alumni or just send a lot of linkedin research to directors or VP and see how it goes. Don't believe this works? Just last week a young lady requested one with me, and now she's interviewing for an internship I recommended her. She made a great impression and I had the opportunity, so why not?
  17. Oct 27, 2016 #16


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    I pretty much concur with everything you've posted above, and your advice is sound -- the PhD experience is valuable and the experiences gained can be relevant if the PhD holder make it relevant to the employer.

    BTW, I know you don't actually think having a PhD is not worth the investment -- I was playing the devil's advocate, so to speak, to clarify the discussion. :wink:
  18. Oct 27, 2016 #17
    Good points. I'm watching some lectures now on machine learning on Stanford "open course", and the professor (Andrew Ng) said that he prefers MATLAB over R in machine learning. I know MATLAB very well from my PhD for example, but it's overlooked by all data science positions recruiters. All need R and Python, and they seem to have this tunnel vision about them. I'm learning these now, and R seems to be very close to MATLAB in syntax (at least so far). I'm good at statistics, too because wireless communication channels are stochastic, and we do a lot of statistical analysis and optimization. For example, in wireless communication we use least square error optimization (and sometimes mean square error optimization). In machine learning this is called linear regression. I didn't know that. When I was reading the job descriptions about familiarity with linear regression, I was like ?:). But recently I learned they are the same, but with different names for whatever reason.

    I may have a problem in marketing my skills, and I'm revising my CV continuously. Beside the possibility of me failing to market my skills, I feel that some recruiters fail to find the potentials behind what is there in the CV, but I might be wrong. For example, I say in my CV that I have 8 years of experience in wireless communication research, this means 1) I'm very good at MATLAB because it's the primary software we use for simulations (and I list this as a skill) and 2) I'm good at statistical analysis (which isn't as obvious to someone in the HR department, for example).
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2016
  19. Oct 28, 2016 #18
    I see defense industry jobs in ee posted all the time. You're doing something very wrong.
  20. Oct 28, 2016 #19
    (a) I second the advice posted by Dr. Courtney and MarneMath.

    (b) We could debate whether intentionally leaving out your PhD from your resume is or is not lying. But don’t do it. Two phrases come to mind: the popular phrase “sin of omission” and the legal phrase “deceptive intent”. Besides, what’s the point? A quick online search would bring up your credentials anyway.

    (c) A PhD per se does not hurt your chances at getting a job in industry. It’s a question of the level of match or mismatch of your education, experience, skills, and personality to the position at hand. A PhD EE applying for an entry-level programming job would raise a red flag. A PhD physicist applying for a lab tech job would raise a red flag. An MD applying for a nursing job would raise a red flag. A JD applying for a paralegal job would raise a red flag. If hired, all you would get would be disgruntled employees who would flee when their circumstances improved.

    (d) It’s not the responsibility of HR or the hiring manager to decipher from your CV what your applicable skill set is, it’s your responsibility to highlight them and map them into the prospective employer’s needs. At one time I was a senior scientist (PhD physics) working in semiconductor devices. I hired research assistants and lab techs (bachelor’s and associates). I once hired a person with a bio degree, who wasn’t sure she wanted to get a PhD and wanted to try a different field. I figured if she could prepare sterile samples, she could prepare high-purity semiconductor samples. I was also intrigued with the prospect of introducing bio techniques into a semiconductor processing lab. I also once hired a a person with a physics degree with a C average from an OK university over A students from Ivy’s. I hired her because she had worked her way through college at a plant and landscaping firm (which took away from her study time). She also grew up on a farm and knew how to operate and service complex machinery. I also figured she would stick around since this was probably more of an opportunity than she had hoped for (at the time, this was one of the top industrial R&D labs in the world).

    (e) Rather than hiding your PhD and postdoc experience [both of which count as work experience] and applying for a lower-level position, you need to leverage your PhD and postdoc experience for a higher-level position. I’ve known PhD high-energy physicists who have gone into insurance and finance because they knew how to analyze complex data sets and how to model and simulate complex systems. Not because they were experts at C++. I knew a girl (mainstream American) who majored in Japanese language and studies. She couldn't get a job in the US because she was competing against Japanese Americans and immigrants from Japan. So what did she do? She moved to Japan and made a highly successful career teaching English language and American culture and customs to high-level Japanese execs.

    (f) You need to learn how to constantly re-package yourself. It’s highly likely that you will need to do it several more times in the course of your career. The first 8+ yrs of my career (after my PhD) was as a research physicist in an industrial R&D lab; the last 8+ yrs of my career was as a patent agent in a law firm [with several other careers in between]. And I wasn’t a low-level go-fer in the law firm either. I got some of the best cases and beat out many of the attorneys because once the top clients got to know me, they kept asking for me. My PhD in physics and R&D experience worked as an advantage, rather than a disadvantage, over attorneys with a JD, a BS in CS, and no industry experience.

    (g) There are major differences between a CV for academic positions and resumes for industrial positions. Make sure you understand them.
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2016
  21. Oct 28, 2016 #20
    Usually I write a cover letter beside my resume to explain why I'm a good fit. For example for all data science positions I mentioned that I have good background in statistical analysis because of my research experience and a good background in programming languages concepts because of my CE degree (I think these are the only relevance I have now to data science positions). But all my applications except one were declined without an interview. They all need (experience in) R, Python, Linux, Hadoop, Scala, SQL, .... etc. I don't know these things, but I express that I can learn them very quickly and independently. After all, it's best to learn things as you need them in my experience (that's how I leaned MATLAB), instead of reading whole books about them from scratch.

    I consider myself potentially useful, not right away. But it seems that you need to put exactly you know (and have experience in) R and Python among other skills to be considered as a candidate. I know MATLAB and it can be used instead of R, and I think it's also an asset for data science. I don't ask HR hiring managers to decipher my resume, because I try to explain my relevance to the position in my cover letters. Yet, all my applications were declined without an interview except for one position as a data scientist. The HR person who phone-interviewed me didn't seem to have a flexible understanding of the position. That's what I meant by what I said in my last post. I'm not sure if she alone decided that I'm not a fit and why not. I wasn't given the chance to prove anything technical. Just a couple of questions on the phone and that's it.

    Having said all the above, I'm taking everything said here into consideration, and I'm constantly developing my skills, and revising my resume to maximize the likelihood of my applications to be considered. For example, now I realize that may be software development isn't the best route to follow. So, I will invest more time on learning skills pertaining to data science positions instead.
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2016
  22. Oct 28, 2016 #21
    To return to the original point, even if I learn SQL, R, Python and Scala by myself, from the ads I see, these won't be considered without industry experience. This is what I'm calling The (old new) Experience Dilemma: all jobs need experience, and without jobs you cannot get experience!! I was reading an article about this, and it's mentioned that you need to prove yourself once someone takes a leap of faith in you, yet it seems most employers play it safe. The system works just in one way: to maximize benefit with minimal to no investment.
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2016
  23. Oct 29, 2016 #22


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    There exist ways to prove your skills without work experience. Contribute small fixes to major projects. Developed a small application and put it on github. Put your kaggle work on github. The key to this whole job search thing is to keep going. Also start contacting recruiters and seeing if they know people with openings.
  24. Oct 30, 2016 #23
    (a) When I worked on product teams, supply chain managers had a favorite saying: "No supply chain manager ever got fired for hiring IBM." So, yes, it's risky for the hiring manager to hire an outlier. I raised a lot of eyebrows with the previous hires I discussed above.

    (b) Trying to convince companies that they're being short sighted and should mend their ways is a waste of your time. There was a time when major industrial R&D labs had large internal departments dedicated for training newbies, as well as expanding the skills of senior employees. But that was in the days when "long-term research" referred to a 5 - 10 yr window, "short-term research" referred to a 2 - 4 yr window, and development referred to a 1 yr window. Very few places like that exist anymore. Now, it's more likely that development is next quarter and long-term is next year.

    (c) So a key part of a successful job search is a personal connection that allows you to bypass the HR screeners, get an interview with a broad-minded hiring manager, and sell yourself. You have a separate post on the topic of acquiring personal connections, so you're on the right track. But don't overlook informal connections. I once got an interview via the brother of one my wife's colleagues (my wife and her colleague worked in a totally different field, but the brother happened to be a director in one of my fields). And I once helped open doors for the husband of the lady who cut my hair.

    (d) You've recognized some key parameters in your problem at hand. But, of course, there are many other factors at play. I worked in wireless telcom for ~15 yrs. That industry never fully recovered from the 2000 - 2001 Internet Bubble Burst, and is still consolidating. You got your PhD in Canada and are looking for a job in Canada (if I understand correctly from your various posts); but, alas, Nortel went poof. If you had received your PhD EE (with a dissertation in wireless communications theory) from MIT or Stanford, however, you'd probably be working at Qualcomm or Google by now.

    (e) You've received advice from MarneMath on how to make yourself marketable in your target field. You've also received advice from Dr. Courtney and myself about leveraging your existing skill set and experience in repackaging yourself. Perhaps you should increase your set of target fields.

    (f) I know that professional societies off and on have initiatives to create stronger ties between industry and academia. What's IEEE doing? If the answer is, "Nada", then you should consider the suggestion I gave you in the other thread: Start an initiative of your own (assuming you're still presently holding down a position as a postdoc in a university, and not unemployed.) Once upon a time, I did, shortly after I was downsized. Great way to make new connections, by the way.
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2016
  25. Oct 30, 2016 #24
    This is great advice. There is nothing like code out there for download that proves your programming experience.

    Find some projects to work on that keep your experience and body of work growing. If you are working without pay, pick projects where the code can be released through the popular mechanisms. Odds are, faculty at the local Physics, EE, and ME departments have numerous programming tasks they'll let you help out with. If you tell them straight away, they'll likely grant your quid pro quo: release of the code and a recommendation in exchange for writing custom code to fit their needs. If you can't find any local faculty, explore ways to send out national feelers for how your programming skills can be used at a distance.
  26. Oct 30, 2016 #25
    Regarding connections, how does it work? Say I knew some in a company, how could he/she help me? and who should I target?
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2016
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