Free the Potential of the PhD Candidate and Tap into a Rich Talent Pool

Have you ever received a job application from a PhD graduate and weren’t sure what to do with it? These applicants are often overlooked due to common misconceptions that prevent recruiters from tapping into a rich talent pool.

“What PhD candidates are looking for is that opportunity to prove themselves [and] learn some new things,” says Vay Cao,  founder of Free the PhD, a company dedicated to helping postgrads find jobs outside of academia. Having faced the struggle herself after receiving a PhD in neuroscience from Brown University, Cao now advocates for people looking to move beyond the classroom. “[I]t’s worth it to talk to the person and figure out what they bring to the table.”

So why should nonacademic employers take a second look at PhD candidates? Let’s address those misconceptions one by one, and then take a look at the transferable skills an advanced degree can provide.


Misconception #1: PhDs are so qualified they will demand tons of money.

In fact, starting salaries for university professors and researchers are modest compared to jobs in other industries, and many PhD candidates are accustomed to working lower-paid research positions for a year or two after completing their degrees. As a result, salaries in the “outside world” can seem pretty competitive.

“Part of the leverage hiring managers and recruiters have is that, if [the candidate has] zero work experience, you can push back a little bit and say, … ‘You don’t have a lot of concrete experience to warrant a higher salary, but maybe we could put you on the fast track for acceleration and promotions,’” Cao says. 

So the idea that PhD candidates are unaffordable is likely unfounded. All potential hires, PhD or not, will go through a salary-negotiation period; have a conversation with the person to see what they want and what they have to offer.    

Misconception #2: PhDs won’t have the right interpersonal skills.

In fact, having an academic background makes many PhD candidates effective and efficient learners, well suited to a variety of teams. 

Cao adds that those seeking to leave academia may be doing so because their skills don’t mesh well with that world. Many PhDs love to teach, interact with others and present to groups, and they simply need a chance to develop those skills in a corporate setting.

“As a hiring manager, I actually would be less concerned about them not coming in with the knowledge [than I would with other candidates],” Cao says. “I would have a lot of confidence they could learn very quickly on the job.” 

Misconception #3:  PhDs are overqualified and will get bored. 

PhD candidates are like other top performers on your team, says Cao. The question isn’t how to keep them busy; it’s how to keep the entire team stimulated. 

After all, boredom doesn’t just apply to PhDs. For top performers to remain challenged and engaged on the job, their day-to-day work must present opportunities for growth, advancement and ownership. 

Cao suggests managers ask PhDs questions such as, “I know you used to tackle some…

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