Why can’t you find a job with a Stanford computer science PhD?

To many of my older colleagues, the idea that you possibly couldn’t find a job with a good degree, let alone a PhD, is unthinkable. And what about a promising young graduate in Computer Science from Stanford University? What if he has a PhD? He may not be able to secure an academic job, but industry recruiters will be all over him (or her). Surely!

The truth is maybe harsher.

Chand John wrote a touching article recounting his personal experience. No doubt, he expected to easily land a good industry job. At least, that is what his professors expected. Yet it took him a year to get a job. He was dismissed by most employers:

Despite having programmed computers since age 8, I was rejected from about 20 programming jobs. (…) my experience writing code at a university, even on a product with 47,000 unique downloads, didn’t count as coding “experience”.

There is a hidden assumption on campus that academic jobs are hard to get, but industry jobs are easy. Many computer science professors assume that they and their students could easily land a job at Google or any other tech company nearby. Along with this belief goes the fact that whatever happens on campus is years ahead, and much more sophisticated, than what industry does. The story goes like this: government funds professors who have the ideas, they get their students to develop these ideas… and eventually these ideas end up getting picked up by industry when students get industry jobs. The story goes back to Vannevar Bush.

There is a problem however: this story does not match the facts. Employers do not recruit graduate students to get access to the work they did on campus. When a graduate student is recruited, he will be very lucky if his new employer has more than a passing interest in what he did on campus. It is not just employer reluctance: very few students could take what they learned as a graduate student and launch a business or a consulting venture.

The truth is that if you are fresh out of school, you will be the one doing most of the learning in industry. Even someone with a PhD can expect to be an apprentice for many years.

Also, let us be honest: the software produced on campus is rarely good. It is often made of untested, undocumented, and barely functioning prototypes. I have no doubt that Chand John wrote beautiful and maintainable software while at the university. However, I understand the skepticism of employers who hear “I wrote code as a student”. It is simply not a great reference. They hear “I wrote software for fun”.

So, people like Chand John end up with prize-winning research that is of little interest to anyone in industry. They wrote code on campus, but employers think “Oh! God! They will have to unlearn everything and start from scratch”. Is it any surprise that they are not offered the top programming jobs?

Of course, it is not entirely fair to say that Chand John couldn’t easily get an industry job. He does not tell us how selective he was. I am asked routinely by people from industry about clever graduate students. Presumably, what he couldn’t get easily is an interesting job. A job that would allow him to pay his student debts and offer him an intellectual challenge.

These jobs are scarce, both in industry and in academia.

Update: It looks like Chand works for Honda Research in what must be a desirable position.

Source: The idea for this post came to me from a G+ post by Suresh Venkatasubramanian.

25 thoughts on “Why can’t you find a job with a Stanford computer science PhD?”

  1. I am pretty sure this is an outlier, for one reason and another. There are sometimes people who are not sufficiently smart/skilled even though they went to (name this fancy school). Yet, this DOES NOT seem to be the case, here. There is some story behind this story, which we are not told.

  2. Not necessarily an attitude problem. If a person wants to work in a research lab, the opportunities are scarce. For instance, Microsoft Research USA is like a tenured university. Positions are few and, essentially, there are no openings until somebody retire.

    PS: As we know full well, research is being outsourced by leaps and bounds.

  3. It takes BOTH education and actual commercial experience. I’ve seen code written by academics utterly devoid of error and exception handling, and which exclusively uses single-character variable names — globals! I have also seen code that does not scale, because the developer lacked any notion of complexity, and could not be maintained, because it resembled spaghetti. It takes both.

  4. @Anthony Burton

    The answer to your job-creation question is obvious. One doesn’t get a PhD to learn how to create jobs (not in a usual situation). This is absurd and a waste of time. One may end up running a high-tech startup, but this is not because people like management, but because they have to. In the case they want their ideas be implemented in real life (and, perhaps, if they want to earn a lot of money).

  5. @Daniel,

    The society is very much labelocratic. The computer science field is rather fortunate not to bear the brunt of this effect to a large degree. Other fields, such as economics and consulting, are much less fortunate. There are a bunch of consultancies selling Ivy Leagues expertise.

    Yet, it is not quite that the case that a person would go to Harward to get a PhD just because of the label/connections. Not for the PhD, at least. Top schools usually have better resources and opportunities to do research (though this is not the case, of course, of any lab in a top school).

  6. A couple tips for that situation:

    1) Very small companies and startups can be a great stepping stone when you don’t fit the HR image of your role. If you’re interviewing with the CEO and impress him, that should be it for hurdles. After a year or whatever you’re now the more valued phd-with-industry-experience.

    2) I’ve got a coworker who just leaves the phd off his resume when it’s a straight IT/developer role. Not necessarily viable for a new graduate (giant work gap), but it’s something to consider when jumping HR hurdles.

  7. @Leonid

    If you read the last of my post, you will notice that I also think he could have gotten job offers sooner. There are tons of companies who would take a chance on him… But we don’t know how selective he was, for example.

    He ended up getting a job at Honda Research. This sounds like a pretty good place to work. I think it is not unreasonable that it would take a year to find such a job.

    Lots of people commented online that he must have an “attitude problem”. This might be so, but I would urge caution. He seems like a reasonable person.

  8. The question I have is that if you have a PhD from Stanford, or pretty much any where, why aren’t you creating the job you want?

    I didn’t graduate from high school and my last 4 jobs have been well paying, senior level technical positions. I’ve never been out of work for any appreciable amount of time, unless I wanted to be out of work.

    What does a degree have to do with getting a job?

  9. It’s worth noting that he has a CS PhD but his research was in biomechanical simulation.

    He then applied to a bunch of Product Management jobs without any industry experience. Nothing about him suggests he’d be a better candidate for an entry level spot than the typical BS-CS. The bit about 47k users is not really all that relevant to anyone hiring for a PM position in the Valley. He’s definitely nowhere near a live candidate for anything past an entry level position.

    Regarding programming jobs, he’s definitely not all that interesting a candidate on either the data science or systems front. He should have been able to get a job *somewhere* but that would strictly be off potential as opposed to anything relevant.

    I’m not entirely clear on what he expected, given the skills he focused on during his PhD.

    For context: I also went to Stanford, did some biomechanics research and then had to do a fair bit of resume rehab to be employable. Spent big portions of the last 5+ years actively hiring engineers for various places I’ve worked. I’m surprised it took him a year, but was less surprised when I read about the jobs he went after.

  10. He describes himself as a Porsche. I would be inclined to describe him as one of those specialized bolts manufactured specifically for military helicopters – the ones that you can’t find in Canadian Tire and cost $20K to replace. And are useful only in one of a fleet of 80 aircraft.

  11. Based on my experience (graduated in 2007, handle all the first-round interviews at my alma mater now), your article is 100% correct. Being in the industry world, I am interviewing for someone who can write quality, maintainable code. Maybe it’s because academia students think too abstractly, or maybe they just don’t spend as much time coding as someone might think, but undergrad students are better at producing interview question code by a factor of about 4 to 1.

    I think the analogy to someone who programs for fun is correct. There is no one telling you that your code is buggy and poorly written. You just write code for your own self.

  12. @Burton

    What does a degree have to do with getting a job?

    I would say that very few people would bother with degrees if they did not think that they lead to substantially better careers in one way or another. In this sense, I would say that degrees have everything to do with jobs.

    I like to run this thought experiment by people… how much would you pay for an Harvard education… with the catch that you can never tell anyone that you went to Harvard… and you get no degree. How much would that be worth? The answer, I think, is close to zero. Hardly anyone, short of a few inspired young scholars, would go for this deal.

    People get degrees because they lead to good jobs (or, they think so anyhow).

    (I’m aware that this wasn’t exactly your question.)

  13. @Leonid

    Yet, it is not quite that the case that a person would go to Harward to get a PhD just because of the label/connections. Not for the PhD, at least.

    In my thought experiment, you are allowed to go to Harvard, but you are not allowed to receive a Harvard label of any kind (and certainly not a PhD degree). Then I ask: how much would you be willing to pay for that?

  14. I can second this as a PhD who wrote code when in grad school and does so now in industry. Grad school coding is a far cry from what you’d need in a job.

    Your first few months to a year on the job is essentially training, no matter what your degree.

    I see the link between degrees and jobs being steadily eroded, at least for the programming jobs I regularly see.

  15. @Vivek, Google now clearly goes a very long to way to ensure quality, coding standards, and stuff. But, an average “industry” place produces garbage. A lot of projects in academia are better written.

  16. @Daniel,

    This is true, but the point is a bit different. The quality of (new) code as well as coding practices may be great at Google as well as few other companies. Most companies produce just garbage code. So, there is no real quality difference between the code in academy and in industry in many cases.

  17. @Leonid Boytsov

    Many programmers have miserable jobs.

    I was once in an interview where they were trying to convince me to run a software shop. They told me that their software had been developed over the years by students with summer jobs and interns… (They were apparently unaware of how bad this sounded. To them, it sounded obvious that coding was a low-status activity best left to code monkeys…) I ran out of there as fast as I could… But someone probably did take the job. (The company folded a couple of years later… as expected.)

  18. I’ve worked at both Honda Research and, currently, Google.

    If he was insisting on a job that was closely related to his PhD work, then it makes total sense — those jobs are few and far between, and his research doesn’t seem especially mainstream or relevant to Google.

    Additionally, it doesn’t surprise me at all that he didn’t land a Product Manager role. PhD’s don’t generally make great PMs, and his experience was in no way relevant.

    On the other hand, he also mentioned jobs as a “programmer.” What I can say with 100% certainty is that unless there was some huge flag on his resume, Google will interview a PhD in *any* field that says they can program [heck, we’ll interview anyone who looks like they can program even without degrees], and *if* he passes the same software engineering interviews everyone else has to pass, we will make him a job offer 100% of the time, and the PhD will count for a small amount of experience — he’d get hired one level up from someone with a bachelor’s degree. The particular topic of the PhD will [generally] be ignored, but there’s definitely a willingness to hire anyone who’s a great coder who’s willing to work as a software engineer, regardless of background.

  19. CAREER RANTS

    Every career advice that you receive is the passion to crush it then you’re not going to get the job.

    Nobody cares about your feelings, your debt, your college diploma. Companies only care if you can make them money. Be your own CEO, because nobody is going to do it for you.

    If you are wasting time emailing resumes to ABC corporation you don’t deserve a job. That already states that you don’t know how to pick up a phone. Do not waste your time applying for jobs that you don’t want.

    Finally, realize that most people with jobs are pretty stupid. But it doesn’t matter. If they out hustle you, you will never get out of your entry level job.

    ****************

    True networking is a lost art.

    It began to vanish when internet career sites came into being. The whole Occupy Wall Street thing was made up of thousands of out of work young people who had “zero” networking skills who could not understand why after uploading 1000 resume’s to these career sites they never got a call. All they really needed were networking skills which actually amounts to sales skills.

    1.) Identify a company with a need you can fill.
    2.) Identify the actual hiring manager in the department where you want to work.
    3.) Do whatever it takes to get in contact with that manager, not HR not a recruiter.
    4.) Send a resume and cover letter (tailored for that job exclusively) by FEDEX CONFIDENTIALLY TO THAT MANAGER.

    Yes, that is a very aggressive move but that manager will see how motivated and resourceful you are. It will work. Trust me.

    ***************

    The BIGGEST problem with work is that you have no work-life balance.

    You have only one life. You aren’t coming back to earth. Make sure you live your life daily too. No one is promised tomorrow. I can’t fathom how someone works his or her life away and then in old age (starting in your 40s), nothing can be enjoyed.

    Bones hurt, sexual organs fail, new diseases crop up, metabolism slows down. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living or what you saved up.

    The best years of your life are behind you and if you didn’t enjoy them, there’s not much ahead outside of pill bottles, adult diapers, and competing to look young again against the new batch of 20 something year olds…

    *********************

    Some pointers from a 35-year-old who on his 30th birthday was unemployed, laid off from a $40K/yr job, and now makes about $100K because he finally woke up:

    Loyalty is for suckers – broke ones. No one gets rich staying at the same dead-end job, collecting 2 or 3% annual raises (if that) that probably don’t even keep pace with inflation. Conventional wisdom from our parents was that employers wanted to see a stable work history on your resume. “Stable” nowadays is a year or two per position, not 20. Your potential boss is probably doing the same. My last salary increase from switching jobs was about 15 times what I would have gotten from a standard raise!

    Don’t use wishy-washy statements like “in an ideal world” when discussing salary. Be upfront and tell the prospective employer (in not quite so many words, of course) that they have no hope of getting you back through their doors for any less than $X. Do you really want to work for someone who pays you the same as your last dead-end job?

    Unless it’s in writing, don’t accept a low salary offer on the promise of receiving competitive pay at some future time. If a company is ever going to pay you what you’re worth, they’ll start now.

    Do not attempt to justify your need for your salary expectation. On that same token, try to deflect questions that paint a picture of your lifestyle and how much money you need to maintain it. Your worth to an employer has nothing to do with financial need.

    When you receive their first salary offer, counter it no matter what. If they say no and you are happy with the money they’ve already offered, ask for something non-monetary like extra days off, flex time, etc.

    Your basic goal is to not act like a sucker down on his luck, even if you essentially are. If you treat every interview like it’s your only remaining hope, an employer will see this and take full advantage.

    *********************

    I’m here to tell you that in at least 80% of cases, when you get an interview, you are going there to talk yourself OUT of a job. Unless you are highly specialized, this is pretty much universally the case.

    *********************

    I’ve never been hired in a job that I was fully qualified for(based on the job listing). Literally NEVER.

    The last two people I hired were not FULLY qualified for the job as listed.

    My wife just landed a job that she was NOT fully qualified for based on the job listing.

    I highly encourage you folks looking for new jobs or looking to transition to do a LOT more studying on the real world of the job search process and what makes interviewers tick.

    And, if you’re not networking EVERY WEEK(if employed) and 2-3 times a week if unemployed, then you aren’t REALLY looking for a job.

    *********************

    Just to be a contrarian, I’m curious how many jobs truly require a college degree?

    For sure, doctors, engineers, and lawyers (although in the past a degree wasn’t required – you pass the bar, kudos you’re a lawyer). Obviously there are others, I just don’t feel like making a long list.

    But I’ll say that my current position does not “need” a college degree. However, the odds of someone without a secondary degree much less an undergraduate degree getting the same job would be extremely low.

    I’m always skeptical of statistics and how those numbers are gathered. Prime example is how many law schools have been caught stating that X% of their graduating classes have a job, but those jobs can be anything from an associate position with partner track to a barista at Starbucks.

    *********************

    You may have to do some extensive acting to get pass the interview and move up. It is so true in the real world, you just cannot ‘be yourself’ if you don’t fit the type most of the hiring managers have in mind. In interviews, likeability is a significant factor in getting hired.

    *********************

    *********************

    1. “Yes, that is a very aggressive move but that manager will see how motivated and resourceful you are. It will work. Trust me.”
      OMG, That was hilarious but I think it must be true!

  20. I also told a potential employer something similar along the lines of “I wrote software for fun” in my early days and the response I got was as you described. He stated “We write software as a profession this is not some sort of hobby”, I personally thought his response was appalling, any decent software programmers are going to be writing their own programs in their spare time as a hobby so what was his problem? Pure self importance.

    I have also had an employer tell me something along the lines of I will have to unlearn everything and “forget about that etc”. This was from an absolutely appalling programmer, who produced an absolute mess of code. Acting as though he was some sort of teacher.

    What is really happening in the above article is that the people saying those things are not very educated. I am not saying I am above them but me along with them just make up the vast majority of people.

    I doubt anyone would get these same sort of responses if they applied at Google etc, these sort of responses come from bottom of the barrel companies, which make up 98% of the companies out there. If you are not in the top 2% these are the sort of responses you can expect, people criticizing other people who are on essentially are on the same social level.

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