Watch Out, MBAs! Ph.D.s Are After Your Jobs

More doctoral grads are pursuing careers outside academia
People seeking employment wait in line to enter a job fair on March 28 in Washington Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Els van der Helm tried to sign up for a corporate recruiting event through the University of California at Berkeley’s business school last year, but she was turned away. “I got the response, ‘Oh, actually this is just for the MBAs,’ which makes sense,” says Van der Helm, who graduated from Berkeley last May with a Ph.D. in psychology and now works as a junior associate for McKinsey. The MBAs “pay a lot of money to get their time with the recruiters,” she says. “Everything is very nicely laid out for them. For Ph.D.s, it’s not.”

Van der Helm and some of her classmates organized Berkeley’s first career conference last year for Ph.D.s looking for jobs outside of academia. Business schools have long given students exposure to a variety of employers through internships, on-campus recruiting events, and company visits, but Ph.D. programs at Berkeley, Princeton University, and Duke University are just starting to get into the game. Ph.D.s haven’t “been tapped into the way that MBAs have,” says Karen Jackson-Weaver, associate dean for academic affairs and diversity at Princeton’s graduate school.

Selling companies on the benefits of hiring Ph.D.s will be a priority for Princeton’s new executive director of career services. Pulin Sanghvi, who came on board at the end of last year, previously ran career services at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. During his tenure there, he increased the number of employers hiring from the school to more than 330, bringing in many small companies and startups that took on MBAs for the first time.

Among newly minted doctoral graduates who reported having a job at graduation, 29 percent were employed in business or industry in 2012, up from 24 percent in 2002, according to the National Science Foundation. Some of the largest and most active recruiters of Ph.D.s are, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, IBM, General Electric, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, United Technologies, Boeing, and Pfizer, according to Burning Glass, an analytics firm that tracks job postings.

The Council of Graduate Schools is surveying 270 universities about how they track doctoral career paths. The goal is to eventually issue recommendations on how Ph.D. programs can give prospective students data on job and internship placement as well as salaries after graduation. “Law schools and business schools have collected this data for a long time,” says the council’s president, Debra Stewart. For Ph.D. programs, “this really is the first step.”

Schools and recruiters downplayed the threat Ph.D.s represent to the ambitions of MBA grads. Amazon reports that it hires Ph.D.s for specialized knowledge in areas such as speech recognition and software development. At management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group, where Ph.D.s account for 20 percent of new hires, a number that is expected to increase, doctoral grads are sought for the depth and diversity they can add to teams that are already largely composed of MBAs, says senior partner Lucy Brady. “Overall,” she says, the “strategy is to find the best talent whatever the background.”