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Searching for work: The challenges and concerns

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Current situation
As I have mentioned in my previous blog entry regarding my current status as a Ph.D. student, I just finished my coursework towards my doctoral studies in Information Science (minor in Media Studies) at SCILS – Rutgers University. My plan going forward is to start a full time job and continue working on my qualifying exam and dissertation on part time basis. I would love to concentrate full time on the rest of my Ph.D. studies, however, my personal situation does not give me the luxury to do so.
Thus, by April of this year, just before the semester was about to finish, I started looking very actively for a full time job (including here consulting / contracting / or short term projects). It is almost the end of the summer and I'm still looking for a job. I've had a number of interviews but was not prepared to hear the reasons why I didn't get the jobs that I thought and still think I was a good match.

In continuation, I will try to describe my experiences with the search process, and would appreciate any comments from fellow readers with similar experiences and challenges, as well as those that care to share an advice or point to a resource that can be helpful to individuals in similar situations.

The two sides that ought to meet (and do meet) – but recruiters and HR staff don't seem to see how, where, what and why
Before I continue, here is a short description of my industry experience as well my recent academic training as part of my Ph.D. studies. I have extensive experience as information systems analyst / engineer / architect, working with various systems primarily in the telecommunication industry [more detailed description]. My deliverables usually have consisted of specifications and requirements writing in the form of requirement documents used as inputs to the developing and testing teams, as well as architecture slides. In addition, the systems analyst position most often requires one to act as a facilitator between the business / user side and the technical side of the product lifecycle development. This role as a facilitator usually requires the understanding of the 'big picture' in order to better asses the feasibility and deliver-ability of a product or subcomponents (features, functionalities) in line with the business needs and tasks. As far as my academic experience is concerned, my interests have evolved around the interplay between information systems/structures and the social structures within which information systems are embedded. More specifically, I'm interested in digital libraries, system design, open source software, actor-network theory, the concept of openness, the social construction of IT and IS, etc.

The challenges
I believe there is a tremendous and unique value in the conjecture of the type of industry experience I posses and the type of academic training I have recently gone through as part of my doctoral coursework. One would think that HR staff, and recruiting and consulting companies would be able to see the advantage and be able to leverage such experience coupled with theoretical / academic knowledge. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. What follows are some specific experiences and challenges I have faced in the job searching process:
  1. Overqualification / underqualification. The most frequent comment I hear back from recruiters and HR folks is that I'm overqualified for the types of jobs I used to do before (i.e. Systems analysts / eng / architect), or that I'm not ready yet for the type of jobs that require an earned Ph.D. While I can understand the 'not ready yet' argument and it does make sense since I'm not done with my Ph.D. yet, it is hard to fathom that more education and more knowledge would be a barrier to finding a job, especially when this education is very closely related to the previous industry experience. I've tried to make sense and it could be argued that companies are afraid to loose individuals who aim at getting their doctoral degrees; this would make sense if one is looking for a permanent position within a firm. But, shouldn't the companies be less concerned with retention if the job is consulting / contract position?

  2. The wrong time to be looking for job. The additional challenge in my case I think is that this is the wrong time to be looking for job since the economy is not what used to be few years ago, and this is further made harder by the fact that HR folks consider this type of change as career change. Even though I don't see it that way.

  3. Must have exact experience. Moving to another industry and away from telecommunication in order to expand the possibilities is a real challenge. Companies seem to want an exact experience in every sense of the word, including here relevant industry experience. Looking at current job requirements makes you wonder who are they writing those requirements for. Most of the times it is not possible to get everything in one individual. I guess companies can do that nowadays considering the number of people looking for work. It is a managers job market.

  4. Recruiters and placement agencies unable to link my industry experience and my academic training. More than often HR folks concentrate on my working experiences as a systems analyst forgetting the value I bring to the table I have gained through my coursework as part of my doctoral studies. At the end of my resume I list all of my courses. The following courses (Human Information Behavior, Experiment and Evaluation in Information Systems, Quantitative Research Methods, Qualitative Research Methods, Towards a model of open source digital library system) are directly relevant to the type of work I have done during my industry experience, and yet recruiters and HR folks don't seem to make the link.

  5. Lack of Information Science / Studies job searching websites and tools. What are the online resources one can turn to for help? Many sites related to LIS type of job search list library jobs and lack substantial listings of Information Science / Studies related job openings.

  6. Lack of recruiting and placement agencies who are specialized in placing professionals with Information Science / Studies backgrounds. There is a lack of recruiting and placement agencies that can understand the potential an Information Science / Studies professional brings to the table. Few agencies I have spoken to have been helpful, but even they are not able to properly articulate the benefits an Information Studies professional can bring to a company.

  7. The industry appears blind to the knowledge and potentials that Information Studies / Science professionals can bring to the table. As I have mentioned above, the lack of helpful tools and recruiters that understand what Information Science / Studies education can do is perhaps directly related to what appears to be a blind spot in the industry as far as the abilities and expertise of an Information Science / Studies professional are concerned. More specifically, the people (interviewers, managers, recruiters, etc.) I have spoken do not seem very aware that system design strategies can be enhanced through various Human Information Behavior studies and thus yield better systems in the long run. This is even more true for those systems that directly interface with people and other social structures in the work place. An effort should be undertaken by Information Science / Studies school and departments to establish connections between theory and practice, between theoretical knowledge and how it can be utilized in practice.

Needless to say, the above experiences are those that I have encountered, limited by the information and resources available to me and performed by my previous experiences, my understanding of the current job market, my (un)luck with finding the right recruiters and placement agencies that understand the value of information Science / Studies doctoral education, and the limited knowledge of how all things should work especially in such tough and volatile times.

Why I wrote this entry?
In order to help, share and learn from each other, I would love to hear from others that are in my position or face similar challenges, especially those that have previous industry experience and are currently pursuing a doctorate degree in Information Science / Studies. Even better if I hear from potential employers; here is my resume. :)

(Update on 9/19/2004: I have accepted an offer and will be starting work in few days.)

Fewer students major in tech reports on the declining number of students entering and graduating in IT related degrees, including here information science/studies.

"In the University of Pittsburgh's information science program, which combines the study of information technology and how people use it, the number of students majoring has dropped to 200 for this school year, said Bob Perkoski, IS undergraduate program director. Last year, 229 students were majoring in IS and the year before, 260, Mr. Perkoski said."

It is interesting to see the effect of the declining graduates in the field of information science/studies with the ever increasing utilization of information technology around us. This isn't to say that information science/studies professionals are the only graduates/experts that can elucidate the interplay of IT and IS and the social structures within which they are embedded. However, who else is better positioned to study and explicate these relations? Computers science/engineering graduates traditionally have concentrated more on the technology rather than its social significance and implications. On the other side, social sciences do not emphasize enough on the technology as an important determining actor in the complex web of socio-technological interconnections.

Nevertheless, the decline might not have any immediate effects in real life due to the fact that in practice it is rarely recognized that information science/studies graduates are the best positioned to deal with the interplay of IT/IS and the relevant social structures.

In Ph.Ds in IT - Good or Bad for a Career? referring to a Slashdot entry, George raises an interesting question regarding the value of a Ph.D. in IT related fields of study.

From purely philosophical perspective it can easily be argued that a Ph.D. is definitely good as you gain more knowledge and more knowledge is better. At least this is the common sense understanding in our human society.

From pragmatic and utilitarian perspective, working in the industry, having a Ph.D. does not necessarily mean more money, better job, better work conditions, or more opportunities. In my work history as information systems analysts, I've met colleagues with Ph.Ds who were performing the same jobs as those with masters.

And yes, it is definitely true that a Ph.D. can be a barrier in getting certain types of positions as it might suggest over-qualification.

Usually, what I sense from discussions with friends and my fellow Ph.D. students, most of those who continue their Ph.D. studies are motivated by factors other than industry work opportunities. Here are some of my thoughts about why I started with Ph.D. studies.

Needless to say, if one aims at academic jobs (i.e. teaching), a Ph.D. is the 'license'.

By Mentor Cana, PhD
more info at LinkedIn
email: mcana {[at]} kmentor {[dot]} com

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