Backup Regularly: Thinking About What You Can Do with a PhD

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-written by Dr. Casey Strine

There is a great temptation to start this essay by recounting statistics about how many more PhDs than academic jobs there are like some form of career ruin porn.  I’ll refrain, but if you’re not familiar with such info, then here is one of the less apoplectic articles on the topic:

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/12/09/data-show-modest-gain-number-new-phds-jobs-upon-graduation

Since you’re reading this post there is a high likelihood you already know that there are diminishing opportunities and rapacious competition for tenure track academic jobs in all disciplines. Here, I want to address how one might cope with this situation and not to lament it.  The latter is a conversation I only have face to face and with an open bottle of whisky.

Forgive me for starting with autobiographical context, but I think it will illumine what follows. I received my doctorate in February 2011 from the University of Oxford and, thanks to Her Majesty’s government, was permitted to stay in the UK until July 2013.  I had just over two years to get a good postdoc or university lectureship with my newly minted Oxford D.Phil.  Tough to be sure, but I’d navigated tough odds before.

On the final Saturday in January 2013 my wife and I sat on the kitchen floor of our flat to have a conversation I’d been dreading for over 12 months.  I had secured neither a university lectureship nor a research fellowship and, quite honestly, I had almost no prospects for either at that moment.  The last few grains of sand were about to go through my academic career hourglass and it was time to figure out what I would do with my doctorate.  The relentless pressure of my thesis and my academic job search precluded me from having the emotional space and mental energy necessary to answer this question.  Strategy consulting? Secondary school teaching? Non-profit or think-tank?  Barista? What on God’s green earth was I going to do now?

That conversation with my wife felt like standing on a precipice watching my career dreams plummet to a gruesome death.  I only chose to do a doctorate because people I trusted had encouraged me to do so; they believed I should pursue my interest in research and talent for teaching.  What was I supposed to do now that their suggested path appeared to be a dead end?

I’ve reflected on this dilemma a great deal in the past year–the time since I managed to slay a dragon by (miraculously) landing a full-time, permanent university post.  Even though my story did not end with my academic career dreams tumbling over my metaphorical precipice, I came far too close to that ledge to avoid obsessing over these questions.  What I offer here is not a definitive answer; rather, it is a list of practical things I would do different if I had it all to do over again.  Perhaps it will be helpful for others who haven’t been there yet.

First, I think doctoral students in the 21st century need a fresh mindset when they begin doctoral studies, namely that a PhD is a route into one or more careers. A PhD is the basic qualification for tenure track academic work, but it is far more than that.  The job market being what it is, everyone should have plans A, B, C, D, and perhaps others, in mind.  What is more, you must be passionate about all of them because it is a real, live possibility that you will end up on an unexpected route. Can you envision yourself with a fulfilling career in areas B, C, D? People often refer to these as back up plans–and I suppose it is OK to use that trite phrase–but they should not be jobs one would settle for. Plans B, C, D, etc… should be alternate paths that enable you to follow your passion(s).  Yes, this requires one to think creatively about how to use your talents and to be broad minded about your passions.  But, if you’re clever, curious, and creative enough to do a PhD in any field, you are absolutely capable of finding more than one job that will let you pursue your passion(s).

If you haven’t considered this possibility yet, then I strongly encourage you to take some time to think it through. As a highly trained researcher you are essentially an independent contractor.  People often fail to recognize this about tenured university lecturers, but it is true.  How could it be otherwise in a job where 50% or more of your ‘responsibilities’ (i.e., research and publishing) are determined by your own curiosities and achieved largely by your independent work?  Academics are, de facto, entrepreneurs.  Embrace that trait.  Think like an entrepreneur and identify needs that you are uniquely qualified to meet.  Perhaps that need is for a university lecturer, but it can also be in a non-profit, a corporation, or a government agency. You, and you alone, are responsible for imagining the things you might do with your PhD.  Accounting for the statistical reality of the academic job market, you’re foolish not to have one or more non-academic alternatives in mind.

Though you alone are responsible for doing this, you should not be alone in doing it.  Hence point two: talk to lots of people and read various things about what you can do with a doctorate.  As the job market grows more and more bleak in academia, lots of people have developed such lists.  Some are sanguine about this task, others less so.  I’m not advocating a particular attitude about working outside academia with a PhD, but I am an unequivocally pragmatic person who thinks that you should think openly about what you might do with your PhD. Here are few things that can stimulate your thinking in this area:

http://phdsatwork.com/

http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/

http://howtoleaveacademia.com/

Look at these kind of lists… hard.  Daydream about what your life would be like in a number of careers.  Make a list of the jobs that are attractive to you.  Talk to people who know something about those jobs.  Ask them lots of questions.  Lots.  You’re a researcher; do what you do best.  Then, move to step three.

Third, find a mentor in each potential area.  A mentor, to me, is someone you can speak with openly and honestly about your talents and interests and, importantly, is someone who has the time to meet/talk with you two or more times a year for at least one hour each time.  They must be honest with you in return.  A mentor is not someone primarily interested to recruit you into their field or their company because they have to be someone who will tell you, if it is true, that you would be rubbish at what they do.  A mentor provides you real-life insight about a job you’ve never had.  They will encourage you to discover what your unique combination of talents and interests equip you to do well. Mentors are worth their weight in gold.

By finding mentors aligned to the various career paths you might follow, you will keep a level head about your options.  You’ll also have living, breathing reminders that people live fulfilling lives outside academia.  This is astoundingly easy to forget when you spend 60 hours (or more) a week interacting solely with people in universities.  They are, lest anyone forget, not the norm.  At a minimum, sustained interaction with these mentors will make you more aware of what is happening in the world.  That is not a waste of your time.

Fourth, and finally, if a tenure track academic job is your plan A, make certain that your pursuit of that goal incorporates activities that make you a desirable candidate in other careers as well.  Plan a conference; find a way to manage a team of people; speak with and teach non-academic audiences; collaborate with a civic organization on your research; apply for funding from an outside organization. All of these can enhance an academic CV, but they also demonstrate the ‘transferable skills’ necessary to support a non-academic resume.

Why should you follow my advice on this issue? I’m not sure you should, but let me offer one reason why by way of another more autobiographical note.  Prior to my graduate studies I was a management consultant and an IT project manager for over 5 years.  The things that made me successful in the so-called ‘corporate world’ are the same things that helped me land an academic post: taking ownership of my career; thinking like an entrepreneur even when I work for someone else; identifying successful people, asking them lots of questions, and listening to what they say; finding a job that allows me to do things I’m passionate about, regardless of its title and pay.

In sum, my advice is to back-up regularly.  Just like that external hard drive with a recent copy of your thesis on it (you do have one of those, don’t you?), I hope that you’ll never need plans B, C, D, or E.  I hope that you find your doctorate is the next step along the road to excelling in plan A. Still, be shrewd: have alternatives and know what they require.

Casey Strine is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow and Lecturer in Hebrew Bible at the University of Sheffield. You can find his website at www.caseystrine.com.

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