How Ph.D.s Romanticize the ‘Regular’ Job Market

Full vitae phd leavingacademia final

Image:  Brian Taylor

By Erin Bartram

One thing I heard a lot — once I decided to stop looking for a tenure-track job — was that my doctoral skills would be well received beyond the ivory tower. On the "regular" job market, many assured me, I would be more valued than in academe. Despite the reassurances, I was skeptical of this rosy portrait of my job prospects.

Nine months later, my skepticism has been fully validated.

After three unsuccessful cycles on the tenure-track market, of course it was appealing to think things would go better beyond the ivory tower. But they haven’t, although I have done my share of applying and interviewing. I think it’s important to consider the sources of our romantic view of the nonacademic job market and the effects it can have on those of us looking to make the transition out of the faculty career path.

Why did I doubt that I would readily find full-time, well-compensated employment outside of academe?

Because I’d spent the last decade and a half watching many of my contemporaries — people near my own age who had pursued different career paths from mine — struggle to find employment that fit even one of those criteria, despite having "useful" credentials and abundant work experience. Instead, many were cobbling together several part-time jobs (ones that paid poorly but demanded degrees and experience) or holding full-time jobs with stagnant salaries and/or lousy benefits.

Those same conditions are familiar to many academics. At this point, there’s no ignoring higher education’s heavy reliance on highly credentialed, highly experienced part-time labor. And I’ve heard enough complaints about deferred raises and bad health insurance to know that tenure-track faculty members understand wage stagnation and poor benefits as well as anyone.

Yes, the academic workplace and the collapse of the tenure-track market are unique in some ways. But we shouldn’t ignore the deep structural similarities between the academic world and the "real" world. The similarities mean it’s important to consider the advice we hear — and give — with clear eyes.

Romantic narratives of private-sector success can compound the struggle that you, as an ex-academic, face in handling your career transition. Just as it was important to remind yourself of the many things you couldn’t control about fellowship applications and tenure-track hiring, it is important to be aware of all the things you can’t control in a nonacademic job search. Among them:

  • The limits of self-assessment. Plenty of advice-givers, myself included, emphasize the importance of reflection and self-analysis in the process of leaving academe: In order to effectively change careers, you need to know what you can do and what you want to do. But knowing that and being able to secure real paying work doing it are two very different things. After all, many of us knew we were qualified to be assistant professors. That didn’t mean that we could get the positions we wanted.
  • Other labor sectors are competitive, too. The faculty job market may be bad in academe, but that doesn’t mean it’s great in the nonacademic field you plan to pursue. Moreover, while Ph.D.s who are location-bound face unique challenges on the tenure-track market, you may quickly run into similar challenges in a nonacademic search. Knowing what you can do and want to do is important, but so is knowing whether that field is thriving and where it’s thriving. In my own nonacademic search, I’ve had to face the difficult choice of whether or not to devote time to career paths that interest me — in publishing, policy, and museum and archival work — knowing that the odds of landing a well-paying full-time job in those areas are long, too, and that the positions would require me to relocate, just as the faculty job market had.
  • Your Ph.D. is not the right degree for the job. In leaving academe, you may believe — perhaps correctly — that you have the skills to move into a nonacademic field. But you still might not have the particular degree and work experience that hiring managers expect of applicants. You may have an effective cover letter and an impressive interview style to convince a potential employer that you’re qualified for the position, but it can still be an uphill climb, particularly in fields that might be saturated with people who have the usual credentials.
  • Employers are not so sure about your "transferable skills." In a faculty search, committee members might be insulted by a candidate who lacks the expected, conventional credentials yet claims expertise in the field. Likewise, employers looking at candidates for a nonacademic job similarly have ideas about what specific things demonstrate expertise in their arena and may have a strong vested interest in maintaining those markers of expertise. Be aware that when you’re making the argument that your academic skills can transfer to a new sector of the economy — especially in lieu of conventional experience and credentials — that argument may not be convincing to a potential employer who has that conventional experience and credentialing.
  • Misperceptions about Ph.D.s persist. Our faith in our transferable skills must also be tempered by preconceptions that persist about job candidates coming from academe. The public perceives college professors as wealthy, underworked, and with their heads in the clouds. Those perceptions follow scholars out of the academy, and can make the job search difficult. The charmed reputation of academic life contributes, I suspect, to one particularly frustrating assumption I’ve encountered in my own job search: that someone with a doctorate really wants — and is privately planning — to eventually return to academe and that that is easily done.

I’m not saying you won’t be able to surmount all of those challenges and restart your career outside of higher education. Many Ph.D.s clearly have. I’m saying you need to be aware that, like so many other things in hiring, only so much of it is under your control.

It is great to see success stories of those who’ve moved from academe into the private sector or government work. They can be models for your own career transition, giving you concrete steps to take at a juncture that can be profoundly disorienting. But those success stories must always be placed in the context of the structural realities of hiring in the particular nonacademic field you are now seeking to join. Otherwise, as you struggle to find satisfying nonacademic work, you may assume that your difficulties on the job market are just because you, personally, are unemployable — replicating the same feelings of failure that you experienced on the academic job market, before you understood the structural problems of an oversupply of Ph.D.s and a shrinking pool of tenure-track openings.

Knowing there’s little you could have done to change a company’s hiring decision doesn’t take away the sting. But over the long term, it’s a vital counterweight to the feelings of personal failure that can overwhelm you.

Ultimately, the struggles of Ph.D.s seeking nonfaculty jobs are closely related to the struggles of faculty members themselves, whether contingent or tenure-track. The same economic forces affect us all, even those in academe who are profoundly uncomfortable with thinking of themselves as laborers. When transitioning academics apply for nonacademic work — making the case that they have the skills to do the job — they’re often pushing back against the same views of academics that justify slashing campus budgets and cutting tenure-track lines.

When people in academe push back against those stereotypes, they’re also helping make it just a little easier for ex-academics to make our case on the outside job market. Perhaps it’s just another romantic narrative, but it seems important to remember, in this one instance, that we’re all in this together.

Erin Bartram, formerly a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Hartford, is writing about her career transition out of academe. Her website is Erinbartram.com and you can find her on Twitter @erin_bartram.

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