Odds Are, Your Doctorate Will Not Prepare You for a Profession Outside Academe

Full vitae doctorate will not prepare you

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By L. Maren Wood

A lot of well-meaning academics like to say that doctoral education prepares you, not just for the professoriate, but for other careers, too. There’s just one problem with that message: Except for a handful of STEM degrees, it’s not accurate.

As a Ph.D., you may end up in a lot of different careers outside of academe, but you don’t need a doctorate for the vast majority of them. Those careers are not something you do withthe Ph.D.; they’re what you do after the Ph.D. The distinction matters.

How do I know? I left academe myself in 2012. In my work now, almost nothing I do on a daily basis relates directly to my education as a historian. Please don’t send me an email or a Tweet telling me I’m wrong about that. I’m not. And I’m not just basing that assessment on my own experience but on that of hundreds of people I’ve interviewed and mentored as co-founder of an organization, Beyond the Professoriate, that helps Ph.D.s make career transitions. What they tell us time and again: Their doctorate — while a valuable education that most don’t regret — has little or no connection to their current work and profession.

That’s a different message from what I argued six years ago, when I wrote an article for The Chronicle called, "What Doors Does a Ph.D. in History Open?" At the time, academic associations and doctoral programs were just starting to confront the collapse of the tenure-track market. My essay, like others of that period, was an effort to demonstrate the viability of the Ph.D. in other labor sectors: Since Ph.D.s worked everywhere, their doctorate must be of use in all sorts of careers, right?

Since then, a lot has changed — for academe and for me. The reality of too many Ph.D.s for too few tenure-track jobs is widely recognized today. Universities and professional associations now have dedicated resources — career-planning services, internships, skills development — to support A.B.D.s and Ph.D.s as they explore and seek nonacademic careers. And now I lead an organization that works with graduate students and Ph.D.s, both those on the tenure-track market and those leaving academe (by choice or necessity).

Based on what I hear from clients, however, a lot hasn’t changed, too:

  • At the level of individual departments and professors, support for nonfaculty careers remains spotty. We still hear about many faculty advisers who quietly discourage or outright oppose their students’ nonacademic career plans. Some advisers aren’t even willing to encourage their students to attend career workshops on campus.
  • As the tenure-track market has gotten more competitive, the pressure on graduate students to focus exclusively on career success in academe has intensified. Doctoral students know that most of them will not find tenure-track jobs, yet "assistant professor" remains the key career objective for the vast majority, and they are hyper-focused on the faculty path. Not landing a tenure-track job is something they’ll deal with down the road when it happens — usually after graduation.
  • Many of the Ph.D.s I’ve interviewed say their doctorate did not open doors to nonacademic careers. Instead they entered a new profession thanks to internships, unpaid work, volunteering, or entry-level jobs. Yet too many doctoral students (perhaps influenced by their advisers) believe that career exploration beyond the professoriate is not an important way to spend their time in graduate school. Outside work experience is a "distraction" and may "add time to the degree." So they don’t go to the workshops on nonacademic careers. They don’t seek out an internship as a graduate student (or can’t because of funding rules). And then, when they strike out on the overcrowded tenure-track market and go looking for those promised nonfaculty career options, they struggle to get a foot in the door there, too. These very smart, highly credentialed people end up feeling like a failure in both realms.

Within the demographic my organization serves, depression, anxiety, and despair are widespread in the early years of the career transition. And because most Ph.D.s change careers after graduation, their doctoral advisers are largely unaware of the extent of their mental-health and financial crises. But I see it every day, and it is heartbreaking.

Part of the problem stems from this common misperception about the relationship between doctoral education and nonfaculty careers — the belief that the former can lead you to the latter. In fact, there is no such relationship in most cases in the humanities and social sciences, and only sometimes in STEM fields. When Ph.D.s begin a career transition, they face that reality, and it is often a heavy psychological blow. They have been told that their doctorate will make them attractive to all sorts of employers. But outside of select engineering and biomedical fields, few employers outside academe base hiring decisions on an academic credential.

For midlevel positions in any profession, employers want someone with direct linear work experience. For entry-level jobs, they prefer someone with a bachelor’s degree, a bit of work experience, and a willingness to learn on the job. Applicants with a doctorate — especially those who’ve spent years as adjuncts or postdocs — find themselves over-credentialed and under-experienced.

Those of us who have made a successful career transition out of academe have learned that the "transferable skills" we "developed in graduate school" are transferable precisely because they are the same skills that other professionals — equally smart and capable — are developing on the job in industry, foundations, or government agencies. Critical thinking, program and project management, qualitative and quantitative research, synthesizing evidence and data, data-informed decision making — none of those are unique to academe. They are transferable from academe precisely because they are already highly valued and cultivated in all sorts of labor sectors.

When they seek midlevel positions in, say, industry or government, Ph.D.s are competing against candidates who not only have those same skills from direct work experience but already know the jargon of the profession and can start without significant training. When Ph.D.s realize that their peers of similar age and skill are running nonprofit agencies and leading research teams and divisions — while they are struggling to land an entry-level gig — that fuels depression, anxiety, and doubt.

In championing the doctorate as an "all purpose degree," academics are, in effect, dismissing the expertise acquired on the job in other highly specialized professions. A degree in history or anthropology provides relevant transferable skills, but it does not replace — nor is it better than — on-the-job training and experience. A history department would not hire someone from a marketing agency to teach introductory U.S. history. Why, then, assume that a marketing agency would hire a historian? Given the choice, of course the company is going to hire a 35-year-old with 10 years of marketing experience over a similarly aged history Ph.D. who has been adjuncting for five.

As Ph.D.s, we are smart, capable, hard-working, relatively young, and in debt. So, yes, we figure out how to build new careers. We must. But the fact that we do, eventually, figure things out — and thrive in satisfying second (or third) careers — should not mask the difficulties, idiosyncrasies, and realities of the transition.

My own career is a case in point. Running a start-up is not a career path designed for someone with a Ph.D. in history, nor does it benefit from my historical education. Even in a start-up like my own that focuses on Ph.D.s, it’s what I learned in graduate school about academic culture and hiring (almost on-the-job training for my business) that helps me do my work today, not the knowledge I acquired about historical analytical methods. My career path is unique to my personal interests, network, and talents — as is the case for most former academics.

And that’s OK. In earning a doctorate, I got a fantastic, valuable education, and I’m glad I spent my 20s studying history. I loved my time in graduate school, and, like most Ph.D.s I’ve interviewed, I have no regrets about earning my degree. My education shapes how I think and engage with the world, and its value should not be measured by how closely the degree aligns with the career that came next.

All these years later, I see that Ph.D. placement studies (like the one I did) and rhetoric about the degree "opening doors" to nonfaculty careers are misleading. The Ph.D. is not the thing that opens doors. It’s the smart, talented person who opens those doors. The journey that I and so many ex-academics take — to careers that are only loosely if at all connected to our graduate education — must be viewed as a normal and acceptable outcome. What does that mean?

Divorce the Ph.D. from nonacademic career outcomes. Don’t assume causation or correlation between the doctorate and the career. Departments and universities should exercise extreme caution in talking about Ph.D. alumni. Celebrate a thriving alum’s career success outside academe, but don’t use successful alumni as examples of "things people can do with this Ph.D." Don’t minimize the very significant differences between the type of labor that Ph.D.s perform on a campus and the type done in nonacademic settings. Because by doing so, institutions risk making a career transition out of academe seem far easier than it is.

Graduate students, early on, must hear:

  • That a career transition out of academe is hard, but possible.
  • That employers value specific skills and linear work experience, not academic credentials.
  • That having a doctorate is not enough, or even all that appealing to most employers.
  • That graduate education is an education. It will train you for work inside academe, but it’s not a substitution for linear work experience outside the ivory tower.
  • That teaching and research on a campus is a very narrow type of work experience.
  • That smart people work everywhere.

Career transitions for graduate students cannot be mapped. A career path that a Ph.D. alumnus follows is particular to that person; it may or may not work for you. The education you gain is personal, and how you decide to leverage it is also personal.

Start mandating "experiential learning." Academe loves that phrase, but it basically means "internships." What graduate students need is honest conversations on campus about the faculty job market and the difficulty of transitioning to a different profession. They need to learn job-search strategies in other labor sectors and be empowered to make informed career decisions.

Many scholarly associations and universities have already begun investing in professional-development and experiential learning on campus for graduate students. We need more of that. Ideally it would be mandated for all graduate students to receive this training and experience.

Nobody knows which graduate students will find a tenure-track job. We cannot leave it up to individual professors or departments to sanction career exploration — because failure to properly prepare Ph.D.s for career transitions is ruining lives. There are not enough tenure-track positions for all the talented people who want one, and so graduate students must be prepared for the very real possibility that they will have to forge a professional career elsewhere.

At many institutions, graduate-student funding is tied to teaching and research assistantships, but institutions must do more to encourage and support a variety of work experiences. Create internships on campus. Forge partnerships with local organizations and companies. Reach out to alumni.

No Ph.D. should graduate without experiential training, without understanding the purpose and function of a résumé, and without grasping the crucial importance of networking.

Tell them to quit the adjunct track sooner. Stop encouraging your Ph.D.s to remain in academe indefinitely — in any kind of teaching position or postdoc — and "just keep publishing." That kind of advice suggests that a tenure-track job is the only viable and meaningful career outcome for that person when, in fact, smart people are needed across industry and other labor sectors.

Instead, encourage your advisees to step off the contingent merry-go-round sooner than they do now. And then respect their decision to move on.

To Ph.D.s suffering through a stressful career transition, I would advise the same: Say no to exploitative, dead-end contingent positions in academe. Instead seek out employment in places where you will be valued, paid well, and able to learn and grow.

Yes, you will have to start out at the entry level or as an unpaid intern, but unlike adjunct positions, these temporary gigs actually do lead to career advancement in the professional world. Once you’ve found your next opportunity, more will follow. Those of us with Ph.D.s who found our way in the private sector, in government, or in the foundation world will tell you that we are happy, thriving, and fulfilled; come join us.

If all of this discourages people from pursuing doctorates, so be it. By bleeding the system of its talent, perhaps we can force the kinds of transformation in the academic labor market we all want to see.

L. Maren Wood is co-founder and CEO of Beyond the Professoriate, a company that works with individuals and universities, offering career services for graduate students and Ph.D.s. She earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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