There is a tendency for academics to talk about jobs on the ‘outside’ as a kind of compromise – or even failure. This has annoyed me for a long time, so I was glad when Paula Hanasz sent me this post.
Paula is currently writing a thesis on the geopolitics of water security in South Asia at The ANU. She is enrolled at the Australia National University but currently spends more time on her couch than in her office or the library. The first time we met Paula she was experiencing PhD lifestyle guilt. Next she shared with us the problem of the research problem. This time she turns her thoughts to what comes after the PhD…
“You will fail. You will never get a job.”
“You are the intellectual equivalent of the starving artist, doomed to working in bars and cafes, scratching away at your chosen academic research in rare moments between menial jobs that pay the rent.”
If you read as many PhD advice blogs as I do, you are probably feeling as depressed and anxious about your future job prospects as I am. We’ve all heard the stats about the chances of getting onto a tenure track are less than those of winning lotto while getting struck by lightning on the same day that pigs fly. And we’ve all been warned that even if we get there, our salaries will be less than what we earned as teenagers working in the nearest fast food outlet.
If you’re in a PhD program, you’re probably not entirely stupid. You will likely have thought about this rather momentous (and often expensive) career move. Even if your only motivation is to postpone the ‘real world’ for a few more years, that’s still a statement about where you stand on the whole getting-a-job quandary.
My point is, you’re smart enough to know you won’t be granted full professorship upon the defence of your thesis. If you do want to stay in academia, you probably have very good reasons for choosing to do so. And if you don’t – like me – your choice to opt out of academic research at the completion of your PhD will also have more to do with strategic career planning than with the hard luck of not getting a tenure track position.
What the depressing statistics don’t tell you is how many of those newly minted PhDs who don’t get exciting positions in academia actually wanted to become professors in the first place. When you narrow down the pool of competition for tenure track jobs from ‘all PhDs’ to ‘all PhDs who want to do nothing but academic research and teaching’ then there’s less reason to dump your thesis in a flood of tears and resign yourself to working at Starbucks.
I’m not saying that non-academic jobs are less competitive – obviously I can’t defend the post-GFC global job market, and it varies significantly from industry to industry. What I am saying, however, is that a little creative thinking can make for varied, fulfilling, and even lucrative career choices. One of the exciting things about the world today is that the variety of interesting, multidisciplinary jobs available was unimaginable a generation ago. And nobody expects you to stay in one job, or even one industry, for your entire career.
There is now so much more value in obtaining a PhD than merely as a one way ticket to professorship.
For me, the choice to pursue a PhD has as much to do with lifestyle as it does with career prospects. I simply like the idea of taking several years to be more or less my own boss, work in my pyjamas, take several hours a day to go for long bike rides or cook elaborate meals (and, yes, feeling the attendant PhD lifestyle guilt!). And because we’re all nerds here, I can admit that I really, really, really like spending most of my days playing with abstract intellectual ideas, reading dense articles about obscure theories, and engaging with other researchers all over the world on topics we’re passionate about.
If I get nothing else out of the whole PhD process, then I will be satisfied with this.
But of course, I do want to get more out of the whole PhD process. I want to work in one of several large international non-government organisations that focuses on socio-economic development around the world. I figure that a PhD will give me an edge over my competitors because it illustrates the analytical, writing, and policy formulation skills that are required for the sorts of jobs I want, as well as commitment and motivation toward lengthy, self-guided projects on complex matters.
I’ve developed my research question to fit a niche in a specific multi-year, multi-national, multi-gadzillion-dollar project. I figure that in the course of my research I will develop enough of a professional network that by the time my thesis is done I can use it as a sort of calling card for when I am applying for positions on this, or other similar, projects. And you can be sure I won’t waste another moment worrying about not getting onto the tenure track!
What do you think?
Other posts by Paula
The PhD pinata (or groping for research questions)