What if I NEVER get a job?

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…

Screen Shot 2013-12-10 at 5.46.21 PM“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.

So what?

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

PhD lifestyle guilt

The PhD pinata (or groping for research questions)


31 thoughts on “What if I NEVER get a job?

  1. the (research) supervisor's friend says:

    I agree with these views. At the recent QPR conference they compared the Australian experience with other developed countries and we have a low rate of PhDs in industry. Working on my second one now I can htink of no better way to advance your professional practice than by submitting it to this sort of rigour.
    Geof Hill

  2. Susan says:

    Well done Paula. A PhD is a pathway to an academic career, but there are only so many of those available. You can have a fine career outside academia and using your PhD journey as a way of setting up your entree into that career is definitely making the best of your opportunities.

  3. Matt Kelly says:

    Totally agree, I currently work in the industry as a Town Planner and am doing my PhD part time externally. I feel as thought I’m killing two birds with one stone and making myself extermley competitive both in academia and the industry. I also love my rare study days where I can lay in my PJs have a coffee and read, read, read all day.


    Matt from North Queensland

  4. Hillary Rettig says:

    A great article, and a very humane one. It is always important to create options for oneself, especially if (a) you only see one option, and (b) it’s not a very good one. Only having one bad option is really a form of entrapment, and highly disempowering – and disempowerment leads to procrastination and writer’s block.

    If you can’t see the options for yourself–and it can be hard, when you’re in the thick of it all–definitely seek an objective outside view.

    One other statistic that might help is that it’s commonly known that 85% of job applicants screw up in pretty obvious ways. The number might be lower among Ph.D. candidates, who are pretty focused and accomplished, after all–but a surprising number screw up by applying for the wrong jobs, applying for a SLAC job as if they’re applying to an R1, being ill-prepared for interviews, etc.

    So if you just apply in a really focused and detail-oriented way, you will probably knock out most of your competition. I wrote about all this in an ebook called It’s Not You, It’s Your Strategy. You can read an excerpt at it at my URL.

  5. Laurie Krauss says:

    I’m interested in what you think about older Ph.D students and I don’t mean those in their 30’s. I mean 50’s, 60’s or older.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I do wonder about that. I know many are part time and I assume they carry on with their jobs, but there is no research I am aware of about what happens with respect to new employment or promotion etc. Clearly an opportunity for some to be done…

    • Francis Norman says:

      I would probably just count as one of those “older” Ph.D students, now just into my 50’s having started part time external in my late 40’s and aiming (hoping) to complete before hitting my mid 50’s…
      I had a 30 year career in engineering before starting the Ph.D and really started it from a purely personal interest perspective, yes the research fits with where my role was at the time but with or without a Ph.D my career prospects in that role were the same.
      This past year has seen me made redundant twice from my “day job”, the last time this last week, and I am now viewing my research area as a prospect for a consulting career that may see me to the end of my working years, when ever that may be, but the research has also been a stable point in what has become a rapidly changing life and is something I am still loving.
      I would recommend it to anyone with a passion in an area who really wants to get to the core of their passion, regardless of age or potential prospects.

  6. Kat says:

    I did go in to my PhD wanting an academic position, of some kind, but I was always open to other paths because there are so few jobs (they even shut down two departments in Australian in my already small discipline while I was doing my PhD). I am about six months into a very different kind of job, outside of academia proper. It is still a research job, but for a non-for-profit rather than a uni.

    I did have feelings when I started my current job that I had somehow failed to fulfil my dreams, while also being pragmatic about it. I was fed up with sessional work. I could also see that even my friends/colleagues who had the desired FT teaching/research positions were also stressed, and often felt insecure in their positions.

    So far it is pretty good, and the culture is pretty refreshing after the series of departments I worked in at unis over the past few years. I am part time and they are supportive of me wanting to do my own research. So far, so good.

    Also should add they were very interested in me because I had a PhD, even in an area that isn’t directly connected. They have given me projects that match my skills (and trained me where I needed it).

  7. bluemahy says:

    Interesting article. I think maybe the best thing is to know that at least I’m not the only one worrying about this! And that I’m not the only one who often works at home on my couch…hah.

    Personally, I don’t have a set idea of what kind of job (academic/industry) I want so in the back of my mind I’m trying to think about ways I can just focus on developing skills and gaining experience that would hopefully help me whether or not I decide to stay in academia. Realistically, I imagine when I finish I will be looking for ANY kind of job I have the skills for, that is my skills gained from my degrees, not skills that could land me a job in retail again!

  8. Chandni Singh (@_chandnisingh) says:

    Thanks for the great article Paula! I agree that being creative with your career is the best way to find something fulfilling and financially sustainable.

    I recently completed my PhD in Rural Livelihoods from the UK and frankly, I was looking forward to a few months of complete abandon. I was clear about not wanting to take up an academic position. And I specially keen to lead a life where I had enough time to continue writing about development issues for non-academic audiences.

    Contrary to my expectations (fuelled by post-PhD joblessness stories), my experiences so far (it’s been 3 months since I got my degree), have been positive. I am currently doing a short-term research position in my home city which matches my interests but is not too time-consuming and thus lets me soak in my post-PhD euphoria. I am considering two openings that are intellectually exciting. I think as you say, the key is to leverage your strengths and skills and be smart about your research while doing it, instead of afterwards.

    PS: The bit about ‘If I get nothing else out of the whole PhD process, then I will be satisfied with this.’ was the best part of the post for me. In the end, my PhD was helped me grow as a researcher and person and in doing so, gave me much more than number of job offers or salary packages can ever quantify!

  9. Abi says:

    Absolutely agree. In my field there is one position at the single local uni which has only had one staff change in the 20 yrs since it was created! My reasons for doing the PhD are not about academia. I’m here to network and learn the skills I need to take my career to the next level. The expectations that one should go into academia post PhD do get a bit distracting, but it seems obvious that there are many more PhD students than positions available.

  10. sush says:

    I agree with a lot that you’ve said here. Our program is hiring a new tenure track assistant professor this year and it has become very very clear to quite a few of us that when we get done with our Ph.Ds we will not be anywhere near as competitive as needed. However, there are a lot of other options open to us. I personally would like to stay in academia but my colleagues are now thinking more flexibly about their future prospects. Thank you for posting this!

  11. Agnese says:

    The article is very interesting. I know that there is life outside academia, but I think that some of Paula’s ideas can’t be applied in other fields, such as humanities, literature and cultural studies. In these fields we can’t really build a professional network. So the possibilities for the Phd graduates are reduced.
    Thank you

    • Jonathan Downie says:

      Got to disagree with you Agnese. I am in a field on the border between the humanities and social sciences and have had no problem building a professional network. Okay, so being in Translation & Interpreting Studies does put me in an easier position but surely there is an even slightly related profession. English Lit PhDs might want to build a network of journalists, critics, professional bloggers and editors, for instance. There is almost always some kind of link outside of academia that we can build.

      • Agnese says:

        I’m in the field of Linguistics and I can’t imagine what kind of professional link I could build. At conferences, there are only academics. I’d need to figure out what kind of skills or knowledge I could use in the work market. In my country at least, at workplace the professional experience in the field it’s more important than knowledge. A PhD isn’t really considered as a value.
        Thank you for your reply. I hope I’m wrong.

    • Christopher says:

      My colleague did linguistics and can only find industry (well government and NGO) jobs. She’s in France though. Perhaps see how you can translate your skills into jobs in those areas?

  12. Peter Bentley says:

    “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.”

    According to Edwards, Baxley and Richardson (2011), around 80% of RHDs have considered academic work after graduating and 63% of RHDs in Australia would ideally like to work in academia immediately after graduation. Around three quarters of this group (who want academic work) think this is a realistic career goal. So, around half of all new PhDs want and expect to be employed in academia immediately after graduating. I doubt there are enough jobs in academia for this, so I don’t think PhD are truly aware of the job market conditions.

    Although non-academic jobs are ideal options for about one third of all new PhDs, this group is a minority of all PhDs and probably includes many who had ambitions to work in academia but later switched their attention elsewhere after seeing the job market and working conditions.

  13. Martin Davies (@wmartindavies) says:

    Nice piece Paula, but I think you under-sell the value of the PhD, and in particular, the disciplines they (ultimately) serve.

    I discuss this from a different tangent in relation to the discipline of Philosophy (often derided as the most “useless” of subjects) and Arts funding. See, in particular, the section: ‘Philosophy and its Value to Humankind’ and the section: ‘The Practicality of Philosophy’.


  14. The Slender Twig says:

    I am a fellow ANU PhD student, so first of all ‘insert mandatory quip about it being a small world’ and second, thank you for taking the time to write this great post.

    I have to say that the subject matter of your piece often comes up in conversations I have with non-scholars, especially family. If I could choose any job on graduation, I would go with academia – I enjoy my research and I already teach and I love it. In fact I love it so much that I would do it (and have done it some of the time) for free. This being said, I entered into a PhD with virtually no expectations with regard to career prospects.

    As a biological anthropologist, my field is about as unmarketable as you can get (obscure bit of knowledge about bonobo sexual practices anyone? or perhaps a rant on theories of the cognitive sophistication of Neanderthals?).

    So why did I pursue it?

    The questions that the field deals with are, at least to me, among some of the most interesting to be asked. The field is also inherently multidisciplinary, which appeals to someone as eclectic-to-the-bone as I am. I have a desk in a genome biology department, regularly attend discussion groups in the philosophy school, I spent most of today reading economic papers on game theory, and tomorrow will teach an Associate Degree sociology class. Boredom is unknown to me.

    What I am getting at I suppose, is that I find it acceptable to view taking a PhD as a purely philosophical exercise in truth-seeking. Improved job prospects, should they exist, are a mere welcome bonus. Where things get irksome is when I give this answer to the inevitable barrage of ‘so what job does that get you?’ that PhD students receive at dinners, family gatherings and so forth. It is usually met with either confusion, accusations of being an obtuse hipster, or chortled remarks of the ‘oh well you’ll change your mind about that one day’ sort.

    I should mention here that I am 30 years old and have had a few ‘conventional careers’ already, ranging from low-paid bookstore manager to quite-well-paid-indeed teacher of English as a second language (something I still moonlight as). I have lived miserly and rather comfortably at different times – so I do know what I potentially am giving up in the long run by pursuing research for purely personal reasons.

    Having dwelled upon this for a while now, an interesting question has just wiggled its way up into my consciousness:

    What is it about the occupation of ‘mendicant ponderer’ (no religious overtones intended) that everyone seems to find so unnerving?

  15. I'm the blue man says:

    Nice article. I’m still having a couple of month before finishing my PhD and thinking about the future. So far my PhD has been a long journey which contain many emotion and feelings, positive or negative. I have already started thinking about my life after PhD, and I guess that with my tiny success in academia, getting a tenure track jobs or assistant professor, or post-doc is just become quite difficult. So maybe change the field is the best option. I’m still regretting the fact that to leave a favourite subject that I’ve already pursued from my very first step in university is very uneasy, just like abandon something you are passionate and enjoy it for a long time, but that’s the life. Flexibility should be taken in to account and I hope that other people, just like me, should find a “plan B” if they’ve ever get in to a PhD program.

    Yeah, the biggest advantage for the PhD students want to seek jobs is their own PhD, which certifies definitely their competence, talent and skills. Not even mention that they are already confirmed to be the “elites”, whatever the field they are contributing their works.

  16. Not feeling the positive vibe says:

    Your positivity is commendable. But the fact of the unfortunate reality is that the job market for a phd is pretty crappy. Yes I’m putting a damper on things because I’ve been job hunting for the last 8 months now (I’m a biotech phd, as multidisciplinary as they come – I should be in demand, right?!). I’ve applied everywhere (academic positions, industry, NHS), I’m not being picky, but I’ve not managed to hold down a single interview. It’s driving me crazy to the point that I’m actually becoming suspicious of my referees now, even though I know they are not legally allowed to give me a bad reference. But when your supervisor has been caught using research money to fund personal holidays/payment towards their villa in an exotic country (for which they got a cutey-patooty little slap on the wrist, alongside a “bad, naughty academic! Now, don’t do it again or it’ll have consequences!”), what’s a bad reference here or there? I’m sick to my back teeth of getting generic rejections: others fit the job description better, your application is not being taken forward – please note we do not give feedback (now THERE’S a shocker). What it means is “We’ll reject you for arbitrary reasons, and we don’t feel obliged to give you a reason for rejection (because maybe we don’t have a good enough one! Eeep!)”. I now tutor students for the time-being, purely because I need to eat! But I’m unfortunately now team “phd is a waste of time”. Three plus years of hard work to be left fruitless..should have done medicine/dentistry instead…at least they’re kinder to their graduates!

  17. Aletzit says:

    Reblogged this on Mi vida (académica) / My (academic) life and commented:
    No hay mejor manera ni mejor momento de regresar a escribir que un post como el que acabo de leer y que dejo aquí mismo como referencia. Para mí, The Thesis Whisperer ha sido de mucha ayuda durante varias etapas de mis estudios de doctorado y el post invitado en su blog, por parte de Paula Hanasz, ayuda, si no como una solución, como un punto de vista que puede tranquilizar a más de uno por ahí que nos encontramos en este camino del PhD.

    Sin mucho qué agregar, basta decir que sus comentarios me hicieron reflexionar acerca de esta etapa en la que me encuentro y ocuparme (más que preocuparme) en el momento presente con una vista de esperanza hacia el futuro.


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