Trying to make it in the non academic world…

This post is by Ella o’sulllivan

Last autumn I made a decision. I was getting out of academia. I wish I could say that I made this decision sitting in my book lined office overlooking the ivy clad university quad, but no, I made it sitting on my bed, with my laptop propped up on a pillow in front of me and a list of edits as long as my arm that needed to be made to an article if I wanted it to be published. I was used to making any number of changes to get an article published, but this time the referee so flagrantly disagreed with my opinion that she had even thrown in recommended changes that were factually incorrect. So much so that she had confused a digital format of an existing book as a new edition, and admonished me for failing to reference the more “recent” work. I could almost see her googling furiously, glass of wine in hand, laughing manically at having found an extra point to add to an already four page list of criticisms. I wouldn’t mind, but I wasn’t even getting paid for this. I wasn’t getting paid for writing the article or for being a researcher. I was essentially working as an academic for free. If I wanted to be insulted for free, I could go on the X-Factor! So instead of going for another academic interview I chose to go to one for a temp job in the Irish Civil Service instead.

I had been interviewing for nearly three years at this stage and the final few months had been the toughest I had experienced. I had done everything I could. The first year I went interviewing I had only one publication- well two including my thesis. So I wrote furiously to make up for this gap and took on teaching work which paid by the hour but took up whole weeks in preparation. I went interviewing for the second year having won an essay competition for one of my articles. If all else failed, I would surely get more part-time teaching work this year, after all my students had performed well in their exams and rated my classes highly in the student evaluation. But no, when I enquired about work for the coming year, I was told that my existing class wouldn’t even be running and all other teaching had been allocated. It couldn’t have helped that the person who hired me was on maternity leave. I was basically starting from scratch trying to get work from someone who didn’t know me.

I continued to interview, to write articles, to sit up at night planning the articles I should be writing, so that someone would hire me. I went abroad, naively thinking that no college would agree to pay expenses for someone who had to fly in if they weren’t serious about hiring them. I met people from China with similar ideas as we sat next to our competition in the UK- people who were already teaching in the college and hadn’t even bothered to dress up for the interview. Sometime last September I went for my last academic interview. It was a disaster. By now I had lost all my confidence. To top it off, when the head of the department came to collect me from the holding room I had been waiting in for nearly an hour, he informed me, in passing, that the presentation was for 20 minutes. The invitation to the interview had stated no more than 10, in bold, as if to say, go over this time at your peril. I showed a print-off of the emailed invitation to the head of department expecting him to say that he had made a mistake. But no, he seemed to consider the human resources’ error as entirely mine. I gamely said that I would just keep talking (i.e. double the length of my presentation) with a smile. I failed miserably at this. The whole time I was talking I was trying to think of ways to extend the presentation so I ended up stuttering and stumbling over my words as if I wasn’t familiar with my research at all. I left knowing I had blown it. I couldn’t even go home with my tail between my legs as I still had to sit through the interview the following day.

Two months later I took up the temp job in the Civil Service. It pays badly, but it pays something more than academia was paying me (not difficult when your starting rate is zero). And it turned out not to be too bad. I have met people who are friendly and are willing to talk to me. All through my time in academia I had had to eat my lunch on my own and was forever running into snooty academics who would pretend not to see me when I said hello. Even when an academic might say something to me, it was often something bizarrely catty like “you strike me as a sad person” (yes, a grown adult did actually say that to me). But the job is temporary and because it is the Civil Service, temporary jobs cannot be made permanent. And I am thirty two, going on thirty three. I live at home with my parents (no boys allowed). My boyfriend also lives at home, albeit with more flexible parents. But it’s not fun having to traipse out every weekend to spend time with my boyfriend in my thirties. My aspirations are low. I would like to be able to rent my own small place and pay for my food. At the moment, I just want a job so that I can afford to look after myself, but I would like to have children someday, and as a woman, I have a count-down clock limiting my opportunity to do so.

For me, and many others, not being able to get a job in academia has more serious consequences than just not being able to get a job in academia. It’s about not being able to live your life without being dependent on other people. It’s about other people not wanting to recognise the qualifications that you worked so hard to attain, because people who don’t have a PhD often quite like to think that a PhD is useless. And although it is pretty worthless when it comes to job hunting in a non-academic world, it has equipped me with some pretty useful skills (which I highlight in the many versions of my CV cluttering up my desktop). Like all PhD graduates, I am a wizard at fact checking, can write up reports quickly and proof-read in my sleep, am an excellent problem solver and tenacious when it comes to getting large volumes of work done accurately and efficiently. But with that PhD around my neck, I don’t know if I will ever be able to catch a break.


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43 thoughts on “Trying to make it in the non academic world…

  1. Amaiic says:

    This was very interesting and insightful. I’d like to hope my PhD have me the skills to be able to improv a presentation 10 minutes longer if ask whether the email said to or not without questioning it. Attitude is everything. It is ok also to not continue in academia, but honey it is a game.

    • Alice says:

      I feel for the writer. Even the most experienced presenter can have an off day, particularly when the stakes are so high.

    • evelyn says:

      This post really moved me, but this comment moved me more. If this is the attitude such a game endorses, I’d rather lose.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hello Ella

    Good for you. I hope you start in the Civil service as a temp but that SOMEHOW it is possible to get a permanent job there. I understand your comments totally. I am half way through my PhD and thinking of giving up. The idea of being a lecturer used to appeal but the state of Universities is so bad in the UK in my topic now, two out of my three supervisors, at the top of their field, are losing their jobs, and those replacing them are paid per hour on zero hour contracts. Also lecturers are often 1. grumpy, 2. snooty, 3. have a mental illness and that isn’t who I want to be! Actually if you want to teach you might find a better salary and job in a Primary school!
    I am trying to figure out whether to complete my PhD or not and also if not what to do. Good luck to you,sometimes leaving academia is the best plan, but I think I might make an attempt to write up my PhD first. I think I might use the writing skills I developed to write professionally or get into some other career where I meet real people who are easy to get on with.

  3. Lorax says:

    This article really struck a chord with me. I am also in Ireland (though the North) and there is a very negative attitude in academia here at the moment from professors down to the lowly phd students. We are consistently told there are no jobs, no money and there has been mass non-voluntary redundancies. This unfortunately has affected me in regards to my own supervisors. It is hard to keep a level of confidence with this all going on. Especially when you know that it continues after you finally get that piece of paper saying you have (finally!) attained that phd. Therefore if confidence is being eroded it is difficult to keep that ‘attitude’ going. I am also in my 30’s, married with young children and I do wonder frequently if academia is worth it as a I want a career sooner rather than later. So Ella all I can say is this, don’t think you are alone. You aren’t. There are many like you worried about the exact same problems. Do what is best for you, because that is who the phd was for. You. No one else. No matter what, you have proven to yourself that you are resilient, tenacious and have numerous skills that saw you achieve a phd. These can only carry you forward. I wish all the best to you.

  4. paintedshepherdess says:

    What a useless comment from Amaiic. It’s all about what you are looking to do. I know doubling the length of ANY presentation would be a challenge for anyone, coming from someone in Academia.

    • pel-j says:

      Just seek to do a job that you enjoy. Your Ph. D. skills are for you and if somebody else sees value that’s a plus not a given.

    • pel-j says:

      I disagree. Might not be the best situation but doubling a ten minute presentation could also be exciting. You can extemporise and say what you’d like to have said, if only you had the time.

      • hopeful_phd says:

        Well yes if you’re doing a presentation at a conference or something else with nothing at stake except, of course, public speaking (which can be troublesome enough for some, and you shouldn’t judge that just because it isn’t as much for you). For the OP, it was a make or break interview and her confidence was down, so, let’s not take it so lightly. Also, I think the point of paintedshepherdess (and one which I agree with) is that the way Amaiic worded it was less than nice, I read it as saying between the lines that she didn’t put her PhD skills to use because of lack of attitude, or that she wasn’t a ‘worthy PhD’. Whatever. Might have not been the intention, but a little compassion always works best, you can be the next one in the same situation.

  5. Victoria Lister says:

    And what a shame it is a ‘game’, as the previous commenter wrote, for the ‘game’ is played with no regard for the people in it. Ella, I feel what you have presented here is the hidden face of academia… the reality behind these much-desired roles, and thank you for doing so. Unfortunately I suspect the more we attach glamour to an industry, the worse the conditions are behind the scenes. Plus there are so many champing at the bit just to get a toe in the door that contenders will go the extra mile and beyond just to try and ‘make it’, as you have been doing. The demands you speak of do not surprise me – as a research student I have observed ‘how it is’ – or at least how it can be – in academia and it’s not very attractive to me. On the other hand, there’s room to reflect on the issue of us potentially buying into an ideal because of our own need for… recognition, identification, whatever it is we are able to be honest about here. I wish you well in your life beyond academia!

  6. hopeful_phd says:

    Hi Ella, I just wanted to compliment you for your courage and wish you strength to hang on. You are great and you will be fine. I, too, finished my Phd recently. I am a bit younger than you(I’m 28) but, I also had some setbacks that blew away my confidence after the finish. Ihad a bad break up for various reasons but one of them was my ex wanted to buy a house, settle etc and didn’t understand I needed flexibility to pursue a career in academia. Then I went abroad for a research job and got seriously depressed due to homesickness and had to quit. Thankfully one of my professors back at home offered me some temp research jobs for a couple of months to keep me afloat while I recovered. I am now in an internship job in industry, earning only slightly above minimum wage.I moved back in with my parents, I can’t afford my own house right now. But I really like what I do and I’m getting hopeful for the future, to get a better contract, to look out for opportunities again. I have realistic hope about having stability to build a career and a family someday. So hang on! No negative thinking about the time passing, about your age, about living with your parents. I used to be really bitter and angry at myself about all that, feeling like a failure but eventually I realised I was doing a disservice to everybody. I realised I would do better by getting grateful that they had health to help me during difficult times and that they were so great about it. Count your blessings!!! Good luck and wishing you all the best for your future. 🙂

  7. S Foster says:

    Very sad tale, but thank you for sharing. Academia as a career I think is dead, too many Phd’s. Of course, if you are dependent free and do not need to meet financial obligations, then you have the time and freedom to work long hours for little, which helps. However, researching a topic to use in industry / your own consultancy has value.

  8. pel-j says:

    Just seek to do a job that you enjoy. Your Ph. D. skills are for you and if somebody else sees value that’s a plus not a given.

    • RPay says:

      This is idiotic. A degree – any degree – is a credential that tells the world about the skills you have. That is why people get them in the first place.

  9. Dale Wadeson says:

    This article really hit the nail on the head for me, and seemed to parallel my lived experience of the post PhD journey to a tee. I am sitting thinking about the same course of action, apply for anything I can get outside of this insane academic world. On a side note, I was told by an employment consultant that I should “dumb down” my CV and even consider taking my PhD off all together! sigh.

  10. Tori Wade says:

    I know it’s hard when told one has to suddenly double the length of a presentation. One option is to simply give the original 10 minute presentation as requested and then say that you will allow 10 minutes for comments, questions and discussion. I realise this would be difficult when one’s confidence is down, but the attitude “of course I will do what I have been requested in writing to do and now I will show you how brilliant I am by taking on your random questions as well” can work out. This is absolutely what I would do at a conference when everyone has already run over time and the poor audience is chaffing at the bit for some interaction.
    Until the overall outlook in academia improves my advice is to apply for other work sooner rather than later.

  11. Em says:

    You questioned the interviewers judgment in the interview? How would you feel about that if you were the interviewer? It doesn’t matter whose fault it was, think on your feet. Smile, wing it. Your prospective employer is thinking, ‘so when I ask her to do something at 4.30 she’s going to look at her watch, sulk and submit at 4.52 citing end of day?’ I’m only a Phd student (and working) but have many years working in Government and it seems to me that academia is just as bureaucratic than Government, or any large organisation. It sounds as if you were burnt out in ‘academia’ so you’ve made the right choice to move onto something more healthy for yourself personally. If you want to have stability and a home, which is of course a reasonable aspiration, your current plan is a good one. Your time spend in academia was not wasted – you just can’t see it yet. I also have young kids now and am studying again. It is, however, not always possible to do everything at once. Go easy on yourself.

  12. Amy says:

    Thanks for being so open and honest about your experiences Ella. You are certainly not alone – I’ve found that employers without a PhD, those who don’t understand what it is and how it can benefit their organisation, and those who lack confidence in their own intelligence and career can be very harsh when reviewing our applications. My suggestion would be to look for an employer who does understand what you have to offer and who is sufficiently qualified to respect your education. They’re not easy to find, but for me, it meant working at a hospital, where those with a doctor title (albeit medical) are less likely to be intimidated by you. I’ve been thinking recently that I should compile a list of potential employers for PhD graduates – organisations and the types of professions that tend to respect our qualifications and experience.

    • Carolyn says:

      That would be awesome Amy! I am in the writing up stage of my PhD and I don’t want to continue with academia. I am really confused about where I will fit in to the non-academic world.

    • Hazel Silistre says:

      Such a great idea and there are many of us who would appreciate such a list if you had the time Amy! I graduated a month ago and although I know that I don’t want to stay in academia, I am applying for postdoc positions right now, as most of the industry positions require a few years of experience. Having studied non-stop, secondary-school + undergraduate + PhD, I’ve got only part-time positions and it is devastating not to be able to show full-time work experience to be accepted for a variety of jobs.

      • Jennifer Eagleton says:

        I think it a good idea to have “industry breaks” before either an MA and PhD….to get actual work experience in something as a backup.

        • Hazel Silistre says:

          Definitely. I didn’t have much of an opinion of what was available to me as I was going into the last year of my undergraduate studies. It seemed like grad school was the straight way forward as all my classmates were also applying for grad schools. Then I got a scholarship to do my PhD, an offer I could not turn down when it was really hard to get funding as an international student and my government would not support me because I also did my undergrad abroad (without having rich parents, bowing to all the scholarships). So, here I am, first time not a student at the age of 26

  13. Jennifer Eagleton says:

    Don’t just focus on academia – try to get in, but have a plan B! There are many other ways – actually more fruitful ways – of using skills obtained in your study.

  14. klinkehoffen says:

    Great piece. Completely get your viewpoint. Awful for you and the academics who have treated you this way may well be why so many think those with a PhD are unable to ‘do’.

    I like Amy’s comments about picking your target employment sector (medicine) to which I would add education policy, or government policy analysis (though that is what you may well be doing in the civil service now…?).

    I am lucky in that I am doing my PhD while in employment at a Polytechnic (the ‘dirty boots brigade’). I don’t know whether you have considered that sector as well as the universities? Yes, there are zero hour contracts, but you can often pick up as much teaching as you want – but you usually need an adult teaching qualification (which I don’t think is necessarily required at a Uni?). Of course, you have probably already tried this sector too, and I should just button up!

    I hope that you connect soon with work that is fulfilling and gives you challenge. I also hope it is inside academia, because we will be the richer for you staying.

  15. Anonymous says:

    There is no law of nature that says that anyone who struggles through a PhD is entitled to get an academic job. Equally, however, there should be no rule that says that people in the sector should ignore normal human decency (avoiding you, being snooty, etc), or that selection panels should change the rules on a whim. That’s not right. But universities are odd places, and success in it does not depend on merit alone. I have no doubt you have many good skills; be reassured on that front.

    It seems to me (and I am speaking from a position at the fag-end of my working days) that it is a matter of: 1) timing, 2) time-in (i.e., how long you are prepared to hang about), and 3) a very big dose of luck. Of course, institutions will not say this, and will give the illusion that it is all about merit, publications and the like. That’s not right.

    I’ve been on the other side of selection panels and have seen very bewildering decisions made: some entirely along gender lines; some based on someone having “the look” they wanted (ignoring lack of publications); some based on someone “knowing” someone else who “knows” someone, etc. Frankly, some people just seem to “have it” too: and if I could work out what that is, I’d bottle and sell it.

    Leaving the sector is an entirely rational decision, and being happy–not having an academic job–is ultimately a better thing to aim for.

  16. Writer in progress says:

    Thanks for sharing your views honestly. I have been reading your posts and one thing I know, you are an exceptional writer for sure. I wish you get a job which may fulfill your wishlist.

  17. Daniella says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sorry to hear you’ve had bad experiences with other people in academia – while I recognise the feeling of futility when it comes to finding a job (even though I’m only just past submission, so haven’t been going at it long, but we all know the stories, and the standard “thank you for your application, unfortunately…” emails) and the growing insecurity, I’ve luckily mostly been surrounded by lovely and supportive people, both fellow ECRs and senior academics. I think the decision you made is a good one under the circumstances – everyone needs to decide for themselves how far they’re willing to go, what they’re willing to give (or give up). Of course academia isn’t for everyone, and even those people who think it’s their dream and heart’s desire may end up somewhere else and be just as happy or happier for it, but it’s a tough decision either way to shift gears – to realise that what you’re hoping for, have been working towards for years, is not going to happen, at least not at this time, in the way you envisaged it. In my case, I’ve recently applied for the first few academic ‘support’ jobs – not just the basic admin stuff (there’s nothing wrong with that, but generally it doesn’t necessarily require a PhD) but things like working at a university’s research support office (supporting people writing grant proposals and doing project management) or on a public engagement team (writing for the public, yay), or on a more content-related job at the university library (e.g. subject librarian). While these are also quite competitive (and there aren’t too many of them around), not that many people with a PhD seem to apply (maybe because it’s seen as ‘lowering yourself’? I don’t know) and they’re all places that really appreciate someone with the skills and knowledge acquired by PhDs. Finally, I think there’s one thing to keep in mind. Almost everyone presents their post-PhD job search as if it is their one shot, their only chance ever at doing something academic, and if they “fail” or give up, they’ll never ever ever have a chance to do something like that again. Based on what I’ve seen, however, I don’t think that’s true. I’ve seen people in their late forties getting an academic teaching job. Another friend of mine studied physics and astronomy and decided not to do a PhD because he didn’t want to work on his own that much – he went into secondary school teaching, developed extensive knowledge about didactic practices, and is now considering a practise-based PhD supported by his employer, so he can do more research work there. So, if it’s not right for you (or anyone) at this point, that doesn’t mean you’ll never have another chance. It’ll still be tough, but whatever experience you end up getting outside of academia may well make you head the list of potentials in five, ten or even twenty years. And if in those years, you decide you’re much happier where you are, or doing something completely different, then go for it – happiness isn’t limited to academia! Best of luck with whatever choices you make!

  18. Digikage says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience here (your writing really delivers poignancy and humour at the same time), it takes a lot of courage to face tough challenges head on and with honesty.
    I know this might sound cliché, but please don’t give up. By all means, you can take a temporary detour into the civil service, or other positions to get by in the meantime, but if what you truly desire and want to spend most of your life doing is to work in academia, please don’t give up. You know they say it is always darkest before the dawn, and I am totally convinced of this from so many of my own life experiences. It is just at that tipping point when you feel all options are exhausted and you’ve given your best and just want to quit, that is when breakthrough often comes. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences to this in your own life – especially when you were in your PhD – please don’t give up!
    Yes, you might have blown an opportunity you had, but there will always be another, and another, and another. It is not the end of the world. Cry a little, learn the painful but valuable lessons, take it in stride and bounce back stronger. Again, I hope I don’t come across as some typical ‘never quit’ person, I’m just talking from my personal experiences – so many times when I’m just about to throw in the trowel, I suddenly get through and often in better ways than I even hoped for. Of course, my assumption here is that academia is what you really want, not just ‘another job’ in which case anything that pays well works and you should not put yourself through all this pain and disappointment. It is only worth it when that is your driving desire which gives you the strength to always give it one more shot. Fortunately, academia does not have such a narrow time window for entry (compared to say sports like football or something), so keep building yourself through related activities and other work which can only add to your resume. When your time comes, things will fall in place.
    I wish you the best, and I hope you’ll keep pursuing your goals.
    Good luck!

  19. sarenput says:

    Thank you for this post. The honesty and candour with which you speak about your situation probably resonates with so many of us. I wish you all the best with your new path, but perhaps one day you will find your way back to academia through a path less traveled 🙂

  20. Alice Palmer says:

    Hello Ella,

    Your story is heart-wrenching, and also all too common. Googling “percentage of PhDs who are professors” brings up pages of articles about the current “oversupply” of PhD graduates compared to the number of academic positions. Indeed, an article in the Economist (*see note below) indicated that the ratio of PhD graduates who found academic work in the US was about 1 in 6. And that figure was pre-recession; today, due to the erosion of many universities’ endowments, the pace of hiring has gotten worse.

    The good news is that there are lots of uses for the skills that PhD graduates have. While few employers are looking for “PhD” on a resume, the skills you mention in your article are all in demand. Keep in mind that organizations hire people, not degrees. In my experience (as a mid-career professional) employers don’t really care what your “letters” are – Phd, MBA, BA, whatever. You get promoted when they see what you can do. And as a PhD graduate, you can do a lot.

    So, for my 2 cents: say “goodbye” to the bullying and starvation wages of academia and “hello” to a collegial workplace and regular paycheque. You are worth it!

    *Source: “The disposable academic” The Economist, Dec. 16, 2010

  21. Fiona Martin says:

    I am a full-time academic and have been for 26 years. But even though I have job security I completely agree with the writer of this blog. Academics can be truly awful people and I am regularly ignored by colleagues I have worked in the same building with for years. Also jobs are really scarce and it’s getting worse. But a PhD is a fantastic achievement and you have wonderful abilities and skills. Keep telling yourself this, because it is true and the people who sneer are jealous or know keep down that they couldn’t do it.

  22. thegrailquest says:

    I do feel for the writer, too, and I do hope she will be able to find a nice job and start a family. I think that the labour market, and the academe in particular, are not very family friendly and still less child-friendly – in practice, if not in theory. One option that worked well for me when other non-academic options did not suit me for various reason (including having a young child) was working as a freelancer. I think it is a great option for someone with a PhD experience, because you would have motivation, planning and experience at working on your own. One problem is that it is not very stable or predictable, and has little social benefits or securities, and does not always pay well – the pluses are flexibility and freedom, which in my case are crucial. I think the writer should think about her family aspirations, too, especially as she wants to have a child.

  23. greatjane says:

    Wow! You finished your PhD and quite early too. Well done! Thank you for your honest post. It is eye-opening. I am starting my second year of PhD and do think of my future sometimes. I earnestly pray for a career break through soonest for you. Please don’t be discouraged.

  24. thesis11 says:

    Brave and well-written piece. I would love to see some analysis and commentary on the over-‎production of PhDs as a structural feature of the Higher Education economy (Thesis whisperer’s ‎next post?). I’m currently finishing up and searching for jobs both in – and outside academia and it ‎strikes me that the ratio of advertised postdocs to PhDs is about 5 to 1! That is an educated (PhD ‎level) guess but it seems to me there is a broader story to be told here. PhDs are cheap and look ‎good for “impact” on any grant proposal. Postdocs are more expensive, but where are the ethics in ‎advertising for PhDs while fully aware of the problem of ‘overproducing PhDs’? Is there a larger ‎ethical role to play by those higher up in the chain? What about the responsibilities of our ‎institutions and grant-winning colleagues in this respect? ‎

  25. Shanna S. says:

    Hi Ella,
    Wow! You just summed up the past two years of my life into a single blog post. I did it in a little different order – going abroad in order to get the PhD and then not knowing where to go after, I wound up living with my parents for over a year in an area where academia is not really appreciated and definitely not celebrated. So even part-time teaching opportunities were not available, and I took work where I could find it as a substitute teacher for elementary and secondary schools while still fervently submitting applications for positions all across the globe (academic, non-academic, everything!).
    However, much like the PhD process itself, there is light at the end of the tunnel if you can just keep going through.
    I went to a couple conferences to present my research and network (yay for racking up more debt on top of student loans in an effort to get a job!) and it eventually paid off. I took a full-time position as a research person at a nonprofit. These positions are like needles in a haystack, but for me I needed to keep my options open.

    Seriously – keep hope. You finished the PhD so be proud of that and keep marketing yourself for positions that interest you. Hiring managers smell fear as well as desperation, unfortunately.

  26. Anonymous says:

    Hi Ella and all the other respondents,

    Just a quick note to thank you all for the various stories of your PhD experiences and journeys. I’m in that lonely isolated position of writing up my PhD right now, and I have had a great boost of courage from reading all of these other experiences. It’s an enormous relief to know I’m not the only one who is ambivalent about sticking with academia post-PhD. Thank you all.

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