Making other plans

Universities benefit from the large pool of cheap labour provided by PhD students and postdocs, but there aren’t enough academic jobs to go around, so young scholars should prepare for the possibility of a future outside the academy, one postdoc advises

June 14, 2012

Not everyone who completes a PhD gets an academic job. I knew that. But still I thought that my prospects were good.

I have degrees from some of the best universities in the world, in the UK and the US, and currently hold a postdoctoral position. I have had no problems securing funding for my research, and am close to publishing some of the results.

This year, however, I have had some interviews but no job offers. I may be able to find an academic position next year, but it now seems unlikely.

On a good day, I feel confident about my research and believe I have something to contribute to my discipline and to wider society. But increasingly I wonder: if others do not value my research enough to pay me to do it, what else can I do to make a living?

The truth is that I don’t have a Plan B. There are some good reasons for this and some bad ones, too. But I think it is important to break the taboo and discuss why too few young scholars make plans for non-academic work, and to consider what I (and others) might have done differently.

It is well known that the academic labour market is in a bad state, but even in the good times there are too few jobs to go around.

In a recent report in the journal Perspectives on History, titled “The Ecology of the History Job: Shifting Realities in a Fluid Market”, Robert B. Townsend notes that the number of PhD recipients has exceeded the number of academic jobs advertised for most of the past four decades. The gap in recent years has been as large as at any time since the late 1970s.

The situation is not necessarily any better for those with postdoctoral positions. According to the Royal Society’s 2010 report The Scientific Century: Securing our Future Prosperity, in the UK, 30 per cent of science PhD graduates go on to postdoctoral positions, but only around 4 per cent find permanent academic research posts. Less than half of 1 per cent of those with science doctorates end up as professors.

The gap between expectations and reality is most pronounced among scholars in the arts and humanities. A report published earlier this year by the UK research careers organisation Vitae, What Do Researchers Want to Do? The Career Intentions of Doctoral Researchers, says that three-quarters of students in the arts and humanities plan on pursuing a life of letters, yet this is the field where jobs are most scarce.

Under these circumstances, graduate students and young scholars would be well advised to prepare for the possibility - indeed, the likelihood - of employment in non-academic fields. But this is not the advice we are given.

It is rare for professors to talk honestly with their graduate students and postdocs about the uncomfortable realities of the academic labour market. Their reluctance is understandable, since preparing for other kinds of employment might distract students and detract from their research. Those who make such preparations might also be seen as signalling low confidence in their academic abilities.

However, there are also bad reasons why honest advice is not commonly heard. In much of academia, especially the arts, humanities and social sciences, there is a strong norm against discussing non-academic employment.

For example, I recently explained the grim outlook to a student working towards a PhD in history. When I suggested that he might want to think about alternative ways to make a living, he was offended. In universities, people who can’t land academic jobs are seen as failures.

We know in the abstract that it takes not just skill but also luck to find a workable dissertation project and a suitable adviser. Luck also plays a role in who is assigned to review the papers we submit, and in the make-up of the committees that hire faculty members.

But when it comes to our own careers, scholars are reluctant to face the possibility that we may be among the unlucky ones.

The norm against making a Plan B serves the interests of professors and universities much better than it does those of young scholars.

Universities benefit from graduate students’ and postdoctoral employees’ highly skilled but remarkably cheap labour. The current model of undergraduate teaching simply would not work without armies of graduate students prepared to lead seminars and mark papers. Many laboratories rely on experienced postdocs to conduct the bulk of the research and to train postgraduates in basic skills.

Professors stand to gain from having large numbers of PhD students focusing on the pursuit of academic careers, since this increases the chances that a few will get lucky. They benefit from having star students whose success redounds to the credit of the mentor.

The potential risks posed by students who fail to secure academic jobs are much smaller. By leaving academia, they ensure that they do not besmirch the reputations of their erstwhile departments or advisers.

The result is that while professors and universities share in the rewards of graduate student training, the students themselves bear almost all the risks.

My dissertation advisers, and other professors who know my work, have expressed their confidence that I will find an academic job in the end. “Hang in there,” they say. But I am the one who will have to live with the consequences if I am left hanging.

Various changes have been suggested to address the gap between the number of people granted PhDs and the number of academic jobs. Some suggest that universities should accept fewer graduate students, others that postdoctoral fellows should be given longer contracts, or that professors should be forced to retire earlier.

If universities are serious about addressing gender and socio-economic imbalances in the professoriate, they will have to address the difficulties of early-career transitions.

At present, with the exception of a few stars who take the shortest path from the crib to the professor’s chair, the driving force at work in the early stages of most academic careers is attrition.

The young scholars who survive are those who can eke out a living from one temporary position to another, and who are prepared to repeatedly sever social ties and move to where the work is.

Following this track is very difficult for people who took on debts to study, and is much more likely among those who can fall back on family money if they have to. Many people, especially women, conclude that this lifestyle is incompatible with a healthy family life.

And given the advantages to the universities of the large pools of graduate students and postdocs, change may be slow in coming. Rather than wait for the sector to do the right thing - whatever that may be - young scholars should make their own preparations for the likelihood of life outside academia.

What would a Plan B look like? The answer will depend on the discipline and the strengths and interests of the scholar. But one may find that even asking the question helps to clarify one’s ambitions and priorities.

By way of example, let me consider the kinds of preparations that I could have made while I was working on a PhD in one of the social sciences.

One possibility would have been to earn a teaching qualification. Young scholars sometimes talk of teaching as a possible back-up plan, but most teaching jobs require specific qualifications. The most common route in the UK is by gaining a postgraduate certificate in education. Earning it takes one year of full-time study. This means that people who fail to land an academic job, and who want to teach, often have to wait before they can start earning. But the PGCE can also be obtained through two years of part-time study, which could run concurrently with one’s postgraduate endeavours.

An advantage of earning a teaching qualification while working on one’s doctorate is the overlap between the skills acquired in the university and those needed by teachers. This overlap should make the qualification easier to obtain, and may give graduate students greater confidence in their teaching abilities. This may also serve them well in the academic labour market, especially if they apply to colleges or universities that focus on undergraduate education.

Young scholars in the US sometimes talk of liberal-arts colleges as another possible back-up, but in fact these institutions are very selective in who they employ, and expect to see evidence of an exceptional commitment to teaching.

Another possibility for those who want to prepare a Plan B is to complete a professional degree while working towards a doctorate. Again, it will often be possible for students to obtain qualifications that earn credibility from non-academic employers without straying too far from their core academic interests. For example, some scholars could complete a master’s degree in statistics.

A third way to prepare for the possibility of non-academic employment is through internships and work experience. This is how many people find a job, whether in the private or public sector. The long summer break that is a feature of many academic calendars provides an ideal opportunity to earn this kind of experience. Again, students who are committed to their studies but are realistic about the academic labour market can focus on gaining experience relevant to their research, whether in a museum, a bank or a thinktank.

Making a Plan B may be especially valuable for those struggling in their discipline of choice. Academia is marked by a strange combination of intellectual independence in the often restrictive context of the university. This mix is not for everybody. Students who gain work experience in different sectors may realise that their talents are better deployed elsewhere.

Too many professors portray non-academic employment as a betrayal of the scholarly ideal. A friend who works in a thinktank tells me that he feels a sense of shame for not having completed his doctorate. This is despite the fact that he feels much better off in his current job, which, as he puts it, involves actually getting things done.

I don’t regret my decision to get a PhD. Indeed, having moved continents and spent nearly a decade studying, teaching and conducting research, I find it hard to imagine how things could have been otherwise: I would be a different person. But when students and friends ask, I usually advise them not to follow my example. At least, I say, they should think carefully about how the skills they will acquire in graduate school can be applied outside the university.

I do regret not making a Plan B. In retrospect, I should have completed a teaching qualification during my studies. If someone had given me this advice, and I had been able to listen, I would now be ready to go back to school, back into the cycle of learning from and with my students.

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