Deciding When to Leave

Brian Taylor

April 14, 2011

This month we are going to answer two readers who are essentially asking the same question posed by the Clash some years ago: "Should I stay or should I go?"

Question: I am about to complete a Ph.D. in the humanities, and I've been at my university for about seven years. I'm one of those people who've taken a bit longer to finish than is typical in my program. Over the years, I've really grown to love living here, and I have a lot of anxiety about leaving for an academic position. At the same time, I don't want to be one of those people who hang around the campus forever, going from part-time job to part-time job, with no hope of advancement. Do you have any suggestions for someone in my shoes?

Julie: When you arrive on a campus for a doctoral program, it's usually understood that you are there to get your degree and move on. It's also understood that research universities do not hire their own Ph.D.'s for tenure-track positions, and that Ph.D. students know that going into the program.

However, getting a Ph.D. can last five, six, or even 10 years. It's no surprise that during that time many doctoral students put down roots, making friends, meeting a spouse or partner, even buying homes. What seems like an abstract concept in the first or second year of a program—I'll be moving away someday—can start to seem like a very painful reality as you think about your post-Ph.D. life.

Jenny: It's a common problem in graduate school. I'll be the first to admit that I moved into an administrative position, rather than continue to pursue a tenure-track position in my field, because I really loved living in Philadelphia.

Julie and I know a lot of Ph.D.'s who have stayed on their doctoral campus and pursued successful careers. We've known just as many, however, who've spun their wheels in adjunct positions with no true path for advancement, or in research positions with long, intense hours and little pay. Our column "What Can Faculty Members Do to Help?" generated a few comments from readers who seemed to feel that the path of limited potential and lack of income was inevitable for Ph.D.'s in non-tenure-track positions.

Julie: We certainly don't agree with that pessimistic view of all nonacademic careers. It depends on the position. We know many successful Ph.D.'s working in a wide range of nonacademic careers that are just as fulfilling for those people as an academic career would have been, and, in some cases, even more so.

At the same time, it is important to be realistic. A career transition takes time and energy. It takes getting out there and talking to people. In the case of our reader above, location is crucial. If her university is the largest employer in a small town, it may be harder for her to stay in her community than it would be if the institution were located in a large metropolitan area. There's a big difference in the way you might conduct your job search depending on whether you're in a major city like Chicago or a small one like Davis, Calif. It can be tough to build a solid nonacademic career in a place where your university is the only game in town. That may seem obvious, but it's a factor many Ph.D.'s don't take into account as they contemplate their postgraduate plans.

Jenny: If your university is in a small city, you should start creating connections there as soon as you realize that you want to stick around after earning your Ph.D. Begin to learn about the wider organization of the university, beyond your own department or school, and seek out any Ph.D.'s you can find who work in administration there. To help you identify departments and offices in which you might find those people, take a look at the series of columns we wrote called Switching Sides, especially Parts 2, 3, and 4. Those columns will help you understand how your institution works. I have talked to many Ph.D.'s who feel that they learned more about higher education in one year of working in an administrative position than they did in all of their years in a Ph.D. program. I know I did.

Julie: If you can't find a lot of Ph.D.'s in administration at your institution, seek out people who took their doctorates with them to other nonacademic professions, and who might be willing to do an informational interview with you. As you do your research on alternate careers, look for a position with a future, not one that will leave you spinning your wheels endlessly, with no hope for advancement.

To do that, it's important to ask yourself several questions: What can I do to begin this transition while finishing my program? Do I like working with students, particularly undergraduates? Have I talked with any Ph.D.'s working in substantive nonacademic roles here? Do I see myself enjoying doing what they are doing?

Jenny: Once you've finished your program and moved into a different role, you might need to take a break from your academic department. People there have seen you in the role of doctoral student for a while and may have difficulty imagining you in any other capacity. Spending a lot of time in your old department may reinforce any hesitancy you have about envisioning a new future elsewhere for yourself.

Julie: If you are doing adjunct teaching, you should also ask yourself this: At what point does adjunct work stop being a way to build experience on your CV and start being a waste of your time and energy? Talk to people with extensive adjunct experience. Some of them like the work a lot and have crafted careers around it. Recently at the University of Pennsylvania, we had a panel on "Understanding Adjuncting" that featured four speakers who had varying degrees of comfort and happiness with their work.

Jenny: On a similar front, scientists need to gauge the value of temporary research opportunities carefully. Many research positions are good steppingstones to a career as a productive research scientist. However, many others are dead-end jobs. We've seen junior scientists get stuck in a role that offers them no hope for advancement and no chance to do strong research.

When planning your career, always be thinking a few steps into the future. Make sure any position you take has something to offer you in terms of career development—even if the job is only a stopping point to another opportunity.

Question: I'm a second-year doctoral student, and I have to say that the endless stream of dismay about the lack of tenure-track positions is bringing me down. Faculty members tell me that the market has always been this way, but only one of the eight students on the market this year from our supposedly strong program got conference interviews, let alone a job offer. Should I leave the program when being an academic has always been my dream? I have to say, though, that the thought of doing something else, and the options presented to me so far, are more than a little depressing.

Julie: As wrong as it may feel, it's important to think strategically about your post-Ph.D. plans early on in your graduate-student career. It's helpful to have a plan. Be realistic about your possibilities and review them at least a couple times a year. You may find it helpful to check in with a career adviser or someone in campus counseling to help you assess what you should be doing, careerwise, at different stages of your graduate studies. We stress that because we've seen people drift off after finishing their degree and, because of the vicissitudes of the job market and other contributing factors (a student's shaky mental health, isolation while writing the dissertation, lack of a support system, for example), enter what seems like a parallel universe of subsistence living and hopelessness.

Jenny: What does it mean to have a plan? It means setting some concrete professional goals for yourself alongside those you need to achieve as part of your degree program. Sometimes the two sets of goals will coincide: For example, it's essential for everyone to learn how to give a strong academic presentation at a conference, and presentation skills are crucial to many nonacademic jobs, too. It's essential to learn the software of your field, whether it's for demographic analysis, literary analysis, or biomedical processes. And in almost any nonacademic job you take, learning new software is a requirement. Having a plan also means devising a strategy for dealing with the volatility of the academic job market. Decide in advance how many times you're willing to go on the tenure-track market, or what regions of the country you'll limit your search to. That can give you a stronger sense of control over your own destiny.

Julie: Even if you find your future prospects dismaying, it's terrific that you are thinking about them now and not waiting until you finish your Ph.D. Many people in the second year only want to concentrate on what's happening in that year. Part of having a plan means you are regularly assessing the skills you are developing as a graduate student and learning about how you might use those skills in many workplaces.

Jenny: It's not our place to tell you whether you should leave your doctoral program. There is nothing wrong with wanting to stay and do your best work. At the same time, while you're assessing your own skills, you and other doctoral students should also be evaluating your program and asking:

  • Generally speaking, am I happy here?
  • Am I supported in the work that I do?
  • What have other students who left the department before receiving a Ph.D. gone on to do? And what about students who did complete a degree. Where are they now?
  • Do their outcomes align with my hopes and expectations for my own career?

Julie: If you find you regularly answer "no" to the first two questions, talk to other students as objectively as possible and see how they are feeling. You also might find it helpful to go to your institution's counseling office and find someone who works with graduate students to talk through your thoughts and feelings about your program.

We find that students who assess their own feelings periodically are better able to make the decision to stay in a program or leave. Such assessments may sound like a chore, but they are an effective way to regain a sense of control when so many things may feel like they are out of your hands.

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of New York University's Office of Faculty Resources. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press). If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to