Following the Nonacademic Track

Brian Taylor

March 30, 2010

Julie: There's been so much discussion lately about doctoral education and the academic job market, particularly the lack of tenure-track jobs (this year and in recent years), the increasing reliance on adjuncts, and the financial and personal sacrifices that are part and parcel of training for a faculty career. For years, we've been hearing more and more conversation about nonacademic career options for Ph.D.'s.

Between Jenny and me, we have more than 25 years of experience working with doctoral students and recent Ph.D.'s on their job searches, and we'd like to share our thoughts on this situation.

Jenny: Although the shortage of tenure-track jobs seems particularly acute in the humanities, many scientists and social scientists struggle to find faculty positions as well. The National Postdoctoral Association, citing data from the National Science Foundation, said that in 2003 only 43.7 percent of postdocs in the sciences and engineering found employment in universities and four-year colleges.

Julie: Doctoral students should become familiar with job prospects in their chosen fields as soon as they apply to graduate school. In fact, if you plan to enter a doctoral program, we encourage you to first work in a nonacademic setting where you can gain some solid professional skills.

We can't stress enough how important it can be, in terms of career planning, to take a few years away from school. Working a full-time job, even if it isn't your dream job, can give you a stronger sense of what the working world looks like, and what options you might find outside academe. It can help you learn to meet deadlines, develop a regular work schedule, and build time-management skills. Those things can make for a stronger performance in graduate school, where the amount of work combined with the flexibility of the schedule makes it challenging for many students to fulfill what is expected of them. A smart student will also save a bit of money while working, or at least pay off some undergraduate debts.

After you've earned a Ph.D., you might even return to the sector where you worked before graduate school. We've seen Ph.D.'s go back to positions of more interest and authority.

Jenny: We also believe that time spent in the nonacademic world can give you a sense of perspective. Graduate school is one option among many. Some students, even those with full financial support, try to work a few hours a week, saying that doing so helps them develop skills, gives them perspective, and helps them manage their time better. We've known students who've done freelance writing and translating, tutored high-school students and undergraduates, drafted consumer surveys for a marketing company, served as the assistant editor of an academic journal, worked as an assistant at a university technology-transfer office, among other things. (I spent winters in graduate school as a coat-check girl in an upscale Philadelphia restaurant, but made some great contacts).

Working either before or during graduate school also means you are already in contact with people in other fields. You may find that having colleagues and friends in a nonacademic sector will help to ground you, and those folks can also provide advice and support if you decide to look for nonacademic positions.

Julie: We believe there is a good deal more that universities could do to assist their doctoral students in their job searches. In order to do so, faculty members would have to put aside the notion that a tenure-track position at a certain type of institution is the only acceptable outcome for their students. That's surely easier said than done.

As Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, recently wrote in a Chronicle Review article called "Is Tenure a Matter of Life and Death?": "People exit doctoral programs with a single goal—becoming a tenured professor at a research institution. Those heretics who stray from that goal risk becoming nonpersons in their fields." That attitude needs to disappear.

Jenny: Another worrisome pattern we've heard about in the past few months: Some advisers choose to ignore students who don't get a tenure-track job, or, worse, seem to blame them for their lack of offers. At a time when the job market is particularly weak, students need the support and advice of members of their dissertation committees. We know that faculty members may feel ill-equipped to help students in any concrete way with their search, but sympathy, constructive suggestions, and a promise to pass on any useful contacts or information can go a long way to make students feel supported.

Julie: We would like to see more universities adopt a philosophy similar to that of the University of California at Berkeley's Career Center. It describes doctoral education as "a program of research, teaching, and scholarship which develops a broad skill set that can qualify one for a wide variety of career paths and not as a progressively specializing process for a singular career path."

For years, career-services offices, graduate-student centers, and some academic departments have supported doctoral students interested in nonacademic careers, and have provided a host of relevant resources. We would like to see such support expand throughout the university, from admissions through postgraduate relations. We know that having Ph.D.'s out there in the world is good for the world and, at the same time, good for academe.

Jenny: What would institutional support for nonacademic careers look like? A department might start by keeping good track of its graduate alumni—both those who go on to academic careers and those who don't. Some departments are doing that already, others keep track only of students with tenure-track offers, and others don't keep track of anyone.

Keeping tabs on all of your Ph.D.'s would mean following up with alumni who've taken one-year visiting professorships or postdoctoral positions. Where do those people go once their temporary jobs have ended?

It's not easy to track alumni, but it can be done. A department might even collaborate on that effort with the university's alumni office or career center. It would also be easier for a department to track its alumni in nonacademic positions if those alums felt as though their career choices were acceptable for the department, rather than a disappointment.

Julie: Why is keeping in touch with alumni so important? Because they can speak both about career options available outside academe and about how students can market their skills to an employer. Alumni can sympathize with current students and assure them of light at the end of the tunnel. Nonacademic alumni can provide information about the typical career path in their profession and what you have to do to move up. They can also be valuable sources of information and job leads.

And alumni who teach at four-year institutions and community colleges can be a useful resource for students interested in working at such institutions. Faculty alumni can also share insights on the realities of academic life.

Jenny: At universities across the country, we see many terrific career-services professionals—some within career offices; others within graduate schools—working with doctoral students and postdocs. Many of those career experts track Ph.D.'s in all kinds of careers and bring them to the campus as speakers, have them serve as advisers for current students, and post interviews with them on career-services Web sites. We see that trend continuing.

In academic departments, faculty members could work directly with those offices to bring in Ph.D.'s in nonacademic careers as speakers. Faculty members need to realize how important it is for them to maintain contact with former students and colleagues, in both nonacademic and academic careers, so they can be easily called upon to aid and advise current students.

In addition, faculty members should strive to provide an atmosphere in which attending campus events about nonacademic careers and communicating with Ph.D.'s in nonacademic fields is acceptable, even encouraged. Too often students feel as though they must hide their attendance at such events from everyone in their department. Instead of having students say, "You won't tell my adviser I'm at a program on nonacademic careers," we'd like to hear them say, "My adviser suggested some of the speakers for this program on nonacademic careers and urged me to attend."

Julie: Academic departments could also work with other campus offices to offer workshops on public speaking, editing, writing, Web design, and other digital programs. Large doctoral-granting universities have some interesting people working within the institution—in the library, technology transfer, public relations, government and community affairs, development and fund raising. They might be willing to speak to graduate students about their work and provide contacts outside the institution.

Departments could also provide more opportunities for students to develop their skills in teamwork and collaboration. So often students tell us they didn't realize how isolating graduate study was. Students already develop research and teaching skills that are valuable in many other professions, but they could be exposed to teamwork skills in a more focused way.

Jenny: Many Ph.D.'s bring strong writing skills into a world in which those skills are challenging for employers to find. Ph.D.'s have a gift for rigorous analysis of multifaceted problems. Many consulting firms, for example, value Ph.D.'s for their critical-thinking skills and their ability to approach a problem creatively, without preconceptions—two things that make Ph.D.'s a valuable addition to the teams of M.B.A.'s and B.A.'s already working at those companies.

Jenny and Julie: Now is the time for academic departments to expand the definition of doctoral placement to include a spectrum of careers. Now is the time to encourage graduate students and postdocs to seek out work that is meaningful, but that will also allow them to earn at least a solid living and to save money for the future—be it inside or outside academe. Now is the time to stop discouraging Ph.D.'s by telling them they'll never find satisfaction, intellectual stimulation, or interesting colleagues outside the ivory tower.

Universities—departments, dean's offices, and related offices across the campus—should be encouraging doctoral students to chose a path that's right for them, whether that path continues in academe or leaves it.

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