'So What Are You Going to Do With That?'

Has academe’s attitude toward nonacademic careers for Ph.D.’s changed much in a decade?

Mark Notari / Creative Commons

April 28, 2015

Fourteen years after they first published their guide on nonacademic career options for Ph.D.’s, So What Are You Going to Do With That? Finding Careers Outside Academia, Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius are back with a third edition of that influential book. We sent them questions about how the job outlook for Ph.D.’s has changed since then.

Question: How has academe’s attitude toward nonacademic career paths for Ph.D.’s changed since you first wrote the book?

We wrote the first edition in the late 1990s. At that time, the topic of alternative careers was not openly discussed, and career resources were difficult to find. The only book on the subject was a tiny self-published paperback from Harvard Career Services. Relevant websites were scarce, and few university career centers had counselors who understood the particular needs of graduate students.

But we’re glad to see that all of the above has changed dramatically. Today graduate students will find a whole shelf of career guides written just for them, abundant web resources, and many more career counselors who specialize in helping graduate students. Even more remarkable in recent years is the trend of professional associations and university leaders’ beginning to acknowledge openly the tenure-track job crisis and the need for alternative careers.

At the same time, we know from talking to graduate students that the same emotional and psychological challenges associated with alternative careers still exist. We hear all the time from graduate students who are worried about disappointing their advisers, their families, and themselves by straying from the traditional academic path. Ultimately, the decision to change careers is deeply personal, and there will always be an emotional component to it.

Question: And how has the academic job market for Ph.D.’s changed?

Employment prospects inside academe have dropped precipitously since 2001. Perversely, the number of tenure-track jobs has continued to decline while the number of Ph.D.’s awarded has continued to grow. At this point, tenured and tenure-track faculty make up less than 25 percent of all college teachers.

It’s clear that the faculty employment crisis is far from temporary and that the decline in tenure-track positions is unlikely to reverse course. Anyone considering graduate school in 2015 should be well aware of the slim odds of academic employment — and should be preparing for an alternative career from Day 1.

The other big change we’ve seen in the academic market is the new set of challenges faced by biology and chemistry Ph.D.’s. Ever since the 2007 recession, we noticed that science graduate students make up about two-thirds of our audience when universities invite us to give talks on campus. That’s a big change from previous years when we mostly found ourselves talking to humanists and social scientists.

But the huge cuts in federal funding for basic science research have devastated the job market for biology and chemistry Ph.D.’s. Spending years rotating through one postdoctoral fellowship after another is now commonplace for science Ph.D.’s in pursuit of a tenure-track job.

Question: What is the best point at which a graduate student should start exploring nonacademic career options? Is it ever too late?

You should start exploring your career options before you even fill out an application for a Ph.D. program. What are the placement outcomes for current Ph.D.’s in your desired field? In a particular program? Do you understand that you may spend up to 10 years in graduate school, be a fantastic scholar and teacher, and still end up without a tenure-track job? Do you have a backup plan? How much debt will you accrue?

Being a good student as an undergraduate is not enough of a reason to invest years of your life in a Ph.D. that may or may not pay off. Make sure you have a realistic understanding of your odds before you enroll.

But let’s assume you are already in graduate school. The best time to start exploring career options is your first year. Like any other worthwhile research project, finding a satisfying career and landing a job takes time and effort. Graduate students who begin the search early have the luxury of exploring their options via internships, freelance jobs, and volunteer work while still following the traditional academic path.

What if you’re close to graduation and yet have no idea what’s next for you? There’s still hope.

In fact, we interviewed several former faculty members who left tenure-track or tenured positions to pursue nonacademic jobs. If you’re unsatisfied with your current situation, start exploring other options, no matter what the calendar says. The process of exploring careers is less stressful when you begin early, but it’s never too late to change paths or start a new chapter in your life.

Question: What three or four specific things should doctoral students do — while in graduate school — to explore nonacademic careers?

Whether or not you think you might end up in a career outside academia, you should spend some small fraction of your graduate-school years exploring other possible paths. Doing so will prepare you for the future as well as help you keep your academic work in perspective. Here are three steps that we recommend:

  • 1. Talk to alumni who work outside of academe. Educate yourself about what is possible by chatting with some Ph.D.’s from your program who have taken their degrees in unexpected directions. The alumni office can help you get in touch with them. Just a quick call is enough to hear about their work experiences. You’ll make connections and learn information that could prove hugely valuable down the line.
  • 2. Pursue a nonacademic activity you love. You’re going to spend a long time in graduate school. If you love salsa dancing or coaching softball or writing code, then keep doing it as a graduate student. Being well-rounded will help you place your academic work in perspective and also build up your circle of connections beyond your campus. Staying in touch with your passions is a key part of keeping your career options open. Over and over again we’ve heard from graduate alumni that some hobby or recreational activity turned out to be the key to their new career direction. Don’t overthink it — just stay in touch with what you enjoy and see where it leads you.
  • 3. Do at least one internship or volunteer gig. We know: It’s not easy to take time away from your Ph.D. program. But every graduate student can fit in one sideline adventure — whether it’s an internship with the sports-information office, a volunteer job at a museum, or a summer stint leading river-rafting trips. Your adviser does not control your destiny. If you are curious about or interested in a subject that has nothing to do with your academic work, explore it while the stakes are low and your time is flexible.

Question: Are graduate advisers, dissertation committees, and doctoral programs in general more accepting of nonacademic careers for Ph.D.’s now? How do you see those attitudes changing?

Many of the professors we’ve spoken with are supportive of alternatives to the faculty career but afraid to speak up. They worry that they have no relevant advice to offer on that front, or that they might seem to be suggesting that a student isn’t cut out for an academic career.

But ultimately, professors want what’s best for their students and hate to see them spend year after frustrating year on the faculty market. So if you start a conversation with your advisers about the dire state of tenure-track employment, you may well be surprised by their receptivity to the topic.

What are the best ways to go about finding Ph.D.’s who have pursued successful nonacademic careers?

We have lots of information about how to network in this new edition of the book, but the short version is: Google is your friend. There is so much information available online today. LinkedIn is a great resource, as are company bio pages. You can sign up for email discussion groups or boards on particular career paths, and follow the tweets of anyone who inspires you.

The moment you start actively looking for Ph.D.’s with successful nonacademic careers, you will be amazed to see how many of them there are.

Question: Should graduate students rely at all on their academic departments for help in finding nonacademic positions? What are reasonable expectations for a student on that front? And what are unreasonable expectations for what departments can and should do?

You should not rely on your academic department for help in finding nonacademic work because most faculty just aren’t familiar with such opportunities or how to go about pursuing them. That said, departments can and should track and report on alumni employment — in both academic and nonacademic careers. Departments should also connect current students with alumni. The more open the conversation about alternative careers in a department, the more successful its alumni will be in finding satisfying work.

The central message of our book is that you alone are responsible for your own career search. Ultimately, only one person knows what will make you happy in life, and that person is not your dissertation adviser.

That might sound like a lonely prospect at first, but we’re here to help as are hundreds of other writers, career counselors, and Ph.D.’s who preceded you. Every graduate student has valuable experiences and skills to offer, and the best part of our work over these last 15 years has been seeing the endlessly creative ways that former academics have found to combine their passions and their talents into satisfying, challenging, and downright inspiring careers.

Question: Finally, what’s different about the new edition of the book?

The core message remains the same: You have transferable skills and lots of good options if you want or need to leave academia. But we have added new information that reflects the big shifts in the job market that we have just been describing.

First, we researched the particular needs of graduate students in the sciences and incorporated targeted advice and stories from science Ph.D.’s. Should you do that second postdoc? Can you really take time to explore other options when your principal investigator is tracking the hours you spend in the lab? We’ve asked some experts for their best advice on these commonly asked questions, and we think science graduate students will be surprised at their answers.

In addition, we’ve included advice and perspectives from the ever-increasing network of university graduate-career counselors. And we’ve updated our advice about networking and research to reflect the way people communicate today. Informational interviews are a bit out of date. We explain how to use technology to get the same information in less time and with minimal awkwardness. There’s also new advice for international graduate students, who face a unique set of job-hunting challenges.

Finally, we have heard from countless readers who wanted to share their stories or ask questions. We’ve done our best to incorporate their successes and their queries into this new edition.

Susan Basalla is a principal with Storbeck/Pimental & Associates, an executive search firm specializing in higher education. Maggie Debelius is director of faculty development at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship and an associate teaching professor in the English department at Georgetown University. Both earned Ph.D.’s in English from Princeton University.