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Careers - academic or otherwise?

Talk about careers, and accept that success isn't only academic.

Supervisors and supervisees should talk, and not only at the end of the research project, about careers in academia and elsewhere. Accept that an academic career is not the only option. Although doctoral degrees are usually intended to lead to academic jobs, most PhD graduates do not get jobs at research-intensive universities and are successful in a wide range of other institutions and fields.

Possible strategies for supervisors and supervisees

  • Discuss early on the student’s hoped-for career and consider how this might influence identifying training needs.
  • Review the student’s career aspirations from time-to-time in order to re-adjust training needs.
  • Consider organizing an occasional careers event.
  • Reflect together on some of the short career stories on the Apprise website at Oxford.
  • Consider supplementing your discussions with useful resources such as the following:
What we want to do is, you know, turn out people who have a reasonable shot at doing what they want to do, namely, become an academic, and we should be helping them to do that.

This supervisor at the University of Oxford expressed a view that is not uncommon among academics, but universities in the UK and North America have begun to recognize that the job market for academics is daunting and that jobs outside academia should not be dismissed as second-rate. A recent article called The 5-year humanities PhD in Inside Higher Ed explains how Stanford University changed its approach, recognizing that academic programs that place large numbers of graduates in non-academic jobs should help students to be more prepared for those jobs.

PhD graduation outcomes showing success outside academia

The 2010 and 2013 surveys of PhD graduation outcomes at McGill show that the vast majority of recent graduates who responded are either employed (around 70%) or have a postdoctoral fellowship (around 25%). 71% of the employed respondents in 2013 were working at a university. Of those, more than 75% are professors, ranging from junior to senior ranks. In absolute numbers from the 2013 survey, 28 of the 100 respondents who graduated in 2008 are professors (with an understandably smaller proportion in the more recently graduated cohort).

Outside McGill in the 2010 survey, 18% of employed PhD graduates were employed in business, 11% in government. The 2013 survey indicated a more equal balance of around 12% in each of these sectors. Evidently, many graduates of doctoral programs get jobs in sectors other than education and have opportunites for a wide range of careers.

Nevertheless, the oft-cited general lack of academic jobs means that many graduate students are anxious rather than sanguine about the future. As one supervisor in the UK commented:

They want to know, you know, "where am I going to get a job, where’s this qualification leading?" Their attitude to the PhD is much more akin to an apprenticeship rather than an opportunity to explore and grow.

Intellectual exploration and growth, unfortunately, can lose their priority not only when students approach their supervisors solely as apprentices, but also as other roles—job-finder, parent, care-giver—influence their lives. Supervisors and students need to balance these non-academic concerns with “the life of the mind” while remaining open to possibility.

Publishing and networking during a postdoctoral fellowship

If you are a supervisee hoping for a career in academia, remember to

  1. Pursue teaching and training opportunities to improve your teaching portfolio.
  2. Look at current job advertisements for Assistant Professors in your field. What are the emerging technologies, techniques, theories, or interests that universities want their new hires to have? Try to learn about these desirables during your postdoctoral fellowship.
  3. Publish, publish, publish! Try to set up collaborations with others in your field, even if they are not in your department. You can increase your productivity while developing a network that might be helpful if you get a tenure-track position.

Although many new postdocs will start their fellowships with a plan to continue in academia, remember that most postdocs will not find tenure-track positions. If you think you would like to work outside of academia, remember to

  1. Involve yourself with committees and organizations outside of academia in order to demonstrate you don’t just live in the lab or library!
  2. Start thinking about careers that interest you and figure out what additional skills you may need to pursue that career, e.g., a graduate certificate in business management.
  3. Network, network, network! Many jobs are not advertised through the traditional channels, and increasing your network can be very rewarding later.

How can academics help others be ready for non-academic work?

Supervisors can help graduate students with their careers fairly early on. If you are a supervisor, you might ask yourself to what extent you feel qualified to help your supervisees not only be qualified for an academic job, but also be willing and able to seek jobs elsewhere. You can learn to articulate how your skills are valuable not only in academia but also in other fields, and you can thereby help supervisees.

The Researchers' skills and competencies [.pdf] document from Vitae helps researchers to talk and write about their skills in a less specialized way, and whether you are a professor or clinician, a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow, you can use it to identify your skills in commercial awareness, leadership, working with others, written and oral communication, project management, motivation, problem solving, and data analysis.

Case study: Brad, a supervisor in the UK, on what the doctorate is preparation for

I mean…so much of the time, when I’ve been a supervisor, my focus has been on the intellectual side, helping them be good historians, guiding them to the right sources, telling them the books that they should read that I’ve read, and that kind of thing… sitting in this room and reading drafts of chapters and talking shop. I mean, recognising it as a process whose… end you tend not to think about [until] they submit their work and they need to find employment. What I’ve learned is I need to be more proactive in future in trying to help them... being as integrated as I can be into the… history scene, knowing the person or several people at each university, being someone who is asked for advice when a job comes up – “Hey, do you know anybody who could apply for this?” and then vice versa, you know, when we have a post come up, to send out the emails to colleagues, and just that kind of networking. Clearly, there is a kind of networking side of things, which you don’t realise until you see somebody through at the end, and that’s what they need you for. That's the kind of thing, I think, that my supervisor [when I was a doctoral student] could help me with.

Questions for supervisors to consider about the case study

  • To what extent do you think a supervisor should support students in their search for career opportunities?
  • In what ways could you actively contribute to your student’s preparation and search for a career after graduation?
  • What do you think we are preparing students for?
  • What range of training and experience do you want students to have?
  • To what extent are you aware of your student’s hopes for the future?
    • to get an academic position?
    • to get a research position?
    • to prepare for positions in the health, social work, IT, or business sectors?
    • to ???
  • How do the answers to these questions influence your interactions with your student?

Unrealistic career expectations and subjective factors

Many students have unrealistic expectations for their careers, and many of them realize over time that academic careers might be less satisfying than other options. Long-term planning for an academic job is necessary, and yet more and more options are available outside of academia for realistic and adaptable graduates. Supervisors and supervisees should discuss the subjective factors in careers.

While many students continue to desire academic careers despite the lack of available jobs, Beiber & Worley (2006) reported even those nearing completion held unrealistic views of such careers. Their views were largely scripts or abstractions of academic practices, not developed through asking questions or carefully examining the nature of academic work. Academic culture usually does not encourage such disclosures, so this becomes an invisible feature of academic life. Thus, students are unlikely to be aware of the need for resilience in dealing with rejection of papers and funding proposals, or the multiple forms of accountability that influence personal decision-making.

A further consideration regarding careers is the growing evidence that working conditions and salaries in academia do not always compare favourably with government and business. Mason et al (2009) reported that doctoral students in research-intensive universities shifted their intentions during their degree; they went from imagining positions in similar types of universities to deciding not to seek such employment due to the quality of life they saw more senior academics experiencing. And the UK Council for Science and Technology (2007) noted PhD graduates in non-academic jobs often reported as much or more satisfaction with work conditions, salary and benefits, and work-life balance than those in academia. In partial contrast, at McGill the 2013 survey of PhD graduation outcomes revealed that over 66% of the respondents were very or somewhat satisfied with their income.

Those who persevere in aiming for an academic career need to be aware that more than one postdoctoral position might be necessary, especially in the sciences, before attaining a job as a professor. Long-term planning will be required, including being proactive in networking for guidance, support and help in opening doors and getting relevant experience and skills. Ultimately, realism, adaptability, and a Plan B, perhaps built around a diverse skill set and broader knowledge, may open up more avenues, especially outside academia where increasingly greater opportunities can be found (Bonetta, 2009, 2010, 2011). As an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education predicts, more and more graduates will be Turning “plan B” into a “plan A” life.

Moving beyond studies of doctoral students, Enders (2007) has commented that present academic employment patterns may be comparable to other fields–with increasing emphasis on an entrepreneurial stance for academics. Baruch & Hall (2004) note the need for a sense of personal agency, the importance of networking beyond the home institution, and the ongoing need to invest in self. They offer the notion of the “intelligent career” as a way to emphasize individual intention and decision-making in constructing a satisfactory career path. Characteristics of individuals creating an intelligent career include: motivational energy to understand oneself and adapt to changing work situations, emotional intelligence and resilience in order to bounce back, and well developed connections and networks. Lastly, those in organizational behaviour have noted the need for greater attention to subjective rather than objective factors–attending to individual’s personal perceptions of their careers and criteria for success rather than external measures such as rank and salary (King, 2004; Eby et al, 2003).

The text of this page is based on:

How the University can help with careers

At McGill, the award-winning SKILLSETS program and the Career Planning Service can help. See also the Skills and development page of this website.

Acknowledgements: Created by Lynn McAlpine, Oxford Learning Institute, May 2011. Adapted through an agreement with Oxford and ANU at McGill by Joel Deshaye, May 2013. Updated by Shuhua Chen and Joel Deshaye, February 2014.