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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.


Below are some ideas to consider when discussing your goals and career options with your supervisor.

  • Discuss your hoped-for career and consider how this might influence identifying training needs.

  • Reflect on and re-discuss career aspirations from time-to-time in order to re-adjust training needs.

  • Consider organizing an occasional careers event, such as a career panel or networking event.

  • Reflect together on some of the short career stories on the Preparing for Academic Practice website from the University of Oxford.

  • Consider supplementing your discussions with useful resources such as the following:


PhD graduation outcomes show success outside academia

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 (University of Oxford, 2016).

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. An 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.

The 2013 survey of PhD graduation outcomes at McGill show that almost all of recent graduates who responded are either employed (around 70%) or have a postdoctoral fellowship (around 25%).

  • 71% of the employed respondents were working at a university, and more than 75% of these are professors, ranging from junior to senior ranks.

  • Around 12% of graduates were employed in each of business and government.

Evidently, many graduates of doctoral programs get jobs in sectors other than education and have opportunities 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. (University of Oxford, 2016).

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, caregiver—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 your supervisor help you prepare for an academic or non-academic career?

Supervisors can be a great career resource for graduate students. In addition to discussions of career options and required skills, they are invaluable resources in the networking aspect of career development.


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.

(Obtained through collaboration with the University of Oxford.)

Questions for reflection

  • To what extent do you think a supervisor should support students in their search for career opportunities?

  • Do you regularly discuss career goals with your supervisor, even if you are not near the end of your degree? To what extent are they aware of the field or type of position you would like to work in?

  • What transferable or specific skills have you gained so far? What skills do you hope to gain during the rest of your degree? Are these skills consistent with those required for your desired career?

  • Is there something you could change or add into your current research that would help you gain more skills required for your desired career?

  • What do you think a graduate degree is preparation for?

  • How can your supervisor, faculty mentors or peers help you with the networking aspect of the career path? How can you ask for this help?

Realistic expectations are key to successful career planning

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 a growing number of options are available outside of academia for adaptable graduates.


While many students continue to desire academic careers despite the lack of available jobs, Bieber and Worley (2006) reported that 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.

Quality of life in academic and non-academic careers

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, Goulden, and Frasch (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, the 2013 survey of PhD graduation outcomes at McGill revealed that over 66% of the respondents were very or somewhat satisfied with their income, many of which were in academic careers.

The path from graduate studies to a career

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.

Self-motivation and subjective factors influence career paths

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 (Eby, Butts, & Lockwood, 2003; King, 2004). The need to include personal factors in career choice is furthered by McAlpine and Emmioğlu (2015), who state that career paths of PhD holders are influenced by an interaction between “horizons for action” (i.e., the effects of interests, relationships and responsibilities on what career options are viewed as attractive) and “opportunity structures” (i.e., knowledge of available career options).



2013 PhD graduation outcomes survey. Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies: McGill University.

Baruch, Y., & Hall, D. (2004). The academic career: A model for future careers in other sectors? Journal of Vocational Behavior, 64(2), 241-262.

Bieber, J., & Worley, L. (2006). Conceptualizing the academic life: Graduate students' perceptions. Journal of Higher Education, 77(6), 1009-1035.

Bonetta, L. (2009). The evolving postdoctoral experience. Science Careers. doi:10.1126/science.opms.r0900076

Bonetta, L. (2010). The postdoc experience: Taking a long term view. Science Careers. doi:10.1126/science.opms.r1000093

Bonetta, L. (2011). Postdocs: Striving for success in a tough economy. Science Careers. doi:10.1126/science.opms.r1100106

Eby, L., Butts, M., & Lockwood, A. (2003). Predictors of success in the era of the boundaryless career. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 24(6), 689-708.

Enders, J. (Ed.). (2007). The academic profession. Amsterdam: Springer.

King, Z. (2004). Career self-management: Its nature, causes and consequences. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 65(1), 112-133.

Mason, M., Goulden, M., & Frasch, K. (2009). Why graduate students reject the fast track: A study of thousands of doctoral students shows that they want balanced lives. Academe, 95(111-16).

McAlpine, L. & Emmioğlu, E. (2015). Navigating careers: perceptions of sciences doctoral students, post-PhD researchers and pre-tenure academics. Studies in Higher Education, 40(10), 1770-1785.

University of Oxford (2016). Research supervision: Thinking about academic careers or others. Retrieved from http://supervision.learning.ox.ac.uk/careers

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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