A little over two years ago, I sat in the lobby of a think tank in a badly-fitting suit. I was fresh out of my PhD and desperately hoping they’d take a chance on me and hire me.
I jumped into a world of running huge projects, generating funding, writing reports, and connecting with interesting people. I then went and worked for the government on diplomatic files creating new refugee programs.
As I stepped out of academia, I was terrified I’d never be able to use my religious studies PhD.
The fear gave way to excitement about the possibilities as I built my network and eventually landed that first job.
And that excitement gave way to frustration.
Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that I could do cool stuff with my PhD?
I look back at the academy, and I talk to PhD graduates every day. And I don’t think it’s fully possible to make them understand how good it can be out here. Likewise, I think it’s hard to make the academy realize how high its PhD graduates might soar, especially given a bit of encouragement and preparation.
Building the boat while it’s in the water
Institutions are rightly rushing to support PhD career transitions. Obviously, they’ve seen the writing on the wall. We’re now talking about career supports like Work Integrated Learning (that’s a placement for those paying attention), turning a CV into a resume, and working on your transferable skills.
All noble tasks and important pieces of the career puzzle.
But we’re still not getting PhDs excited about life beyond the walls of academia. We’re still struggling to brand non-academic life as anything other than a consolation prize for people who didn’t get tenure-track jobs.
I’ve come up with a theory after observing my own life and talking to PhDs.
You can’t put greatness in a box.
The answer isn’t resumes–at least, not at first.
These are the top minds in our society, remarkable intellects, and they’re full of leadership abilities. These students are hungry for impact, in pursuit of knowledge seven days a week. And the academy has nourished and fed this hunger, channeling their vision and drive for greatness.
Then, their preparation for entry into the non-academic world is a resume workshop.
Did we really think these high performers would get excited about that middle management position? Did we really think that they’d be tempted by an internship or even a pension?
And as they polish up their resume and start looking for jobs, they are understandably demoralized. Because taking high performers and shoveling them into non-academic jobs can be a bit like teaching Michael Phelps how to get a job as a lifeguard.
My message to PhD students is something different. Use your unique skills, talent, knowledge, drive, and hunger to build the world you want to see.
A job might be part of this. It is for most of us. And if you gotta pay bills, for now, it almost certainly will be in your short view.
But a job is not what most post-academic PhDs are missing. They’re missing a vision.
PhDs working beyond the walls of academia, I have discovered, are loving their lives and many are remarkably fulfilled. But those within academia rarely hear this. And if PhDs don’t know what there is outside of academia, they can’t get excited about it. They can’t form a vision.
Of course, in many cases, profs just don’t know what’s out there. They assume their life and path is best because they’ve never lived any other. And many were trained at a time when the academy was the only conceivable option for a PhD.
PhDs that I talk to in the academy can only understand purpose in relation to one metric—the tenure-track job.
An anxious message comes to me over Twitter, asking for some potential career paths. They’re still hoping for the tenure-track job, but getting more anxious with each passing year that it’s not coming. I explain the great options they have and they thank me. A month later, they tell me they’ve taken another post doc and they’re going to stick it out for a while.
If I had to describe PhDs as a species, that’s what it would be.
Despite being remarkably intelligent, we’re still lemmings who want to follow each other off of a precarious cliff that goes by different names: adjuncting, post doc, second post doc, visiting lecturer, tutor. All certain, just like those who jumped before them, that at the bottom will be the warm splash of the professoriate.
And if we opened our eyes and looked around, we’d see that many PhDs outside of the academy, by almost any metric, are doing very well.
I could tell you about sitting with a PhD in humanities who makes $+200k a year running a government department. I could tell you about the refugee specialist I know, who gets calls from governments around the world to help design their programs. About the PhD who gets called to testify before Parliament. About the PhD who appears on the nightly news for a think tank.
And do you know what’s just as exciting as getting a tenure-track job?
- Launching a company, and seeing the joys of the first sales coming in.
- Founding a non-profit, and winning a $1 million grant to change lives.
- Being asked to testify before the UN or congress.
- Flying into a city and having people who aren’t academics line up to hear you speak.
- Taking a stock public.
- Launching your documentary at Sundance.
These are the stories that matter because they’re the stories that aren’t getting through the academy’s thick skull.
Teaching PhDs to Dream
We lack vision.
We can see big problems in the world, and we’re really good at complaining that others won’t fix them. So, fellow academics, why don’t we? We’ve had the privilege of being educated in the top, tiny tier of elite minds, why not take that mind and change the world?
As your 10-year horizon shifts and tenure-track prof slips away from view, why not put something better there?
- Founder of a successful biotech startup
- President of a university
- Country strategy specialist for the UN
- Think tank executive
- CEO of a hospital
- Thriving & in-demand consultant
- Best-selling author
- Top advisor to cabinet
Create a vision that rivals, if not dwarfs, your academic one. And if you think you can’t do that stuff with a PhD, talk to Rachel Maddow, Condoleezza Rice, Mayim Bialik, or Brené Brown.
Coming back to resumes (and I really don’t mean to disparage the resume–still a vital piece of paper). The thing that our drive to create resume workshops misses is this: You can teach someone the mechanics of creating a resume. But if you give someone a vision, they’ll figure out what they need to make it happen. THEN you might offer them a resume workshop.
PhDs, need I say it again, are remarkably bright and resourceful people. If they can catch hold of a vision they’re excited about, they’ll do what it takes to make it happen. They’ll learn to code. They’ll network. They’ll even find themselves, as I did recently, taking copious notes as they read through Bookkeeping for Dummies.
In my experience, once people have an amazing vision they can get to work filling in what they need to make it happen.
A PhD with a vision will do whatever it takes to make the vision come to life. Teaching the mechanisms of the non-academic job world to a PhD with no vision will kill their soul and cement their feelings of inadequacy.
Imagine — Academia with a non-academic vision
Tuesday morning, I get a message from a prof. They’re a few years out from tenure, but they hate their life. They ask, How hard would it be to leave?
The loneliness, the isolation, the bullying, and the lack of purpose and questioning of their calling is latent among the professor class.
It’s here that the chickens come home to roost. Because our lack of vision for PhD careers isn’t just about the earnings of PhD graduates; it’s about the soul of the academy.
What future do we have if it’s not the pursuit of knowledge? If academia eats its young, why should profs feel fulfilled in their jobs? Wouldn’t they have to be sociopaths to enjoy educating young people into a state of depressed unemployment?
Even the tenured professoriate is in a crisis because many don’t understand why they do it anymore.
It seems that every week a new, anonymous Twitter account pops up with complaints about academia. Some are run by disenchanted grad students. Some, ostensibly, by profs who want to remain anonymous. The people behind them take to Twitter in search of something they feel they’re not getting in the academy: a voice.
In the academy, people are struggling too.
The current reality, exacerbated by the pandemic, is hurting us all. Academia isn’t just eating its young. Even profs who are relatively safe (and nobody is safe) in tenure-track jobs are looking for their raison d’être, for an opportunity to actually train a generation and keep their field going, not simply run out the tenure clock.
So here’s the good news. PhDs have bright futures. I’ve now spent two years beyond those ivy walls, and with each passing one, I’m more and more optimistic about the future of PhDs. This isn’t based on pollyannaish naivete, it’s based on interacting with dozens and perhaps hundreds of PhDs in rewarding and high-value careers, actually shaping our world.
There are undoubtedly those who will continue with their heads in the sand, perhaps until an entire career and pile of festschrifts usher them gently into that good night of emeritus. They will continue to bemoan the demise of the academy and funding, and shame students for wanting to move to careers beyond.
But I choose a more exciting future.
For anyone with their eyes open, we may now choose to enter a time of enlightenment, where the collective knowledge of the academy spills over into a world that is desperate for good leaders. This is an age where academic impact will be measured, not by citations, but by world transformation. Profs can happily watch their students move beyond their discipline and build cool shit.
They may choose to empower and celebrate their students’ non-academic success, rather than acting as if they’ve died.
On one department’s website are the names of everyone who’s had their PhD since 2004. Some of the names have academic appointments next to them. Tenure-Track Professor. Visiting Professor. Post Doc.
There are other names on the wall with no honorific academic titles after them. If anyone cared to look and follow up with these alumni, they could add the titles of these PhD graduates too. Grant Manager. User Experience Designer. Political Advisor. CEO.
But they don’t. Their names sit, unadorned, as if those people are fallen soldiers rather than successful in their own right. In my own department, one fantastic prof led the charge to include non-academic appointments too. “They’re doing amazing things,” he told me. “They should be acknowledged.”
When will PhDs start to create exciting visions? I think the more we celebrate non-academic accomplishments, the more possible it is. Because at the end of the day, whether you’re in an ivory tower or a glass one, what matters is the impact you have on the world and the extent to which your degree empowers you to make that impact.