There’s a weird veil of silence for a lot of us about what happens outside of academia with a PhD. It’s a complicated period of transition and there’s a lot we don’t understand about it.
Which makes total sense.
And since people don’t know about it, there are some myths about PhD jobs outside of the academy that just won’t go away.
I’ve been through the transition and met dozens of people who have. Here’s what I think are the most common myths we hold about non-academic PhD jobs.
So strap in, and lets take a drive down misconception lane.
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1. University professors are more fulfilled
Ahh yes, let’s start with this little chestnut. Since most PhDs dream of being professors once they finish, and most won’t, the dream must be based on something.
And one thing that comes up time and time again is that professors are living out some uniquely meaningful and fulfilled lives.
This myth is right up there with other myths we have about the university, for example, that we are “chasing the life of the mind” or “advancing human knowledge” (see below).
Those things are not always true, and neither is this.
I don’t have hard data on this, but anecdotally I know a lot of PhDs who love the post-phd jobs they do outside of academia and wouldn’t go back.
I also get messages from professors who are miserable.
Fulfillment is more complicated than whether you are in academia or not, and there are people in both places who love what they do and wouldn’t trade.
2. PhD jobs outside the academy pay less
This myth depends on discipline. It’s not as commonly held among STEM PhDs. But when I was studying for a humanities PhD, everyone assumed that the only way to make decent money was as a professor.
They thought that leaving academia meant becoming destitute, especially since we lacked any idea of what the heck you could do with a humanities PhD.
I certainly do know social science and humanities PhDs who struggle in the marketplace, especially depending on location. Incidentally, STEM PhDs do too.
But PhDs of all kinds — yes humanities too — are very gainfully employed in a ton of roles.
From Washington to Silicon Valley, PhDs of every background who are making a lot of money. To this day, one of the highest-paid career (meaning not an entrepreneur) PhDs I’ve known personally was a humanities PhD who made around $200k a year at a job.
Official data shows that PhDs have a higher than average earning trajectory across the board and lower unemployment.
And I have done some fun Twitter polls that hold this up–For example, this one, in which 54% of PhDs who left academia made MORE than the starting tenure-track prof salary. (Look closely, it’s a bit tricky because of the “show me the results” option.)
3. You can’t do research outside of academia
This is absolutely ridiculous if you stop to think about it, but it is still commonly held.
I occasionally hear people say something like, “I’d love to leave academia, but I love research way too much.” Or, “I wish I was better paid, but this is a small price to pay for getting to do research I love all the time.”
I don’t know exactly where this myth comes from, but I think a lot of us have trouble naming where research happens in the real world. In fact, I was raised blue collar, so I had never heard of anybody who researched for a living.
A ton of non-academic post-phd jobs will be research based.
When I started my PhD, getting paid research was a dream come true. I didn’t know it could happen anywhere else.
Then I went to work for the government, and I realized that I was getting the same academic journals in my inbox every morning. They were sent to us by a powerful, central research office that provided all of the policymakers with the most recent work on our subject — the office was full of PhDs, by the way.
Not only did I see the academic stuff, but I got to see data that academics don’t get to see, stuff that I needed a secret clearance for. To this day, I know things about the immigration system that academics who study it don’t, simply because of working for the government.
Don’t underestimate the power of doing research in the real world. I made a whole list of places that you can do it here.
4. Universities are where you chase the “advancement of knowledge” and “the life of the mind”
I call bullshit.
First of all, because anybody who has spent time in academia knows that the idealized visions of what it is are almost never true. People chasing those dreams are often disappointed.
The flip side is that, outside of academia, knowledge is being advanced all the time. A lot of the greatest discoveries are coming from industry. And there are a lot of great ideas that happen outside.
5. Leaving Academia is a complete transition
For a lot of us, “leaving academia” will never completely happen. I talk about non-academic work all the time, especially because I want to help PhDs imagine what’s on the other side.
The reality is that many of us will live our lives on the boundary between the academy and the “real world.”
This means that, even if you’re not a tenure-track professor, don’t be surprised if your industry or government job comes with a lot of close ties to a university somewhere. Don’t be shocked to find yourself straddling the line, or filling out an application for a research grant that has an academic’s name on it.
It’s how the world of PhD jobs works. The university is intertwined with the knowledge economy.
6. STEM Students don’t struggle to find work
I knew this was a myth, but I’d never seen data on it. So for fun, I whipped up a Twitter poll in honor of this post.
The data here, not perfect, held up what I’d suspected. Of the 126 people who answered the question, 77 said it was really hard (61%), 33 said it wasn’t too bad (26%), and 16 (13%) said it was easy.
7. My discipline or knowledge doesn’t apply to the “real world”
Okay, so this is occasionally and partially true. I don’t want to overstate this.
But let me say that pieces of what you do are almost always applicable to the “real world.”
I studied ancient history, tracing the paths of ancient religions and how they spread through immigrant groups. My first post-phd job was working for the Department of Immigration, and I still read the same journals that I read for my research in academia.
Whatever it is you do, I promise you you can find ways to apply parts of it. This might include:
- Theoretical work
- Specific skills (ie. SPSS)
- Transferable knowledge
8. Non-academic work has to be in your discipline
” I want to leave Academia, but my work doesn’t apply to the real world.”
Although you can usually find some part of what you do that applies to the “real world,” you can also reinvent yourself.
You can still claim all the status as a PhD and move into a completely different field. That’s fair game, and it happens a lot with non-academic PhD jobs.
Nobody will think less of you for it. And, if you get work where you develop expertise of some sort, you will still be a PhD expert in that subject, even if your dissertation was not in that subject.
That’s totally fine.
9. Leaving academia is just a matter of finding a job and naming your transferable skills
I talk about this across the Roostervane blog, but leaving academia is seldom just a process of mapping transferable skills and job hunting.
For those who expected to have a tenure-track job and a life in academia, there is a lot of really hard work that it takes to remake yourself. There is a crushing blow with a loss of your expected academic self.
In my opinion, this is the hardest part of leaving academia.
Leaving academia isn’t about getting a job, it’s about getting a new identity. I’ve reflected on this a lot in my recently released book, Doctoring: Building a Life After a PhD –Now available on Amazon.
10. Non-academic work is selling out
Hell no! It’s your life.
If you want to make a shit ton of money, go do that.
If you want to work for a nonprofit or go build houses, go do that.
The only person you owe anything to is yourself. Don’t let anybody tell you differently.
By the way, most of us entered academia to train for a job — it’s not like we joined the Peace Corps. We didn’t take a vow of poverty to my knowledge. So why the heck do we treat academia like it’s the moral equivalent of joining a monastery?
Do what’s right for you, and don’t let anyone else’s expectations dictate your life.
11. Academia needs me
Bullshit. Once again. I call bullshit.
There is such an enormous overproduction of PhDs, and there are very few of us that could be considered anything like needed by academia.
This hurts a bit, but I realized that it didn’t need me either.
500 people behind me could do exactly what I did.
My research was interesting, but if it had never happened the world would not be any worse off. (This is just mine, I’m not saying this is true for yours.)
Academia does not need you. And academia may go to hell in a hand basket in the next decade, and it’s not your job to save it, single-handedly fix it, or to pour all of your efforts into changing it.
If you want to stay and make a difference, that’s great. But don’t stay in a place you’re miserable because it “needs you.”
So there you have my 11 persistent myths about post-PhD jobs. I hope pointing these out helps you to see some of the realities about life outside of academia, including how great it can be!
If you’d like help with transitioning, consider joining our Roostervane Community, which is made up of PhDs are either starting the transition out of the academy or who have already done it.
No matter where your journey takes you, good luck!.