A PhD is a fixed-term job, not a passport to a professorship

A PhD is a fixed-term job, not a passport to a professorship

You need to be realistic and honest with yourself about what a PhD is, in pure employment terms. If you’re funded, you’re receiving a salary for X number of years, to produce a given output (your dissertation). Therefore a PhD is what employers call a ‘fixed-term position’: a role that lasts for a set period of time, in order to accomplish a specific piece of work. Once the work is done, the job is done too. Thanks for your help – and bye!

A PhD is definitely not a permanent job in a university, and it does not automatically lead to such a job afterwards. Neither does a post-doctoral fellowship. 

So while some researchers will get permanent jobs in universities, your department or school is under no obligation to hire you or prepare you for a career in academia (or elsewhere). Nor does having a PhD qualification magically lead to ‘something working out’ in academic employment terms in the long run. Therefore I strongly recommend you adopt the following two priorities:

Priority 1: Your first priority as a new researcher is to carry out your programme of academic work and complete your PhD. That’s your job, that’s what your employer has hired you to do (whether a research council or university).

Priority 2: Your second priority, if you are wise, is to undertake a programme of activity that leads you into a prosperous and fulfilling career after your PhD. You’re doing this for yourself, not for your employer.

The trouble is, many researchers assume that achieving the first outcome will also deliver the second outcome. Publishing papers, teaching classes, doing admin, these activities all boost my academic CV and help me get employed, right? This would be a reasonable assumption, if there were a close correlation between the number of doctoral graduates and post-docs, and the number of vacant academic posts.

However, we know this is not the case. There’s actually a massive gulf between the number of doctoral graduates and the number of available positions in academia. In the US for example, more than 100,000 doctoral degrees were awarded between 2005 and 2009, while only 16,000 new professorships were available (more enlightening stats can be found in the article ‘The disposable academic’, published in The Economist magazine).

Worse still, there’s a trend towards ‘under-employment’ in higher education. Many of the entry-level academic jobs on offer today are not the full-time, permanent, salaried posts that people associate with a nice lectureship or professorship. They are temporary posts or ‘adjunctships’ which pay by the hour or by the course. In fact over one third of the academic workforce in the UK is now on a temporary contract, according to a recent report in The Guardian.

So don’t kid yourself. Don’t bury your head in the sand. Recognise your PhD for what it is: a fixed-term research contract, not a passport into a permanent academic career.

If you want to secure a professional job after your PhD, my advice is simple: implement a 2-year career development plan in parallel with your academic efforts. Aim at a career outside of higher education, even if you’re set on becoming an academic or a researcher. With a solid Plan B in your pocket, you’ll have a fall-back plan in case your academic aspirations don’t work out. Or if you’ve already decided on a career beyond academia, you can put your plan A into action while you finalise your dissertation.

You’re welcome to use my five-point plan for conducting a successful job search outside of higher education. Here’s some lovely feedback I’ve had on the plan so far (via Twitter):

Please get in touch if you have any questions about the fixed-term employment aspect of a PhD. You can contact me via Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment on this article below.

Further reading – what a PhD is (and isn’t)

A PhD is a qualification, not an identity, by Chris
A PhD is an achievement, not an activity, by Chris
Your job options after a PhD – in a diagram, by Chris

The majority of PhDs are switching into careers outside academia

The majority of PhD are switching into careers outside academia

For how much longer will a career outside of higher education (H.E.) be considered an ‘alternative’ career for PhDs? After all, a 2010 UK study by Vitae showed that only 22% of doctoral graduates were working in H.E. teaching or lecturing roles three-and-a-half years after graduating, with only 19% in H.E. research. With the majority of PhDs switching into other professions these days, there’s a huge demand from researchers for careers advice about making the transition.

So here’s my five-step plan for conducting a successful job search outside of H.E., pulling together for the first time many of the individual posts published here on Jobs on Toast:

Step 1: Discover your transferable skills
I made my transition out of academia when the internet was starting to go mainstream (the late nineties). I could see that technology companies weren’t just hiring techies, they were hiring trainers, designers, marketeers and analysts as well.

So that’s where I put my focus in the last few months of my post-doc: I worked out all the transferable skills I’d gained during my PhD and post-doc. I knew I could design training courses; build websites; write great proposals to win money; work well under pressure; understand new concepts quickly and communicate them; and work well in teams.

I took all these skills and I built a new CV (also known as a résumé) around them. Out went my academic publications: in came my list of skills. Using my new CV I landed an interview at a start-up company which built e-learning courses for clients. I was offered a job as a content analyst and subsequently became an e-learning course designer.

So start by making a list of your transferable skills, and compare it with the list in my post on the 20+ transferable skills of PhDs.

Step 2: Decide which path to take
As mentioned above, my job search focused on non-technical roles at technology companies. If you need inspiration for your own search, there are hundreds of online profiles of PhDs who’ve pursued careers outside academia. Start with the fantastic website PhDs At Work, or download my free resource guide listing my top 10 post-PhD interview websites.

As you’re browsing, note down any roles you find interesting and challenging. Put these keywords into a search engine to find out more. Who’s hiring? What skills and experience do you need – and already have – for these roles?

Make a clear decision about your target employment sector before moving on to the next step.

Step 3: Get the right experience
As a researcher, one of your biggest challenges is going to be a lack of direct work experience. That said, if you start early enough, you do have time to gain relevant experience. Here are five ways to gain work experience:

1. Freelancing / self-employment
2. Become an assistant, for instance at a publisher
3. Start consulting
4. Get an internship at a relevant company
5. Explore Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (in the UK)

For more details see my post on 5 work experience options for PhDs and post-docs. Aim to gain at least two periods of work experience in the target sector you identified in Step 1.

Step 4: Create your professional brand
As mentioned above, employers want to recruit roles like analysts, project managers, consultants, communication experts and marketing gurus. When applying for jobs, you need to market yourself in a way that closely matches what employers are looking for. So don’t lead with your PhD: instead, market yourself as a professional ______ with a PhD. Fill in the blank: are you a professional scientist, educator, writer or zoo nutritionist?!

Use this approach to develop a persuasive cover letter and CV. Put your new job title at the top of your CV and list your transferable skills underneath. Include the time spent on your PhD in the ‘Experience’ section, describing your role as ‘research manager’ or ‘freelance researcher’ for instance. Include a statement about your publications as an overall achievement, rather than listing them individually.

Step 5: Tell a great story
The job interview is often the most daunting part of the job search for PhDs, since you’re venturing into an unfamiliar environment in order to sell yourself. To present yourself confidently, you should develop a strong story to explain your career change. For instance, ‘as a professional zoo nutritionist, I’m looking to secure my first permanent role in a zoo, bringing a wealth of insight and practical experience gained during my research, and two work placements at …’

Use this format to develop the story of your own transition. Practice introducing yourself, explaining where you want to work and why, and back this up by reference to your skills and work experience. For more advice, see my post on How to tell a great story about your transition out of academia.

Pushing at an open door?
The good news is that employers want the skills and experience that PhDs have. A 2009 UK Vitae survey of 104 employers found that 73% would welcome more applications from doctoral graduates, and nearly a third are already actively targeting them. So forget about alternative careers … welcome to the mainstream! To make a smooth transition into work after your PhD, start job hunting in the penultimate year of your research and follow my five-point plan. Use all the great resources online and remember to take advantage of careers advice offered by your university too.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about making the transition into a career outside academia – please leave a comment below, or get in touch with me through Twitter or Facebook.

Further reading – getting started

Why you need to start thinking about a career outside academia – today! by Chris
Use my Career Roadmap to kick-start your career planning, by Chris
Get organised – create a Career Planner, by Chris
Deciding when to quit the academic job search, part 1, by Chris
Deciding when to quit the academic job search, Part 2, by Chris
Preparing for life after the PhD, by Chris

Preparing for life after the PhD: retrain your brain

Preparing for life after the PhD: retrain your brain

In the final stages of your PhD you can become so absorbed in finishing that the last thing on your mind is what happens next! The risk of becoming too focussed however is that you don’t make the mind-set changes you’ll need to sustain yourself in post-PhD life. Life after the PhD is going to be very different, but no-one really warns you or helps you to prepare for it.

In this post I’m going to explain a new attitude that you need to cultivate in order to survive and thrive post-PhD. I draw on my own experience of making the transition from a PhD and post-doc in Medieval Studies into a business career.

My story

During my post-doc I was interviewed for a number of permanent academic posts around the UK. After my fifth interview rejection, I only had six months of my post-doc funding left. So I decided to leave academia and get a job in business instead. The main driver for me quitting academia was my unwillingness to accept part-time teaching and the associated pay just to ‘stay in the game’ for a permanent academic post.

My choice of sector, e-learning and web-based training, did leave the door open to a return to academia, but once I started in business I knew there was no going back. Reflecting on this decision more than a decade later, especially now that I’m thinking about serious stuff like paying into my pension and when (if!) I might ever be able to retire, I realise how costly those years of low wages and insecurity could have been.

I’m glad now that I made the decision that I did. If I’d reverted to part-time teaching after my post-doc funding had ended, when I was already 30 years old, as a family we’d definitely have been scraping by financially. My wife was a newly-qualified teacher at this point and we had a toddler too.

To some people I’m sure this would have been a price worth paying, as the prize of a lectureship or professorship would outweigh the prospect of a few months or years of hardship. In my case it wasn’t a price I was prepared to pay. This got me thinking about how my attitude and personal principles changed in the last few months of my research career.

Making the switch

As I said in my introduction, life after the PhD is very different and you need to be mentally prepared for this difference. One major change I believe you need to make in the final six months is to gradually switch off a powerful force that has sustained you for so long: deferred gratification. This is  the ability to make do with less now, in the anticipation of future gains.

Deferring gratification is great when you’re in a structured environment like education, as it keeps you focussed on the end goal of achieving your qualification. It gives you the power to knuckle down and write that chapter, read that book, rather than giving in to distractions and interruptions. But it’s not such a great capability when it comes to the next major priority after completing your PhD: finding a secure job that will pay you a decent salary and has benefits like a pension and health insurance to protect you.

So having spent more than two decades of your life in school deferring gratification, you’re suddenly in the position towards the end of your PhD where you need to start embracing it! All those things that we as PhDs have had to put off: having a family, buying and furnishing a home, going on holiday, paying off debt, suddenly become a real possibility.

In fact you have to transition quite rapidly from just ‘getting by’, into someone who can really start to ‘make a living’. You have to quickly learn how to present yourself to a hiring committee (i.e. no longer act like a grad student), negotiate yourself a good salary and benefits package, and start work in an unfamiliar place with sufficient professionalism to get you through your probation. The Professor Is In website has lots of great advice in this area by the way, relevant to both academic and non-academic careers.

The true cost of adjuncting

Already I can hear people saying ‘Yeah great in principle Chris we would wholeheartedly love to embrace gratification like you say, but where are all the well-paid jobs in academia?!’ True enough, the academic job market is currently terrible. Many of our peers are toiling away in under-employment as a result: working as adjuncts, or employed in the university bookshop, as a lab assistant or as local tour guides, waiting for things to improve.

So what started as a few months of ‘staying in the game’ can easily extend into a few years and then into a whole adjunct or under-employed way of life. As many of our peers have found to their cost, especially in the US, temporary and part-time working are now entrenched in the higher education system. In the US less than 25% of faculty appointments are now tenured or on the tenure-track (AAUP Economic Status Report 2012-13, p. 8). Meanwhile in the UK, more than a third of academics are on fixed-term contracts, according to a recent report in The Guardian – and this excludes 82,000 academics employed in jobs like hourly paid teaching!

The dream job that so many aspire to turns out to be just that: a dream that will never materialize. Ironically the academy, that last bastion of tenure, is today fronted by an army of casual workers on short-term contracts.

So in my view adjuncting and other kinds of under-employment done ‘while I’m waiting for my professorship to come up’ reflect to a degree the mind-set that I’ve already identified: a willingness to defer gratification for the prospect of future gains. Yes there’s a chance that things’ll work out next year on the academic job track, but you have to weigh that slim chance against the impact on your whole life of things not working out. Although some folks are willing to take a hit on their income in the short term, as already mentioned this can turn into a serious long-term problem, putting at risk many of the things that will help to define a ‘good life’ for you and your family.

This is what we can describe as ‘the true cost of adjuncting’: the risk of becoming permanently locked into under-employment. Many of our peers face the harsh reality of becoming LESS employable, as a result of their under-employment in academia. This is a crushing blow if you’re still wedded to the idea of accepting less now in the prospect of getting more tomorrow.

Empower yourself economically

So what’s the take-away here? Well to me the first thing is to recognise that your ability to delay gratification has been a powerful force that has sustained you throughout your university career. But as you near the completion of your PhD, you need to acknowledge that this driver has done its job, and you need to start to train yourself in the art and science of making a living instead. The blunt message is that you’ve used up all the slack in your life by doing a PhD: now you need to start taking serious steps to assure the comfort, health and dignity of you and your family, not just post-PhD, but for the rest of your life.

Having learned to empower ourselves intellectually, as PhDs we also need to learn how to empower ourselves economically. This doesn’t mean throwing away our principles in the blind pursuit of money. What I’m talking about here is a principled way forward, rejecting the exploitation of low paid and insecure work (adjuncting) or working for free (unpaid internships), in favour of a decent wage in return for our valuable skills and experience.

As mature, educated and committed workers, PhDs can be of tremendous value to all kinds of organisations outside of academia, including charities, government or business. Check out the profiles on PhDs At Work to see some real-life examples, including my own story. Take some time to read about people who’ve successfully shifted their focus from just getting by (as a grad student), to getting on in life (as a professional with a great job and career). The sooner you can make this mental shift for yourself, the sooner you can begin to realise your full potential and enjoy life after the PhD!

So don’t sleepwalk down the academic job route just because you’re still in delayed gratification mode, or because you’re afraid of upsetting your supervisors. Once you’re awarded your PhD you’re not a student any more – you are your own person who has to make their way in a very challenging world. Yes it can feel like ‘selling out’ or ‘giving up everything’ to go for a job outside of academia. Yes it can sound crass and materialistic to even talk in terms of a desire to own property or assure yourself a decent retirement income. But if higher education can’t offer you a means to support yourself and your family now and in the future, that’s a structural problem, which is unlikely to be fixed very soon.

Be bold and take matters into your own hands. Make a start today and consider your options for a career outside of academia, even if that plan is only your Plan B. There’s a very good chance it’ll become your Plan A before too long.

The e-book How to Find a Career with your Humanities Degree in 126 Days by James Mulvey is a fantastic resource for PhDs who are changing careers. Read my review or visit James’ site Sell Out Your Soul to find out more.

This post was first published as a guest post over at PhD Talk: thanks Eva for your agreement to reproduce it here!

Further reading – getting started

Why you need to start thinking about a career outside academia – today! by Chris