Deciding when to quit the academic job search, Part 1

Did you always want to be an academic? Many PhDs look back and ask, just how did my desire to complete a significant piece of self-guided research turn into a wish to become a permanent member of academic staff?! In today’s post I’m going to tackle the question of deciding when to quit the academic job search. We know that many postgrads and PhDs have thought about quitting their search; and we know that it’s OK to quit: but how exactly do you decide when enough is enough? This will be a two-parter; in Part 1, I’ll set the scene and define the main issues. In Part 2 I’ll give you a framework to help you to make the right decision at the right time. Let’s get started.

Introduction: facing up to the question
Postgraduate study has many fascinating and quirky characteristics, one of which is the powerful yet unstated expectation that a doctoral researcher will aspire to an academic career. This expectation is not a condition of entry to a PhD programme, and nor does it make completing a PhD any easier, and yet so many of us find ourselves inexplicably drawn towards an academic job search as we progress in our studies. Of course, some researchers are driven by a passion to continue their research and teaching work as a life-long mission, and so an academic route makes perfect sense, but it’s interesting that many PhDs end up with a similar aspiration, even if they didn’t all start off with one.

Nothing wrong with that you might say, except that at the present time in countries like the US, Australia and the UK, there are now many more candidates for academic jobs than there are jobs available (see below for more details). With the supply of newly-minted PhDs completely outstripping the demand for lecturers and professors, the early-years academic job market has turned into a strange blend of an arms race and an endurance trial! Even going back to the late 90s when I was applying for academic posts, as a twenty-something with a PhD and almost a post-doc under my belt, I was competing against colleagues who had spent several years in part-time teaching work after their PhD, who were willing to work for the same starting salary as me, and who had many more publications to boot.

For evidence of today’s situation let’s take a look at the latest research into PhD career destinations. In fact the same story is emerging from research into PhD careers destinations in several countries around the world: in the UK, a 2008 study showed that only 44% of doctoral graduate respondents were working in higher education 3 years after graduating, and only 22% of these respondents were actually employed in H.E. teaching and lecturing roles (What do researchers do? Vitae, 2010, pages 4 and 15 – only accessible to registered users). In Australia, a 2010 study showed that the higher education sector accounted for only 36% of full-time employed research masters and PhD graduates (Postgraduate Destinations 2010, Graduate Careers Australia, 2011, page 14).

A 2011 study in the US found that 43% of doctoral graduates in the humanities had no employment or postdoctoral position commitments upon completion, up from 33% five years ago (Doctoral Recipients from U.S. Universities 2011, NSF, 2012, Table 42). These are sobering statistics for anyone embarking upon an academic job search today! The actual employment picture obviously varies according to individual disciplines, and so it’s worth checking out the employment outcomes for your own particular subject.

The explosion of comment on the current situation in the academic jobs market via social media gives us another perspective. In the US numerous postgrads and PhDs who are either toiling in adjunct positions or who have decided to quit their job search or PhD altogether can be found tweeting, blogging, chatting or writing articles on the situation. In no particular order, check out the Adjunct Project, Sell Out Your Soul@Dr_OuttaHere and Leaving Academe to name but a few. There has been a corresponding rise in consulting for both the academic and non-academic job routes, to meet the demand for careers advice (The Professor Is In, Escape the Ivory Tower and of course Jobs on Toast).

So coming back to the personal level, we have a situation today in which many thousands of PhDs and aspiring academics are facing the same question: when do I quit my academic job search? You might be asking yourself this question as you near the completion of your PhD and wonder how long to give your search, or you may be an adjunct veteran at the end of your tether and feel you can’t go on. It’s OK both to ask and be asked this difficult question. But what you need is a way to get a good answer too, whatever stage you are at.

The reality of PhD under-employment
Whilst in an ideal world a PhD would land an academic job just after completion, allowing a smooth transition into a permanent role (e.g. like qualifying as a medical doctor and then getting a job in a hospital), in practice it doesn’t work out like that in the current climate. As already discussed, many disciplines are currently saturated, with a sizeable buffer of well-qualified, experienced candidates sitting in a pool ahead of the newly-qualified PhDs. The impact of the candidate buffer and scramble for jobs is that the new PhD and academic job seeker is likely to face several years of under-employment while they stay in the game and work their way through the system, on short-term teaching and research contracts, making applications, gaining experience and scrambling towards the top of their candidate pool.

So in reality we are talking about an academic job search lifecycle that can last for several years. Certainly in the US what might have seemed like a temporary response to a labour supply and demand issue in higher education appears to be solidifying into a permanent situation (see the Adjunct Project homepage).

The prolonged period of unemployment, under-employment and uncertainty that academic job-seekers face can have serious effects on one’s personal life, in terms of relationships, self-esteem, finance and putting down roots. Many candidates will feel they are in a ‘race against time’ to land a job before other life demands really kick in – having a family, getting a decent income to pay back debt, settling down and making a home. Understandably, these competing and incompatible demands create a very stressful situation; and although ‘toughing it out’ may appear to increase one’s academic employment prospects, it can also mean postponing so much of what makes for a good life, with no certainty of a result. Meanwhile it seems like your friends who got good jobs right after graduating are busy buying a house, having great holidays and getting promoted! (Or sometimes it feels like this, on the darker days).

Understanding the current academic job search process as a lifecycle with a series of stages can help you to orient yourself within it. It also draws your attention to the fact that there isn’t one single end-point (the holy grail of the academic job), but that actually there are many ways of reaching a conclusion, all of which can lead to valid and fulfilling careers, either inside or outside academia.

Take control of your career
An important insight I want to share with you is that you don’t have to go through the whole academic job search lifecycle before you can begin exploring your non-academic career options. You should go into the academic job search with your eyes open as to the pros and cons, knowing how you can maximise your chances, and ideally with a Plan B in your pocket. If you take the time to break your academic job search down, you can define a series of decision points in advance, so that at each point you weigh up your progress and take an objective view of whether your Plan A is working out. This approach moves you out of the zone of feeling desperate and like all your eggs are in one basket, and into the space of being a talented professional who is making an informed choice, and who is willing to change course in response to circumstances.

The bottom line is that you need to be managing the right risks – and in the big scheme of things what’s really at stake here is your personal happiness, family well-being and using your talents to make the world a better place. An academic job is certainly one route to achieving these things, but as I and many others have found out, there are many other equally rewarding career routes. In summary it’s my belief that the academic job-seeker will benefit from having a clear Plan A, in order to navigate the potentially long period of under-employment they will face. The Plan A should contain decision points which will trigger their Plan B, switching their search either to an alternative-academic job, or to a career outside of higher education. In Part 2 of this post I set out the decision framework that you can use alongside your Plan A to successfully manage your academic job search, which includes deciding when to quit that search if appropriate.

Further reading

Definitely check out Karen Kelsky’s page entitled It’s OK to Quit on The Professor Is In website, and the subsequent comments.

5 Replies to “Deciding when to quit the academic job search, Part 1”

  1. Thanks Sarah … it would be interesting to hear about your job prior to your thesis, and what made you decide to embark upon a PhD?

  2. Though I won’t have to properly worry about this for a year and a half or so, I am really happy I stumbled on your blog. The questions of “what to do if not academia?” is one that has been on my mind since before deciding to do the PhD. I had a job I quite liked before embarking on the thesis, so it was a tough decision, but it’s good to know that even if I can’t find an academic position, the alternative paths are well-worn.

  3. Thank you for this post! Looking forward to Part 2…I just started my decision making process about staying or leaving…

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