Deciding when to quit the academic job search, Part 2

In the first part of this 2-part post, I introduced the whole subject of deciding when to quit the academic job search. In the second part of this post I’m going to lay out a decision-making framework for you. The framework is based upon a set of questions I originally asked myself while I was working on my post-doctoral fellowship and applying for academic jobs. Over the course of 3 years my answers to these questions gradually changed, leading me to conclude in the end that I should look for work outside of academia instead.

While you can reflect upon this set of questions any time, there are certain key points during your academic job search when it makes particular sense to refer to them. Assuming you commence your academic job search in the final year of your PhD, I suggest these decision points are:

  • 4 months before you submit your PhD
  • 4 months before the completion of a fixed-term contract such as a fellowship or teaching (decent salary or not)
  • A couple of days after you have a really bad day in a job that you feel under-employs you (academic or not)
  • A couple of days after an academic interview rejection
  • On each anniversary of your academic job search

At any of these points you should take some time to reflect on the 10 questions and give yourself some honest answers.

10 questions to ask yourself about your academic job search:

  1. What does success in my academic job search look like? What will achieving this goal give me?
  2. Do I know and accept the current odds of getting an academic job in my field of application?
  3. Am I prepared to take jobs that pay me less than I am worth for a number of years, in order to stay in the game?
  4. Am I prepared to work in a number of temporary posts in different locations, until I find something permanent?
  5. Do I fully appreciate the demands of a permanent academic post and the expected work-life balance?
  6. Have I fully considered the range of career options open to me, and concluded that the academic route is still definitely my preferred choice over all the alternatives?
  7. How does this decision impact upon my child(ren), or on my plans to start a family, or on my desire to have another child?
  8. What does my partner feel about my search?
  9. What do my parents or guardians feel about my search?
  10. What other options does pursuing an academic career search narrow down for me?

You can note down your answers to these questions on a separate dated page each time you run through them. Use a scale of 1 to 10 for the ‘Yes or No’ questions if that helps. Once you’ve run through the questions several times, you can compare your answers over time and analyse the differences.

In my own case, I found that my answers to questions like 3, 4 and 7 in particular changed over time. I was paid a salary during my post-doc, which obviously came to an end with the post-doc itself. It would have been financially quite difficult for us as a family if I had then taken a step down onto hourly-paid teaching at the university, while I continued my academic job search. With a new baby and concerns like finding a good nursery or child-minder and buying a house, we also wanted some certainty and stability: we didn’t want to relocate for a temporary contract, not knowing if this would be the first of many moves around the country. These conclusions encouraged me to develop a Plan B, which I put into practice after drawing a blank in job applications during the third year of my post-doc.

Using a decision framework like the one above means that you are in control of your own job search process. There are plenty of opportunities for PhDs outside of academia, so you should never feel that you ‘have no other choice’ but to continue with your academic job search. You should continue if the pros outweigh the cons for you and your family, or quit and try something else if they don’t. So I hope you find this guide useful. Please share your feedback with me and with others by posting a comment below.

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
Preparing for life after the PhD – re-train your brain, by Chris

The website Beyond the PhD has 14 audio clips from PhDs who share their thoughts on the subject of ‘Deciding against an academic career’.

About Chris

I've made the transition from a PhD in Medieval Studies, into a career in business, consulting and project management. But I want to give something back to the researcher community, and help everyone who's facing the challenge of finding work outside academia. Jobs on Toast is a way for me to share my insights and experience, helping you to make a successful career change. Use my five-step plan to get started right away!

5 Replies to “Deciding when to quit the academic job search, Part 2”

  1. Good questions here and I like the idea that you’re advocating everyone asking them at specific intervals during the final year of one’s PhD. I’d have to say that I did something similar but not as clearly structured or as organised as yours presented here.

  2. Thanks Anthea – I also think it’s a good idea to set yourself a time limit for your academic job search, something I will address in a future post. Without a time limit you risk a situation where your academic job prospects will start to decline against the competition, the longer you go on without a permanent post. At which point you are better off switching careers.

    Are there any questions that you asked yourself, which I’ve missed?

  3. Maybe a question (10a?) on “Do I know what the next role/funding call I will apply for is?” The significance of the answer probably changes depending what stage you’re at, but it could provide a greater awareness of (a) what the next option actually is, and (b) whether or not you’ve already applied for most of the options (and may be running out of them!).

  4. No, I’d not have any questions that you haven’t asked. I do think that the issue of setting a time limit for the academic job post is an important issue. I’m curious how you’d provide advice for people i.e. what issues do you think need to be considered etc…

  5. I think an additional question could be: How does the academic job search impact your financial well being, especially with regard to repayment of student loan debt?
    Many people in graduate school have student loan debt to accommodate and, if it is not tackled early, it can grow to epic proportions. Sometimes you have to face the music that if a job doesn’t pay you enough to pay your bills then, even if it is a ‘stepping stone’ to academic greatness (which is not guaranteed), you need to move on to one that does.