Feeling like a failure? 4 strategies for beating the post-PhD blues

You can’t allow feelings of failure to hold you back in your search for jobs outside of academia post-PhD. As I explained in the first part of this post, you need to recognise if the failure story is affecting you, and then tackle it and move on. So in the second part of this post, I’m going to give you some practical strategies for overcoming any such feelings. Here are four ways to turn yourself around – pick the one that works best for you!

1. Academic employment is an opportunity, not a certainty

Today’s PhDs are realising that employment as a tenure-track professor, or as a permanent lecturer, is an opportunity that many would love to realise, but very few PhDs actually achieve. When you’re one of hundreds of applicants for an academic post, the fact that you weren’t offered the job, or even called for an interview, doesn’t make you a failure. Not one bit. With such long odds, we are talking about slim chances, rare opportunities, being in the right place at the right time. You cannot fail to win the lottery!

To take just one example, Dr Patrick Iber was on the job market for four years without a single offer, despite his outstanding credentials:

In my own case I had five academic job interviews in three years without a job offer. That was hard to accept at first, but I had a plan B which enabled me to move into a business career instead – having a job was more important to me than the type of job at that time! So think positively about how you took the opportunity to apply for academic posts (if you did) – but don’t dwell on the fact that it didn’t work out. Find other sectors of the economy where your skills are in more demand, and secure professional work there instead.

2. Do your discipline somewhere else

It can be easy to think that leaving academia means ‘giving up everything’ that you’ve previously worked for. Nothing could be further from the truth! Universities are not the only place where you can practice your discipline. You are a professional X – fill in the blank yourself (see my post on Applying for jobs outside academia – from PhD to fellow professional). You can carry on your trade anywhere that you can find clients, customers or users. You can set yourself up as an independent historian or writer for example. Or take up a role as an engineer or ecologist working in business, or for a charity or the government. First and foremost you are a professional practitioner of a particular trade or skill-set – the sector where you choose to take up your employment is secondary.

Taking your expertise and putting it to work outside of higher education is not failing: if you feel that you can do more good elsewhere, or you want a better income or prefer the work-life balance, then do that. That’s certainly how I feel now: having worked in sustainable transport and now in ethical banking, I’m sure I’m happier than if I’d stayed teaching critical theory and medieval studies in a university. I’m not saying that teaching critical theory or medieval studies aren’t important – they are – but there were a finite number of posts available back in the late 1990s. And I do wonder how challenging that role would have been for me in the long term. On the other hand, as a society and as a species, right now we need as many as sustainability practitioners as we can get! And I’m proud to be one of them, working at the forefront of building a greener, cleaner and fairer future.

3. It’s time to leave school and move on

Thinking back to when you were in secondary school or high school, what’s the worst thing that could have happened? If like me you were academically inclined, the worst possible thing would’ve been to LEAVE SCHOOL (either getting kicked out or just leaving at the earliest opportunity)! Now, thinking back to your bachelor degree days, what’s the worst thing that could have happened? That you DROPPED OUT OF UNIVERSITY – shock horror!

There’s a powerful drive in our society to stay in school – it makes sense, because it’s through investing in our education that we gain the qualifications and experience that give us access to better paid jobs and work. This drive may in part help to explain why some PhDs can find it hard to make the break with higher education. YOU’RE LEAVING SCHOOL?!!! But we aren’t kids any more. We’re adults with outstanding academic records. It’s perfectly fine to complete a masters degree or a PhD and then leave the university sector to do something else.

OK, so breaking the news to your supervisors (your surrogate parents?) is one of the many challenges that PhDs making the transition have to deal with! But there’s a right time to leave school – especially now that you’re equipped with a research degree and so many transferable skills. It’s exciting and liberating to cut your ties and move out of the university sector, into pastures new.

4. Embrace the failure story

After the first part of this post went live, I got into a twitter conversation with Rebecca Schuman and Derek Attig about the failure story. Derek came up with a totally different angle on failure which I’m pleased to include here – thanks Derek! His view was that we should be willing to embrace the failure of a narrowly-trained, narrowly-focused version of oneself, as a prelude to post-academic work.

I admit to never having thought about it this way – actually embracing a sense of failure! But this might be just what some people need to do – to accept that the version of themselves that they fashioned, as the scholar, the academic, is no longer going to help them get full employment in today’s labour market. Recognising this, and letting go of the persona you’ve spent your adult life building, isn’t easy – but it may be a necessary step on the path to your personal reinvention. Version 1.0 has outlived its usefulness – it’s time to reboot with version 2.0 of you. Pick the metaphor that suits you best!

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