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

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!

3 Replies to “Preparing for life after the PhD: retrain your brain”

  1. I totally agree with all your insight! Indeed, universities, departments (except few departments like Economics) or career counselling services do not really tackle the issue of the post-PhD period. There is a tendency of focusing too much on the PhD -which is absolutely understandable-, but PhD students have to envisage the real life too. Indeed, PhD is not your oyster, as you had said, there is serious need of retraining our brains. Unfortunately, many people with PhDs suffer during this transitional period and they often require help on how to retrain their brains.