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

8 Replies to “A PhD is a fixed-term job, not a passport to a professorship”

  1. “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).”

    While I agree with pretty much everything you say I strongly disagree with this. Your first prioirity is to look after your own long term interests because, as you point out, nobody else is. To the University you are just cheap labour. By all means – walk away without finishing your PhD if you get to the stage where it doesnt seem worth it. Its your life. You dont owe them some of the best years of your life earning a pittance just because you started down this path. If a PhD is a dead end job, which it mostly is, then theres no shame in walking away for something better.

  2. The problem, as C. Wright Mills pointed out long ago, is that we tend to confuse political problems with “personal” or individualized issues. If someone is a very good teacher, why should they be thrown out in the street after six years? This proposal is based on a kind of cynicism embedded in a total apolitical view of the world. Yes, one can appreciate how to help persons with PhDs who can not get permanent jobs. That is many. But, with a military budget wasting hundreds of billions of dollars, setting off wars killing thousands and refugee disasters affecting millions, ruining the environment, wasting engineering talent on destruction, you could at least imagine a movement directing those resources into higher education to solve practical problems and give people tenured jobs to do it. If the U.S. hired 30,000 PhDs in engineering in tenured jobs where 50% of the time was spent teaching and 50% of the time was spent in propelling green innovations in energy and mass transportation, financed all by massive cuts in the over-sized military budget, then we might see a quicker response to climate change problems and insecurity regarding academic jobs.

  3. I believe numbers like these ‘100,000 doctoral degrees vs 16,000 professorships’ is what makes many wonder whether getting PhD is worth it. You spent lots of efforts on it and in the end there is 1:6 chance that you will get a job at your college. Surely, you can think if you don’t get one at your college, you can get one at another one. But there are also PhD students who are looking forward to getting professorship at their college. So, in the end after spending lots of time and efforts, and probably money since not everything will be covered, you won’t get a job. Surely, it may not sound fair but unfortunately this world is constructed in the way that the strongest (physically or mentally) survives, and no matter what a person who read this or this would say, the truth stays the same. Unless you are the best out of the best, you won’t get a job at your college. Oh, wait I forgot there is a shotcut – you can always pay somebody off and get waht you want. This is not one of the best options, but still an option.

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