You can’t climb a ladder that’s run out of rungs

As intelligent people we’re expected to do well. It’s actually fantastic that we have such a supportive network around us: all the people who care about us and take an interest in our success. When we were starting out, they set high expectations for us. They created the conditions to help us flourish and reach our full potential. We can feel blessed by that.

But there’s an important difference between encouragement to do your best, and subtle peer pressure to do a particular thing. Of course, in the minds of those giving the encouragement, there’s often no distinction. So for a researcher on a fixed-term contract (PhD or post-doc), doing your best means taking the next step on the academic career ladder, doesn’t it?

‘You’re going to be applying for lectureships/professorships, aren’t you? After all that studying? You’d make a great professor’

This is the weight of expectation we face in graduate school, from our well-meaning advisors, family and peers. Maybe we also place this expectation on ourselves, as we’re the kind of person who instinctively strives to reach the next rung on the ladder. Count how many exams, courses, awards and qualifications you’ve racked up over the past twenty years …

It comes as a shock to many doctoral researchers to find out that the academic career ladder has run out of rungs. The number of newly-minted doctoral graduates vastly outweighs the number of academic vacancies (no one is managing the intakes of PhD programmes according to supply and demand principles). Unfortunately, you’re not going to magisterially ascend to a lectureship or professorship in your local university town once you graduate!

Instead, you’ll need figure out how you’re going to make a living in today’s complex and competitive job market. As you approach the end of your doctorate, it’s time to clear your head and take some tough career decisions, free of assumption, expectation or wishful thinking. Do I choose academia or another sector? Do I stay within my discipline or market my transferable skills? What’s my Plan B, in case my Plan A doesn’t work out?

Here are some insights and links to help you navigate today’s challenging job market, post-PhD:

  1. It’s easy to assume that most researchers stay on in H.E., because in a university you’re surrounded by academics with PhDs. In fact, outside of H.E., doctoral graduates are flourishing in a wide range of careers.
  2. The majority of researchers are now finding employment outside of H.E. after their PhD. In the UK only 19% of doctoral graduates are in a university research role three-and-a-half years later, and only 22% in H.E. teaching and lecturing, according to a Vitae study.
  3. Early career researchers in the UK are having to get by on one short-term teaching contract after another, rather than the lofty ideal of going straight from PhD to lecturer after graduation.
  4. In the U.S. non-tenure-track faculty on temporary teaching contracts are getting stuck on very low levels of pay, with poor job security and little chance to develop their careers.

Take action now: Share these statistics and stories with those who have your best interests at heart. Be prepared to challenge their expectations of what you’re going to do next. Make your own choices based on the facts. Explain that you want a job that offers you full, rewarding employment with decent career progression. This may mean your best option is a lateral move into a profession beyond H.E. Or in other words: when you run out of rungs, you need to find another ladder!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how the weight of other people’s expectations has affected you in the past, or is affecting you now – you can leave a comment below, or get in touch with me through Twitter or Facebook.

The featured image for this post was designed by Space Cadet.

Further reading – getting started

Planning a career change after your PhD? About time …, by Chris
A PhD is a fixed-term job, not a passport to a professorship, by Chris
The majority of PhDs are switching into careers outside academia, by Chris
How to build up your career support network during your PhD, by Chris
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
Deciding when to quit the academic job search, Part 2, by Chris
Preparing for life after the PhD, 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 “You can’t climb a ladder that’s run out of rungs”

  1. Thanks for this Chris. As someone who is about to submit her PhD, I am lucky enough to have worked outside academia in a previous life. In the institution where I am people do hang on for years after the PhD in a variety of short-term teaching/research contracts. This is partly because it’s a very applied field so there are usually small pots of money around to fund this work. Nevertheless, people are unhappy at the shortness of their contracts and often voice this. Yet when I say that there are plenty of opportunities for them in other sectors where they could have better security, they look aghast. I don’t know what it would take for people to fully appreciate what’s available to them. The institutions don’t seem to be in the business of preparing them for the outside world. I feel very lucky in comparison to them, as I think I am more ready to leave academia.

  2. Hi Sandy, glad that your experience outside of academia gives you a wider perspective, enabling you to see other ladders of opportunity!

    I’m sorry to hear about those researchers who feel unhappy with their job security, but don’t take action to improve their employment position. As you say, not all institutions offer support in this area! That’s part of my aim with Jobs on Toast, to assist universities in providing better careers advice for their researchers.