How to recognise and overcome the failure story after your PhD


Do you have a PhD, but sometimes feel like a failure? It’s really important that you find the right story to frame your transition out of academia. In my previous post I gave some examples of how you can tell a positive story about your transition and in doing so get past ‘narrative wreckage’ – the disconnect between our expectations and the reality of life post-PhD.

One particular story which I didn’t touch upon in that post, but which I want to cover for completeness, is what I call ‘the failure story’. As we reach the end of our dissertation and transition into hunting for our next position, it can sometimes feel like all those years of hard work haven’t paid off. Comments made by our peers or family about our ‘failure’ to find a permanent academic post can feel hurtful, demeaning or patronising.

By the end of this two-part post I want you to (a) recognise the failure story – because it can sometimes be unconscious; (b) understand how to tackle it and overcome it, and (c) realise that you define the terms of your own career success.

Spotting the failure story

Like many PhDs and post-docs leaving higher education, I encountered the failure story in a few different guises. Some examples of how it manifested itself in my own day-to-day life were:

1. It’s a story I actually first told myself. Although I had a happy and successful university career, from time to time I would run a version of the failure story in my head. I also imagined my university colleagues telling this story about me. While I was working on my post-doc and applying for academic posts, my internal failure story went something like this:

‘Chris is a bright and promising scholar but he can’t seem to get a permanent academic job. It’s such a shame. Maybe he didn’t come across well enough at interviews or have good enough research plans in the right areas. He’s having to quit academia now and go and do something else now to earn money to support his family. All those years of hard work, what a waste, what a loss.’

Looking back, I realise that I thought and felt this way because I was caught within a narrow paradigm of academic career success: that anything less than a lectureship meant that somehow I had failed. Once I began to appreciate the limitations of that view, and I embraced a wider definition of what constitutes career success, those feelings died away. Reading back over these words now is a bit painful, but on the other hand it’s quite liberating, because of how far I’ve moved on, and how I’ve been able to help others gain a new perspective through this blog.

2. It’s a story others tell about us. Once when attending a conference in my field a couple of years after leaving academia, I had the experience of being consolled about the fact that I ‘hadn’t found an academic post’, by a well-meaning former colleague. I did my best to reassure her that I was quite happy in my new career, but felt she was not convinced!

3. It’s a story we tell others. When I first started thinking about my employment options outside academia, I remember talking about it with my dad. Mostly our conversation was in quite pragmatic terms, about my need to find a job with a decent income now that my post-doc was ending. I was also concerned that a decision to leave academia might affect my relationship, as my partner had only ever known me as a scholar and researcher. Would I been seen as a quitter? Would taking up a business career also change my personality for the worse, turning me into an evil capitalist sell-out? These thoughts seem quite daft in retrospect now, but in that bubble of transition, those feelings of failure, and fear of being labelled a failure by my peers, were very real to me.

If you keep up with blogs, tweets, interviews and articles in the area of post-PhD employment, you’ll hear the failure story all the time. In the course of writing this article for instance, on The Professor Is In’s Facebook page, Karen posted an extract from an email she wrote to a client, addressing their fears that leaving academia will see them branded as a failure. I received a similar email myself from a reader of the blog recently. We know the problem exists. What can we do about it?

Tackling the failure story

The failure story should be recognised for what it is: it’s just a story. It’s not the truth. It’s a frame of reference that gets applied to a person’s career situation to make (incorrect) sense of it. As already mentioned, several times after I left academia for a career in industry, people framed my transition in terms of failure – commiserating me that things hadn’t worked out, or asking if I was ever going back. There are other variations on the failure story – the researcher who’s done a PhD but doesn’t know what to do next, except that they don’t want to go into academia (‘what a waste of public money’ moan the critics); or the researcher who for whatever reason doesn’t ever finish their dissertation.

Make no mistake, stories are powerful. They can change our mood, our confidence, our whole outlook on life. The post-PhD failure story is an extremely powerful and persistent myth. It’s insidious, presenting itself as natural, in spite of the fact that a simple look at the raw statistics about PhD career destinations tells a completely different story: in the UK, only 22% of PhDs are in teaching and lecturing roles in higher education 3 years after completion (see my post on Why you need to start thinking about a career outside academia).

The most important thing I learned in the process of making my own transition out of academia was not to let the failure story control me. After a shaky start, I took control of the story of my own career. I defined myself as an educator in search of a new challenge, someone who had won a string of research grants and who now wanted to direct their energies into developing the democratic potential of web-based learning. As I described in my previous post, you too need to create an empowering story about your own transition. But what if you can’t quite get past the failure story?

So in the second part of this post I’ll look at some positive ways to frame and reframe your experience. Let’s get beyond the false binary which ascribes success or failure to whether or not you’ve landed a permanent lectureship or tenure-track post after your PhD. Let’s tell the story of the success of all PhDs, whether they apply their talents inside academia, or find their calling or vocation in another sector.

Further reading – marketing yourself

Feeling like a failure? 4 strategies for beating the post-PhD blues, by Chris
Applying for jobs outside academia – from PhD to fellow professional, by Chris
How to tell a great story about your transition out of academia, by Chris
PhD Springboard: a guide to private coaching and training services, by Chris