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!

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