Have a Contingency Plan
Let me start this column by looking at what I think is a horrible but common piece of advice. In the current era of academic employment, where tenure-track jobs are increasingly scarce and it is increasingly difficult to find teaching appointments that adequately compensate the sacrifices required to obtain an advanced degree, I have often heard of faculty members advising prospective and current graduate students to pursue or continue their graduate studies only if "you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else." The implication, of course, is that you should only pursue an advanced or terminal degree if being a professor is the only way you can see yourself being happy.
Leaving aside the neuroses that such a mindset might create, this is shockingly bad advice, first because the number of professorial appointments in most disciplines are in a trending decline (for a lot of reasons, some economic and some political), and second because it presupposes that the only career one might pursue with an advanced degree is a professorial career. You cannot will yourself to an academic appointment. Graduate students increasingly have an obligation to prepare themselves for alternative academic careers, largely because graduate schools have historically been so lousy in helping them to undertake such preparations.
My feeling is that if you can’t imagine yourself doing any work other than being a professor, it does not mean that you must be cut out to be a professor. It means you have a really lousy imagination. I love my job, both in terms of my overall career choice and the particular position I hold. But I can imagine myself doing lots of other sorts of work, work that makes use of the skills and expertise I developed in graduate school, and work in which I could be both extremely happy and adequately compensated.
Even if you are a graduate student who would strongly prefer to work within the professorial ranks, I think it is only prudent in these times of scarce academic employment for you to cultivate some viable alternatives prior to actually going into the academic job market. And if you are considering graduate school with the goal of becoming an academic, you too should do some hard thinking about your career goals, and alternatives.
When I was a graduate student I made sort of a hobby of periodically applying for jobs outside of the academic ranks. In one way the habit was a manifestation of my doubts about whether I even wanted an academic career; it was also a manifestation of my self-doubt about whether or not I could hack one. More positively though, thinking through how I could apply my degree on behalf of nonprofits, in governmental work, or in pursuit of entrepreneurial undertakings of my own imagination was freeing, and taught me how many options exist for someone who’s adaptable to a variety of types of work.
Graduate programs are slowly beginning to realize/admit how unsustainable the current overproduction of Ph.D.s — a problem endemic to a majority of disciplines — is. Graduate programs with questionable ethical commitments simply note the problem, shrug, and carry on as they always have, admitting enough students to fill their own graduate classes, but more than could ever find academic employment. Ethical graduate programs, though, have begun to do one or two things; either they reduce the numbers of graduate students they admit, or they help the students that they do admit to prepare for non-academic career options, or sometimes even both. But graduate faculty members are not always helpful when one is developing plans or options for non-academic employment.
One reason that individual graduate faculty in many disciplines are unhelpful or even completely naïve about employment outside of academe is that many faculty members have never worked outside of academe themselves. As a result, their ability to advise students about non-academic job prospects and help them to develop non-academic employment and professionalization plans and materials is extremely limited, to put it mildly and politely. Fortunately, savvy graduate students and graduate programs are beginning to develop resources for those students who would prefer to or are forced to pursue non-academic employment.
There is a lot of talk these days about so-called alt-ac (alternative academic) careers. I think it’s good, very good, that there is such talk. Some universities, better late than never, have even begun to devote money and staff to developing resources to help graduate students pursue careers outside of the professoriate. (For example, my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, relatively recently launched such an effort.) Unfortunately, I think that overall these efforts will take some time to develop, mature, and pay off, and that in the mean time graduate students need to aggressively cultivate alternatives to academic employment themselves.
At the very least, centers dedicated to helping students cultivate non-academic careers can help you to, for example, translate your academic application materials into application materials more appropriate to the private and non-academic sectors. Woe unto the applicant who thinks that a C.V. and résumé are the same thing. Unless you already have experience in the area where you’re seeking non-academic employment, you’re going to need help, either from a university office dedicated to offering such help, or from a community insider who can inform you of the expectations and standards of the organization or non-academic field where you’re making applications.
Despite how time-consuming it is to complete applications for academic jobs, one thing that makes academic job markets relatively easy to navigate is their centralization. Disciplines tend to advertise their jobs in one or two primary spots, at predictable times of the year, and interview at one or two major conferences. These patterns, while they are being somewhat disrupted by the current economy, more or less hold true, and are well-known to the established faculty members who advise graduate students. Non-academic jobs are not so centrally organized.
As a result, pursuing non-academic employment is a much more scattered, decentralized, catch-as-catch-can sort of process. One way to develop non-academic career options might be to consider what interests you have outside of your academic research, or that your research abilities might be able to complement, and to connect with organizations dedicated to those interests. In my own case I found a variety of nonprofit conservation organizations eager employ proven researchers with proven, established writing and communication skills. Combined with my academic training, my interest in and knowledge of the outdoors and specific, ongoing conservation efforts in my community made me eligible for a whole new realm of work. Of course, I had to sell myself well in applications, and you will too. Looking for such opportunities though was time-consuming, and applying for them was even more time-consuming, because the opportunities were scattered in a variety of locations and the application materials that potential employers expected were not standardized.
I’ll add that even those of us in the professorial ranks need to keep alternative plans handy. In the first year of my current appointment, I was very nearly cut from my position as a result of sweeping, across-the-board cuts in state funding. It was bad enough that my department chair warned me to put out applications, but unfortunately the application deadlines for most of the positions in my discipline had already come and gone. Luckily, I wasn’t cut (though some tenure-track faculty at my university were), but the experience reinforced for me how essential it is in the current volatile economic and political environment that even junior faculty working in academic appointment have contingency plans and strategies in place.
Finally, while the primary responsibilities here are on the shoulders of graduate students, I think that those of us who are graduate faculty, whether within master’s or doctorate programs, have an ethical obligation to educate ourselves about non-academic job prospects relevant to our disciplines. In some fields this is already common, but in others, not so much. As graduate faculty we have to either learn how to advise students for non-academic careers, or admit to ourselves that admitting graduate students to our programs at current rates is both unsustainable and unethical.