Each year some 57,000 newly awarded PhD’s enter the job market – way too many for all to find positions at desirable (or even less-than-desirable) colleges and universities. Is the time spent working toward a doctoral degree wasted if the PhD is unable to, or chooses not to land a top-notch academic job? No -- absolutely not. I contend that earning a PhD is a totally selfish pursuit. A graduate student works very diligently, inspired by profound personal interest, to discover or create something new, conduct a novel experiment, or uncover a great mystery.
Graduate school leading to a PhD degree is very different from professional schools (i.e., medical school, law school, business school, etc.), which tend to teach what others already know. Doctoral programs are all about novel research, or at least should be. When one completes professional schools, they usually find employment using the skills they learned in their schooling. PhD graduates, on the other hand, have discovered something new, and have become very specialized experts in their given field. This journey leads them along a path guided by interest and passion. Unfortunately, getting a PhD does not entitle one to a job as a professor. In a recent Princeton Alumni Weekly publication (May 14, 2008, “Jumping from the Ivory Tower: There's life after a Ph.D. -- and it may not be in academe," by Hilary Parker), alum Peter Fiske states, “…only about one in four Ph.D.’s in the sciences remains in academia.” The reason is simply that there are not enough academic jobs. Of the 332 PhD’s granted from Princeton University in 2006-07, 24% had accepted teaching-based academic jobs, 28% took jobs outside of academia, and 45% took post-docs – up markedly from 10 years ago, when only 22% of Princeton’s newly-minted PhD’s took post-docs. Of course, taking a post-doc position buys one a few more years in academia, and more experience, although not necessarily an academic job. But no matter what your final position, once you earn a PhD, you are forever a member of a club – one defined by a journey into discovering something new, and achieving academic accomplishments, guided by interest and passion rather than an employment goal.
Personally, I am very proud of having earned a PhD. It represents a passage of learning and discovery that no one can ever take away from me. A PhD is the ultimate intellectual accomplishment. Some people find contentment in the confines of academia – moving from place to place in pursuit of a post-doc or academic position, fighting for a tenure-track position, struggling to win funds for their projects, teaching exorbitant hours, stressing over tenure, etc. Others find happiness applying their skills and habits learned during graduate school to pursue another line of employment, or engage in volunteer activities. They are all still worthy of the title, “Dr.” They are all still owners of a PhD. Personally, I valued the choice of where to live, and how I lived (i.e., being able to spend plenty of quality time with my children) over getting any particular academic job. However, while I was a graduate student, I was still single without kids. This allowed me to totally indulge my academic interests and work diligently toward my PhD for six uninterrupted years. I published, earned a salary (stipend really), and lived a traditional academic life. Now I consider myself a non-traditional academic, because I still look at life through those intense academic eyes. I scrutinize my children’s math curriculum as if I were doing another dissertation on elementary math education. I prepare for a science assembly at an elementary school as I would prepare for a freshman lecture if I were a professor at a university. I may not be getting paid as much as if I were a professor at a top-notch university, but I live where I chose, I am content, proud, and a hero to my children. What more could anyone ask for?
So should someone who does not pursue a traditional academic career after graduate school feel like he or she somehow failed academic life? Absolutely not. A PhD is the ultimate credential in intellectual accomplishment. Once an academic, always an academic, no matter what the professional day job is. We three non-traditional academics are just that – academics. We may not be getting paid much for our intellectual pursuits; however we still enjoy using our minds, solving problems, asking and answering questions, and perhaps most important and gratifying, inspiring our children and their friends to pursue their own intellectual dreams.