The academic job market is bad and projections are it will get worse. Scores of newly minted Ph.D.’s will never achieve their dream of being a tenured professor. Some will make a smooth transition into another career, but many will still be hanging on to the ledge of the tower hoping someone will reach out and pull them back in. Many Ph.D.’s leave academe by circumstance rather than choice. They are bitter, angry and feel like failures for putting in so much time and effort pursuing a professorship only to discover they will never be one of the lucky ones. I know this from personal experience and reading blogs and e-mail lists. My first attempt to leave academe failed because of my anger at being pushed out of the tower.
If your reason for leaving academe is more about the lack of available academic jobs and less about a conscious choice to pursue another career, your transition will require much soul searching. Before you can launch a successful non-academic job search you need to do an effective self search. If you feel like you are being pushed out of the ivory tower, rather than choosing to leave, this process may be very difficult for you. You probably feel anger, betrayal, and rejection by the system you believed in. You need to address these issues and examine any false beliefs that might be preventing you from being fully present in your non-academic job search. Below are some issues that might be holding you back.
Fear of Rejection. When you enter a Ph.D. program you become singly focused on pleasing and getting the approval of your advisor. This approval is so critical that many Ph.D. students lose their identity trying to become the person their advisor wants them to be. They become so invested in the process that they define themselves by their success in the process and believe everyone else is judging them by the same standard. And success in the process is getting a tenure track job at an R1 institution. There is often little to no support for Ph.D.s who decide to pursue non academic jobs. When you choose a different path, you face being rejected. Some advisors disown students who choose to pursue non-academic career paths.
Unfortunately the non-academic world may also reject you. There are many negative stereotypes about Ph.D.s commonly held by people in the “real” world. While it is often hard for Ph.D.s to identify their transferrable skills, it is equally hard for those outside to see the benefits of having a Ph.D. And outside of an academic environment experience is more important than education. You have to learn how to persuade yourself and others that you were developing useful and transferable skills during your graduate studies.
Fear of “Reality.” Many people make a distinction between the academic world and the “real” world. People in the academic world often speak ill of those on the outside even though these same people have had little work experience on the outside. Sometimes we operate under false assumptions of what the “real” world is like and that can prevent us from exploring all available options. There might be other venues where you can do what you love, but you have to seek them out. You might also need to do some self assessment to identify where your interests lie. If you always wanted to be a college professor, you probably haven’t given much thought to what else you might enjoy.
Fear of Losing Identity. You prepared for so long to be a professor. Every thought, every action every waking minute was spent preparing for your life as a professor. When you have imagined yourself in one role for the 5-10 years it takes to earn a Ph.D. it’s a challenge to give it up. You have to answer the question “If I’m not a professor then who am I?”
Fear of Sacrifices. You’re already highly educated in one area, but lacking knowledge, skills and abilities in another. In some cases you might need even more education to become marketable. There is often resistance to this option. It is not unusual to feel you’re smarter than everyone else, so why should you have to get another degree or more training?
Also, in an academic environment you have more perceived freedoms — academic freedom, more control over your work hours, free time and summers off. “Summers off,” is the first misperception you should explore as most non-tenured professors spend the summer trying to get published and others teach summer school or take on other part-time work to pay the bills. You’re used to working with little supervision, and being your own boss. Again, it helps to explore your perceptions of and research different work environments as not all non-academic institutions are run by authoritarian dictators.
One major sacrifice you won’t have to make is location. In academe you have limited control over where you live, which is one thing that drives people out of academe. When you work outside academe you can find a job where you want to live.
Fear of Making the Wrong Choice. Your first non-academic job might not be your ideal job, but remember it won’t be your last job. You can try it on for size. If it doesn’t fit, then move on. Your first post-academic job may simply serve the purpose of giving you credibility in the business world. Maybe it’s just a means to an end, as you learn more marketable skills. View it as an exploration of possibilities. It won’t take you as long to gain skills and discover what jobs you like or don’t like as it did to earn your Ph.D. And there is no stigma associated with quitting a job like there is for leaving a Ph.D. program.
Fear it Won’t Work/Total Pessimism. Graduate school beats you down. Many graduate students suffer from depression in addition to a combination of lack of self esteem coupled with a sense of superiority. You may have defeatist tendencies due to prior conditioning that need to be explored and then eliminated.
All of the above fears serve as obstacles getting in the way of you finding career satisfaction. And it doesn’t have to be this way. You can learn ways to effectively deal with these and other obstacles by reaching out to others. You can seek assistance from people whose opinions you value, career counselors and personal counselors/coaches to help you develop strategies for dealing with particular obstacles.
Christine Kelly is the graduate student career consultant in the Career Center at the University of California at Irvine.
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