Paving a New (Metaphorical) Path to Success

Thinking about metaphors as they frame your career is not merely a fun thought experiment but also a way to test assumptions you've made, writes Julia McAnallen.

March 7, 2016

It’s comforting that the journey that many of us take through graduate school, while undeniably difficult, is well trodden. The signposts are clear: admittance, course work, comps, research proposal, thesis writing, defense and graduation. The path can vary, depending on the institution and discipline (and often teaching, service, conferences and the like are interspersed throughout) but, over all, it is well paved. The signposts in the next phase -- postdoc, junior faculty and beyond -- are also clear, at least on the surface.

However, many Ph.D.s are pursuing careers in industry, nonprofits, government and consulting -- in other words, they are moving along other paths that are not paved as clearly the professoriate. While it can be scary to step off the track, there is also opportunity for discovery and adventure. That can be appealing to the curious spirit of the academic mind, always looking to find new ways of understanding and solving problems that haven't yet been solved. One of the things we lack in capturing the positive aspects of these expanded career options is a new language to talk about them, including new, more apt, metaphors.

Metaphors are not only aesthetic features of language but also one of the ways we structure our everyday language and thought. For example, one of the most common ways to talk about careers is the journey metaphor, as I just have. The journey includes a career path. Those who pursue faculty careers might find themselves on or off the tenure track. Our careers are far more abstract and multifaceted than a path or a track, but it is more manageable to talk about careers using metaphor.

Before going any farther, I want to make it clear that thinking about metaphors as they frame your career is not merely a fun thought experiment for the linguistically minded. Rather, such an exercise gives you a way to test assumptions that you’ve made about your career. The most pervasive metaphor for academic careers is a journey with a single track. This implies unidirectional motion or progress with no options for deviation or variation from the track. This metaphor leaves little room for variation within an academic career and far fewer options for expanded careers.

While the predominant journey metaphors used for Ph.D. careers are too rigid, the basic idea of a journey is still useful. After all, journeys are supposed to be fun! Below are two alternative journey metaphors that are inclusive of a variety of career options for Ph.D.s.

Off-roading: Ph.D.s as entrepreneurs. It can feel intimidating for graduate students to consider pursuing a career beyond the professoriate, because they often have little contact with Ph.D.-level professionals outside academe.

Yet many Ph.D.s must go off the track, or off-road, to pursue expanded career paths. That requires tapping into your entrepreneurial spirit. Being entrepreneurial doesn't necessarily mean starting a business, including having a product to sell, seeking venture capital funding and finding a cool loft in an up-and-coming part of the country to set up headquarters. Rather, being an entrepreneur is about going in a direction that not many Ph.D.s have gone (or, in some cases, that a fair number have gone but did not leave clear signposts in place along the way). Figuring out how, exactly, to make the skills you acquired in graduate school translate to your next step, and the step after that, requires an entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to travel paths with some resistance (at least initially).

Traffic Circle: Ph.D.s and nonlinear career paths. The current Ph.D. career-path metaphor is linear and unidirectional. If you step off the track -- in graduate school or in faculty career -- you do so at your own peril and often without the possibility of getting back on it. My colleagues at the University of Notre Dame developed a different model for the Ph.D. career journey: a traffic circle of career paths.

The model works as follows: after pursuing a relatively fixed path through the Ph.D., picking up a variety of transferable skills along the way, the newly minted doctor enters a traffic circle where she can choose several exits: Academy, Government, Nonprofits and Industry. No exit or career choice is privileged over another, and, in fact, Professor is one of several options in the Academy category, alongside Researcher, Librarian, Adviser and Administrator.

One of the most positive entailments of the traffic circle metaphor is the fact that all roads go in two directions, so you always have the option of turning around, re-entering the traffic circle and starting down a different road to a new career path. In short, you can change your career. This metaphor more accurately reflects the reality of the workforce, with an average of 11.7 jobs per person in a lifetime by some counts.

We’ve Got New Metaphors … Now What?

When I advise Ph.D.s who are looking for career options beyond the tenure track, mental barriers in the job search are more prevalent than structural barriers. In general, doctoral students think of themselves and their career options rigidly, and they hesitate to pursue careers that do not have steps clearly laid out. These mental barriers are propagated and maintained, in part, by the narrowness of the metaphors that frame how we talk and think about Ph.D. careers. Cognitive linguistics research has shown that different metaphors can lead people to reason differently about abstract concepts. Thus, the metaphors we use to talk about careers influence how we reason about careers. When the metaphors we use are too rigid, they can hinder our actions.

The new journey metaphors proposed above provide us with more flexibility and choice in our careers. Some takeaway lessons include:

  • You can pursue paths other than the professoriate, even if the entire route is not visible when you initially set out on your journey.
  • Just because a career path does not have clear signposts or a defined route to follow does not mean that the path is not legitimate, nor does it mean that you will get lost and never find a career -- it just means that you cannot see the end before you begin.
  • You can turn around! If your new job/career is not a good fit, or if you simply want a change, you can turn around and start down a new path. (That said, I don't mean to imply that all paths are open to everyone all of the time; additional credentials or skill sets might be required.)
  • The steps you take in academe do not map directly onto other career paths.
  • Things may not (and probably will not) happen in linear order.
  • A single step does not seal your fate forever.
  • Different people will navigate different paths for themselves, so you don’t have to follow the same steps in your career as others, including your adviser.
  • With your new metaphors, you can talk more coherently about your career trajectory to people who are not familiar with the rigid rules and hierarchies in academe (including family members).

A Whole Wide World of Metaphors

Perhaps the new journey metaphors proposed here do not resonate with you. Maybe you need a different metaphor. Do not fear -- people have proposed plenty of Ph.D. career metaphors in recent years to replace older models. Some highlights (both related and unrelated to the journey metaphor) include:

Do you have Ph.D. career metaphors of your own that you'd like to share? I encourage you to list them in the comments section below.


Julia McAnallen is director of Ph.D. Career Services at Michigan State University. You can follow her on Twitter @JuliaMcAnallen.


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