Are Backup Career Plans Worth It?

Most Ph.D.s harbor some hope of getting a tenure-track job, but, Natalie Lundsteen asks, should they have -- or not have -- a backup career plan?

September 12, 2016

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about backup career plans for Ph.D.s. I support them -- they make sense, for those pursuing a tenure-track role in particular. But then I’ve read recent research that says maybe backup plans distill the pure motivation that is needed to reach an improbable or difficult goal. In addition to that, I’ve been tangling lately with a few faculty members at my institution who are kind of old-school and think it’s ridiculous for their students to consider anything other than a postdoc and an academic track.

Do I really know better? Should the postdocs and grad students I advise only focus on academe and not have backup career plans? Much has been written about the necessity of having a career backup plan, in particular Tom Magaldi’s great advice in a previous “Carpe Careers” essay. But let’s think about this: maybe the mere idea of that safety net stops you from taking risks or going for broke with your dream.

While one of the great benefits of a backup plan is feeling less anxious about the future (something I think every Ph.D. and postdoc feels), recently published research on the downside of backup plans suggests making them can cause people not to work as hard and to be less successful at attaining their primary goal. Researchers Jihae Shin and Katherine Milkman suggest waiting “until you have done everything you can to achieve your primary goal first.”

That is more or less what happens with pursuing an academic career path. Most Ph.D.s harbor some hope of getting a tenure-track job, but for many, there comes a point when they don’t have enough publications, their experiments aren’t going to yield results or they have been on the job market too many cycles and it’s exhausting. Ph.D.s come to the conclusion that they should explore other career paths, but is it foolish for Ph.D.s to have single-minded focus on just one career area? Does a consideration of other paths dilute the energy needed to succeed? When should Ph.D.s start thinking about the other paths?

I say yes, it is foolish for Ph.D.s to be single-minded about a career path. In fact, I actually say this almost every day to the students, postdocs and alumni whom I advise, and I’ve said it for many years at many institutions. I suggest Ph.D.s should put the most energy into pursuing the path they most want to take but should also be realistic. It’s called managing expectations. I am often surprised, however, that I am the first mentor or adviser who points this out.

A faculty member on my campus was recently overheard decrying how “Natalie Lundsteen encourages graduate students to not do a postdoc if they aren’t going to pursue an academic career, and she even tells them they can do whatever they want!” (I know, it’s crazy to imagine grown, hypereducated adults being able to do whatever they want.) This person and I have agreed to disagree; many other Ph.D. advisers out there espouse a similar view. Graduate students and postdocs may be heavily influenced by a way of thinking that discourages backup career plans, but it is essential to consider alternatives and to be cognizant of those alternatives from the very beginning of the job search. Jobs for Ph.D.s are not plentiful or easy to find at the last minute. They take time and knowledge to identify and obtain, which is why it seems ridiculous to me to not have even a vague backup plan in place. In providing a different perspective to that of some academic mentors, my graduate-career-advising colleagues and I are not advocating Ph.D.s abandon any career paths just because they are difficult. Instead, we support a realistic view in which people can assess their opportunities and manage expectations.

No matter how competitive or challenging your chosen career path may be, keep your eyes on the prize, but scan the landscape so you are aware of potential hurdles or obstacles. Accurately assess your chances at employment, understand the likelihood of getting hired and, most important, recognize what is in your control and what is not (such as grant awards, publications or experimental outcomes).

Take responsibility. Recognize the challenges of your chosen career path but reformulate goals whenever possible to reflect a focus on the things that you can control. You can’t make an institution give you tenure, a top journal accept your article or a consulting firm interview you, but you can manage your own career direction by having a plan -- as well as a backup plan.

One last piece of advice on backup plans and keeping focus on your career of choice: the way you think about your career choice (and your potential for success) is affected by your locus of control -- that is, having an internal locus (believing you can influence events and outcomes) versus an external locus (success is based on external factors or even luck). Cultivating an inner locus of control will allow you to be more resilient and adaptable in the career search process and won’t let you get stuck. Many immutable external factors can influence your Ph.D. career search, including advisers’ attitudes, but if you view your situation as in your control, you will thrive. Having a backup plan is your choice and your responsibility, along with an understanding of the reality of all your potential career choices.


Natalie Lundsteen is director of graduate career development and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.


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