Your Ph.D. and Work Experience Are Great Life Experience: Part 3

Briana Mohan takes a broad view of academe and careers and consider how graduate students and postdocs might best engage with the challenges of the present moment.

May 15, 2017

I have been working in higher education for nearly 20 years, so my internal rhythms are well aligned with the academic calendar. The month of May means celebrations, bittersweet goodbyes and a sense of accomplishment.

This year, however, I have noticed more than the usual amount of emotions and opportunities for reflection.

I feel proud, excited, relieved, elated and thrilled for people I know who are going on to new jobs in industry, academe or government, as well as for those who have landed coveted postdoctoral fellowships or internships, and for still others who have gained admission into new graduate degree programs.

I also feel enraged, despondent, worried and deeply sad about people I know who -- post-master’s, post-Ph.D., post-postdoc, or post-multiple years on the academic market -- are moving in with their parents or friends, signing up for Medicaid (at least this week), and delivering pizzas or selling tacos. They are being turned down for bagger positions at grocery stores and server positions at restaurants, they are expanding their job searches to multiple continents and multiple career paths, and they are struggling daily with depression and anxiety.

To be fair, none of this mixed bag of good and bad is new this year. I’m just feeling and thinking about it more, and considering what it means for the individuals with whom I work, both while they are in school and afterward.

In the first and second essays of this three-part career series, I encouraged readers to consider some of the ways in which the Ph.D. experience itself can be approached and conceived of much like a job and can subsequently serve as excellent preparation for post-Ph.D. employment contexts. Specifically, I have focused on the importance of attending to the experience of never-ending work and to the impressions one makes on people while in graduate school.

Today, however, I would like to take a broader view of academe and careers and consider how graduate students and postdocs might engage with the challenges of the present moment.

As a starting place, I want to be clear that this article is not an argument in favor of making the Ph.D. into some kind of a professional degree or that we need to rethink how the return on investment for doctoral degree holders could be re-evaluated. I also am not advocating for changes in the curriculum that help students develop and articulate transferable skills or for new programs that connect potential employers with our best and brightest thinkers.

Although none of these are bad ideas, I do think that they somewhat miss the point that the current United States higher education system is already on its deathbed.

It is only natural that many of us who love it are in denial, while others of us know it is really struggling and are trying all kinds of ways to revive it -- to turn things around, to halt the shutting down of organs, to find new kidneys or livers or even hearts that can be transplanted.

But if you have been present with someone at the end of their life, you realize that, at some point, the person is going to die. You don’t know how long it is going to take or what the experience will be like, but you know recovery is no longer an option.

In addition to my own advisees’ experiences, some of higher education’s vital signs that I am observing are many people are finding it harder to afford a college education, much less a graduate degree. Even for those who are able to earn a Ph.D., they often cannot afford to provide an education to the next generation, even when they are working full-time. Student debt in this country is at a staggering $1.4 trillion and growing. State funding for higher education has been slashed, and colleges and universities increasingly rely on private funding sources and tuition dollars from full-fee-paying students just to keep afloat.

Beyond these financial issues, many people who have wanted to pursue academic careers often observe that tenure-track faculty members’ lives look a lot like graduate school on steroids. The concept of tenure itself -- and the intellectual freedom it is supposed to protect -- is under threat, and tenured professors, especially those in the sciences, spend increasing amounts of their time chasing research funding rather than actually doing the research and teaching they love.

So, if you agree that the whole enterprise looks terminal, I invite you to join me to say our final farewells to the American college and university system as we've known it, to offer blessings for safe passage, to reflect on the magnitude of our loss and to consider its meaning for our lives.

I also invite you to gather your courage and to notice the patient in the next bed. Its name is Career -- an occupation undertaken for a significant period of one's life and with opportunities for advancement -- and I think you will see that it breathed its last quite a long time ago.

Consider the fact that most people in this generation will likely have anywhere from four to seven different careers during their lifetime and will work in 15 to 20 different jobs. In addition, the majority of jobs in the next decade don’t even exist yet, and protections for workers in any employment sector erode daily. However you want to do the calculations, it’s clear that most employed people -- or hopefully soon-to-be employed people, including those with Ph.D.s -- are already spending our lives either on our way into or out of jobs. Sometimes we are building on substantial skills and knowledge that we already have, but more often, we are doing some version of starting over. Only occasionally are these changes by choice.

U.S. academe and U.S. careers: for those who have built lives around a belief in them, these deaths can feel enormous. So let’s take whatever time we need and then gather outside in the sunshine when we’re ready.

An Imperative to Listen

This metaphor probably feels far from encouraging or helpful. Where does this leave any of us, either now or in the future, especially the graduate students and postdocs with whom I work?

My answer is that it leaves us alive, my friends. It leaves us alive and living.

It leaves us still learning and wanting to learn, still needing to financially support ourselves and our families, and still striving to develop and contribute our interests, knowledge and talents in meaningful ways to the world.

One of the most helpful and illuminating things that I can recommend to graduate students and postdocs who are facing this reality is to listen. Actions will come later.

Listen to yourself. Imagine a loved one approaches you and says, “I have something I really need to talk to you about. Do you have a minute?” Listen to yourself with the same attention and care that you would give them. (And if you know your response would be, “Sorry, I’m too busy,” I encourage you to take a step back.)

Some of the following questions might be a place to start -- and they could be academic focused, but not necessarily.

  • What do you love? What do you hate? What could you not care less about? What matters most to you?
  • Who is encouraging you or supporting you to put your energies toward what you love and what matters most to you?
  • Who is discouraging you or standing in the way of you pursuing what you love and attending to what matters most to you?

Listen to people around you who are surviving in -- and also acknowledging -- systems that were never built for them. In spite of decades of pressure to change, academe has done an impressive job of reproducing itself demographically, particularly in terms of race. Nevertheless, people of color, first-generation students, people with disabilities (both visible and not), international students, LGBTQ people and undocumented individuals still find ways to survive in academe.

Why? And how?

Those of you who are negotiating daily obstacles and/or assaults that may or may not be apparent to others know firsthand what is wrong and what should be changed to make things better. You also know the sacrifices and adjustments you -- and often your family and community as well -- have had to make in order for you to be where you are, doing what you are doing. And it’s also possible that you may be learning from and working in a discipline or for an employer that has participated -- or is now participating in -- destroying where and who you come from.

It’s more than a little tricky, and more than a little bit stressful.

Listening to people who know that the structures of education and employment were not made for them can immediately help clarify what really matters to the world, not just to academe or to an employer.

Listen to someone you have been devaluing, dismissing or ignoring. Even the kindest, most egalitarian and compassionate person tunes out some voices, so go ahead and give yourself a break and proceed.

All academic disciplines -- and many jobs -- force people into isolation both from colleagues and from other areas of society. They also assign value and worth (or lack thereof) to certain perspectives, experiences and ideas and those who speak about them. What might we all be missing because of this?

Consider asking yourself: Who is someone to whom I’ve not been listening carefully? Or at all?

If you are at a loss, consider who is or might be impacted by the work you are doing and use that to generate a list of individuals and/or groups to whom you might reach out. Even one experience of listening to them will change your perspective on how you value yourself and your work.

What is very heartening to me right now is that many of you who are currently in graduate programs and postdoctoral fellowships are dealing with circumstances that force you to be courageous and creative, as well as honest and open to change, both in your learning and in your work.

So, whether you are graduating this month or not, whether you have a job or not, whether you are pursuing something that someone might call a career or not, I want you to know that it’s an honor to get to listen to you, and you’re doing great.


Briana Mohan is a senior academic and career adviser in the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at Tulane University and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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