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Graduate education finally appears to be on the cusp of meaningful change. Resources for Ph.D.s seeking nonacademic jobs continue to increase, and reformers are reimagining what doctoral programs could look like if designed to support careers beyond the tenure track.
While these developments deserve applause, some skepticism remains. Faculty members may wonder why their field should change to accommodate the outside world. Administrators may question the prudence of investing scarce resources to help their best and brightest leave higher education. And students may worry that the time they give to exploring diverse careers will slow their time to degree, reduce their likelihood of securing a tenure-track job or amount to a one-time sunk cost—on top of the effort they already put into earning their degree.
Perhaps. But academe is already the alternative career for most Ph.D.s, and nothing indicates that experience outside disciplinary research or teaching damages one’s ability to compete on the academic job market. Other doubts remain justifiable. We may rightly ask, is it wise to spend so much time and so many resources to help people who’ve trained for one career to step into another? What’s the return on that investment?
I ask myself those questions often. My departure from academe for the world of corporate communications strategy has been, by most objective measures, a success. I am happier, wealthier and more optimistic about my future than I ever was as a graduate student or visiting assistant professor. But I frequently wonder whether I could have gotten to this point faster or with less discomfort. My pivot from academe was two and a half years of doubt and anxiety. A desire to wring greater value from that experience—to capture hard lessons and to smooth the path for others—was the main force that drove me to write my book, Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide.
Through that work, I have had occasion to speak with many other people about their career transitions. Without fail, their biggest fear is that they will make the wrong choice. They have already given five, 10, 20 years to a career many people view as their passion. A majority feel they are leaving academe under duress. If they must make a change, they want to be strategic—and to get the decision right once and for all.
Ironically, such a concern can induce paralysis. The multitude of career possibilities is truly staggering once you begin to explore the modern professional world, and it can be hard to narrow your focus until you feel like you have full information. The line between deep thinking and overthinking is blurry, especially for academics.
A Patriot Missile Approach
To evade this trap, we must get comfortable with uncertainty. For me, that mind-set shift happened after an informational interview with Brook Manville, an ancient history Ph.D. who has spent more than 30 years in strategy consulting.
“Chris,” he said, “you need to stop thinking about your career like the cursus honorum [the fixed series of political offices in the Roman Republic]. It isn’t going to follow a set path. Instead, you need to think of it like a Patriot missile.”
He went on to explain.
The Patriot missile is a surface-to-air defense system that shoots other missiles out of the sky. Its engineers faced a dilemma: the math involved in aiming one projectile moving faster than the speed of sound at another was too complicated in a real-world environment. Every time they tried, they missed.
To overcome this, they did something clever. At launch, the Patriot missile does not try to anticipate where its target will be on impact. Instead, it takes a trajectory that is directionally correct. Then, each time the missile cuts the distance to its target in half, a radar pings the target and instructs the missile to recalculate and adjust its course. This series of events happens again and again until the Patriot missile is within range to explode and neutralize its target.
Brook put a finer point on the analogy: careers are long and influenced by innumerable variables. If you launch yourself at a target that’s decades away, you’re probably not going to end up where you think. Instead, you should act like the Patriot missile: move in a direction that’s better than the one you’re moving in today and plan to readjust if or when you realize you’ve gone off course.
Viewed in these terms, it is easier to bypass the anxiety about making the right choice about your postacademic career. That’s because there is no right choice. You simply need to find a job that lets you build specific skills or work on specific problems or engage with a specific group—whatever you think is going to align with your professional and life objectives. That decision is not final. You will have many, many chances to refine your career trajectory as you proceed.
That, ultimately, is the genius of the Patriot missile metaphor: it provides an example of how to get where you need to go without knowing where that will be along the way.
Zigging and Zagging in Your Career
The modern economy supports the career vision I’ve just described. The days of joining General Electric after high school and climbing the company ladder are largely gone. That strategy may have made sense in the 1970s, when the average company on the S&P 500 was more than 35 years old and the promises of promotion and pension justified a lifelong commitment. Today, that average age has been cut in half. As companies are created or merged, they reassess their needs, rationalize roles and introduce new technologies to solve old problems or seize new opportunities.
Professionals have adjusted to that change with change of their own: today, people average five careers in a lifetime. While some of those transitions will be more extreme than others, each entails leaving a job for new experiences and, one hopes, higher pay and better bosses. Workers essentially vie to ride waves as they rise and to avoid being washed over by those about to crash.
A “career of many careers” makes sense in a world of rapid acceleration, where even today we can find countless jobs that would have been unthinkable two decades ago. If social media marketing were a human, it wouldn’t be allowed to drive yet. When today’s emergent technologies are equally mature, driving might not exist.
Thus, if you are a Ph.D. student, you should realize that career changes will remain a normal part of your professional life for the foreseeable future. And they will not be single, permanent pivots from one job to another but repeated zigs and zags that respond to—or, ideally, with—an evolving marketplace. Fortunately, as you make them, such adjustments will come more easily and faster each time your repeat the cycle: the process will no longer be new, and you will know what tactics work best for your own personality and style.
A New Vision for Professional Training
The Patriot Missile career model also holds lessons for university faculty and administrators. Preparing for its inevitability is essential for the 93 percent of graduate students entering programs in the humanities and social sciences who will not secure a tenure-track job. For the faculty who teach them and the administrators who assess their outcomes, doing so is both ethical and prudent. But what should this preparation look like?
First, it should teach a repeatable process. That’s vital given that directing one’s own career is a lifelong responsibility. Second, it should be strategic—in other words, it should help students survey their available options and select one that has a high probability of delivering the experience, salary or satisfaction that they determine is most essential for the next phase of their life. Third, it should be pragmatic, cultivating discrete skills like how to identify professional strengths, conduct informational interviews and translate one’s experience for professionals with no background (and often no interest!) in the details of one’s current work.
Crucially, this preparation must train people to recognize when they’re veering off course. The signs are hard to miss: we become bored, disengaged, distracted and easily frustrated. Those feelings are uncomfortable, but they’re a gift. They’re the radar ping telling us it’s time to recalibrate. When we notice them, it’s time to seek new opportunities that generate more significant potential for meaning and happiness.
Put differently, professional development should prepare graduate students to take control of their lives at precisely those moments when they feel most subject to outside forces.
This vision of professional training is not about strapping a neoliberal productivity engine onto academic disciplines that exist for altruistic ends. Rather, it is about returning to the most committed devotees of those disciplines the power of self-determination that is supposed to define the study of the liberal arts (Latin, artes liberales—“the skills suited to free people”).
Academe is evolving in this direction. Colleges and learned societies are establishing career diversity programs. New books on reimagining and improving Ph.D. professional outcomes seem to be released every semester. Private coaches and learning platforms make training in strategic career change accessible to those who lack institutional support. (I provide links to many of these resources on my website.)
My answer to whether that’s a good idea is that, yes, it definitely is. What often goes unsaid is the extent to which these investments are some of the most valuable that individuals and institutions can make. They may feel like they are born of necessity in response to a collapsed tenure-track job market, but they prepare students for professional life in ways that research and teaching cannot. Although they feel like single, time-bound efforts, they generate repeated returns as students fall back on career-change skills time and time again. Most important, they are entirely in keeping with the liberatory mission that higher education has always sought to advance: to equip students to take control of their futures rather than leaving them buffeted by forces that feel outside their control.
At this inflection point in graduate education, leaders across academe would do well to expand their investments in career diversity programs and make them central to doctoral training. Doing so will put student empowerment at the center of the curriculum and prepare Ph.D.s to navigate the world as it is—even as they shape it into what they believe it should be.