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Careers (not just jobs) for Ph.D.s outside the academy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A week ago I was in Boston for the 2013 annual meeting of the History of Science Society. Immediately after the session in which I was a speaker, I attended a session (Sa31 in this program) called “Happiness beyond the Professoriate — Advising and Embracing Careers Outside the Academy.” The discussion there was specifically pitched at people working in the history of science (whether earning their Ph.D.s or advising those who are), but much of it struck me as broadly applicable to people in other fields — not just fields like philosophy, but also science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The discourse in the session was framed in terms of recognizing, and communicating, that getting a job just like your advisor’s (i.e., as a faculty member at a research university with a Ph.D. program in your field — or, loosening it slightly, as permanent faculty at a college or university, even one not primarily focused on research or on training new members of the profession at the Ph.D. level) shouldn’t be a necessary condition for maintaining your professional identity and place in the professional community. Make no mistake, people in one’s discipline (including those training new members of the profession at the Ph.D. level) frequently do discount people as no longer really members of the profession for failing to succeed in the One True Career Path, but the panel asserted that they shouldn’t.

And, they provided plenty of compelling reasons why the “One True Career Path” approach is problematic. Chief among these, at least in fields like history, is that this approach feeds the creation and growth of armies of adjunct faculty, hoping that someday they will become regular faculty, and in the meantime working for very low wages relative to the amount of work they do (and relative to their training and expertise), experiencing serious job insecurity (sometimes not finding out whether they’ll have classes to teach until the academic term is actually underway), and enduring all manner of employer shenanigans (like having their teaching loads reduced to 50% of full time so the universities employing them are not required by law to provide health care coverage). Worse, insistence on One True Career Path fails to acknowledge that happiness is important.

Panelist Jim Grossman noted that the very language of “alternative careers” reinforces this problematic view by building in the assumption that there is a default career path. Speaking of “alternatives” instead might challenge the assumption that all options other than the default are lesser options.

Grossman identified other bits of vocabulary that ought to be excised from these discussions. He argued against speaking of “the job market” when one really means “the academic job market”. Otherwise, the suggestion is that you can’t really consider those other jobs without exiting the profession. Talking about “job placement,” he said, might have made sense back in the day when the chair of a hiring department called the chair of another department to say, “Send us your best man!” rather than conducting an actual job search. Those days are long gone.

And Grossman had lots to say about why we should stop talking about “overproduction of Ph.D.s.”

Ph.D.s, he noted, are earned by people, not produced like widgets on a factory line. Describing the number of new Ph.D.-holders each year as overproduction is claiming that there are too many — but again, this is too many relative to a specific kind of career trajectory assumed implicitly to be the only one worth pursuing. There are many sectors in the career landscape that could benefit from the talents of these Ph.D.-holders, so why are we not describing the current situation as one of “underconsumption of Ph.D.s”? Finally, the “overproduction of Ph.D.s.” locution doesn’t seem helpful in a context where these seems to be no good way to stop departments from “producing” as many Ph.D.s as they want to. If market forces were enough to address this imbalance, we wouldn’t have armies of adjuncts.

Someone in the discussion pointed out that STEM fields have for some time had similar issues of Ph.D. supply and demand, suggesting that they might be ahead of the curve in developing useful responses which other disciplines could borrow. However, the situation in STEM fields differs in that industrial career paths have been treated as legitimate (and as not removing you from the profession). And, more generally, society seems to take the skills and qualities of mind developed during a STEM Ph.D. as useful and broadly applicable, while those developed during a history or philosophy Ph.D. are assumed to be hopelessly esoteric. However, it was noted that while STEM fields don’t generate the same armies of adjuncts as humanities field, they do have what might be described as the “endless postdoc” problem.

Given that structural stagnation of the academic job market is real (and has been reality for something like 40 years in the history of science), panelist Lynn Nyhart observed that it would be foolish for Ph.D. students not to consider — and prepare for — other kinds of jobs. As well, Nyhart argues that as long as faculty take on graduate students, they have a responsibility to help them find jobs.

Despite profession that they are essentially clueless about career paths other than academia, advisors do have resources they can draw upon in helping their graduate students. Among these is the network of Ph.D. alumni from their graduate program, as well as the network of classmates from their own Ph.D. training. Chances are that a number of people in these networks are doing a wide range of different things with their Ph.D.s — and that they could provide valuable information and contacts. (Also, keeping in contact with these folks recognizes that they are still valued members of your professional community, rather than treating them as dead to you if they did not pursue the One True Career Path.)

Nyhart also recommended, especially the PhD Career Finder tab, as a valuable resource for exploring the different kinds of work for which Ph.D.s in various fields can serve as preparation. Some of the good stuff on the site is premium content, but if your university subscribes to the site your access to that premium content may already be paid for.

Nyhart noted that preparing Ph.D. students for a wide range of careers doesn’t require lowering discipline-specific standards, nor changing the curriculum — although, as Grossman pointed out, it might mean thinking more creatively about what skills, qualities of mind, and experiences existing courses impart. After all, skills that are good training for a career in academia — being a good teacher, an effective committee member, an excellent researcher, a persuasive writer, a productive collaborator — are skills that are portable to other kinds of careers.

David Attis, who has a Ph.D. in history of science and has been working in the private sector for about a decade, mentioned some practical skills worth cultivating for Ph.D.s pursuing private sector careers. These include having a tight two-minute explanation of your thesis geared to a non-specialist audience, being able to demonstrate your facility in approaching and solving non-academic problems, and being able to work on the timescale of business, not thesis writing (i.e., five hours to write a two-page memo is far too slow). Attis said that private sector employers are looking for people who can work well on teams and who can be flexible in contexts beyond teaching and research.

I found the discussion in this session incredibly useful, and I hope some of the important issues raised there will find their way to the graduate advisors and Ph.D. students who weren’t in the room for it, no matter what their academic discipline.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rkipling 4:31 pm 11/30/2013

    Allow me to offer some thoughts on the subject from an employer of people with engineering and chemistry Ph.D.s. Someone with a Ph.D. in the history of science would not likely be of any use to us.

    Our objective is innovation in product development not basic research. A Ph.D. is not a prerequisite but can be an advantage. We looked for people who wanted to work in industry not those who saw working in industry as a consolation prize. We pay better than full-time university positions, but we don’t offer months of vacation.

    I respect the effort people put into earning a Ph.D. My son has a Ph.D. in engineering. There are those of us who see working in industry as the higher calling with greater challenges and potential rewards than academia. It’s a matter of perspective I suppose.

    Unless someone is independently wealthy, employment prospects should be considered when selecting a field of study. I get the impression from your article that some participants in the session consider themselves a breed apart. I see Ph.D.s as highly trained people, but people they remain. They must prove their worth like everyone else.

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  2. 2. Devonshire 4:51 pm 11/30/2013

    As the brilliant Dale Carnegie, in his best selling book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” wrote in detail in the following named chapter:

    “When all else fails, throw down a challenge.”

    (ie. One must be INNOVATIVE, for example)

    Herbert A. Millington
    Chair-Search Committee
    412A Clarkson Hall , Whitson University
    College Hill, MA 34109

    Dear Professor Millington,

    Thank you for your letter of March 16. After careful consideration, I regret to inform you that I am unable to accept your refusal to offer me an assistant professor position in your department.

    This year I have been particularly fortunate in receiving an unusually large number of rejection letters. With such a varied and promising field of candidates, it is impossible for me to accept all refusals.

    Despite Whitson’s outstanding qualifications and previous experience in rejecting applicants, I find that your rejection does not meet my needs at this time. Therefore, I will assume the position of assistant professor in your department this August. I look forward to seeing you then.

    Best of luck in rejecting future applicants.

    Chris L. Jensen

    Link to this
  3. 3. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 5:28 pm 11/30/2013


    Perhaps one thing that makes the Ph.D. weird, from the point of view of cold economic calculations about means and ends, is that people earning them do not pay for this stretch of schooling (and indeed are usually paid for their research and teaching within the program, though not paid much). This means people who couldn’t swing the cost of even another bachelors degree are able to pursue something they really love.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I am one of those people — twice over.

    A problem is that many of us who entered Ph.D. programs motivated by what we would learn (such as what’s really involved in building new knowledge in one’s field) didn’t expect that so many of the people training Ph.D.s would view the whole thing as vocational training for a very narrow range of careers. Perhaps it’s that very flavor of vocational training that creates challenges for people trying to find careers (and ones that make them happy) with their skills at the other end.

    I’ve written a little bit about these issues in this post from last September and this post from last April.

    Link to this
  4. 4. rkipling 7:02 pm 11/30/2013

    I understand. I wish everyone could pursue knowledge for its own sake. Unfortunately the need to support one’s self is a reality for most. Information about number of Ph.D.s hired annually in various fields isn’t secret. The number and specialty of Ph.D. candidates is similarly available. For those seeking university professorships, this means only the best of the best, like you, will find employment. Ph.D. candidates should be bright enough to know this on their own without being so advised. If they know the prospects for employment in their selected field and pursue it anyway, as Dr. Nyhart said, a backup plan is a good idea.

    Not everyone has the luxury of doing a job they love. You may have data about job satisfaction, but I speculate the majority of people tolerate rather than love their jobs. We make a sustained effort to make a career here as rewarding as possible. If all our employees became independently wealthy tomorrow, I would not expect all of them to be at work on Monday. (The percentage that showed up in that situation would actually be great management feedback though.)

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  5. 5. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:55 am 12/2/2013

    Universities offer too little to zero training of Ph.D. students and postdocs in business and more general skills.

    It seems, a culture developed that a young scientist is a cheap manual labor fooled by non-existing prospects of a future career. This includes forcing or coaxing young students into projects with very low probability of ending in professorship-quality publications.

    I wonder why academia don’t punish professors whose students are given poor projects and fail to progress in their career? Too many “great labs” give dozens of poorly thought-of, random projects with the full knowledge that a professor will get one or two high-end publications, but most of the younger members will waste their careers.

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  6. 6. KirstyNewman 7:50 am 12/2/2013

    Great article! There is such a culture in academia of seeing any career beyond academia as a failure. I felt like I was letting people down when I pursued another path. I am writing a series of profiles this week of scientists who (like me) have entered the international development field and I hope it demonstrates 1. that having a science/reserach background can be really useful in non-academic jobs and 2. working in other fields can be amazingly rewarding and doesn’t mean that you have failed!

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