When Ph.D.s realize they won’t be professors

Young academics struggle with the transition from school to work


Academia_VS_Workforce_POST(1)Jennifer Polk was a few years into her Ph.D. in history at the University of Toronto when she attended a departmental meeting and heard that 50 per cent of the school’s graduates were getting tenure-track professor jobs. “They were patting themselves on the back,” she says. “I was sitting there horrified.” She realized she needed another plan. Since that meeting several years ago, the number of jobs for academics has fallen further. The chance of becoming a professor is now estimated to be one in four.

Charmaine Grant began her Ph.D. three years ago partly because she couldn’t get a full-time job after finishing her M.A. in literature at Ryerson University. “I said to myself, there’s no way I can go through another year of this, just sending my CV into cyberspace,” she says. “I thought my time would be better spent in school.” She was thinking less about whether she would become a professor and more about how exciting it would be to continue her scholarship on black women’s hair. Today, still unable to see herself as a professor, she’s quit the doctorate and begun a job search.

Both women say that the culture of academia has made the transition from graduate school to work more difficult than it ought to be. “Everyone asks you, inside and outside the academy, ‘So are you going to be a professor?’ ” says Polk, “When you get to the point where you realize maybe this is not for me, you feel like a loser.”

A couple of recent studies, The 2013 Canadian Postdoc Survey and Beyond Labs and Libraries: Career Pathways for Doctoral Students, confirm that many graduate students aren’t getting the support they need to prepare for non-academic careers.

The Postdoc Survey, a partnership between the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars and Mitacs (an organization that coordinates industry-university research partnerships, including internships) consulted 1,830 of the estimated 9,000 Ph.D. graduates working as entry-level “postdoctoral researchers” in Canada. They found that their average age was 34 and roughly two-thirds earned less than $45,000 annually, many without benefits. Half reported no exposure to non-academic careers and 87 per cent said they either had no access to career counselling or were uncertain thereof. Nearly seven in 10 said their career goal was to become a professor—despite the odds. While large numbers agreed they wanted training in things like grant or proposal writing and project management, few were getting any. Some of their comments were revealing: one said non-academic careers were seen as “selling out or failing.”

The good news is that most master’s and doctoral graduates who leave the academy eventually find high-paying work. Statistics Canada’s 2013 National Graduates Survey looked at where the class of 2010 ended up three years later. Among master’s graduates, 90 to 95 per cent were working full-time, depending on the province (the rest were unemployed or not seeking work). Among doctoral graduates, employment rates ranged from 90 to 100 per cent. Median pay was $70,000 for master’s graduates and $75,000 for doctoral graduates, compared to $53,000 for bachelor’s graduates.

The other good news is that a group of Ontario academics is working to develop training to ease the transition. Allison Sekuler, AVP and dean of graduate studies at McMaster University, is part of a project that will, this fall, launch 18 learning modules for graduate students covering everything from resumés to networking. “They have a lot of skills but don’t know how to adapt those for non-academic careers,” she says.

Polk struggled to figure out how to apply her skills outside of the academy. She hadn’t enjoyed teaching, but she did build writing skills and community building skills, not only through her doctoral work but also through her indie music blog and at a part-time job where she worked with consultants.  “I went straight through: high school, undergrad, M.A., Ph.D.,” she says. “When I finished I was 32 years old. I mean, thank God for the music scene experience. Thank God for the consulting.”

She’s capitalized on those strengths by starting a new blog, FromPhDtoLife.com, which includes interviews with other people who transitioned out of academia. One of her favourites is from a guy who, at age 36, finished his Ph.D. and spent months working for his brother-in-law’s duct cleaning company—and enjoyed it. After that, he found work at a museum consulting firm. The blog helps her drum up business as a life coach. She charges by the hour to help young academics plan their careers.

Grant, meanwhile, is wary of her lack of experience outside the academy but exploring options. She’s glad she took on a Mitacs internship and other work with the Diversity Institute while doing her Ph.D. because it helped her build new skills. “I had to learn how to work within a team and ask for help when I needed it,” she says. Her work on the Black Experience Project also taught her how grant-proposal writing differs from academic writing. She’s thinking of applying those skills in her career or maybe trying something entirely new, like learning American sign language. Whichever direction she takes, after a decade of university, it’s going to be a big change.

Grant, Polk, Sekuler and Val Walker, a policy analyst with Mitacs, will be panelists in a Maclean’s moderated discussion about life after graduate school at the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences at Brock University, 2:30 p.m. on Monday, May 26th.


When Ph.D.s realize they won’t be professors

  1. Well there is the UK, the US, China, India, Russia…..and eventually you’ll come back with all that experience under your belt that no one can teach you….or match.

    There are also companies, NGOs, places like the UN….all the global organizations….

    It’s not like you’re looking at being a greeter at Walmart…

    • A greeter at Wal-Mart makes more than an unemployed person with a PHd.

      Maybe these PHD folks should try their hand at plumbing. At least that is a useful job that actually provides a service.

      • PhDs m’dear employ plumbers, so enough with you ‘anti’ stuff.

        • Not when they’ve been employed as a barista for the last ten years.

          • PhDs are not employed as baristas for ten years. Be serious.

      • PHd, PHD, PhD…whatever.

      • PhDs get educated past the point of being practical people. An academic arrogance and loss of reality sets in. Education is like salt, too little or too much doesn’t always work out well.

        • Yeah if you can’t have one, then nobody else should either eh?

          So much for Einstein, Hawking, Curie, Feynman, Goodall, Turing, Tyson, Sagan etc……and most of our modern world.

  2. “It’s not like you’re looking at being a greeter at Walmart”

    With a PhD in .. history? I would bet they ARE ‘looking at being a greeter at Walmart’.

    • None of you folks ever read the articles on salary here eh?

      • Seriously… stop defending those bad decisions and make my damn half whip non fat soy latte post haste.

        • Srsly, rednecks can’t read.

          • I’m a physician from downtown Toronto and my watch costs more than your house. Please don’t make mindless accusations of my being a “redneck” without evidence that’s warranted. Hey, maybe you can do a PhD on idiots with PhDs calling people rednecks?

    • Historic non fiction is a big industry right now. They consistently top best seller charts, far above fiction.

  3. The key change in the availability of tenure track positions in PSE is the same change occurring through society. We is moving away from a democracy and into an autocracy or oligarchy dominated by the corporate sector. They have dominated the research and education agenda with a steady progression of hard edged lobbying and other political operations that have steadily reduced resources for curiosity driven research in favour of industry partnerships refereed by cheques. The majority of the tenured faculty community has co-operated and/or passively watched as this has occurred. For example, NSERC Industry funding is much easier to get: an NSERC Rep from Ottawa admitted a few years ago the strategic grants without industry funding had a 10% success rate; the parallel program has an 80% success rate with an industry cheque attached.

    The increased workloads associated with faculty jobs come from ever increasing competition on the research side and declining faculty numbers relative to student populations.

    The best way to minimize the impact of any independent thought community is to lop off heads as your army is taking over. That is being achieved (luckily in a figurative sense for current faculty) quite well. How many current tenured professors will be replaced with a tenure track appointment? Retirements and subsequent hirings under term contracts are effective beheadings of the academic freedom and independent opinions that PSE is supposed to provide to society. The current soldiers of tenured independent thought, professors of today, may have done a rather poor job of defending the next generation of academics.

    The academy evolved for very good reasons. It is being dismantled to counter those same reasons.

    • what immediately came to mind is what are the proven results of what you mentioned, …Educationally, the lobbing off of heads, slow, methodical takeover by the “Corporate Sector”, and their lobbyists.
      Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL), National Research Council (NRC) , and these are just 2 quick examples, but they are today, just NON-existent shells, of what they used to be. ?!
      I’m sure there are thousands of other examples regarding this methodical “dismantling”,…., and it’s repercussions.
      This is, no doubt, the result of, over a few years, our Gov’t being in bed (solely) with the “Corporate Sectors”.

    • Actually the domination I see is Orwellian Statism and not enough room for so many consumptive government and academic consumption jobs. Take housing…. (but simplified and not including bank/debt costs for clarity)

      We earn $800k to pay $400k in all taxes, income, employement (emp/empl), WC, city/utility/property/edu) …to buy a $400k home where labour and materials are also 50% taxed….for a all earn/spend tax out home cost of $200k. So statism benefits 75% and we commoner productive slaves pay 25%.

      We are so taxed and tax/protectionism inflated we need uncompetitive wages to compete and lose jobs to other countries. And so busy paying hidden and real taxes with the inflation to support government kids we can’t afford our own. Getting worse too, a young are buying single bed bachelor(ette) condos and not family homes, stunting “family” development for even less kids.

      We never had inflation, debt fraud, debt-tax slavery for corp/union/banks/opulent education and other uncommon good money for nothing waste back in 1867-1914 when bank/debt/governemtn fraud and statism was a small fraction of todays burden on society.

      Reality is Canada needs less consumption jobs (gov/edu/FN/prov welfare/bloat) and more productive people making something of tangible value.

      The real issue is we have too much big fat consumptive wasteful government sucking too much from productive Canada than is good for our society. Just like pricing elasticity, taxation statism greed needs to acknowledge we are too highly taxed for all sources hidden and real to be a economically viable nation. We are on the decline.

      Last year this time we were a USD $1.8 trillion economy, this year we are a USD $1.65 trillion economy, and its fair to quote USD as CAD fiat depreciation money is not fair value when looking at the world. Just ask seniors who are being devalued with the workers.

  4. Humanities professors have long extolled the virtue of getting a B.A. as pure education rather than training for a future career. It’s a bit amusing to see people who’ve doubled- or tripled-down on their humanities education through graduate studies suddenly realize that it’s no guarantee of employment.

    Anyway – got that out of my system. I think it’s important to realize that a graduate degree is a valuable credential, but the holder needs to understand how to apply it in the real world. The drawback of grad studies is that you’re marinating in the world of academia, which isn’t always particularly connected or sensitive to the needs of the bigger economy. My M.Sc. has been the ticket to a more rewarding career in engineering R&D thanks to a deeper understanding of the science and experience in applied research. However, I’ve seen a lot of Ph.D. graduates who can’t do much more than write academic papers in narrow, esoteric fields. That’s great if you’re going to be a career academic, but isn’t helpful when you need to deliver results on a quarterly schedule.

  5. so, this article – one of a mini-industry of articles about what we phd grads/students are supposed to do post-academia/how we are supposed to transition out of academia – essentially goes nowhere, like all the others. the suggestions/examples we are given of “successful” post-academics are to be a blog writer/life coach (a scam profession on par with academia i’d wager) or take on an internship to learn how to manage projects, do team work, ask for help, and delegate? seriously?
    that the world is offering today’s young people nothing better than this has to offer us the conditions for a massive social revolt. the neoliberal trashing of the university has barely begun and its results are already dismal. when will we coordinate a coherent and effective response, and not just meekly accept our future “coaching” people to “live”?

  6. Part of the problem is that we’ve encouraged far too many young people to go to university, and universities are more than willing to take their money. The result is that we have far more potential professors than there are job openings for them. Market value will then rear it’s ugly head in some fashion no matter how you try to prevent that. A few observations, though….
    A scholarship on “black women’s hair”? Really? Really? If you are in your mid-20’s and haven’t established some clear employment potential from your field of study, get used to not making money because you have decades of it ahead of you. Because far too many go to university, the quality of the grads goes down. I have encountered far too many semi-literate university grads to count. The ability to pay for a university education has long ago trumped strong intellect and a bright mind in the halls of academia. In my career, the number of engineers and educators I have met who possess a stunning lack of general knowledge never ceases to boggle my mind. When I find myself with a greater understanding of history, English, and economics than any teacher my own age I’ve ever met, it gives me great cause for concern. When I routinely encounter engineers who lack any form of active curiosity, and often remind me that they are anything but intellectually driven, I am again concerned.
    This pattern is oft repeated among the people I know with university degrees to a surprisingly large degree. Many, if not most would have been far better served by entering the workforce straight out of high school as opposed to four years of studies whose main result was a large debt. For too many, all university does is forestall the advent of adulthood.

  7. “…and more about how exciting it would be to continue her scholarship on black women’s hair. ”

    We’ve arrived at that moment in history when we can’t tell the difference between The Onion and “real news”.

    • Now THAT’S some funny stuff…

    • I honestly thought this was a typo for something like “black women’s healthcare” or something that, you know, might be moderately useful to society.

    • Agreed. We should rename CBC to the Canadian Onion.

      Canadians BSing Canadians as we are forced to pay for it.

  8. Ahh ‘black women’s hair’….time for rednecks to yuk it up eh?.

    Never realizing it has to do with a black woman being able to pass as white….and have a better life because of it….or any of the anguish that went with having more money for food.

    A thesis or dissertation is a highly specialized topic folks….for a reason.

    How about the effect of lead in stained glass windows on the congregations in Germany in the 1600s? You like that any better?

    • Seriously, why is money being spent studying this? I have an MD, PhD, at least I do something useful for the world. Studying “black women’s hair” is imo, the definition of “wasting your life” and the money of the taxpayers who subsidize your useless education.

      • Well I doubt you have those degrees because obviously you didn’t understand anything I said.

        I’ll bet if I told you about a graduate degree in 17th century Romantic French poetry….you’d think the student would have to go out and get a job in that!

        A bachelor’s degree is a working knowledge of a subject. A masters….means you’ve mastered it. A PhD means you are ready to do original work in the field.

        It means you can start a project….do some new thinking….know how to research and write it up…add to the knowledge in the world

        A ‘black woman’s hair’ is part of black culture in the US….big enough to determine if you eat or not. Black culture is definitely knowledge we need about survival, adaptation and what society is likely to be in the future.

        • This comment has been removed.

          • Remedial reading is a good idea for people of your age. Then you wouldn’t waste time on here repeating what has just been explained.

        • Yes, but this begs the question of WHETHER something needs to be mastered or whether original work needs to be done on a subject. Regardless of your (dare I say stupid) justification, some topics (French literature, black women’s hair etc.) don’t NEED to be studied.

          If the world needs to hear more about black women’s hair while say, AIDS exists, then PhDs and masters students are perhaps of better use making my latte.

  9. Amazing how much academic stupidity there is. If there are 4 people looking for 1 job, it will not pay well. BTW, I am a graduate, they got my compliance so I passed in the top 10% of the class, but they didn’t get my mind.

    Students need to look at their top 10 likes, eliminate consumption jobs and highlight productive jobs…yes, you need to like your job to be good at it but ECONOMICS does mater. And our society is saturated with consumption graduates but far short on productive job graduates.

    Consumption jobs are easy jobs but increasingly hard to get include arts, lawyers, government jobs, teachers, profs, sexology, travel and other jobs of low durable and non-value added consumption.

    But tons of jobs for productive jobs. Have 2 years college in say HD mechanics and 2 year experience, if you get to Alberta at 1pm I will have you 5 job offers by 4pm. If you want to clean chickens as you have no PRODUCTIVE value added skills, you can always displace a TFW worker and clean chickens. Be it low end cleaning chickens, or top end international mining engineering, there are LOTS of production jobs and a shortage of qualified workers as they all got consumption education.

    Just because you get a degree or PhD, it isn’t a guarantee of a job if society doesn’t need the skills. Just means a lot of economic illiterate kids got in debt for degrees that don’t pay.

Sign in to comment.