Why Are Phd Students Afraid of Pursuing Non Academic Careers?

Across all disciplines, the career prospects for recent graduates on the PhD job market continue to darken. According to the most recent NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates, the percentage of new PhD’s with job commitments (including postdocs) after they earn their doctorates is falling.

In 2014, the number of doctorate degrees awarded by U.S. institutions reached an all-time high of 54,070. Unfortunately, the survey also notes that the number of PhD’s who found academic employment or a postdoc at the time of graduation dropped from 69.5% to 61.4% between 2009 and 2014, with positions in the humanities dropping to an all-time low, from 63.3% to 54.3%.

According to the MLA’s annual report on its Job Information List, 2014/2015 saw 3% fewer jobs in English than the previous year, while the number of foreign language jobs decreased by 7.6%. The American Historical Association reports that job postings in history in 2014/2015 dropped by 8% compared to the prior year, the third year in a row that the association reported a decline.

Yet nearly half of new PhD’s who found employment reported that they found work in academia. In the humanities, academic employment makes for 80% of the employment reported by recent doctoral recipients. So what does this data tell us about the behavior of students facing the current PhD job market?

It tells us that despite the efforts made by many higher education institutions to promote non-academic careers, a large number of PhD graduates find employment in non-tenure-track positions, despite low pay, very little recognition for their work, and no benefits. In an article published earlier this month, Inside Higher Ed suggests that the reason why students do not explore all options of the PhD job market and still flock to academic positions off the tenure-track might be in part because the amount of debt held by PhD’s in the humanities and social sciences is higher than that of people graduating from the STEM fields. The urgency to find employment post-graduation could motivate students to seek employment directly related to their field of expertise at all costs.

However, this argument seems a little less convincing when one considers the salaries of non-tenure-track academic positions. Settling for low wages would considerably extend the amount of time it takes to pay down debt. Has academia simply become an easy way out of a difficult situation, or is there something deeper behind the decision by a large portion of the newly graduated PhD’s to stay on the academic bandwagon? Why do academic positions still remain attractive to PhD’s despite less than pleasing conditions? And especially, what kind of help do students really need to start considering non-academic positions as the approach graduation?

What do you think? Join in the conversation!

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