What Departments Can Do to Support Post-Ac PhD Students, Part 1

I got a question recently in my email inbox from a Director of Graduate Studies:

As a DGS, I was wondering if you or your organization had advice for departments on how they can better support PhDs going into non-academic settings. Do you happen to have (or have seen) a sort of “best practices” that departments can implement?

More and more of our graduates are going non-academic, and I want them to feel supported — but also prepared and competitive for that market. What would be helpful for us to be doing?

First of all, thank you for asking this question. It’s not often asked and it turns out I’ve got rather lot to say about it. I’ve divided my response into two posts. I’ll start with the mindset challenge and why I see academia creating environments that do not support folks moving from academia to industry. Then in the second post, I’ll give more concrete ideas for what departments can do.

If we look at the old school mindset for why most PhD programs were created, it was to train academics who will pursue scholarship in their field. This means that the PhD is set up to train students to become professors who will create knowledge and teach that knowledge to students. The hope is that some of those students will then want to go to grad school and become professors, reproducing the field.

In my experience, graduate students in PhD programs who do not get an academic job, or who decide that the academy is not right for them, are typically seen (consciously or unconsciously) as a failure of the institution to recreate themselves. If the goal is for the PhD program to create more academics in the field, when a PhD student expresses an interest in non-academic pursuits, does not get an academic job or decides not to apply for those jobs, it means the institution has not been able to recruit these students into the task of doing what they do.

This isn’t always nefarious. After all, it’s the system that professors know best. They may believe in the status and prestige of their job. They may believe in the mission of the knowledge of their field. They may assume that the choice to pursue a PhD comes with it a desire to be an academic who teaches and does research. They may feel they’ve failed someone if they haven’t delivered on that promise. Given that they presumably wanted that path themselves, it’s not surprising that they’d assume others want that too.

The thing is, this orientation creates a stigma towards people who are not interested in that mission. Graduate students who express a desire to pursue post-academic work can face negative comments about their choice from professors, advisors and university administrators. Some post-acs have told me they’ve experienced hostility to the idea that “real work” can be done outside the academy. Once they indicate an interest in pursuing non-academic work, they can find themselves with non-responsive advisors, scarce feedback on research or disapproving comments from people in their field. Obviously not all people in all institutions do this, but there is usually enough social pressure within the academy that saying that one does not wish to be an academic while pursuing a PhD is uncomfortable.

A graduate student who has an interest in post-ac pursuits may feel this social pressure and disguise their interest in post-ac work in order to appear more serious and to avoid backlash. When a newly minted PhD does not get a job (or the “right” job), the individual can internalize their “failure” by believing they “couldn’t make it” or they were “not good enough” to do what the institution expected. The student blames themselves for “not being the best and the brightest” instead of seeing the larger cultural shifts that have nothing to do with them.

What are these cultural shifts? We are currently seeing several years of tight academic job markets. Universities are adding more contingent labor in the form of adjuncts, lecturers and visiting positions, while tenure track positions dwindle. As PhD’s graduate, they compete for scarcer and more tenuous academic positions. At the same time, universities have not downsized their PhD programs because graduate students too are a form of needed institutional labor. That means more graduates and fewer jobs.

This old school mindset that Phd programs exist to create more academics in their field suffers several misconceptions: 1) that advanced skills in that field are needed only within the academy, 2) that the fields themselves are largely independent from one another, and 3) that the advancement of knowledge takes place only within the academy.

Even more destructively, this mindset creates an untenable culture where graduate programs push students to compete for scarcer resources and students who do not get the coveted tenure track position face painful institutional shaming and internalized feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and uselessness.

What can we do?

The very first task is for institutions that are interested in supporting and encouraging PhD students who are interested in post-academic positions is to shift the mission of your PhD program. This may seem subtle but it can make a big difference.

PhD programs could decide that their goal is to create capable and skilled practitioners in their field who can do this work in the world.

This shifted goal for PhD programs offers several potential benefits. First, it broadens the scope of the PhD’s work beyond simply work within the field — PhD’s do not just exist solely to within their academic silos, but rather to use their skills to do the work that is needed (it may go without saying, but these days there is a LOT of work that needs to be done). This work can be to solve theoretical or intellectual problems within the field. It can also be to work towards solving problems that the wider world engages in as well. To value both equally and to see both as benefitting the field itself is the starting place towards valuing non-academic work.

Second, as the world becomes more interconnected and our larger problems are more and more interdisciplinary, PhDs with deep knowledge in one area are needed. To be clear, interdisciplinarity does not require lowered standards, but rather conversations across disciplines to solve increasingly difficult global problems. Solutions for large scale challenges such as climate change and environmental degradation, global health, food systems, global economic instability, racial/ethnic strife, immigration, inequality, and more all require multiple perspectives and a commitment to talking across disciplines. These are not small problems and they are not served by people who “dumb down” their skillset. In fact, you could argue that this work is harder and more challenging because it requires one to do work that is as rigorous as is required in your field, but accessible to people outside of it as well.

Third, this goal focuses on what PhD programs do well, which is to train people for whom research — the ability to make claims and to support them with evidence — is a core skill set. This skill set is deeply valued by non-academics. Nonprofits have to show that the work they do matters. Government needs to make sense of evidence to make better policies and guidelines. Foundations need evidence to see what interventions actually make a difference. Corporations need to know what their clients and customers want and need. The media needs to make claims that can be trusted. Our society deeply needs people who can do high-quality research.

Finally, a mindset that values the role of the person who has these skills encourages the graduating PhD to see themselves as an important, valuable, and skilled professional. This is helpful both if they become a professor or if they choose to use their skills outside of the academy. When you take away the shaming of PhDs and replace that with pride and a willingness to explain and talk about their work as members of an academic discipline, you not only change the dynamics for the individual but you also create advocates for your discipline who can speak intelligently and do work that is valuable to your field. One could envision a future where industry seeks out PhDs from academic programs rather than shying away from hiring someone who is “overeducated”.

My experience with doing post-academic work is that there is incredibly vibrant, rewarding, and intellectually stimulating work to be done by PhDs in settings that are not colleges and universities. Furthermore, PhDs have an incredible skillset to offer and that there is no reason to feel ashamed for choosing to do our work in settings that are not the academy. Indeed, we might instead question why the academy does not value the use of the skills they have taught us outside of their own institutions.

The single most important thing a department can do to support their PhDs who choose non-academic careers is to orient themselves in such a way that they encourage the use of the skills from their field in a wide variety of contexts. If a department sees as its goal the education of people who will serve the world with the tools their your discipline, they will do more than reproduce their field, they will help to serve their discipline by training people with tools for research.

That’s my soapbox. Fear not, I also have pragmatic suggestions and I’ll address those next in Part Two.

More writing on postac life:

Beth M. Duckles is a researcher and ethnographer based in Portland, Oregon. Find her at bethduckles.com

Photo Credit: kathryn — IMG6432 — hoods