The misleading career choice that PhDs are asked to make
Graduate students and postdocs are often asked whether they will pursue academic or non-academic jobs. As someone with a purely academic trajectory so far, I bought into this view of the job market. However, I have realized that this mindset is fundamentally flawed and heavily biased.
Having carried out dozens of informational interviews with professionals in government, consulting, business, NGOs, and international organizations (not to mention academia), it has become clear to me that asking graduate students to choose between academic and non-academic jobs leads to a misrepresentation of the job market.
This may seem obvious to many people out there, especially those who are not academics (i.e. most people). Yet, this is the way that career and professional development offices at universities tend to frame their resources for graduate students and postdocs.
More realistically, graduate students and postdocs have to make an initial choice between doing research in academia, or teaching in academia, or doing research in the private sector, or working at a technical consulting firm or at a management consulting firm, or working at a company doing product development, or working in local, state, or federal government, or working in journalism, or working at an NGO, or at a think tank, or at a museum, or at an international organization, or starting their own company, and the list goes on and on. What is more, as I have been told by several professors and professionals, this choice is not necessarily permanent since it is common for PhDs to switch jobs and industries throughout their lives.
The point is that the differences between non-academic jobs can be as large as the differences between academic and non-academic jobs. This is true both in terms of the jobs themselves as well as the recruiting processes. For example, management consulting has a very particular recruiting process since candidates need to practice solving cases. In business, where at least half of jobs are not advertised, it is important to network and make connections within companies. On the other hand, there are also similarities between academia and non-academic sectors. Companies and organizations that are interested in the expertise that you have developed will often ask for your full CV and even invite you to give a technical talk (at least for STEM fields).
We are led to believe that the choice is between “staying in academia” and “leaving academia,” and this simple dichotomy is not necessarily a helpful way of thinking about one’s job search. It is true that, depending on your field, it may be very challenging to return to an academic job if you have been out of academia for a while. However, it is also possible to pursue non-academic jobs that allow you to keep publishing peer-reviewed articles (e.g. at some companies, think tanks, or NGOs), helping you to keep a foot in the research community in case you want to attempt to go back to academia later on.
It is possible that the underlying reason for dividing the job market for PhDs between academic and non-academic jobs is this high barrier preventing people from returning to academic research later on. However, this is a characteristic of academic jobs and not a reflection of the structure of the job market itself. Not wanting to close the door to an academic job in the future may be an important decision-making criterion for some people, but may not necessarily be the only one or the dominant one for others. The issue arises when this criterion is imposed as the dominant one for all graduate students and postdocs through the framing of the job search as a decision between academic and non-academic jobs.
To graduate students and postdocs, I recommend carrying out informational interviews as a way to learn about the different options out there. Also, think about how you can “prototype” your career as explained in this podcast, instead of trying to design the one, perfect career path from the beginning. Finally, I would like to encourage university career offices to break from this model of academic vs. non-academic job searches. Since most PhDs will not end up in academic jobs (whether by choice or due to the scarcity of faculty jobs), it is worth splitting the resources for non-academic job searches into more categories and preparing students and postdocs for the nuances of each type of job hunt.
(Edit: I made some edits to the original text for clarity and to emphasize that it may indeed be very, very hard to go back to an academic job afterwards, but also argue that this may not necessarily be the most important decision-making criterion for all graduate students and postdocs, and thus that this characteristic of academia should not define how the entire job market is presented.)