I was raised in a family that prioritized education. My parents stressed the value and importance of both formal and informal learning from when I was in diapers, and instilled in me the notion that a university education was the key to my future social and economic wellbeing. I eagerly accepted this education-centric worldview and made it my own. I was always pretty good at school, and it was exciting to think that doors would magically open for me if I maintained my success. From elementary school on, there was never any question about whether I would attend university, only where and what I would study, and for how long. After all, as I distinctly remember reasoning, if an undergraduate degree was the base requirement for obtaining a worthwhile job, than a Master’s degree must surely be a pathway to even better jobs and an even more secure future.
If a Master’s degree was a surer bet than an undergrad, then a PhD loomed in my mind as the educational equivalent of a diplomatic passport: a PhD must be a super-degree that allowed its holders to bypass congested queues in the labour market, and permitted its holders to move through life speedily and with a minimum of struggle. Though the PhD lost its mystical qualities as I progressed through my BA and MA, it still seemed like a good investment. From day one of my Master’s, my goal was to become a professor. But should I fall short of that goal, I believed, a PhD would put me in an ideal position to obtain meaningful non-academic employment.
Now, as I enter my fifth month of post-doctoral unemployment, I know better. My PhD, by itself, didn’t score me the tenure track job that I coveted, and I have little hope in my academic prospects going forward. And far from opening doors for me outside of the academy, I fear that my PhD may actually be causing them to shut. People increasingly ask whether I now regret investing so much time and money in my graduate degrees. Regret strikes me as too harsh a term: regret devalues the research that I laboured over, cheapens the priceless experiences that I had along the way, and repudiates the life-long friends that I met throughout my scholastic endeavours. But definitely, there are situations I would have approached differently had I known the frustration that awaited me in the non-academic job market. So rather than regret having done a PhD, I instead wish that I had understood the following six things before I started down that road:
1. Professorial jobs are a long shot
The academic job market has been stagnant for years. These days, less than 20 per cent of PhDs matriculate to tenure-track positions, though this number surely fluctuates from field to field. The market will further tighten as the supply of PhD continues to swell and far outstrips institutional demand for professors. The impending retirement of scores of baby boomer academics may improve matters marginally. But then again, with universities increasingly turning to part-time, “adjunct” labour, it may not.
2. PhD skills are not always transferrable
Obviously, most jobs outside the academy do not require a PhD. Those that do are typically in fields like scientific research, statistics or computer programming. As a humanities/social science graduate, I was well aware that I would likely not encounter a non-academic job asking for a PhD in my specific area of expertise.
I expected, however, to be able to leverage my core PhD skills – reading, writing, presenting/public speaking, research, critical thinking, and analysis – into gainful employment. I quickly learned that these skills are not coveted unless they are backed up with non-academic job experience. Simply put, many employers are more likely to be impressed by one or two years of corporate report writing than by the successful preparation and oral defense of a 400 page dissertation. I also learned that “research” often means something quite different than what I did during my PhD. Researcher positions tend to fall under one of three categories: scientific research, quantitative research/statistical analysis, and market research (for which a high school diploma is often sufficient). The market for freshly graduated humanities/social science researchers specializing in qualitative research is minuscule.
3. A PhD can be a liability
We have all heard the epithets: PhDs are divorced from reality, elitist, lacking common sense, intellectually smug and ill-equipped to negotiate a fast-moving workplace. Preposterous categorizations to be sure, but they regrettably appear to be relatively well entrenched in the non-academic job market. A distressing number of employers, some of whom held doctorates themselves, have told me point blank that they don’t consider applications from recently finished PhDs, citing one or more of the stereotypes listed above.
4. The most important work accomplished during a PhD may not be directly related to one’s doctoral research
There are all sorts of opportunities for doctoral students to involve themselves in extracurricular projects, both at the university and within the wider community. Because experience takes precedence over education, it would behoove doctoral students to capitalize on these opportunities for valuable resume fodder. The issue, once again, is experience. Employers are unlikely to be impressed by how many book reviews an applicant published in academic journals, but will be intrigued if said applicant helped write a report for an advocacy group; employers generally don’t care if applicants ran a graduate student seminar, but may be interested if that applicant coordinated a nursing study.
5. A robust network trumps a glittering resume
Employment counsellors claim that between 75-85 per cent of jobs are filled without ever being posted. I see no reason to doubt this. Most positions, it seems, are filled either internally or through referrals. Therefore, job seeking often is less about what an applicant knows than about who they know. In retrospect, I wish I would have commenced networking and cultivating relationships with people outside of academia while I was still working on my PhD.
6. A resume is not a CV
Constructing a resume, as opposed to an academic curriculum vitae, can be a time-consuming and frustrating process for the uninitiated and many PhDs only get the hang of it after they’ve written a few dozen. It took me over a month of practice and exasperation before I compiled a half-decent resume. It goes without saying that this month could have been better spent. There are career counsellors at every university and at community employment offices trained to help with this endeavour.
Our opinion is that the opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their opinion, and not necessarily those of HEQCO.
Now that you’ve been introduced to blogger Terry Gitersos and his lessons learned, we invite you to stay tuned for his periodic HEQCO blogs, which will describe his efforts to crack the labour market. His blog will continue until he finds that post-doctoral job, or until he tires of writing about it… And coming early this summer is a HEQCO @Issue paper that sums up the realities of pursuing a doctorate in Ontario, trends in enrollments and what we know to date on doctoral student pathways into the labour market. Don’t miss it.