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From PhD to Life

Book review: The Unruly PhD


The Unruly PhD: Doubts, Detours, Departures, & Other Success Stories by Rebecca Peabody is a collection of first-hand accounts and interviews with people who’ve travelled in, through, and beyond graduate school.

After a brief introduction by Dr. Peabody, an art history PhD who works at the Getty Research Institute, the book is divided into three sections.

  • Part 1 is about PhDs in Academia. This section presents the stories of three anonymous (first name only) and relatively recent PhDs: a tenure-track professor, an adjunct instructor, and a postdoc.
  • Part 2 looks at PhDs Beyond Academia, and includes a further three stories, those of an author, a museum curator, and a patent attorney.
  • In Part 3, PhDs Redirected, we meet three individuals who left doctoral programs without finishing them, going on to work in nursing, the financial services industry, and higher education administration.

The book also includes interviews with a professor who moonlights as a TV documentary producer and host; an actor and director who pursued a doctorate while continuing his career; Karen Kelsky, the former tenured professor who quit her job and now operates The Professor Is In; and a novelist. Finally, Peabody presents an anonymous selection of responses to two big questions: 1) What did it take to get it done? and 2) What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?

This book provides a fascinating glimpse into the work and lives of people who’ve pursued PhDs in humanities disciplines (and one in neuroscience). The stories will resonate with readers pursuing graduate degrees, or considering doing so, and those who’ve moved on after finishing (or not). I found myself at turns dismayed and delighted by the tales. It’s hard for me to read about Josephine, the adjunct who’s sacrificed so much for her education and is now dreaming of a tenure-track job. It’s frustrating to learn that Derek, who got himself a tenure-track job in the perfect-for-him location, cancels a class every semester so he can go surfing (“It’s just one of those things I do”). But there’s enough variety in here to cover a wide range of experiences and reflections, and that’s a good thing.

“Academia is a cult,” Dr. Kelsky says in her contribution. That may strike some readers as exaggeration, but these essays make plain the narrow vision and limited narrative of career success promoted by graduate school. Jason’s thinking will resonate with many PhDs:

It was at the end of that two-year [teaching] position that I really started thinking there were probably other things I could do, other things I could be good at. I’d see an ad for a paralegal or something like that, and I’d think, shit, I can do all that stuff, and I’d be better than those people. I knew I could teach at any level. I talked about union organizing with a friend of mine. But there was never the confidence that I would be really good, or that I’d really enjoy doing something else. You don’t really feel empowered to go and try other things because the costs are too great at that point — the stakes are too high. You’ve devoted a ton of time to school. And I liked it. I was really good at it, except for not being able to finish papers fast enough. I still thought this whole academia thing should somehow work out for me.

A few years later, Jason had left his film studies PhD program without finishing his degree and made his way to the financial services industry. “I’m more comfortable in this strange corporate environment than I ever thought I would be or could be,” he says.

My own reading of the contributions in this book stem from my interest in career transition after graduate school. But readers who are, or may soon be, in graduate school, as well as long-time academics, will find much of value in these largely positive personal stories. Recommended.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. Dr. Frankl / February 25, 2015 at 12:42

    Insightful book. Thank you for sharing so many experiences. I did my PhD late in life (at 64) because, after retiring from business a few years earlier, I wanted to do something useful – share my experience with the new generation of business students. Exploring academia from a business perspective, I often found that academics tackle problems mostly from a theoretical point of view. I believe now that I am part of this group, it is much better if one can introduce business students (MBA hopefuls) to both views – the theoretical one and the experiential one. Like with apprenticeships, the hands-on approach has more value in business, and probably in quite a variety of other life endeavours too.