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From PhD to Life

Changing the dominant narrative of success after the PhD


At last night’s Versatile PhD meetup in Toronto, a fellow PhD told me about her experiences talking to professors about her current (non-academic) work. In some cases, they were positive, encouraging, and interested; in others, they were confused and dismissive.

I share this anecdote because it reminds me of my own attitude during my doctorate: tenure-track or bust. The narrative of career success in the humanities and social sciences, and at higher ranked schools in particular, often excludes non-faculty positions. This was the air I breathed, and the outlook I had for several years. When I think back on my negative views about PhDs who “failed” on the job market, I’m struck by my own failure of imagination.

Fast-forward several years, and I now encourage taking a broader view of success after graduate school.

What changed my views? Knowing that others were happy and fulfilled and engaged in meaningful work outside academia helped. Knowing that they were smart, creative, and critical of world around them was useful.

Here’s a second anecdote. I took several courses during my undergrad with a sessional (adjunct) instructor who had a full-time job in the civil service. He enjoyed his work, found it challenging, and believed it was valuable. Although his former PhD supervisor once commented to me that it was “a shame” he didn’t get an academic post, that’s not the story he told me.

I think my instructor saw himself as a success. By most measures, he certainly was. It may be a shame for academia that he wasn’t a full-time professor, but it didn’t seem to be for him. I don’t know if his former supervisor realized what the judgment implied.

What if during graduate school I’d interacted with other people like him? What if I’d heard their answers to thoughtful questions about identity, meaning, well-being, and work PhDs actually do after earning their degrees? What if there had been an ongoing conversation between alumni, students, and faculty members about the value of higher education, the humanities, and who we were in the world? What if I’d retained the curiosity I had as an undergrad about my professor’s day-job into the latter years of my PhD? What if I’d been exposed, perhaps in spite of myself, to the many fascinating, surprising, and wonderfully diverse careers people like me go on to have?

I can’t know the answers to these questions, but I wonder if some of the challenges newly-minted PhDs experience could be avoided by open dialogue and regular interaction with those who’ve been there, done that, and gone on to all sorts of jobs and careers.

What do you think?

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. Miranda / March 21, 2014 at 14:21

    Fantastic post, so thanks!
    As I watch my department sort through options for PhD training, I keep hoping that lower-funded state programs might gain higher reputations and lead by example by doing just this: realizing that their PhDs need a wider range of options and then setting up a program that presents those possibilities as valuable.

    • Jennifer Polk / March 22, 2014 at 17:47

      Indeed! That would be great!

  2. Sarah Boon (@SnowHydro) / March 24, 2014 at 22:57

    I think this is why it’s important for people to share their stories – not just who they are now, and what they do now, but how they got there via the academic path. Hearing someone else’s story – hearing many other peoples’ stories – is what PhD students need to figure out what their own story should be.

    • Jennifer Polk / March 25, 2014 at 12:32

      Yeah! Agree. It’s incredibly important. Thanks Sarah!

  3. Isaiah Hankel / March 25, 2014 at 11:47

    Excellent Article Jennifer, I agree with your perception that there seems to be a “failure” tagged to those who don’t make it in academia. I am much more fulfilled, like yourself, outside the academic career path. Fulfilment in your career, I believe is related specifically to tasks that you do on a daily basis, and your overall purpose. Making the role of people like yourself even more important in raising that awareness.

    • Jennifer Polk / March 25, 2014 at 12:33

      Thanks Isaiah! And the work you do, too!

  4. Adam Costanzo / March 25, 2014 at 11:54

    Given the pace of turnover of tenured jobs at the institutions that train Ph.D.’s I fear that the change will come quite slowly. But I do think it will come.

    Hopefully, the four universities that recently received money from the Mellon Foundation to make some headway on this problem will have success. Here’s the Chronicle article announcing the awarding of the grant.

    $1.6-Million Grant Will Better Prepare History Ph.D.’s for Range of Careers

    • Jennifer Polk / March 25, 2014 at 12:35

      Thanks for pointing this out, Adam! I think it’s a good step forward, and I’d love to know how it goes. In my own case, I’ve changed careers completely, so I’m not doing history at all anymore… but I take all that I learned and did and use it in my new career as a coach and consultant. I think it’s really valuable to see that we can do all kinds of things that seemingly have nothing to do with our fields of study!

  5. Jill Andrew / March 30, 2014 at 18:05

    Absolutely wonderful post! And so necessary to hear other perspectives on the PhD “trajectory.” It spoke DIRECTLY to my own life situation as a doctoral student!

    • Jennifer Polk / March 31, 2014 at 13:48

      Yay! Thank you, Jill 🙂 I’m glad. Here’s to making things better!