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From PhD to Life

Do PhDs really want tenure-track jobs?


Last week the US National Endowment for the Humanities announced a major new funding initiative for career preparation programming for graduate students. In response, professor and higher ed commentator Marc Bousquet argued that there was little need for these programs:

While no one is going to argue against supporting degree holders who search for nonprofessorial employment, there’s little evidence that they actually need more of this help. My cohort of graduate school activists in the mid-1990s was already perfectly aware that folks with doctorates who went the nonprofessorial route generally had low unemployment and good jobs. According to the MLA and AHA surveys, that hasn’t changed. These folks have consistently found excellent employment without placement help from their professional associations.

I keep up this blog (and am building a business) to serve PhDs who aren’t finding “excellent employment.” I speak with doctoral degree holders on a regular basis who are struggling to get themselves “good jobs,” particularly if they earned their degrees within the past few years or have only recently starting looking beyond the professoriate. The surveys Bousquet cites only provide limited information. They do not include data about the quality of employment, nor are they necessarily representative.

Bousquet later commented that, “Of course it’s fine to help people find good alternate jobs. My concern is with the Potemkin village effect. Many floundering doctoral programs will have brand-new pre-inflated metrics. Instead of having data demonstrating a real collective challenge (adjunctification of college teaching), we’ll have metrics demonstrating a false and cheery collective success (look! everyone gets a great job!).” Indeed.

I think (for I do not know for certain) that PhDs go on to create wonderful careers for themselves. But while that may end up being true, the first few years after a PhD – or the first few years after an academic starts pursuing a different career – can be excruciating. Those years may be spent attempting to build a business before seeking entry-level work in another field; working as an adjunct instructor while also picking up part-time or occasional contract work elsewhere in the university; working freelance to earn some money while continuing to network and apply to non-academic positions; securing employment through temp agencies, all the while struggling to identify more suitable job options. One Canadian study found that a significant minority of humanities PhDs were unemployed (but in the labour market) two years after graduation: fifteen percent of 2005 graduates, sixteen percent of 2000 graduates and eleven percent of 1995 graduates. A further five, seven, and nine percent, respectively, were self-employed (p. 75).

It’s a fair assumption that most, and perhaps the vast majority of PhD students intend to pursue a tenure-track professorial job once they are done. We have stats that show this – this study, for example, found that 86 percent of humanities doctoral graduates planned to work as professors (p. 20). But we also know that doing a doctoral degree socializes students into academia. As Kelly J. Baker recently pointed out, academia is a “total institution.” It’s part of the logic of the system that graduate students want to secure research positions at universities after they graduate. That intention is baked into their experience. Alternative possibilities fade away or never emerge at all as students immerse themselves in the academic world.

If what PhD students really want is tenure-track jobs, that by all means let’s aim to provide them with that. It is clear that the crisis of casualization in higher education is a major problem with wide-ranging consequences. But while we work to solve it, let’s disentangle the employment desires of doctoral graduates from the total-institution culture that makes them want tenure-track jobs. That’s the aim of my work.

I didn’t enter my PhD wanting to work as a professor. But I did want this by the time I finished. It took me a while to realize that the life I wanted to build for myself could be better achieved outside the Ivory Tower. I had no idea back then that the work I do now was possible, or that I’d find it as fun, meaningful, engaging and rewarding as I do. I’m convinced that a similar ignorance keeps many a sessional (adjunct) instructor, postdoc, and even some professors in situations that don’t suit them as well as others would.

Let me end this post by sharing a story about a client of mine. She’s a recent PhD who’s been working in a non-academic position for several months now. Her intention has always been to move to a tenure-track job, and she’s applying for them on her evenings and weekends. But in our last couple of sessions we’ve talked about how she’s starting to really love her current job, starting to see how the work she’s doing and planning on doing in future within the context of a new-to-her industry is fun and fascinating. She can see that she’s making an impact . . . and it’s scaring her. She’d never thought she might want to build a career beyond the professoriate. Who knows where she’ll be a year from now, but now that she’s working elsewhere, the influence of academic culture is waning and her career thinking is expanding.

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. Michelle Beauchamp / October 30, 2015 at 16:36

    The answer to this question from me, is an emphatic “Yes!”. However, as the author mentions, there is an increasing trend in universities to hire sessional instructors at considerably lower wages (and with no benefits). So am I optimistic that I will find a tenure-track position? Unfortunately, the answer here is “no”.

    I finished my PhD in December 2013 and began teaching in January 2014. While I have been lucky enough to continue to pick up courses in every term since then, the total lack of security or certainty, along with the aforementioned low wages, means that I have also had to continue doing freelance editorial work in order to survive.It also means that there is little time or energy for things like preparing manuscripts to submit for publication, and this makes it less likely that a tenure-track position (should one arise) will be offered to me.

    Would I like a tenure-track position? Absolutely. However, given the current hiring situation in universities across the continent (U.S. and Canada), I’d be happy with a permanent position without the tenure-track option. I love teaching, and I am good at it. But very few tenure-track positions are being advertised. The vast majority (at least in the social sciences and humanities) say things like “instructor pool” or “adjunct” or “short term contract”.

    So I keep looking, and I keep hoping. Meanwhile, each term I wonder whether I will be teaching in the following term, or whether I should start filling out my Employment Insurance forms. It is a very stressful way to live.

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