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In my opinion

Think again

Why PhD candidates should re-evaluate their career expectations.


Having completed the first year of my doctoral studies, I have been surprised by the career expectations of my student colleagues at Oxford University. While some students are being sponsored by their home government, many of us are on our own when it comes to getting a job after graduation. We know that universities in our home countries are simply not hiring. That doesn’t prevent each of us privately thinking that we will be the exception – however, we are all delusional.

The entire PhD process, from work with more junior students to publication and production of a thesis, is still geared toward the student working in a university environment. Our mentors, the PhD supervisors, work in a university environment and, more often than not, never experienced adult life in any other sector.

In his 2008 book, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-wage Nation, Marc Bousquet argued that the useful academic life of today’s PhD students ends when they complete their degree. While they are students, PhD candidates act as teaching and research assistants, providing valuable and much needed support to their institution. This service is considered to be part of the “academic apprenticeship” and part of a PhD candidate’s education. They may be paid for their work, but payment is understandably well below the rates enjoyed by tenure-track faculty. However, when the student completes their PhD, the institution cannot afford to keep them as a full-time employee. Unfortunately, neither can any other university.

I returned to full time study after having spent a decade working in higher education policy. This experience has afforded me two advantages over most PhD students:

  1. I have a relatively clear idea of why I am doing a PhD and what I hope to do with the degree; and
  2. I already have a body of professional work on my curriculum vitae.

I have been shocked by the number of my fellow students who fell into PhD study simply because they were encouraged to do so by a former academic adviser or out of fear of the real world. And there are also those students who genuinely desire an academic career. However, very few of these students have more than a few months’ work experience outside a university environment. These same students hope and expect to find full-time academic work after completing their PhDs. However, as full-time, tenured academic careers for young PhDs become increasingly rare, shouldn’t universities play some role in helping shift expectations over what can be done with a PhD?

I have two suggestions. They both require a culture change within universities’ departments of graduate study.

First, universities should emphasize the opportunities for PhDs in professions outside of academe. This may be easiest to accomplish in areas like engineering, chemistry and bio-medicine. However, it is possible in the humanities and social sciences as well, especially in areas like public service and policy work. I have spent a lot of effort trying to build and maintain the policy contacts I have, knowing that I need to have both a professional and academic connection to this “outside world”. However, it is very easy as a PhD student, to become myopic and not see beyond the gates of the metaphorical university world.

The strategies employed to bridge the gap between the academic and non-academic worlds cannot be limited to identifying the “employable” or “transferable” skills picked up over the course of the PhD. Resumé writing seminars for PhD students will not adequately address the challenges faced by doctoral graduates. Institutions should consider cooperative education opportunities outside academe for PhD students. They may even wish to make an expectation of work experience the norm for acceptance to PhD programs, rather than the exception. In their race to increase graduate enrolment (and often access the commensurate funding) I suspect universities may have reduced the rigor traditionally used in the PhD admissions process and, consequently, have set many students up for significant disappointment.

The second suggestion is in response to students’ attitudes toward careers outside the university. There is a sense among students that anything less than an academic career, be it a lectureship or a post-doctoral appointment, is, at worst, a failure and, at best, a misuse of years of effort. This attitude needs to change if PhD graduates are to see careers outside academe as a viable and justifiable option. Supervisors and graduate coordinators must support this attitude change if students are to take it seriously. Furthermore, universities may consider appointing “industry” (versus academic) supervisors, or co-supervisors, for those students who know that they will be working outside the university environment.

As the intake of PhD students increases I expect that there will be more unlucky PhD graduates left with few options as they complete their degrees. They will feel they wasted years of their life devoted to understanding and learning unless steps are taken now to broaden their perspectives and post-degree opportunities.

Andrew Michael Boggs holds a BA from Queen’s University and an MA from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education-University of Toronto in higher education policy and history. He is currently a doctoral candidate in higher education policy at Oxford University.

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  1. Jeff / June 23, 2010 at 15:04

    Well written… I find your observations to be right on the money. Most PhD’s I have know have very little direct connection outside academia…. even in engineering!

    PhD projects collaborating with government and/or industry benefit everyone. Plus a good project can prepare a PhD with a job once they graduate.

    So if I was going to do a PhD I’d be making connections throughout my research tenure or partnering with industry. Since the reality is there are only so many academic positions in each University.

  2. Wayne / June 24, 2010 at 22:28

    “There is a sense among students that anything less than an academic career, be it a lectureship or a post-doctoral appointment, is, at worst, a failure and, at best, a misuse of years of effort. ”

    This sentence struck me as somewhat odd. I found that it implied a few things, that PhD graduates sometimes cannot attain a post-doctoral appointment, and that a post-doctoral appointment is something coveted. If this is true, then academia is truly a sad place. Aspiring to earn 40 000 dollars after 10 years of university is quite sad, and being unable to obtain such a position is also quite sad.

  3. dr.doinglittle / June 28, 2010 at 17:09

    It’s not just sad. I’d say the system is quite sick. Most graduates have a very difficult time getting any post-graduate funding and then end up working for peanuts as a sessional. Graduates can forget about landing a tenure track job when they get on the market and see 5-10 jobs come up per year in a country now with 34 million people. Add to this the tens of thousands in debt that graduates come out with. It’s insanity!

    PhD = mid-30s, no job, no prospects, no time left to save for retirement or buy a house, having to start afresh on a new career path.

  4. Minela / July 26, 2012 at 14:05

    This is excellent an article.Thank you Andrew Michael Boggs, for your sharing. Best wishes,

    Mr. sci. Minela Kerla

  5. Anya Wells / May 4, 2013 at 10:31

    What an insightful article!

    I recognize myself in the portrait of the academically inclined PhD student who wants nothing less than a tenured position. I have been searching for jobs since the completion of my PhD this fall and I I’ve had much stronger response from the non-academic sector. And that’s for a PhD in Social Sciences! It would have saved me many unhappy days to know that there were other options to entertain!

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