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Addressing the academia-first mentality in PhD programs

While individual initiative is vital, a larger cultural shift is needed.


This is a guest post by Drs Jonathan Malloy and Loleen Berdahl. Jonathan Malloy is a professor in the department of political science at Carleton University. His research areas include Canadian political institutions and career development processes in universities. Loleen Berdahl is a professor and head in the department of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Her research areas include Canadian political behaviour, public policy, and doctoral career development. They are the coauthors of Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press, 2018).

One of the biggest trends in graduate education in recent years is the growing attention to and discussion of non-academic career options for PhD students. Canadian universities are increasingly tracking the diverse career outcomes of their doctoral graduates and investing in professional development programming for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to prepare for a diversity of career opportunities. Similarly, academic programs and disciplines are initiating more conversations about diverse career outcomes beyond the traditional tenure-stream academic appointment.

The growing attention to this issue is a positive development. The majority of PhD students in most (though certainly not all) disciplines aspire to academic careers, but the expansion of Canadian doctoral enrollments over the last two decades has not been matched with an equal expansion of tenure-stream academic job openings. While data do indicate that many still end up in full-time academic jobs, PhD graduates face a highly volatile job market, often moving into unsatisfying contingent and part-time positions and have a rocky transition to full-time jobs and career satisfaction. Consequently, the growing investment in and attention to broader career training and options are welcome.

Yet these efforts face cultural challenges that must be acknowledged. Graduate professional development is a growing and innovative field comprised of dedicated and hard-working people, but remains largely outside the core academic mission of graduate programming, which still retains a strong “academia-first” or even “academia-only” mentality. As we explain in our book, Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD, the academia-first mentality is implicit and ingrained in many PhD programs, even when not intended. Programs and faculty may be attuned to the volatile academic job market and difficulties faced by graduates, but the assumption of academic careers as the default outcome of a PhD still runs deep. After all, PhD programs are taught at universities by people who previously earned PhDs and now have tenure-stream jobs, and revolve around scholarly peer-reviewed research written by academics. Most faculty have spent their entire careers in the academic world and transmit its distinct values to students implicitly (and sometimes explicitly). Immersed within this culture, students need incentives and tangible encouragement to invest in anything that violates the academia-first mentality.

Given the reality of the academic job market and the challenges that face PhD grads and postdocs, universities should look for opportunities to foster a cultural shift that values a variety of career outcomes for PhDs. Doing so does not mean denigrating academic career training or trying to undermine the scholarly focus of graduate programs. As we argue in Work Your Career, it is possible to adopt a more seamless approach that doesn’t place academia as the dominant first option worth pursuing, with anything else a Plan B backup contingency. The ideal replacement for the academia-first mentality, we suggest, is not “academia-last”, but rather “academia-and.”

Shifting away from academia-first mentality will be challenging. Culture change in universities is extraordinarily difficult, and top level directives and even new resources can only go so far. Universities are decentralized, loosely-coupled organizations, and graduate education is even further decentralized, with key decisions and oversight located in individual academic units and supervisor-student relationships. While graduate faculties can and do lead the way in providing professional development programming, they have limited direct access to students and postdocs.

Our ongoing research into PhD professional development within Canadian political science has found considerable interest in and support for non-academic career programming, but also important limitations to moving beyond the pervasive academia-first mentality. Department chairs report constraints with respect to resources. Supervisors report feeling ill-equipped to help PhD students pursue non-academic career paths. And students themselves express great interest in non-academic career programming but feel it competes with their academic priorities and core program requirements, especially at the beginning of their PhDs. These limitations at the unit, supervisor, and student levels make cultural change slow, despite the increased attention, dialogue, and university-level investment in PhD student professional development.

How can universities move forward to create cultural change on this front? In Work Your Career we provide a “faculty call to action” with concrete steps that individual faculty can take to address the academia-first mentality at the unit level, including promoting concrete and wide-ranging discussions about PhD career outcomes and opportunities, celebrating career successes in all fields, and promoting wider discussion of PhD career outcomes in scholarly and disciplinary circles. But while individual initiative is vital, a larger cultural shift is needed. We suggest universities provide strategic leadership that coordinates existing resources, engages units and supervisors, and empowers PhD students.

First, if they have yet to do so, universities should integrate relevant services and strategies across campus to address the specific context of PhD students. There is an ever increasing attention to the employability of university graduates and developing student skills and capacities, with primary emphasis on undergraduate students. Universities need to build on existing resources to develop specific strategies for the unique needs of graduate and especially PhD students.

Second, universities need to further engage with and equip units and supervisors. Programs and supervisors remain the gatekeepers in graduate education and while there are indeed some faculty who believe strongly that PhD programs should focus solely on academic career training, our research has found a largely supportive community that is aware there is a problem with PhD career outcomes, but not entirely sure what agency they have to address it. Universities can respond to this by more strongly engaging with programs and faculty. This can involve working with units to track their PhD graduates, to organize events that bring together the department’s PhD students and alumni, and to identify discipline-specific professional development needs. It can also involve keeping individual faculty informed about doctoral career outcomes and the university’s professional development opportunities for PhD students. Bringing units and supervisors into the heart of professional development programming will equip them to be critical allies in addressing the academia-first mentality.

Finally, universities need to support students to take ownership of their career outcomes as soon as possible. PhD students adopt the academia-first mentality because they struggle to envision alternative career options: the academic path is clear and familiar, while other paths are varying and often very unfamiliar. In Work Your Career, we provide students with concrete steps to maximize their agency and broaden their career prospects by building their information, skills and experience, and networks. Universities can assist PhDs to use this agency by providing students with career information (for example, by hosting alumni and career panels, and/or providing students with access to the Aurora career resources), offering structured training and workshops to identify their specific skills and competencies, and creating opportunities for alumni and employer networking. To be sure, universities are already engaging on many of these fronts; the challenge is to build both awareness and a culture that encourages all students, rather than just the motivated few, to take advantage of these opportunities.

Addressing the academia-first mentality head-on is necessary if we are going to see meaningful change for Canada’s PhD students. Achieving this will require a strategic approach that fully engages all levels of the university, including units, supervisors, and students themselves. We believe there is increasing openness in Canadian PhD programs to shifting to a seamless approach that sets students up for a broad array of careers, including academia. Canada’s universities have the opportunity to lead this cultural change.

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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