There is a lot of talk about PhDs, the academic job market, and how to prepare students for possible alternatives to an academic career. Almost all of it rests on an assumption that an academic job is “Plan A”.
It is fair to say that an academic career is the default assumption.
A plan should be more thought out than that. It should involve finding out more about what the actual job you were planning for entails, and what is required in addition to an educational qualification to successfully secure one.
It might involve knowing a bit about the job market and the likelihood of obtaining a particular job.
Let’s see what happens if we switch that default assumption.
What if an academic career is just one of many options?
For some people an academic career enables them to do their best work. They thrive in a university environment. Their values match pretty well with the institutional goals of particular universities and the disciplinary culture in which they will be working.
For others, an academic career might be a good fit, if the institution is right. But there are also other ways that they can use their knowledge and skills to earn a living.
For example, your passion for education might find a better outlet in an administrative position than in the classroom. Perhaps in a centre for learning and teaching working to improve teaching quality across the university. Or working to recruit and support students from underrepresented groups.
If your research really does have implications in the real world, wouldn’t you rather be working for an organization trying to implement those ideas? Perhaps a policy position in government or a non-profit would be a better fit.
Your career options are unique to you
There is no default option. There is no easy road. No one can look into a crystal ball and tell you exactly what you should be doing for the rest of your life and then wave a magic wand and make that happen. You need to take responsibility for your career.
You need to get out there and research the possibilities. You need to talk to people who work in other sectors and find out more about the kinds of contributions someone like you could make. You need to figure out what experience you might need in addition to your education to secure such a job and succeed.
You also need to research what an academic career involves. Your perspective as a student is partial. Many new faculty are genuinely surprised. Some even leave after securing that job you so covet because it wasn’t what they expected.
You are smart. You have a lot to offer a potential employer. What is your plan?