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?