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Understanding the Value of PhDs: Academic v. Non-Academic Career Paths

Understanding the Value of PhDs: Academic v. Non-Academic Career Paths

  • Education
Joanna HughesMar 26, 2018

There’s no denying that a PhD is a tremendous achievement. Less clear? Just how much value this advanced credential offers degree-holders -- particularly when you factor in that many PhDs end up in non-academic careers. Wondering whether you’ll get more out of staying in academia or making the leap from the ivory tower into industry? Here’s a closer look at the issue.

The Call of Academia, AKA “Plan A”

If you’ve undertaken a PhD, the academic path has no doubt crossed your mind. In fact, for many PhD students, landing a tenure-track assistant professor position is the embodiment of the “brass ring.” Writes Johanna Greeson of her experiences as a second-year, tenure-track assistant professor at a prestigious university, “I am living the dream. At least my professional dream, that is. I have the perfect dream for me.”

Between minimal teaching requirements, ample time to pursue her own research, and priority selection of the courses she teaches, Greeson’s set-up is, indeed, sweet. Unfortunately, not all academics share this experience. Not only are many tenure-track jobs not all they’re cracked up to be, but such positions are also dismayingly scarce. Furthermore, the publish-or-perish climate found in many academic environments can be extremely harsh.

The takeaway? While the academic path may be the road more traveled, as well as the one most expected of you, it may not be an option -- or at least not the best option. But if you choose to leave (or if you find yourself without the option to stay), you’re likely to encounter some pushback. Consider the case of Angela Rooke, who happily accepted a job outside the academe after completing her PhD in history, only to to have a faculty member tell her family -- at the commencement ceremony, no less -- how surprised “everyone” had been that she’d “given up” on pursuing a faculty career.

While reflecting on her experiences, Rooke contends, “I share this story not to embarrass the faculty member in question, but to highlight the challenges we continue to face in attempting to overcome the challenges of the Plan A perspective in PhD programs across the country. No substantive change will happen as long as students’ mentors continue to express the idea, either implicitly or explicitly, that a faculty career is the only truly valuable career for the best and brightest, that everything else is a Plan B, or a fallback.”

Beyond Academe

Just because the Plan A/Plan B perspective may be the most widely held one doesn’t make it valid. Because while a job in academia may be right for some, it may not be right -- or even possible -- for others.

Furthermore, there’s the misconception that opting out of academia somehow renders the time and effort spent in pursuit of the PhD as “useless” or “pointless.” This couldn’t be further from the truth, says Daniel Colegate, managing director of postgraduate careers portal LinkHigher. “Life after a PhD can be whatever you make it - provided you are willing to learn how to articulate the skills your PhD helped you to develop. It is easy as a PhD student, surrounded by senior academics in the academic world, to forget how transferable PhD skills are. You could get a job outside of academia or start your own business,” he says.

Echoes university graduate development director Fiona Denney, “In order to write a thesis of around 80,000 words and defend it in a viva, you have to have a huge range of highly developed skills that are transferable to a range of different jobs. It's not just about knowing your subject area intimately but about being able to communicate that well to a variety of people who may not all be specialists (among many other things!). It's also about resilience, tenacity, networking, teamworking, dealing with difficult people, presentation skills and so on - all at a high level. Don't forget it's not just about your academic achievements.”

Some insiders even propose that leaving academia isn’t just acceptable, but preferable -- and not just in terms of finances. According to Klodjan Stafa, who left the academic track to work as an industry research scientist, there are many advantages to the latter, including transparency in regards to progress, performance, and advancement; a rewards-based system; and the opportunity to work as part of a structured team. “Not only can you be paid well and do meaningful work, you can also work with a supportive team in a supportive environment,” he writes.

Adds Allison Schrager in Quartz, “Contrary to what they tell you in graduate school, the world outside the ivory tower isn’t so bad. And so the minute you get the PhD, you must leave academia....Take a PhD it for what it is—a fulfilling intellectual experience. And then move on.”

This doesn’t mean that leaving academia is easy. In fact, it can be a significant struggle. Because while PhDs can thrive outside of academia (where there is ample demand for their talents), many undergo culture shock when transitioning to industry. The issue that arises again and again in conversations about the exodus from academia? Not whether PhDs have the skills to succeed in industry, but whether they’re prepared to effectively leverage these skills in the context of industry. Says The Conversation, “We need better enrolment processes, supervision, skills development and internship opportunities. That way our most highly trained graduates would be better prepared to embrace the many opportunities that a PhD will bring.”

Joanna Hughes

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.