Updates in Doctoral Ed

‘The Afternoon I Decided to Leave Academe’–and What Happened Next

Many Ph.D.’s who write about leaving academe knew it was not for them. I envy those people. I enjoyed being an academic, and I loved teaching. As a kid growing up, all I wanted to be was a teacher, and when I entered university, my career goal shifted to being a professor. When I decided to end my quest for a tenure-track job, I told a friend that, some day, I hoped I would enjoy whatever I ended up doing as much as I enjoyed teaching and being a historian.

I will never forget the afternoon I decided to leave academe. I had just learned that I was second in line for a visiting assistant professorship, with a three-year contract and a 3-3 teaching load. We were well into the summer, and this was my last hope of a job for the following year. The pay was less than $40,000 a year; the hiring committee admitted to me that the salary was probably not enough to cover living expenses in the area.

That afternoon I hit the brick wall. I had spent three years on the academic job market and felt further away than ever from my goal. Was I to work yet another year as an adjunct, scraping by, with no promise that the next year would be any better than the previous three?

I phoned my good friend who was facing the same reality. His dream was to be a professor, but, like me, he could not land a job. We had told each other the same piece of advice over and over again: It’s not you; it’s the system. The system is broken. You are not a failure; the system failed you. I told him that day, “I’m done, I can’t do this anymore.” He responded, “I don’t blame you.” The following year, he also left academe.

I cried at the end of the phone call and cried a lot more in the following months. I was angry—at myself, at the system, at the administrators who were cutting tenure-track jobs, at those who’d caused the 2008 economic crash. I kept looking at job boards, trying to find a reason my decision to leave was wrong. I spent days depressed, watching crap TV and drinking cheap wine.

Finally, when I started having success as a research consultant, I turned a corner. No, my consulting career is not the same as being an academic, but I have incorporated into my new profession things I enjoyed about academe: research and writing, leading workshops, and giving presentations. I still feel sad when I look at my history books, or when friends are creating their syllabi for the coming semester. But, over all, I enjoy my new life. People treat me with respect, they value my contributions, and my research is having an immediate impact.

Over the past few years, I have met many Ph.D.’s who are excellent teachers with exciting scholarship and impressive CVs. They, too, can’t find academic jobs. They, too, are looking for a way to move forward professionally, where they can make a living and have their contributions valued. Many, like me, have spent months consumed by grief over the loss of their dreams and fighting a sense of failure. But, as people who earned Ph.D.’s, they are hard-working and too ambitious to stay in a broken system. And they all eventually found new professions that bring them satisfaction.

L. Maren Wood earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the founder and lead researcher of Lilli Research Group, a small education-consulting firm in the Washington, D.C., metro area. She will be blogging regularly for the Ph.D. Placement Project about nonacademic career issues for Ph.D.’s.

Open-Mindedness and the Ph.D. Placement Problem

Alexandra Lord

So far on this blog we’ve been explaining how The Chronicle is going about the challenge of collecting data to achieve the goals of the Ph.D. Placement Project. We’re now opening up the blog to outside voices, to help illustrate the situation faced by many new Ph.D.’s, and in so doing to show what we’re trying to accomplish with the project. The following guest post is by Alexandra Lord, a historian who blogs, among other things, about nonacademic jobs for Ph.D. recipients.

When I began thinking about writing about jobs for the Ph.D. Placement Project blog, I felt a sense of panic. I was uncertain not about what I would say but about the form in which I would say it. As I struggled with this over several days, I realized that I was experiencing a creeping sense of déjà vu. It all reminded me of when I began my first nonacademic job search.

Although I had not been happy in academe, it had the lure of safety and familiarity. Academe offers one of the most clearly defined and straightforward career trajectories possible: teaching assistant, lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor, full professor. While people occasionally skip a few steps, every job applicant knows the order of those steps and the actions one should take to move on to the next step. The academic job market may be horrific and impossible, but at least you know what you are supposed to do.

When I left academe, I was terrified by the lack of certainty. I hunted for possible role models and was desperate for instructions that would tell me exactly what I needed to do and what I should aspire to do. In some ways, that hunt for clear instructions was not a bad thing. Nonacademic job searches differ from academic job searches in many fundamental and even dramatic ways, and I clearly needed to learn how to apply for nonacademic jobs.

However, I discovered, and am still in the process of discovering, the need to be comfortable with uncertainty. Leaving academe means that a career path will present multiple forks in the road. While that uncertainty can be quite terrifying, it can also be incredibly liberating in the long run. Best of all, it has forced me to be incredibly open-minded—always a good thing when conducting a job search.

In the short term, however, the uncertainty can be overwhelming. With no clear end and a seeming wealth of possible jobs, where do you begin? How do you know what you are qualified to do? Does a Ph.D. in a field such as English or history actually provide you with skills nonacademic employers will value? And if so, how do you market yourself and those skills? What is the “right” job for a nonacademic Ph.D.?

And, most important, just when will you get the job that will enable you to begin paying your rent?

For most of us, academics who have excelled at following the rules, the fact that there are no absolute answers to those questions can be quite terrifying. But being an academic actually has benefits when it comes to dealing with uncertainty. As researchers, most of us have a high comfort level with asking open-ended questions and conducting research that enables us to develop the best answers to those questions.

When viewed as a research problem, a nonacademic job search can and does become both familiar and feasible.

Alexandra M. Lord is a historian with the federal government. In her spare time she runs Beyond Academe, a free Web site that helps historians find work outside the academy, and The Ultimate History Project, an online Web journal written by professional historians and aimed at a general audience.

What Associations Have to Say

We’ve been reaching out to various disciplinary organizations to get a better sense of what information on Ph.D. placement is already being collected. Given the reach and resources of those associations, we hoped they might make good starting places in gathering data. We started with a list of about 50 organizations, and so far we’ve received responses from about 30.

It turns out that some, such as the American Historical Association, are already deep into their own efforts to get comprehensive data on the employment prospects of Ph.D.’s. Several groups are doing annual or biennial surveys, and a few are asking questions related to Ph.D. placement, like the American Psychological Association’s biennial Doctorate Employment Survey. (The 2009 results can be found here.) A few survey their members or departments but don’t ask questions about placement.

Of the groups that don’t survey at all, several have said they want information on their graduates’ trajectories but aren’t sure how to start that research. Often those groups have expressed interest in piggybacking on The Chronicle’s efforts, in whatever form they take.

Finally, a handful of groups have said they don’t believe it’s their responsibility to gather or to publish placement data, or don’t think it’s important.

We learned a few things from those conversations:

  • A majority of associations are interested in being involved. They want to know what happens to graduates in their field.
  • While many groups aren’t in direct contact with graduate departments, their membership includes a number of professors who serve as advisers to doctoral students, as well as the doctoral students themselves. One option might be to use those direct membership channels to reach out to the individuals who are seeing the challenges of the job search up close.
  • Associations are concerned about students’ privacy. We’re taking those concerns seriously: Whatever form the project takes, we’ll respect individuals’ information.
  • Disciplinary groups are less likely to keep track of graduates who have left academe to work in industry, government, or nonacademic nonprofit organizations, even if those were the desired careers for large percentages of their graduates. Gathering data on those graduates may require different research techniques. Right now, we’re imagining a database that pulls information from several sources, in order to capture Ph.D.’s at multiple phases of the employment process.

We want to follow up on the interest and willingness to participate that we’ve encountered from many disciplinary organizations. We’re working on a one-page description of the Ph.D. Placement Project that can be distributed to a wide range of disciplinary organizations, and through them to the graduate departments, advisers, and students they’re already in contact with.

If you work for an organization that has data on placement or that would like to get involved with the project, e-mail us.

Whatever form the project takes, we’ll respect individual’s information.”




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We’re Moving on 2 Fronts

The responses to our first job-placement survey have been overwhelming and passionate. Thanks to the more than 2,000 of you who gave us so many thoughtful responses, either through the survey or to our inboxes. You’ve given us a huge head start. Now that we’re entering the second stage of the project, we’ve closed the survey. (If you didn’t get a chance to share your thoughts, please contribute in the comments below, or send us a note.)

As we comb through the information we’ve collected so far, we are seeing that most of the challenges fit into two major categories:

The first is the data itself. Records may be kept by colleges, departments, advisers, or associations, but we have no reason to believe that any given sources are comprehensive, or that their variables line up with data gathered by others. Then there are the records kept in the minds of graduates themselves, a significant number of whom disappear entirely, and will require individualized searching to find.

The second problem is transparency. No matter how diligently data have been captured, few organizations have made the statistics public. (There are a handful of counterexamples, of course: See a roundup here.) The result is that graduate-school applicants have almost no way to compare multiple departments’ placement outcomes, much less compare those outcomes with their desired careers.

On Wednesday we asked readers of our e-mail list whether some form of directory that compared the availability of data—not necessarily job-placement rates themselves—would be useful, and 87 percent of the respondents answered with a fervent “Yes!” (You can still respond to that question, by the way.)

So it seems obvious that our project will have to proceed on two parallel fronts. The first is a data-collection effort, either with a comprehensive database or through targeted, careful sampling. The second is an investigation of public sharing: If information already exists, we need to develop ways to make it accessible and searchable.

To those ends, we’re compiling a list of the disciplinary associations and academic organizations that have data on job-placement rates. Some have already come forward to talk to us, but if you work for an association that has such data, please write to us at phdplacement@chronicle.com. Likewise, contact us if you’re in a department that keeps careful, long-term records of your graduates’ job status.

What do you think of those two angles? Please let us know in the comments.

The Challenges of Gathering Data on Ph.D. Placements

We’ve saved the most complicated—and most interesting—question for our last post on findings from our informal survey for The Chronicle’s Ph.D. Placement Project: “What should we expect will be the most difficult part of gathering reliable data? How would you suggest doing it?”

Here’s what responders thought would be the most challenging:

  • Deciding what counts as an “authoritative” source: Do we gather data from Ph.D.’s themselves? From departments? From advisers? Who is most likely to respond? Both institutions and individuals may have reasons to misreport or hide information, and no one knows how many departments keep or update a comprehensive, ongoing record.

“I suspect that voluntary data collection is inaccurate because people who got the job they wanted will of course be more eager to talk about it. People who are scraping by on adjunct work will naturally be less inclined to tell former mentors and colleagues what they’re up to.”

  • Finding graduates, particularly those who are no longer in academe. Should we also search for students who drop out before earning their doctorate?
  • Maintaining a sufficiently long time frame: To get an accurate placement picture, we’ll need to capture students at all stages, including ABD, adjunct, postdoc, visiting professorship, fellowship, tenure-track, tenured, alt-ac, administrative, nonacademic, and perhaps others. This means we’ll need more than a decade of data for each cohort, as a Ph.D.’s prospects look very different upon graduation and five years later, especially as postdocs and visiting professorships have become a near-standard stop along the way in some disciplines.
  • Privacy concerns:

“Any information you gather would have to be absolutely anonymous. People currently on the job market are in extreme danger of never getting jobs and/or being blacklisted by their recommenders for voicing problems with their former departments’ handling of job placement.”

  • The distinction between departments’ roles and advisers’ roles:

“Job placement relies heavily on the role of the adviser, as well as the institution. … Who coaches students about conference attendance, publication schedules, and other essential professional activities?”

  • Standardizing data across reporting platforms. For instance, some universities use traditional tenure, while others use rolling contracts, which are considered comparable but cannot be labeled “tenure-track.”
  • Personal variation: Applicants make decisions about where to apply based on geographical preferences, family needs, research interests, and other factors, which are either hard or impossible to categorize.

It’s not all bad news, however. Responders also had some good suggestions for how to go about collection:

  • Embed basic tracking requirements in college-accreditation and public-funds opportunities.
  • Codify graduates in every entering cohort in order to capture completion rates and ABD status, in addition to placement: “Maybe there should be a ‘census’ of Ph.D.’s, held at regular intervals (annually? every other year?), with everyone having a unique ID of some kind, so they can be tracked—like migratory birds.”
  • Reach graduates through online career networks such as LinkedIn and Academia.edu, through dissertation databases such as ProQuest, and through alumni networks.
  • Keep as many data points as possible: Varying research specialties, even within small disciplines, can reflect large differences in placement rates.
  • Ask departments to publish rates of success for each graduating class: “Probably, departments can give statistics of the percentage of successful job placements among newly granted Ph.D.’s independent of familiar lists of names and jobs so that there will be no risk of ‘shaming’ those who did not get tenure-track jobs right away.”

Based on all the suggestions, we’ve come up with a couple of different pilot projects that could help us test the effectiveness of various strategies. (For example, many readers suggested using Google and LinkedIn to find graduates’ current employment status: What percentage will be findable this way in practice?) Stay tuned for more on those pilots.

What Were You Told When You Applied?

Many academic departments would get a failing grade if they were evaluated on how much information they provided to prospective graduate students on job placement. In The Chronicle’s informal survey on the topic, we asked, “When you applied to graduate programs, what sort of information, if any, did departments offer you on their job-placement rates?”

More than 1,200 Ph.D.’s responded to the survey, but large numbers had little to report on that question. Here is a representative sampling of the answers from 15 consecutive respondents:

  • “None.”
  • “I don’t recall ever hearing a number for a department’s job-placement rate.”
  • “None.”
  • “Anecdotal evidence of recent placement and a general history of ‘good’ placements were offered on occasion.”
  • “None.”
  • “None.”
  • “Little to none.”
  • “I remember seeing a list of alumni and ‘where they are now’ on the department’s Web site. Other than that, the department didn’t actively offer any information about job-placement rates/outcomes.”
  • “None.”
  • “None.”
  • “None, and I didn’t think to ask.”
  • “Anecdotal, almost universally positive spin.”
  • “None.”
  • “None.”
  • “None, but I didn’t know to ask.”

Respondents who had received some information from departments about their placement rates said the quality of it varied from the helpful (“they published a list of departmental Ph.D. recipients along with the positions they had received”) to the vague (“they said they had a high placement rate” and “good students get good jobs”) to the wildly exaggerated (“we were told that the department had a 100-percent placement rate” and “everyone gets a job”).

Much of the placement information they had received, respondents said, came in the form of “scattered anecdotes,” like these:

  • “The only ‘data’ that was offered to us (or that I remember, anyway) was in our dissertation seminar. Someone hesitatingly asked our senior faculty member what the job-placement rate was for our program. He blithely waved his hand and said, ‘Oh, these days, 50 percent of new Ph.D.’s will land tenure-track jobs. So you just have to be better than half of the applicants in the pool.’ I highly doubt that was true then, and it’s certainly not true now.”
  • “I don’t recall asking. However, once I realized I didn’t want to be a psychology professor, I looked at the Web site and found the information on placement very sparse. Anecdotally I noticed that the only people who still got talked about were people who went on to postdocs or faculty jobs. The others just vanished, as though they had gone on Rumspringa and never returned.”
  • “The Web page of the department listed recent graduates and their current employment, but it wasn’t comprehensive (only listed those with academic jobs).”

Some respondents said more placement information became available after they were enrolled: “I don’t remember any during the application and decision process,” a survey participant wrote, “but after being there we got quite a bit.” Others said the most accurate data came from their advisers: “For me it was more important to know where my adviser’s students ended up going after graduate school, which I gathered through personal communication.”

But many respondents said detailed data about an entire program’s placement record would have been helpful. Said one:

“My program could not offer much insight into how or why some of their candidates succeed while others fail. They, like much of academia, felt there was an element of randomness to the whole process, which no one could quite understand. I always suspected that it was more field-specific than they wanted to admit. … Having more finely honed data, about subfields, not just fields, could make a real difference to early graduate students, as they make decisions about their course of study.”