I’ve written before that wanting to become a professor is the only worthwhile reason for getting a PhD. While I believe this, it *DOESN’T* mean that once you’ve gotten a PhD being a professor is the only thing you can ever do. It isn’t a great route into other careers, but PhD training develops a number of valuable skills that can be leveraged for a career outside of the ivory tower: industry or a post-academic career (Post-AC) depending on the lingo of your research domain.
Careers WITHIN Academia
It’s worth considering whether or not you must leave the ivory tower. Although you might not have gotten the faculty position at the caliber of university you were hoping for, there are other alternatives.
Assistant Professor at a Lower Tier Institution
Even if you can’t be an assistant professor at Harvard, there may be opportunities to be a faculty member at lower tier universities. Due to the glut of PhDs being produced, many schools are able to recruit exceptional candidates they wouldn’t have been able to hire in the past. One of these could be you! Decide for yourself whether or not you’d be happy at such a school.
One variant on this approach is to get the position at the lower tier school, work hard on your research for 3 years, then apply to a higher tier school with your enhanced research profile.
Many universities are hiring faculty that are exclusively or disproportionately focused on teaching. Despite what they may say, you’ll certainly be considered a “lower class” faculty member in such a role. However, these positions are less competitive and you’d have a chance at getting into a more prestigious institution in such a role compared to being hired as an assistant professor.
On the other extreme, many R1 schools have research faculty, who are focused on research and do less teaching and service. Much like the teaching faculty, this non-traditional role will be viewed as the “diet Coke” of faculty, but they are easier to get hired for.
In such a role you’ll be expected to bring in enough grant money to more than cover your costs to the department.
Sessional / Adjunct / Visiting Professor
These are all temporary positions and shouldn’t be viewed as a long term career. If you need something to tide you over while you’re preparing for another career path, these are worth considering.
If you’re in such a position for longer than 2 years, you should seriously give thought to what the future of your career will look like.
There are a number of positions where your exact research background will be of massive value to the organization. Look globally for any company doing work in the area your research was in. I’ll admit, this may be more straightforward for STEM graduates, but also look at non-profits and similar organizations if you’ve done work in the humanities. If there isn’t a business or organization doing exactly what you researched, expand it a little bit and look again. Eventually you’ll find a group that is surprised and delighted to find someone with your depth of knowledge in an area they need.
Often times the skills you need to develop as a PhD candidates are marketable in and of themselves. A PhD is a MASSIVE undertaking, and being able to complete it demonstrates that you can take a big project, break it into parts and see it through. You also have the ability to digest and understand highly complex material. You have the ability to write well. You have the ability to perform research and to discover what is known on a topic – and what is not.
A woman I went on a couple of dates with years ago was working on her PhD as a medievalist and since getting her PhD got a job doing research for Planned Parenthood and the Center for Addiction and Mental Health.
John Robertson did an interview on transitioning from a PhD to a non-academic position. He found that many of the skills he developed were very useful where he now works.
The people you’ve met and worked with during the course of your PhD can often be helpful moving into a non-academic career. Some faculty members, including your supervisor, will have contacts at companies related to their field of inquiry and can put you in touch with them. Other researchers in your domain should similarly be able to help you if you reach out to them, let them know you’re leaving academia and what you’re looking for.
Probably the most useful thing will be to look at the example of others who have left your field. This could be fellow graduate students or junior faculty in the same area. Find out what they went on to do after leaving, and decide if that would be of interest to you. If it would be, get in contact with them and ask for advice!
For those who have left academia, what are you doing now? What other things have you done since leaving? For those still in academia, what would you consider doing if you can’t get the faculty job you want?