In my last blog post, I wrote about how graduate students need to start thinking about the nonacademic job search. To those outside academia, it seems only logical that if your planned job path gets blocked, you should just seek another path. Most of us do that all the time: look for a related career field or take a transition job while we regroup and figure out what's next. After all, the changes in higher education hiring are a perfect example of supply and demand in today's economy: the number of Ph.D.'s graduating in certain fields simply is greater than the number of tenure track openings at universities and colleges.
But in the academic world, it's not that simple. There is an expectation, a social contract, even a culture that works against that logic. Many students enter doctoral programs with a single purpose of becoming a professor. Their academic advisor and dissertation committee expect that as well. A lot of time and money will be invested in each student, and with that comes pressure. The academic departments are under pressure as well: their rankings depend on the number/percentage of graduates attaining academic positions at the best schools. If too many of their graduates fail to find teaching positions, their rankings suffer accordingly.
So the pressure is on, in a way which many nonacademics can't appreciate. No one wants to be the graduate that "can't be talked about." That graduate who didn't live up to anyone's expectations, including their own. As a result, making the decision to leave academia and seek a non-professorial position can be traumatic and challenging. Some graduate students describe the period of time after an unsuccessful academic job search as a form of PTSD, and a period of unexpected mourning.
To be sure, this isn't the picture for all doctoral students. Many academic programs (e.g. STEM fields, education) assume most of their graduates will go into research, private practice, private industry, etc. For these individuals, the pressure to stay in academia is greatly reduced, but for those who wanted a teaching career in a university and are now shut out for whatever reason, it is still a process of transition and change which needs to be acknowledged.
Everyone reacts in their own way depending on the many factors involved in their decision, not the least of which is whether that decision was voluntary and chosen, or whether it was forced by economic conditions or the lack of opportunities.
But here you are, a newly minted PhD, or maybe an ABD (all but dissertation) suddenly finding yourself in this strange world of job seeking-- and likely for jobs you're not even sure you want. Once graduate students discover that their path to academia has been blocked, they are tempted to jump quickly into the nonacademic job search. Their first question to a career counselor is often: "What's out there?" And while it's a valid question, it's not that simple.
First, it's not just "What's out there?"-- it's "What's in you?" Because you're going to need to match up your skills and talents with what people will pay you to do outside academia.
It's important to start by acknowledging that your life has changed. Those dreams you had of that academic career are not going to come true: at least not in the form you originally planned. If you haven't worked through, or at least compartmentalized, your emotions related to leaving graduate school, or leaving academia as a career, you will probably project that in your interview.
It's easy to spot the graduate student who's trying to move too quickly into the process. S/he will show up in the career counselor's office with a job posting in a related field and say, with little enthusiasm, "I guess I could apply for this job. It would be OK." They need to be reminded that their future colleagues in that setting likely chose to work there-- it wasn't a second choice for them. They want to hire people who are equally enthusiastic. No one wants to be a second choice, whether it's for a date or a job.
So before you go charging into the process, reflect on your experiences, build resilience, and develop a positive perspective about your situation. If you don't, you run the risk of encountering an equally unsuccessful job search outside of academia, because employers will pick up on your less than enthusiastic demeanor. It can be simple body language during an interview, a throw-away comment like, "well I was hoping to secure a job in academia, but..." or even a look of surprise when you're told about the fast pace of the new environment.
Take a moment to examine some common emotional reactions I've heard from graduate students as they process their growing recognition that an academic career will not be in their future:
Betrayal: Whether accurate or not, some individuals feel misled by their department or university. They express anger that no one warned them about the decreasing opportunities in the field. They feel helpless over the economic situation. Bottom line: their dream was taken away by outside forces over which they had no control.
Lack of support: Some experience criticism from faculty for no longer seeking an academic position. Others find their conversations with faculty awkward and stilted (which may reflect their own insecurity about their situation). Very few receive encouragement from peers or family who have been expecting a specific outcome from "all that education."
Lack of confidence: Graduate students are accustomed to success. They are high achievers who have done well academically for many years, received praise for their research and writing, and have demonstrated an ability to succeed in an academic environment. But many have limited or no experience in the nonacademic world. They were seldom encouraged to seek outside experiences or internships where they could have acquired alternate skills or knowledge. As a result, their self-efficacy related to entering the nonacademic job market is low.
Fears: Fear is a normal response to the unknown. And for many graduate students, the nonacademic job search conjures up the image of a black hole. To paraphrase Nietzsche, they are looking into the abyss, and the abyss is looking back. It's not a pretty sight.
Regrets and disappointments: Many students begin to question how they spent their time. They are disappointed that their plans have not worked out. They look around at colleagues who didn't go to graduate school and are firmly rooted in their careers. This can be a dangerous path to go down, because it encourages one to start focusing on what they "should" have done: as if they had a crystal ball and should have known what was going to happen. It also denies the reality of what is: they made choices to the best of their ability at that time and now they need to make new choices.
Again, not everyone goes through these emotions, but it wouldn't be surprising to experience these or others in your transition. And if your emotions are too challenging to deal with, or you feel overwhelmed, seek professional support. Most universities offer free or low-cost mental health services; take advantage of these services before you graduate.
LIke most things in life, this process comes down to not what you've been handed, but how you're going to react.Take time to explore yourself first. For many years you've thought of yourself as a "future professor." Who are you now? Exploring this will help you move toward new and more positive feelings about the process.
In my next post, I'll help you start the process of figuring out who you are... and what's out there.
But before you move on, I encourage you to ask yourself one question:
"What is the story I'm going to tell about this experience?"
The story you choose to tell can have the power to influence your life far beyond this moment.
Want to learn more? Here are the links to my series of posts related to helping graduate students find jobs outside academia:
Image credit: Robert Couse-Baker