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What’s your Post-PhD story? Announcing a Blog Carnival!

You can’t go far on the internet these days without stumbling upon a story of someone leaving academia. These are important stories, and it’s good that people are sharing them. These authors are often making valid critiques about Academia and the state of research funding, and are opening up a really necessary dialog. When people highlight structural inequalities or biases that drive women or minorities out of the Academy, that’s good. When people draw attention to the adjunct problem, or how a lack of funding can demolish an otherwise promising career, that’s good. When folks critique the graduate culture that fails to prepare students for non-academic careers, that’s good, too.


Sometimes, being post-PhD can feel like this. But it doesn't have to be that way!  Comic by PhD Comics

Sometimes, being post-PhD can feel like this. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Comic by PhD Comics

I wonder about about the these stories, taken as a whole. I worry that they might be discouraging people from pursuing academic careers — specifically, people from underrepresented groups who face a lot of challenges in addition to those of us playing this game on the lowest difficulty setting. The posts may also reinforce a false binary, because of the way they’re framed — the titles are often a riff on “Why I left Academia.”

So, while I see “Why I left” stories as important, the fact people pursue non-academic careers shouldn’t be surprising– they should be normalized, but they won’t be until we make an attitude adjustment as a culture. In reality, academic careers have been the minority for most PhD’s for a while now– “alternative” careers are the norm. I’ve argued this before, and that as a consequence of this attitude problem, mentors, departments, and universities are failing to prepare students for the realities of the job market. “Leaving Academia” doesn’t necessarily entail a career change, and it shouldn’t be seen as a failure. I could work in environmental consulting, science journalism, education, or for the WWE, and that would still be a career in science. When med students or lawyers get a job, they’re not thought of as “leaving academia.” They’re finishing school, and pursuing a career.

A PhD can be a similar stepping stone to any number of jobs, and “university faculty” is just one of them. Academia should be something you opt into, not out of– a love of your subject matter isn’t enough of a reason to pursue an academic career, because there are so many other things that come along with being a professor (teaching, service, grant writing) that may or may not be of interest.

The grass is often greener on the other side. Comic by XKCD.

The grass is often greener on the other side. Comic by XKCD.

So, to diversify the discussion a little, I’d like to propose a “Post-PhD Blog Carnival.” To participate, all you need to do is write a post about what you did when you finished your academic training, and why. Share your experiences, your path, and how you navigated the many decision points during and after grad school. It would be great to hear from a diversity of people: people who pursued non-academic careers, folks who stayed in academia, folks who worked in industry for years and then came back, or folks who made a mid- or late-career switch. Even folks who made a radical career shift, like going from a PhD in Physics to working as a patent lawyer or opening a bakery — if you’ve got a post-PhD story, tell it!

You can write about what you want, and in any style you choose, and I’ll link to the posts here. If you need the space to vent, that’s great, but I also urge you to be positive, too — there’s so little of that in these discussions, and I’m always thinking about the eager undergraduates who are listening to us bitter older folks. It’s good for us to normalize our experiences, to find other people like us, but we can also be a good resource for others coming up behind us.

Send a link to your Post-PhD Story to my email [jacquelyn.gill at], @JacquelynGill, or post a link here. I’ll aggregate them, organize by theme, and post links. We’ll use #postPHD on Twitter to help organize the discussion, too. Submissions will be open through May 28th!

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Jacquelyn Gill

32 replies

  1. I had to leave my PhD after five years with no results. I managed to secure a couple of sessional teaching gigs before the end, one which involved taking a sabbatical, and one which I got before the official end, so I told them I was still on-track to completion when they hired me. They didn’t seem to care that I never finished, since I was covering a maternity leave and wasn’t going to be hired permanently anyway, plus I had excellent student evaluations and a high class average.

    Getting hired as a full-time academic instructor without a PhD seems highly unlikely at the university level, especially in a job market where sessional instructors are the norm. Teaching at the college level (what Americans call community college) seems more likely, but there don’t seem to be a lot of chemist positions at that level. The sessional postings I’ve been qualified for are mostly at the university level, and don’t seem to require a PhD for first-year courses (they don’t mind if you have one, but it’s not a deal-breaker).

    What’s really weird is the job I have now, which I sort of fell into. I’m a postdoctoral research assistant at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. Most of that job title is inaccurate: I’m not postdoctoral and I don’t do any research. Whenever someone calls me a postdoc, I feel like a fraud. They called my PhD supervisor before they hired me and got the whole story, so I wasn’t hired under false pretenses. I’m not entirely clear on what my job here actually is. My purview seems to be anything larger than a proton and smaller than a protein.

    I got the job through the Knowsaguy Network: another instructor at the university I was teaching at had family connections to a scientist at SNO, who said they needed a chemist and that I should send my resume. So I did. I had a phone interview, and then an onsite interview which included a trip down the mine to see the facility (cleanroom procedures required showering first – getting naked with your interviewer makes for a really weird interview).

    Not having a PhD turned out not to be the end of the world (plus I don’t have to write that thesis anymore). My chosen career path is TV Science Guy, so not being Dr. Steve won’t hurt that much.


  2. How inspiring some of these posts are! Hope some people find some inspiration in my story too. I’ve made a full circle; out of academia into both commercial and non-commercial jobs and then back in academia. This isn’t a very concise post but I hope it can provide some positive views for people considering jobs outside academia and to counterbalance the tendency to talk about non-academic jobs as a kind of compromise. Don’t have a blog yet, so this will just have to do for now.


  3. Well said. I agree completely.

    After I finished my PhD I was determined to continue and do a postdoc. At the time I did not feel finished with academic research. But I’ve never had any intention to continue climbing the academic career ladder beyond the postdoc stage. I don’t find the jobs further up that ladder appealing (no matter how much I love science itself) and since I’ve now worked as an academic researcher for more than a decade the job has become boring routine. I am ready to move on and find new challenges.

    Since I grew up in a non-academic environment it is self-explanatory to me that the majority of people switch career path every few years. This is normal and not something that needs explanations or excuses. I find it extremely weird that other academics have assumed that I’m aiming to become a lecturer or professor without actually bothering to ask me. Seriously, people should do more thinking and less assuming (and academics are not nearly as good at independent thinking as they want to believe).

    After completing a postdoc I’m now taking some master courses in e.g. law in order to be able to move on to a career in environmental and health protection, while doing some science journalism on the side. Interestingly, one noticable difference between my new education and my previous one is that the teachers I have now are actively involved in finding non-academic jobs for their students while all my previous science teachers and supervisors couldn’t care less.

    I wrote a kind of goodbye-life-as-an-academic-researcher blog post the day after I had completed my postdoc, but (a) it’s in Swedish since my blog is in Swedish and (b) the text focuses mainly on the happiness of finally moving on to a new chapter in my life and my plans for the future and only briefly mentions some of the reasons why I don’t want to stay in academia. You can google translate it at your own risk 😉

    P.S. If you base your career choices on what works for me instead of what works for you, don’t come whining to me when it doesn’t work out. You should have known better. That said, I think it is important that university teachers and supervisors are honest with their students about what the job market looks like and what an academic career means in practice. There is nothing wrong with deciding that you want to become a university professor, but you will have a much better chance of succeeding if you have a realistic idea of what you are getting yourself into.


  4. Hi,
    You might find my story interesting. I’m a 29 year old woman, with a PhD in early modern history and currently working on a 2-year postdoc research project on a pretty decent salary doing the job I’ve dreamed of since I can remember, so you might say that’s a happy ending. The problem was I played the ‘academia game’ on a really high difficulty setting (nice analogy btw).

    I’m not in touch with any of my family through no fault of my own and have lived independently since I was 16, also not my doing, and have had to work full time to pay my bills through sixth form and as an undergraduate. I got funding to do the masters and the PhD (which wasn’t easy to compete for at all). I started off at an ex polytechnic uni and got a first, which got me into the best uni in my region, but the other students were of a completely different breed, playing la crosse on a Wednesday afternoon etc. When I won the funding, they said, ‘oh, it must have been means tested’, to which I replied, ‘no actally it was brains tested’, So everything was brilliant and I didn’t have to work, and I was doing what I loved. Lucky me.

    Then, I got the PhD, having built up a few publications and some teaching experience. Although I’d been applying for lecturing and research jobs for a year before completing, I had nothing and my rent was due and as I hadn’t been paying tax due to living on a tuition stipend, I couldn’t claim any benefits either, so with £30 left in my bank account and only my Grandma’s jewellery to sell after that, which really would have been a last option, I printed 30 CVs off, walked round a shopping centre handing them out and the next day I had two jobs on the minimum wage. One was unpacking, steaming and hanging clothes from 4am to 8am 5 days a week and the other was working in an electrical store from 10am to 6pm 5 days a week. Some job for a Dr who had worked extremely hard to achieve what she thought was going to be a steady and secure life, supposedly following her dream?

    After 3 months juggling these jobs, and somehow managing to apply for academic jobs too, I had no luck, so I started applying for non-academic jobs, mainly administrative jobs and I got one straight away. It was good to have regular working hours, 9-5 and earning the same as I was with the two minimum wage jobs, but it was still difficult living on £17k a year and paying tax etc.

    I managed to use my existing network of academics to get involved with an environmental history project as a volunteer, and after about a year, they offered me some hourly paid research work to conduct an oral history project. I took a week of my annual leave to conduct the interviews and then transcribed the interviews in my lunch hours, evenings and weekends. It was exhausting, but I eventually published a the findings in a good journal and then I was named in their future project as a postdoc. If they got the funding, I was in, albeit for only two years.

    I hated my admin job. I was on the bottom rung and would’ve had to have taken accountancy exams to progress. My manager was four years younger than me and earned three times as much. I had to train new starters who were 18 years old and on the same wages as me. My workmates thought it was hilarious that I was a Dr and struggled to buy food the week before payday. My education counted for nothing at all. I checked my emails every day, when the results of the funding application were due. They were a month late, but no news was good news. I checked them one day on my phone sitting opposite my manager and I burst into tears. I couldn’t believe it. We were in. All the hard work had paid off. That was April 13, and the project started in October 13, so I’ve been working on my postdoc for over 6 months now and I’m loving every minute of it. I’m working with several project partners to ensure that my research findings inform and shape their future policies, so that it will have a positive impact on the future.

    I’m happier than I can describe, doing my dream job, but I’m still trying to publish my book and every day I think seriously about the fact that I’m stepping closer towards the end of this temporary contract. I will try my hardest to get another academic job after this one, but I don’t know if I can put myself through the hell of 4am starts on the minimum wage again. It pushed me to breaking point. A PhD and post-PhD employment is no walk in the park, unless you have sufficient support from parents or a spouse to get you through the hard times. You can’t eat a red gown, a bunch of degree certificates or even your name in lights in several academic journals, as brilliant as those things are.


  5. Hey Jaquelyn. I really identify with this, my girlfriend is currently struggling with feeling bad about leaving academia after a post-doc. On one hand she likes the science, on the other she finds the hours expected of her and her own perfectionism result in that kind of work making her unhappy. She’s currently doing some soul searching but I’m sure she’ll find something else she loves.

    Also, would you mind if I mined some of your content for a presentation at some point on this topic. I think that a lot of academics ignore this problem, as you have written in the past, and I’d like to give a presentation at a few different universities to try and shock people in to action (or at least discussion of the subject).


    1. Anything I post here is covered under a Creative Commons license, but I can’t speak for the authors of the links I post.

      I wish your girlfriend the best in figuring out her path! I’ve found to be extremely helpful in addressing these kinds of topics, too.


      1. I didn’t really mean I would steal stories. Or at least I don’t think I did – I can’t remember now… I think I meant rather that I’m interested in the topic and might draw a bit of inspiration from it. I’ll credit you with the inspiration behind anything that comes of these half thought out ideas. And thanks for the blog link.


  6. I”m interested to see the diversity of stories that you get! Here are a couple of links to posts where I’ve discussed my altac transition.

    However, the list of reasons why I didn’t go tenure-track are so long, I”m not even sure all of them are reflected in these two pieces. I could go on and on.


  7. So, here are the links to the individual posts about our paths into academia, that Jane mentioned above and Becky did on twitter. Some of them are traditional, others have had a more winding path. Jane’s is due out today, so she can update with that link! Our stories start a bit earlier than PhD as these were written as part of a ‘researcher profile’ series over on the blog.
    Thanks! The GEESologists…


  8. I am a current PhD as opposed to a post-PhD, nonetheless I feel something I wrote in comment of a post on another blog may be of use here:

    I have to say that the subject matter of your piece often comes up in conversations I have with non-scholars, especially family. If I could choose any job on graduation, I would go with academia – I enjoy my research and I already teach and I love it. In fact I love it so much that I would do it (and have done it some of the time) for free. This being said, I entered into a PhD with virtually no expectations with regard to career prospects.

    As a biological anthropologist, my field is about as unmarketable as you can get (obscure bit of knowledge about bonobo sexual practices anyone? or perhaps a rant on theories of the cognitive sophistication of Neanderthals?).

    So why did I pursue it?

    The questions that the field deals with are, at least to me, among some of the most interesting to be asked. The field is also inherently multidisciplinary, which appeals to someone as eclectic-to-the-bone as I am. I have a desk in a genome biology department, regularly attend discussion groups in the philosophy school, I spent most of today reading economic papers on game theory, and tomorrow will teach an Associate Degree sociology class. Boredom is unknown to me.

    What I am getting at I suppose, is that I find it acceptable to view taking a PhD as a purely philosophical exercise in truth-seeking. Improved job prospects, should they exist, are a mere welcome bonus. Where things get irksome is when I give this answer to the inevitable barrage of ‘so what job does that get you?’ that PhD students receive at dinners, family gatherings and so forth. It is usually met with either confusion, accusations of being an obtuse hipster, or chortled remarks of the ‘oh well you’ll change your mind about that one day’ sort.

    I should mention here that I am 30 years old and have had a few ‘conventional careers’ already, ranging from low-paid bookstore manager to quite-well-paid-indeed teacher of English as a second language (something I still moonlight as). I have lived miserly and rather comfortably at different times – so I do know what I potentially am giving up in the long run by pursuing research for purely personal reasons.

    Having dwelled upon this for a while now, an interesting question has just wiggled its way up into my consciousness:

    What is it about the occupation of ‘mendicant ponderer’ (no religious overtones intended) that everyone seems to find so unnerving?


  9. Great! The more, the merrier. I’d be curious to see what you get that doesn’t fit the binary. I think the more time that passes between grad school and now, the more nuance can develop as we reflect back. My own “leaving academia” is a story (as I think of it now) of me realizing who I am as a person, and figuring out where I’m best placed. The fact that I have a PhD and once assumed I’d be a professor (“I guess so; what else is there?”) is hardly relevant. I’m me and I’m best doing what I’m doing now, and that just happens not to be on the tenure-track or as a professional historian.


    1. I love that — it really is about being your best self, and that can mean doing any number of things. I suspect that a lot of people in academia are unhappy because they don’t actually LIKE academia, and it can be hard to parse that amongst the stress and angst.


      1. Yup! Grief and identity recrafting take time . . . and make less noise on the internet 🙂

        I assume you know my Transition Q&A series? (If you don’t check it out!)


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