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.
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.
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 maine.edu], @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!