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Preparing for life after the PhD: re-train your brain

Today, I have the pleasure to host Dr Chris Humphrey who shines his light on that dreaded topic of getting a job after the PhD.  

Dr Humphrey is the founder of Jobs on Toast, a blog dedicated to helping masters students and PhDs to find fulfilling careers outside of academia. Chris obtained his PhD in Medieval Studies from the University of York (UK) in 1997, and he is the author of The Politics of Carnival: Festive Misrule in Medieval England. 

Since leaving academia in 2000, Chris has worked in a range of project and programme management roles in the areas of sustainability, finance, transport and training. 

Chris regularly gives workshops at UK universities on the subject of marketing yourself for a career outside academia, and he will shortly be launching an online directory of paid-for products and services benefiting doctoral researchers. Follow Chris on twitter: @chrishumphrey.

In the final stages of your PhD you can get so absorbed in finishing that the last thing on your mind is what happens next! The risk of becoming too focussed however is that you don’t make the mind-set changes you’ll need to sustain yourself in post-PhD life. Life after the PhD is going to be very different, but no-one really warns you or helps you to prepare for it. In this post I’m going to explain a new attitude that you need to cultivate in order to survive and thrive post-PhD, drawing on my own experience of making the transition from a PhD and post-doc in Medieval Studies into a business career.

My story
During my post-doc I was interviewed for a number of permanent academic posts around the UK. After my fifth interview rejection the third and final year of my funding was coming to an end. So I decided to leave academia and get a job in business instead. The main driver for me quitting academia was my unwillingness to accept part-time teaching and associated pay just to ‘stay in the game’ for a permanent academic post. My choice of sector, e-learning and web-based training, left the door open to a return to academia, but once I started in business I knew there was no going back.

Reflecting on this decision more than a decade later, especially now that I’m thinking about serious stuff like paying into my pension and when (if!) I might ever be able to retire, I realise how costly those years of low wages and insecurity could have been. I’m glad I made the decision that I did. If I had hung on in there and taught part-time after my post-doc funding ended, when I was already 30 years old, as a family we would definitely have been scraping by financially (my wife was a newly-qualified teacher at that point and we had a toddler too).

To some people I’m sure this would have been a price worth paying, as the prize of a lectureship or professorship would outweigh the prospect of a few months of hardship. In my case it wasn’t a price I was prepared to pay. It got me thinking about how my attitude changed at some point, especially since I’d subsisted on a very low grant income throughout my PhD.

Making the switch
As I said in my introduction, life after the PhD is very different and you need to be mentally prepared for this difference. One major change I believe you need to make in the final six months is to gradually switch off a powerful force that has sustained you for so long: deferred gratification. Delaying gratification is the ability to make do with less now, in the anticipation of future gains. It’s great when you’re in a structured environment like education, as it keeps you focussed on the end goal of achieving your qualification. It gives you the power to knuckle down and write that chapter, read that book, rather than give in to distractions and interruptions. But it’s not such a great capability when it comes to the next major priority after completing your PhD: finding a secure job that will pay you a decent salary and has benefits like a pension and health insurance.

So after having spent more than two decades of your life in school deferring gratification, you are suddenly in the position towards at the end of your PhD where you need to start to embrace it! All those things that we as PhDs have had to put off: having a family, buying and furnishing a home, going on holiday, paying off debt, suddenly become a real possibility. In fact you have to transition quite rapidly from the approach of just getting by, into someone who can really start to ‘make a living’. You have to quickly learn how to present yourself to a hiring committee (i.e. no longer act like a grad student), negotiate yourself a good salary and benefits package, and start work in an unfamiliar place with sufficient professionalism to get you through your probation. The Professor Is In website has lots of great advice in this area by the way, relevant to both academic and non-academic careers.

The true cost of adjuncting
Already I can hear people yelling ‘Yeah great in principle Chris we would wholeheartedly love to embrace gratification like you say, but where are all the well-paid jobs in academia?!’ True enough, the academic job market is currently terrible. Many of our peers are toiling away in under-employment as a result: working as adjuncts, or employed in the university bookshop, as a lab assistant or as a local tour guides, waiting for things to improve. However, what started as a few months of ‘staying in the game’ can easily extend into a few years and then into a whole adjunct or under-employed way of life. As many of our peers have found to their cost, especially in the US, temporary and part-time work is now entrenched in the higher education system. In the US there is the now infamous statistic that 75% of faculty work part-time on temporary contracts, while in the UK, more than a third of academics are now on fixed-term contracts, according to a recent story in The Guardian. The dream job that so many aspire to may turn out to be just that: a dream that will never materialize. Ironically the academy, that last bastion of tenure, is today fronted by an army of casual workers on short-term and temporary contracts.

So in my view adjuncting and other kinds of under-employment done ‘while I’m waiting for my professorship to come up’ reflect to a degree the mind-set that I’ve already identified: a willingness to delay gratification for the prospect of future gain. Yes there’s a chance that things’ll work out next year on the academic job track, but you have to weigh that slim chance against the impact on your whole life of things not working out. Although some folks are willing to take a hit on their income in the short term, as already mentioned this can turn into a serious long-term problem, putting at risk many of the things that will help to define a ‘good life’ for them and their family. This is what we can describe as ‘the true cost of adjuncting’: the risk of becoming permanently locked into under-employment. Many of our peers are facing up to the harsh reality that they are becoming LESS employable as they go on in under-employment, rather than more employable. This is a crushing blow if you’re still wedded to the idea of accepting less now in the prospect of getting more tomorrow.

Empower yourself economically
So what’s the take-away here? Well to me the first thing is to recognise that your ability to delay gratification has been a powerful force that has sustained you throughout your university career. But as you near the completion of your PhD, you need to acknowledge that this driver has done its job, and you need to start to train yourself in the art and science of making a living instead. The blunt message is that you’ve used up all the slack in your life by doing a PhD: now you need to start taking serious steps to assure the comfort, health and dignity of you and your family, not just post-PhD, but for the rest of your life.

Having learned to empower ourselves intellectually, as PhDs we also need to learn how to empower ourselves economically. This doesn’t mean throwing away our principles in the blind pursuit of money. What I’m talking about here is a principled way forward, rejecting the exploitation of low paid and insecure work (adjuncting) or working for free (unpaid internships), in favour of a decent wage in return for our valuable skills and experience. As mature, educated and committed workers we can be of tremendous value to all kinds of organisations outside of academia, including charities, government or business. Check out the profiles on PhDs at Work to see some real-life examples, including my own story. Take some time to read about people who’ve successfully shifted their focus from just getting by (as a grad student), to getting on in life (as a professional with a great job and career). The sooner you can make this mental shift for yourself, the sooner you can begin to realise your full potential and enjoy life after the PhD!

So don’t sleepwalk down the academic job route just because you’re still in delayed gratification mode, or because you’re afraid of upsetting your supervisors. Once you’re awarded your PhD you’re not a student any more – you are your own person who has to make their way in a very challenging world. Yes it can feel like ‘selling out’ or ‘giving up everything’ to go for a job outside of academia. Yes it can sound crass and materialistic to even talk in terms of a desire to own property or assure yourself a decent retirement income. But if higher education can’t offer you a means to support yourself and your family now and in the future, that is a structural problem that isn’t going to be fixed in the near future. Be bold and take matters into your own hands. Make a start today and consider your options for a career outside of academia, even if that plan is only your Plan B. There’s a very good chance it’ll become your Plan A before too long.

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This Post Has 9 Comments
  1. Thanks for talking about the dangers of long-term adjuncting. Delayed gratification is all well in good, but at some point you do need and have earned a real job.

  2. I like this! Getting out of anthropology was psychologically very difficult since I had invested about 20 years in the dream. I was able to become a librarian and eventually get on the tenure track that way. I still feel a certain keening for and betrayal by the profession for which I had devoted myself so loyally with the long term goal in mind. But anthropology is a ship that has pretty much sunk and I did not want to be the last rat on that ship when it went down. There are some still hanging on but it obviously can't be sustained. The sad and strange thing is that the same may be the case for the library profession, but that's another story.Anyway, good for you, and good luck in this blog.

  3. I think it depends on your field: in my field, companies have their exhibitions at conferences, so it's easy to talk to them. During my PhD, I also worked on projects that involved industry partners, and presented at some industry events.

  4. Who ever said the pursuit of knowledge had to pay? Not all in life is a means to an end. I know some \”lucky\” grads that are so bored with their jobs, but cannot leave in fear of the life style they will lose (and the family that now depend on them). Well paid slaves that have to keep on the treadmill, pumping out boring papers like factory sausages, or the propagation of lies and misinformation for the corporates. The system is broken. No envy, no sympathy. Sell your soul to the devil and you must pay.

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