Beyond the academy: what all PhD students should know


The future for young academics looks bleak. A long-term trend – once linear, now exponential – shows that the percentage of PhD holders attaining a permanent faculty position is catastrophically low. While it is common knowledge that the academic market is turbulent, the pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to a whole generation of students.

I am one of those countless PhD candidates unsettled by the prospect of getting a post-graduation position. Morale in my programme is low, and many of us feel swept towards a future we have absolutely no control over. Yet most of us have only a hazy idea about what our other options could be.

To better make sense of our collective situation, I offered to conduct a part-time research project with my graduate school at Princeton. I located and interviewed a dozen or so individuals who completed their PhDs and went into highly successful “alternative-academic” careers. And although my experiment had a US focus, all of it is highly applicable in the UK and elsewhere.

I asked several key questions. What did I need to know about the decisions they made that led to their success in satisfying, well-paid and impressive careers beyond the academy? Did they regret leaving? What advice would they give to younger scholars?

After conducting my interviews, I noted two major trends that I think all PhD students should know: the importance of networks, and the importance of mindset.

First, networks. It cannot be repeated often enough that networks are the key to success both inside and outside the academy. It is a common adage that what counts is who, not what, you know. But we have a surprising tendency not to take this wisdom seriously enough.

Why? One reason, I believe, is that the essence of good scholarship is that it is judged blind. Evidence and argument are what count, not the identity of the author. Of course, the reality of this has always been much more complicated. But at least in theory, networks should count for very little in terms of career success. But they do.

More interestingly, perhaps, is that the very term “networking” evokes many negative associations for PhD students. It signifies cynicism, manipulation and superficiality – all of which tend to pervade people’s perceptions of what networking is really “about”.

Much of the damage is also done because younger scholars tend to think of it in terms of what I call an “exchange model”. Networking is a thing that I do to get something from someone. In other words, networking is a transaction. It is cold, calculated and instrumental. It is something I avoid doing unless it’s urgent.

But the exchange model is rubbish. When I spoke to my interviewees, I saw that they tended to treat their network like a precious garden. Each tree or plant that they watered gave more flowers and more fruit. The end result was a garden in full bloom – with jobs, opportunities, resources and knowledge. What’s more, many seeds had already fallen to the earth and brought forth a new generation of future connections.

All my post-PhDs had grown networks that were wide, diverse and strong. Like watering their plants each day, they would touch base every so often to check in. And over time – well before their graduation – they developed both knowledge and trust in their relationships with other professionals. They had grown beautiful gardens. In the end, jobs came to them – not the other way around. For PhD students, it is not common knowledge that something like 70 per cent of jobs are unadvertised.

Next, mindset. Leaving academia is not failure. Although older academics are increasingly conscious of the decimation of the job market since 2008, many remain stubbornly unaware of this new reality.

Moreover, after nearly a decade in higher education, students come to identify so radically with the professor “idea”. that they can imagine little else they would do. Trapped by a system they have almost zero control over, they sacrifice their entire lives to chase a dream that remains stubbornly – and often permanently – out of reach.

But what many people discover is that, in fact, their lives in the “alt-ac” world are incredibly rich, fulfilling, stimulating and exciting. It isn’t necessarily what they imagined they would do. Yet they find intense pleasure and deep satisfaction in a variety of roles after they abandon their attachment to a particular conception of what defines them.

The second part of this shift in mindset involves realising, not only that you might want a non-academic life, but that you can achieve it, too. So many PhD students cannot fathom how anyone outside the ivory tower might value them. But this is nothing more than a problem of translation. Although they may need to develop some ancillary skills, they usually neglect what their skill set already counts for. They just lack the language with which they can talk about it.

But finding a job also takes work. Even with a strong network and a compelling CV, effort is mandatory. The PhD “brand” only counts for so much. People will assume that you’re smart – but they won’t give you the keys to the ignition because of it. You have to demonstrate competence, commitment and empathy in a variety of ways that you might not have expected. Even academic “adjacent” jobs – such as publishing and research – will not automatically accept you just because you have a newly minted doctorate from a prestigious university.

All that said, the horizons for post-PhD life are far better than many people realise. As one of my interlocutors said, a non-academic job is something like 95 per cent of the possible jobs that you could get after graduation. So don’t box yourself in.

Author Bio: Max Horder is a PhD student in Anthropology at Princeton University.