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For Would-Be Academics, Now Is the Time to Get Serious About Plan B

Written by: L. Maren Wood
Published on: Apr 21, 2020

A lot of graduate students and recent Ph.D.s are in a dire state of limbo now that Covid-19 has brought faculty hiring to a screeching halt. I know how it feels to be a job candidate with spectacularly bad timing through no fault of your own. After all, I earned my doctorate in 2009 — a year after the faculty job market collapsed in the Great Recession of 2008.

Back then I spent three fruitless years on a tenure-track market with very few openings and far too many applicants. So let me offer would-be faculty members some advice that I wish someone had told me early on: Academe may be your Plan A, but this is no time to hold off on creating and pursuing a Plan B.

It is too soon to know what the long-term consequences of the Covid-19 recession/depression will be for higher education. Here’s what we do know:

Institutions have canceled faculty searches this year and, in some cases, withdrawn job offers. Departments have no idea how soon they will be allowed to hire again, and some places, such as Yale University, have already announced that hiring will be frozen through June 2021.

Once faculty hiring does resume, much like after the 2008 recession, there will be an even bigger glut of Ph.D.s competing for faculty positions, and jockeying for adjunct work and postdocs.

In the months ahead, some of you may double down on your academic search — much like we did in the 2009 cohort — in the hope that you will be one of the chosen few to land a tenure-track job. But the odds are heavily stacked against you. There are already too many talented people for the few academic jobs available, and that’s about to get worse, not better.

At this point, you might be thinking: Well, it’s not going to be any easier to execute Plan B, given the rising national unemployment rate. Hiring freezes aren’t just happening in academe, after all.

Right now, we’re all waiting to see what the long-term impact of this crisis will be on employment both in and outside of academe. Once that starts to become a little more clear, people in areas of the economy that are collapsing will begin to move into the growth sectors. That’s why you need to get in front of that wave now.

Once you broaden your search outside of academe, you’re no longer locked into applying for jobs that are defined by your subject-matter expertise. Instead, you will apply for jobs based on skills — communication, analysis, project management, research, critical thinking, creative problem solving, and innovation. You can take those skills into all kinds of jobs across industries and labor sectors.

The bottom line: Ph.D.s and graduate students who have the misfortune to be on the job market this year or next will need as many career options as they can get. Those career options will be in the private sector, not in academe.

Don’t do what I did. After I earned my Ph.D., I pieced together adjunct work, tried to publish, and hoped for an improvement that never materialized in the tenure-track market. I thought a Ph.D. would bring me "the life of the mind" — instead, it left me with debt, depression, no health insurance, and uncertain employment prospects. Like so many Ph.D.s, I was ill-equipped to make a career transition out of academe. Was I even good at anything else? Eventually I transformed that predicament into a career. Today I run Beyond the Professoriate, an organization I founded in 2017 to provide professional development and career education for Ph.D.s.

So the advice that follows is based both on my own personal experience and also on conversations I’ve had with hundreds of ex-academics who have found their way to satisfying careers. You can seriously consider, explore, and prepare for a Plan B and still apply for academic jobs. This is not an either/or. This is about minimizing your losses while maximizing your opportunities for career success.

Get serious about Plan B now. There’s a lot of chatter on academic Twitter and other social-media spaces encouraging people not to worry about their scholarly productivity in this uncertain moment of history. That’s fine if you already have a tenure-track or tenured job. But if you are a graduate student, postdoc, or adjunct who needs employment, you absolutely should be productive now — at least about your career planning.

It takes time to build a professional network and do research on career options, which is why my advice is to start yesterday. Few graduate students and new Ph.D.s will land jobs of any kind in the next six weeks, but waiting or delaying a career transition will put you at an even greater disadvantage in the months ahead.

But isn’t leaving academe tantamount to selling out? No, it’s survival. If your advisers or fellow students are disappointed in your decision, then they truly do not understand the depth of the hiring crisis, nor the toll that contingent positions take on people’s lives and health. Their disappointment should be at a system that churns out Ph.D.s with nowhere for them to go, and with little preparation for other kinds of meaningful careers.

Our research shows that too many Ph.D.s and A.B.D.s remain in academe indefinitely in low-paying positions because they believe that leaving will make them even more unhappy — that their lives and work will have less meaning. Academic work can be rewarding, but our interviews with Ph.D.s in nonfaculty careers show numerous ways for smart people to leverage their education and build impactful careers and engaged lives.

No matter how much you love your subject matter, teaching, or academic research, I guarantee I have interviewed Ph.D.s who loved all of those things just as much as you do, yet left academe and are intellectually challenged by the work they do today. They still collaborate with smart colleagues. They are making a difference in the world. You can, too.

What to do from home right now. First, put your research skills to work exploring career options:

  • Access free tools. Websites like Imagine PhD and MyIDP Science Careers offer plenty of free career-planning resources. Get in touch with your graduate program or postdoc office to see what virtual resources are available to you. You can attend our virtual career conference, which we hold each year at Beyond Prof.
  • Get active on LinkedIn. Find alumni from your doctoral program, and connect with them. Ask to chat with them about their career transition.
  • Right now is a fantastic time to do informational interviews via Zoom or similar tech tools because so many people are at home, bored, and looking to talk to someone who isn’t in their household. The idea behind an informational interview is to talk with people in jobs you find interesting. Don’t limit your interviews to people with Ph.D.s. — most nonacademic careers don’t require a doctorate, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring your graduate training and interests to bear in those positions. Ask your interview subjects what they do on a day-to-day basis; what they like about their work; what energizes them; and what kinds of entry-level positions someone with a graduate degree should consider if they are interested in this line of work.
  • Spend time searching on the web for organizations that interest you in the city where you live, or where you want to live.
  • Investigate online courses and programs to build a portfolio of skills that will impress nonacademic employers. Employers are looking for people with skills in project management, data analysis, marketing, and Excel spreadsheets. To boost your abilities in those areas, take online courses in project management. Learn Python or other programming languages. Earn a certificate in Adobe InDesign. Turn your academic research into blog posts aimed at the general public.

Second, embrace virtual networking. Few Ph.D.’s land jobs by submitting résumés cold to online job advertisements; they primarily find opportunities through their network of contacts. Networking will become even more critical over the next few months. Employers prefer to hire people who are referred to them by a trusted network, and nobody wants to read 500 résumés. That personal connection to an organization is key.

Many of the ex-academics we’ve interviewed said they lacked a professional network outside higher education when they started their career transition but were able to build one over time. You can, too, but you need to start now.

Over the next months and years, if unemployment reaches the historic levels that economists are predicting, you will need insider information to help you be an effective job seeker. Your academic network will clue you in when hiring restarts in your field and subfield. But you need to be well networked in the private sector, too, so that your contacts can alert you when hiring picks up in companies and organizations that interest you.

Should you finish? Graduate students may need to evaluate if completing their doctorate makes sense financially and professionally. In 2008 and 2009, when the faculty job market fell apart for my cohort, people were still able to go to the library, do field work, head to the lab, attend conferences, and generally continue on with their academic work.

The Covid-19 crisis has interrupted all of that, making things that much worse for job candidates. Students and postdocs will be burning through funding and savings, waiting for a return to normalcy. There are thousands of graduate students whose academic careers are currently on hold, and, for many, this is an untenable situation.

Given that most nonacademic careers do not require a doctorate, it’s most likely you won’t be at a disadvantage if you start job searching in the private sector without finishing your degree. Don’t continue on in a graduate program simply because you started down that path. Don’t confuse what you do (in my case, that was studying history) with who you are as a person.

No, I’m not telling you to drop out. I’m suggesting you weigh all options seriously. See if your institution supports a leave of absence. You may be able to pause your studies and find work outside academe in the short term. When campuses reopen, you can examine if returning to your doctoral program makes sense. You may find — as many Ph.D.s have discovered before you — that a nonfaculty career suits you, and that you have more opportunities in the private sector than in academe. You may also decide that a Ph.D. still makes sense.

But you can’t make sound decisions in your own best interest if you have only explored one career path.

L. Maren Wood is a Ph.D. in history and co-founder and CEO of Beyond the Professoriate , a public-benefit company that works with individuals and universities, offering career services for graduate students and Ph.D.s.

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