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PhDs That Work—Beyond the Professoriate

November 9, 2017 — 

The following is an editorial written by Paul Jenkins, administrative coordinator for the University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

In late October the University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities, in partnership with the Faculty of Graduate Studies, brought Maren Wood and Jennifer Polk of Beyond the Professoriate to campus to deliver a series of workshops entitled “PhDs That Work: Finding Success in an Uncertain Job Market.” They were fantastic. Wood and Polk brought the necessary mixture of courage, tough-minded clarity, and informed compassion to this important but challenging subject. Their workshops combined a wide array of practical instruction and advice with an energizing message that emphasised the capabilities, creativity, intelligence, and skills PhDs possess (as well as graduate students more generally). The content of their workshops, in other words, was greatly enhanced by the tone of its delivery and the sense of optimism and community Wood and Polk created.

For those who were unable to attend, a couple of statistics provide a convenient way into two of the core messages of these workshops. The first comes from a recent report that indicates only 18.6% of employed PhDs in Canada are full time professors on the tenure track. By now, many will be familiar with this figure and know that it is of course an aggregate number so it can fluctuate depending on one’s discipline. For instance, in this author’s home discipline of history, the number is among the highest, at about 30%. But with 70% of history PhDs still left outside the ranks of the professoriate, even that can hardly be described as encouraging. While there is some variance then, the basic point stands and these numbers disrupt expectations. Despite their professional ambitions, the vast majority of Canada’s PhDs will not end up as full-time, tenure-track faculty. A professional life outside academia, then, is the norm, not the exception.

However disheartening this seems—and I know very well just how disheartening and personally damaging it can be—it is absolutely imperative that everyone gets really comfortable with this reality, be they graduate students, advisors, or university administrators, because life goes on.  Although challenging, no one dies from this. They adjust. In fact, once reoriented not only do those who move away from academia tend to find stimulating and fulfilling careers, they are often happier. There is good reason for all of this. While it is true that the creative and knowledge economies in Canada do not require many credentialed PhDs (an important point to which I shall return), they do need lots of smart, creative, disciplined, imaginative, aspiring people.

In other words, employers are hungry for exactly the sort of characteristics PhDs, (and other graduate students), tend to have well honed and in abundance. Consequently, and as was repeatedly stressed and shown throughout these workshops, with some strategic planning and re-orientation graduate students’ futures are still generally bright and exciting and full of dynamic potential. The trick is figuring out how to unpack one’s academic training and experiences and then align them with the needs of non-academic employers. Don’t be fooled. This can be deceptively challenging, and demands sincerity and commitment. So, the sooner one starts doing this the better. The good news is that one’s efforts here are typically well rewarded, both personally and professionally.

This brings us to the second main statistic that helps us unpick the challenges PhDs can have transitioning to non-academic employment, and that is that only 1% of Canadians have a PhD. That means, with very few exceptions, no employer is going to require a PhD as a necessary qualification for employment. Therefore a PhD degree alone is not going to open many doors. This point is not as obvious or innocuous as it should be. In fact, it can be downright disorienting and a source of deep resentment. It certainly runs counter to the prevailing culture of graduate programs, which have typically neglected the professional development of their students, leaving their professional aspirations to be shaped by their immediate environment, the research university. Thus, for want of anything more deliberate, strategic or realistic, graduate students are taught by their broader cultural surrounding to desire the jobs that are most scarce and statistically the vast majority of them will never get.

This is an area that makes Beyond the Professoriate and the work of Maren Wood and Jennifer Polk particularly welcome, as they help graduate student’s recognize the importance of identifying their broader professional interests, and developing them. A major part of that involves recognizing that for most people a PhD remains a largely unknown entity, and PhDs might very well need to adjust their professional outlook and job materials accordingly. In short, it is not about the PhD, it is about the skills; or as Wood and Polk put it, it is not about what you know, it is about what you do. Their core messages have the deceptively simple contours foundational insights so often do, and their workshops and advice were intelligently presented in accessible and energizing packages.

Beyond the Professoriate is designed to help graduate students now. Towards this end it is practical, actionable and student centred.  It demonstrates just how much can be done to immediately help our PhDs once we jettison the ridiculous (and remarkably recent) idea that the sole purpose and value of a PhD is to become a professor; encouraging our PhD students to freely and openly explore their professional options; and provide resources or opportunities for professional development.  We at the UMIH hope graduate students, graduate programs, and universities will all begin to make regular use of this fantastic resource.

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