Aiming for a tenure-track university job right after completing your Ph.D.? Experts say beware. The market is tough, so consider broadening your search beyond academia.
According to a June 2022 report from the American Association of University Professors, 61.5% of U.S. college and university faculty in fall 2020 had contingent positions and did not have the job security that comes with tenure.
Based on its analysis of compensation statistics and other financial figures from U.S. colleges and universities, the AAUP issued a warning about working conditions for U.S. scholars.
“Collectively,” the AAUP wrote, “these data sources paint a bleak economic picture of the profession: deteriorating wages of college and university faculty members in relation to the wages of other professions, continued gender pay inequality, appallingly low pay for adjunct faculty members, erosion of the financial structures that support higher education, rising threats to academic freedom and shared governance, and continued uncertainty about the COVID-19 pandemic—all threaten the standards of the profession and the quality of higher education itself.”
Given the many challenges facing higher education faculty, experts advise Ph.D. hopefuls to take note of the many ways a doctorate can prepare them for positions outside of colleges and universities. Charitable organizations, government agencies, industrial laboratories, museums, political think tanks, social advocacy groups and technology companies often employ Ph.D. recipients.
Regardless of academic discipline, people with Ph.D. degrees have a variety of employment opportunities and can “build meaningful careers outside of academia, as well as inside of academia,” says Todd Maurer, CEO of The Versatile Ph.D., a career coaching and counseling firm that caters to Ph.D. students.
Nancy Kass, vice provost for graduate and professional education at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, says solid Ph.D. training cultivates skills that are valuable to a variety of employers.
“Students end up with a skill set that prepares them for so many things, and they ought to be aware of the range of opportunities available to them,” she says, adding that deep knowledge of a subject and the ability to critically assess information are useful outside of colleges and universities.
Kass says Johns Hopkins is one of many U.S. postsecondary institutions making a concerted effort to train Ph.D. scholars to work wherever they want, inside or outside academia.
“We’re not contributing to the world to the extent that we could if we’re only preparing students for one sector of employment, ” Kass says.
Johns Hopkins has a career office at its Homewood campus that mainly caters to Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers in the arts and sciences, engineering and education fields. A similar office is at the East Baltimore campus and primarily assists Ph.D. students and postdocs in health care subjects such as bioethics, medicine, nursing and public health, according to its website.
The university also has a Ph.D. professional development innovation initiative that includes funding for Ph.D.-oriented career events, long-term professional development programs and mentoring or networking functions for minority Ph.D. students.
Issues to Consider When Assessing Ph.D. Career Services
Leaders of national academic organizations say that graduate programs differ in how they provide professional development opportunities to Ph.D. students.
Robert Townsend, director of the humanities, arts, and culture programs at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, says that there is so much emphasis on dissertation research and writing in some Ph.D. programs that insufficient attention is paid to what happens after graduates enter the workforce.
“There’s a growing movement both in the sciences and in the humanities to try and expand the way they teach doctoral students to move beyond just that traditional dissertation focus,” says Townsend, who received a Ph.D. degree in history from George Mason University in Virginia.
Ph.D. programs are increasingly likely to match students with professional internships at organizations whose missions relate to their field of study, which can not only inform students’ academic research but also encourage career exploration, Townsend says. For example, he says, a Ph.D. student pursuing a degree in economic history might get an internship at a bank.
Coursework in Ph.D. programs sometimes involves cultivating technical skills that are valuable inside and outside of academia, such as the ability to build a website, perform a complex statistical analysis or do computer programming, Townsend says. Prospective Ph.D. students should investigate whether graduate schools offer professional development opportunities beyond traditional research or teaching assistant positions, and whether courses include hands-on projects that would impress employers, he advises.
Joy Connolly, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, urges Ph.D. applicants to look at program websites and check whether they highlight accomplishments for recent alumni with a variety of career paths, including those who work outside of academia.
“A good Ph.D. program is one that prepares you with equal vision and energy for a rewarding career outside the college and university,” says Connolly, who earned her Ph.D. in classical studies from the University of Pennsylvania.
“Until very recently, in my own field and in related fields in the humanities, it was very common for departments to list only those past Ph.D.’s that had landed tenure-track jobs at elite universities,” she says, noting that many departments that formerly did this have changed their practices.
It’s also wise to carefully evaluate the practicality of the Ph.D. curriculum and to assess the quantity and quality of professional development opportunities that provide transferable skills, she says.
“Look at the curriculum and ask, if it’s not immediately obvious, what experiences have been baked in the curriculum. Not add-ons – not like access to a Saturday morning workshop twice in your graduate school career – but actual pieces of the educational experience that go outside of the discipline and go outside the department, that open up to jobs outside the academy.”
For example, graduate programs can teach Ph.D. students how to communicate information in a variety of mediums, using not only research papers but also op-ed pieces, presentations and classroom materials, Connolly says.
Top-notch Ph.D. programs also provide training in multiple research methods rather than emphasizing only a single way of conducting research, Connolly says.
“You learn to understand and analyze in a wide range of ways. And that’s something, too, to keep an eye out for. If you’re doing a French Ph.D. and you’re only reading French poetry and novels, and you’re never reading any other kind of source, that’s a red flag.”