Preparing for life post-PhD

One thing I’ve gradually noticed in life is how easily advice can slide into being a performative justification of the choices the individual giving the advice has made in the past. Never does this seem to be more true than with academia, perhaps unsurprisingly given the potent combination of a preponderance of intensely ruminative people alongside career structures which have changed radically in a relatively short space of time. I don’t think this means academic career advice is worthless (far from it*) but it does mean everything should be taken with a pinch of salt. Receiving advice and thinking abut what people are suggesting to you can be just as useful in helping you work out what your priorities are as it can be in helping you expand your understanding of objectively felicitous strategies.

This is all an elaborate preamble to highlighting this interview about preparing for a post-PhD career. It raises some important issues and is full of interesting thoughts but it really should be treated with caution. Though perhaps that went without saying. Does anyone have suggestions about preparing for post-PhD life or thoughts on the sociology of advice? We’d love to hear from you if so.

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.


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.

What does frustrate me about this is how important advice about not getting stuck in a rut waiting for the ‘next’ career stage which might never come co-exists with an enthusiastic reiteration of a similarly linear normative trajectory (after you’ve done X, your next priority is Y and you can no longer do that within the academy). An increasing awareness of ‘alternative’ careers for PhDs is a hugely important goal but it’s one which really shouldn’t be framed in such dichotomous terms. It’s interesting to encounter the perspective offered in the interview but I have a lot more time and sympathy for ‘alt-academic’ and ‘para-academic’ conceptions, to name but two, than I do for the kind of understanding offered here. If you’re interested in these issues then please do get in touch (mark AT as we have a project planned in the not too distant future which will be exploring the changing experience of career structure within the academy, perhaps as a prelude to a substantive research project in the longer term.

*I’ve found it’s much more useful to seek advice about how a particular procedure or practice works than what someone should do under some given circumstances. But pursuing this thought risks slipping into writing an entirely different blog post.

Categories: Higher Education

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