when it doesn’t pan out

This post at Unfogged reminded me of what a crazy, high risk venture seeking an academic job really is. Like most things in life, attaining truly elite status in your field requires talent and dedication, involves luck (e.g., good timing) and positive performance feedback, and is only attainable for a small number of position seekers. In some disciplines, getting any sort of decent job in academia is a low probability event. Achieving in academia is a process with multiple selection moments at which a seemingly promising scholar can be removed from the game. For those who manage to stay in, this is the best job in the world. For those who don’t make it, deciding to get a PhD could have been have the worst decision in their life, leading to lots of other life calamities and distress. Take, for example, this testimony:

Between illness, errors and just being lazy sometimes, I fell behind, especially on publications — the main currency by which academic merit is measured. I’ve come to realize, in comparing my qualifications with those of my peers, that I just realistically can never catch up to someone who came out of the gate with a degree in my field, multiple publications, and health intact. Compounding the difficulty is that my husband did get a tenure-track job, at an amazing research university that is, quite frankly, way out of my league. So, if I want to live in the same city as my husband, I’m pretty much stuck — realistically, I will not get a job at his university, or hell, any university at this point. I scrape by teaching the occasional class for peanuts, and one other prof has taken enough pity on me to let me work in her lab so I can pretend to continue my research.

The problem is that emotionally, I can’t drop it. It’s like having a painful sore in my mouth that I keep poking with my tongue — all day, every day, I’m angry, bitter and heartbroken. I resent my husband so much for having what I can’t get that I can barely stand to be in the same room with him, I’m so consumed with jealousy. The workload of a professor is far more brutal than many realize — 60-hour workweeks are the norm, and actually you don’t stop working over the summer, you just stop getting paid — so my husband naturally has little time and energy left over for any housework, which naturally falls on my shoulders. And this ENRAGES me — it’s like I’m not just unable to get my dream job, I’m doomed to 1950s housewife drudgery while my husband does the important stuff. My resentment toward my husband is on the verge of causing me to leave — and it’s not his fault.

One of the main problems with academic training, as I see it, is that we’re horrible at articulating plan Bs for students. For those who are successful in academia, which constitutes the entire population of PhD advisers, Plan B is distant and unthinkable. Unlike other professional training, like MBA programs or law school, PhD programs don’t have an infrastructure designed to help students deal with these sorts of career or life contingencies.  Psychologically we don’t know how to prepare students for any sort of life outside of academia.

Somehow we have to get past this mental model that not achieving spectacular success in academia is equivalent to life failure.

Written by brayden king

January 27, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Posted in academia, brayden

27 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I’m not sure it’s just psychological. Ideally, the universities are full of smart, articulate people. Ideally, they train people to be smart and articulate. Even if you don’t get to work at a university, then, you would, ideally, still be trained in smartness and articulateness. And that ought to qualify you for all kinds of great jobs after getting your PhD.

    Part of the problem may be psychological: a freshly graduated PhD is not aware of exactly how smart and articulate she is compared to her labour market cohorts. But, really, I think many of them are sadly not nearly as smart and articulate, in a general purpose sort of way, as they could be. They spent too much of their time “specializing” in something. The really sad thing is that this partly undermines the “ideal” vision I started with.

    (The original column by Cary Tennis is actually quite good on this point.)



    January 27, 2011 at 6:59 pm

  2. […] at OrgTheory, Brayden discusses the lack of a meaningful “plan B” for people whose academic career doesn’t pan out. I’m convinced that one very concrete […]


    Plan B « Code and Culture

    January 27, 2011 at 7:20 pm

  3. It’s a rotten story really, one of those that gives me second thoughts about whether I should persue a PhD.

    Then again, her circumstances are highly particular. She fell ‘behind’ on her work whilst a student and is in a position where she is extremely immobile. That for starters doesn’t help, I’d be prepared to go all over the world if a good job came up in something I’d essentially devoted my entire young adult life too. Rather than expecting/holding out for something on my doorstep.

    The plan B option is an interesting idea. In the case of the article, it seems as though she doesn’t really want to contemplate plan B, she ‘wants’ to be an academic, and with that mind set it would surely be difficult to snap out of it so easily.

    The fact is with a good PhD you really ought to be able to land a good job in either the public/private sector, in research or whatever.

    I guess you could argue that universities ought to cultivate a greater awareness of possibilities ‘outside’ of academia. A PhD in, for instance, Sociology would surely equip individuals with a vast array of ‘transferable skills’ that would make them ideal canditates for advanced research positions, jobs in policy or any organisation concerned with social research (and that in itself is a massive industry nowadays).



    January 27, 2011 at 8:13 pm

  4. A positive take on the process of not getting an academic job is Alex Pang’s ‘Journeyman’ essay:

    but there is still the issue of what we tell our PhD students about their (probably) long term future in academia.


    Adam Hedgecoe

    January 27, 2011 at 8:45 pm

  5. And I’ve just seen that Fabio posted the link to the Pang essay a couple of years ago…


    Adam Hedgecoe

    January 27, 2011 at 8:46 pm

  6. Jon – You’re absolutely right that you really ought to be able to land a good job. My point wasn’t that PhDs aren’t qualified to land that job, but I think there’s a stigma attached to leaving academia in the first place, which inhibits people from finding those jobs or really considering the full range of career options. Part of our training/socialization as academics is to develop a graduated sense of worth for various sorts of professional achievements. Leaving academia is at the bottom of that ladder (or maybe just off the grid entirely; see, for example, people’s reactions to Podolny’s voluntary exit to the private sector). We don’t have an appropriate way to talk about exit strategies that don’t involve some sort of stigma being attached to the person leaving.

    If you haven’t already, read Gabriel’s follow-up post. He makes some good points about how institutionalized this is in our labor market.


    brayden king

    January 27, 2011 at 8:57 pm

  7. This is a really good post.
    Will you talk to your students about Plan B?


    Brian A. Pitt

    January 27, 2011 at 9:29 pm

  8. Brayden- Oh absolutely, I completely agree with you regarding the socialisation aspect of it all.

    I can imagine that it would be difficult for the faculty of most institutions to seriouly talk about ‘exit strategies’ as afterall, many of these people haven’t been out in the real world much themselves ;) (joke). Maybe this would make for an interesting sociological study?

    Personally, I know a couple of people that have done PhD’s (in the Social Scienes) without really having the intention of going into academia. All of which landed pretty high paying research jobs in the private sector.

    But for those that perhaps do not have that level of ‘consciousness’ about the wider implications of what they are doing, an awareness of their circumstances and where this could all go. I think these types of people could really benefit from having people around that can offer them alternatives should the academic gig not turn out the way they imagined. This could of course be done externally – bringing people from ‘outside’ that can talk to students from specific disciplines (I’d imagine many academics would hate this).



    January 27, 2011 at 10:36 pm

  9. I tell my undergraduates (we don’t have graduate students) not to go for a Ph.D. unless they have a plan B–as well as a plan for keeping track of plan B when their department tries to convince them otherwise.



    January 28, 2011 at 2:26 am

  10. I just executed my plan b (going back to the job I had three years ago before I started my recently-aborted attempt at a PhD). Academia is so completely different from any other profession that it’s irreconcilably unsuitable as a means of training for non-research careers. The ability of academics individually to contribute to other professions is related to the general applicability of research to measurably economically productive activity. If there were obvious value to academic research, the line between academia in the social sciences and other professions would be crossed far more frequently.


    David Chen

    January 28, 2011 at 3:47 am

  11. […] Dr. Brayden King, over at Orgtheory, linked to this excellent post.  If you can, read King’s post and the comments, and read the entire “Dear Abby Letter” from Unfogged.  His post created the context for this post. […]


  12. There’s an endogeneity problem here that’s hard to tease out. My sense is that success (and failure) in Academia follows the snowball logic of the Matthew Effect, so the reason why most successful academics don’t remember of can’t articulate a plan B is precisely because they never had one, and they never had one because they never felt the need to have one. So it could be that the very point in your trajectory at which something like a plan B becomes a serious consideration may already indicate that you’ve fallen off the tracks that would lead to success in academia.

    While the notion that everybody should enter academia with a plan B in mind sounds great on paper, to me it entirely falsifies the phenomenology of what it is to be on a track to success in this type of field (which is the the academic track has to be experienced as “the only thing to do”). I think it makes sense for people contemplating a PhD in Computer Science or Public Policy or some other boring degree but it doesn’t make sense for Sociology, which has no real applied counterpart.



    January 28, 2011 at 3:35 pm

  13. Omar – good points. I guess I’m not advocating everyone to have a plan B. I certainly didn’t. I also don’t want to encourage students to experience grad school life with one foot in and one foot out. If you’re going to thrive as a grad student/academic, you need to wholeheartedly embrace this and give it everything you have. Late nights of reading and writing are sometimes required. :)

    My main point is just that we need to find some way to talk about plan Bs without equating leaving academia with failure. Leaving academia is a very emotional decision for anyone, and the way we assess worth certainly doesn’t help that decision. Perhaps it has something to do with our view that being a scholar is something like a holy calling and less a job…. Anyway, I don’t have answers, just questions.


    brayden king

    January 28, 2011 at 3:46 pm

  14. Omar, I’ve always thought that sociology is one of the fields in which we have the best chance of a plan B. Indeed, a number of people with whom I am acquainted chose non-academic sociological jobs in a variety of areas, such as city government, policy research, educational evaluation, the Census Bureau, the State Department, market research, medical research, etc. Most are quite fulfilled with their work and believe that their sociology Ph.D.s were vital and important training for doing that work. Not all, but most of those jobs called directly for Ph.D. training in a social science. Those jobs are out there. The problem is just that few graduate-level faculty are aware of the possibilities.



    January 28, 2011 at 3:49 pm

  15. Mikaila, I think that’s right, but I also think it depends. If you are trained in the demography core of any major soc department you know that those jobs are out there and you know that you can market your skills in that direction. So this sort of “plan B” is not just a free-floating “choice” available to every sociology graduate student; it is one that is contingent on the acquisition of some non-negligible skills.

    I think the conversation that we are having certainly does not apply to these people. What we are really talking about here is the nth year grad student at Chicago or Michigan who decided to be a comparative-historical sociologist, the 2*nth year symbolic interactionist at your favorite UC who wrote that dissertation proposal on burning man, or the x^nth year student at Berkeley who’s just starting that multi-site ethnography, all of whom daydreamed their way through stats. These people won’t be able to compete for the jobs that you mentioned. For them it’s soc or nothing. And no amount of awareness on the part of advisors about these alternative career paths is going to help them either.



    January 28, 2011 at 4:14 pm

  16. Actually, several of the people I mentioned are qualitative researchers.



    January 28, 2011 at 4:17 pm

  17. I bet that your qual friends with govt, marketing or research jobs are neither innumerate nor daydreamed their way through stats; and I bet they never wasted much time engaging in hard core arguments about the epistemological bases of the discipline. :)



    January 28, 2011 at 4:26 pm

  18. It is really sad to read this person’s story and it highlights the need to make students aware that there are many careers out there. In fact, there are good job possibilities for qualitative sociologists. If you’re a good writer/editor, there is media and publishing (though that is also a field in transition). That was my plan B during grad school, and I was able to keep a foot in that world by doing freelance work. Also, many qualitative sociologists are interested in race, gender, health, social movements, and so on. There are jobs related to those kinds of interests in non-profits, international development, foundations, and so on. Many of these kinds of places are interested in people with both qualitative and quantitative research and analysis skills, and they have PhDs working for them. In some cases, you can continue to do research and publish in journals while working at an an organization like this. Or you can develop other types of skills while still doing work related to your interests. While most faculty members should not be trying to train people for non-academic careers, I do think it’s incumbent upon us to make our students aware of the other possibilities, and to stop disdaining non-academic careers (as well as different tracks with academia, such as administration or research).



    January 28, 2011 at 4:33 pm

  19. Omar- That’s a good assessment.

    Whereas the market seems to have a lot of options for skilled qualitative researchers, quant is definitely important.

    I’m frankly amazed that a lot of Sociology programmes (I’m speaking of the UK here) have such a dreadful regard for Quant. research. There really ought to be a strong mathematical core to the discipline from day one. No student should be graduating from social science programmes innumerate, but from my experience, far too many are.



    January 28, 2011 at 4:46 pm

  20. I think two issues are getting confused here. One is whether after getting a PhD in sociology a person can be meaningfully employed in any job. As Bedhaya points out, we can theoretically rattle off an infinity of jobs that a sociology PhD who’s survived with his or her mental health intact can do (e.g. we can write, read, stare at computer screens for hours on end, etc.).

    The issue in my view is whether there is a Plan B that is a natural extension of the training that you receive in the modal sociology PhD program and that somehow advisors are being derelict in not informing grad students about. I think that save for the examples provided by Mikaila above, this sort of alternative labor market simply does not exist in sociology (I think Mikaila paints a much rosier picture than what is actually out there but that’s a different story), and therefore it would be a mistake to fantasize about a bunch of “Plan Bs” for prospective sociology grad students.

    I think it’s best from an advising perspective to be honest as to what sort of field sociology is, especially early in grad student careers (before the sunk costs sink in). A PhD in Sociology is an academic degree; it simply is not like Economics or Psychology (an economist is still and economist at the BLS and a psychologist is still a psychologist in private practice). Yes, it could be that almost accidentally you end up picking up skills that have a value outside of academia, but that’s an unintended consequence of the training, not its purpose. If at any point you realize that academia is not for you then there is no shame in giving it up and doing something else. It doesn’t mean that you failed it just means that there is probably something else for you out there for which you are actually better suited. Sticking it through thick and thin to get a PhD in sociology, one that is designed essentially for a (self-guided) research career, but not being able to pursue an academic career is (I think) ultimately much more frustrating and painful than either stopping after some meaningful point or starting some new venture. Easier said than done I know, but I think that a lot of the frustration that inspired this exchange stems from that.

    Once again this is not to deny that there are happy and fulfilled soc PhDs outside of academia, but my sense is that pointing to those cases can be misleading, because the bulk of the matter is closer to what Gabriel and Brayden are pointing to.



    January 28, 2011 at 5:08 pm

  21. But I think one of the main reasons why so many people who leave academia are so unhappy is because they have been explicitly told–by mentors, classmates, etc.–that they are failures. Once you see yourself as a failure, any job is going to be a disappointment. And yet this is what our discipline tells people! Even when we know it is not in their best interest. For instance, if you hate teaching and would prefer a 9-5 schedule, why are you told that a research university is a better fit than a non-faculty research job? Instead of being so concerned with replicating ourselves, we ought to be concerned with helping our students find the path that works for them.



    January 28, 2011 at 5:20 pm

  22. “Yes, it could be that almost accidentally you end up picking up skills that have a value outside of academia, but that’s an unintended consequence of the training, not its purpose”

    Developing analytical skills, being observant in the field (etc. etc.) is certainly of value in any job! To call it “accidental” seems a bit off the mark.
    That being said, PhDs probably have it easier in my small North-European country, than in the States. Even the “xx-far-fetched-narrow-niche” focus can give you a job, due to your general analytical skills. But what is also being hinted at is, that people who want to be academics, don’t want to get a job where they have to evaluate business opportunities (or whatever).



    January 28, 2011 at 5:48 pm

  23. In the UK at least, it seems as though there are moves being made to make Sociology more ‘professionalised’, rather than it just being an academic affair. This is largly down to the role of the Economic and Social Research Council.

    The ESRC-recognised Masters degrees (often called ‘Social Science’ or ‘Social Research) are designed to be generic research training (qual, quant, design, management etc) programmes, rather than faciliting disciplinary knowledge. These are designed to develop a number of ‘transferable skills’ to market outside of academia. The universities that ofer actual Sociology MAs/MSC’s are dwindling because they very few ‘Sociology’ masters have such recognition, the only places I can think of are Oxford and Warwick.

    A number of organisations send employees on these Masters for further training. Also, if you wanted to do a PhD in Sociology, the only chance you have of receiving good funding for this is by having the ESRC Masters (the ‘1 + 3 scheme’).

    PhD’s will only get funded bv the ESRC if the topic falls within their remit as the major funding of social research in the UK. They also pay willing PhD students £3,000 a year to attend their advanced quant. methods summer school.

    If you wanted to do something a bit more ‘out-there’, or if you are a ‘post-structuralist’, then there’s a small chance the AHRC will fund your work but very unlikely given they are a tiny research council. You could always self-fund, but unless you are already well-off you’re pretty much consigning yourself to a life of poverty with no guarentee of an academic job at the end of it…

    So from my experience, I see the ESRC as playing a key role in the future of the discipline in the UK, by turning it into a type of advanced training programme for would be practioners in the vast ‘research industry’.

    Obviously this doesn’t mean that you can walk into ‘any’ job, but there’s certainly a vast amount of things you could get into.

    I’d be interesting to know how this compares with what goes on across the atlantic…



    January 28, 2011 at 6:01 pm

  24. One other major reason for not articulating plan B is not only that advisers had one themselves but also because as an adviser, you are “investing” in students who are going to be academics, site your research and otherwise extend the networks and resources you are building. Let’s face it – telling an adviser that you have no intention of doing that is breaking your part of the bargain. Few professors would see that as an opportunity, most would see advising you through 5-6 years as a waste of time and they won’t put the same expectations and resources into you. So, knowing that you are likely to pursue a career outside of academia may quickly turn your plan B into plan A.
    That is why anyone who harbors any such plans is careful to not let professors know about them. That said, I am currently finishing my PhD at an Ivy League school and I know several people who do not intent on going into academia. Or rather, they will give it a try but are also seriously looking into other jobs. THose are people who had jobs before and did not go into a PhD program straight out of undergrad or they are people who are very passionate about a single issue, say environmentalism, and plan on working for NGOs and government. Typically, however, they are careful not to tell their advisers about that, especially if the advisers are “big names”.


    orgtheory reader

    January 28, 2011 at 6:28 pm

  25. Sorry for several typos in the post above


    orgtheory reader

    January 28, 2011 at 6:31 pm

  26. Everyone’s story is different and short of statistics that reduce if not efface individuality, there is no convenient way to sum everyone’s experience. I completed a master’s in social science in April 2010 (BS in crim, 2008). My goals includes teaching, but when I looked at all of the options, it was just another part-time job, at best, at a local two-year or four-year school. I never thought in terms of prestige. As it happens, I got an invitation to a lecture I could not attend. A post-doc in philosophy from Duke and Columbia came to the U of M Flint campus, applying for tenure track. Flint is a heck of a place to be for the rest of your life. I’d rather teach part-time and work in my field, private security.

    The thing is that many “academics” are humanities majors who have been trained to dislike and distrust the marketplace. They never think of how to sell their skills. Just for instance, a historian could write corporate histories.


    Michael E. Marotta

    January 28, 2011 at 9:47 pm

  27. I think the example of this jobless lady also highlights the importance of being mentally prepared for a Plan B if you are part of an academic couple. If living in the same city as your spouse is important to you then you need to accept, early on in grad school, that there is a very good chance you both aren’t going to land jobs in the same place. And if your spouse gets a job at the University of Iowa, then…well then “Plan B” is running the household. After all, Iowa is a cheap place to live so you can probably do fine on one salary. She should have been mentally ready for this possibility while in grad school (as should have her spouse!).



    January 29, 2011 at 12:21 am

Comments are closed.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,941 other followers

%d bloggers like this: