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Not every PhD student wants a job as a tenure-track professor. (Yong Hian Lim/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Not every PhD student wants a job as a tenure-track professor. (Yong Hian Lim/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Education

Yes, PhD grad, there is life outside the Ivory Tower Add to ...

It’s an assumption most of us make: that students earning PhDs in the humanities are aiming for a university teaching job, preferably a tenure-track position offering prestige and potential life-long job security. As a history PhD, I’ve been on the receiving end of that assumption more times than I can remember.

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I was a promising prospect when I began my doctorate and started strong, winning scholarships and taking an active role in my department and university. I passed my courses and comprehensive exams, had fun facilitating undergraduate discussions as a teaching assistant, and in my third year I undertook archival research in three countries. That, I loved. Come dissertation time, I didn’t enjoy the process, and the personal and professional rewards were too few to keep me moving forward at a regular pace. By then I was nearly four years into my PhD.

I finished nearly another four years later not because I loved what I was doing, but because I finish what I start, I value education, and being a graduate student allowed me to pursue hobbies I was passionate about. I was disillusioned but still enthusiastic about running tutorials, took my duties as a grader seriously, presented at conferences, and handed in a chapter to my supervisor every few months.

When it came my turn to figure out what to do after earning my degree, I was more confused than clear about what I wanted. The choice all my peers were making –– to apply for academic positions –– seemed almost absurd. I had little confidence in my ability to land a postdoc or full-time teaching job, let alone a much coveted tenure-track job.

No less importantly, I was horrified by the thought that I might! If I remember correctly, the best job in my field was for a tenure-track position at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. I presumed the work-load would be heavy and the pay mediocre. And I couldn’t see myself living in small-town USA, far away from loved ones and the big Canadian city where I’d become an adult. When I suspended judgment, I knew that the chances of me landing such a job were nearly nil. (The person who eventually did already had two books to his credit!)

If not academia, what else? Thankfully, I had somewhere to start: I’d been doing occasional freelance research work on the side for a few years. The work was low in pay and prestige, but it was something to do while I figured out what to do.

The major turning point in my career change came several months after finishing my PhD. I hired a coach in the fall of 2012, a move that was very much out of character for a self-starter like me. My own efforts weren’t cutting it; I felt lost and stuck when it came to my working life.

I turned to outside help because I couldn’t get what I needed from my university. My department spoke of graduate career outcomes – “placement” in academic parlance – only in terms of tenure-track positions. A committee of professors worked throughout the year to help PhD candidates and recent graduates navigate the academic job market, write CVs and cover letters, and prepare for interviews. There was no support for, or even attention, paid to non-academic careers. A pervasive tenure-track-or-bust mentality marked my doctoral training.

This mentality does not serve PhD students. It limits and distorts career options, and perpetuates negative, unhelpful stereotypes of work beyond the Ivory Tower. I believe that this ignorance and unwitting snobbery keeps many intelligent, creative, motivated individuals in contingent teaching jobs that ultimately don’t serve them or the interests of Canadian society writ large.

How are PhDs who’ve spent upward of a decade in graduate school, training if not actively aiming for academic employment, to know what else is out there? How are they to know that the skills and experiences in academic can translate well to the so-called “real world” when the culture within universities is so different than it is elsewhere? Academic departments should do more to foster community between professors, graduate students, and alumni, whatever job they have.

For me, It’s now a year later and I’m in the early stages of a new career:

coaching! Turns out that as a sole proprietor working independently of any university I can keep what I liked and valued about my academic life without enduring long hours of the tasks I didn’t. I’m thrilled with this new direction – it is one that too many graduate students may not even know is available.

Jennifer Polk is a history PhD who is now an academic and career coach.

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