At a crossroads

In the final leg of my PhD, I am nearing a crossroads.  Do I choose the academic path I have spent the last 10 years preparing for, or do I choose a different path?  I do not want the decision to be made for me.  Apparently, I’m not alone in preferring to make the decision ahead of time rather than feeling like a failure if I choose to go the academic route and do not find a job (Trouble with Bright Girls).  If nothing else, this is a chance for me to express out loud some of the nuances of this decision.

So many articles and commentaries have come out recently expounding difficulties landing and succeeding in a tenure-track position—due especially to the lack of jobs, gender discrimination, and the defunding of both science and higher education. These articles are disheartening and downright depressing (I stopped reading them as a coping mechanism).  On the other hand, several of my friends have recently accepted good tenure-track positions with and without previous post-doc positions.  In addition, I know I have a great CV for someone at my stage, including a handful of publications, 2.5 years of teaching experience, and a teaching fellowship under my belt.  According to many fellow academics, I should not have a problem finding a tenure-track position.  So, what gives me pause as I approach officially being on the job market? 

Well, I had a terrible experience as a teaching fellow.  I was brought in partly to fill a need in the department, and partly to increase diversity at a rural campus with a 30:70 female-male ratio.  The isolation, lack of support, and gender discrimination were a complete shock, which exacerbated the stress and frustration that accompanies developing and teaching new courses for the first time (more on that another time). I survived my two-year contract and turned down an extension in order to regroup and focus on completing my dissertation.  Although many friends insist it will be different at a better school, I have to admit, I’m wary to find out.

However, this experience was as valuable for me as it was awful.  First, I think I learned more about the content I taught those two years than I had during eight years of graduate school.  Maybe that’s an overstatement, but I certainly learned the material more thoroughly with deeper connections than ever before. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I discovered that where I live is more important to me than what I do. I am an urban girl at heart. I knew this before, but had accepted that I would likely have to live anywhere I could get a job to start out, and then eventually find a preferred position in a bigger city/better location.  It hadn’t occurred to me to actually look at the possibilities for ending up in bigger city.  My ideal academic position is teaching at a small liberal arts college, yet it seems as though these positions are rarely in urban locations, especially within my particular department.  Additionally, I now have a partner, who would not be able to find a job in a smaller community.  While my (awesome) partner is willing to be the trailing partner, I do have to think about what is best for both us.

Over the last year, I have contemplated the pros and cons of being a tenure-faculty member.  (This is based on the context of my experiences and personality, and shouldn’t be taken as a firm list for everyone).  Pros: schedule flexibility, engaging in a scientific community, sharing my passion and knowledge while helping students to develop critical thinking skills.  Cons: little control over where I live (hugely important to me), constant pressure to get grants and publish in order to keep my job (not always in my control), teaching content I love to gen-ed students (who often don’t care and resist education that isn’t spoon-fed for exams), and internal and external (perceived and otherwise) pressure to be 100% productive at all times.  For me, the cons outweigh the pros, so recently I made the decision to start actively looking for possible careers outside of the academy.  One lead seems to be panning out faster than I anticipated, which is great, but terrifying at the same time.

For the last year, I have half-heartedly veered myself towards the academic path for fear of contributing to the leaky pipe of academia.  For that matter, I am increasingly dissatisfied with the leaky pipe analogy.  The implication is that all PhD’s should have the goal to eventually obtain full professorship, but in actuality, only a minority of women (and men) actually end up in these positions.  Don’t get me wrong, the gender imbalance of junior and senior faculty is appalling.  (Seriously, this profession should be at the cutting edge, not lagging behind industry!!)  And although I don’t want to contribute to this statistic, I’m unwilling to sacrifice happiness to be a good example (my teaching fellowship proved that for me).

So, why do I feel reservations in choosing another path?  Part of it stems from fact that this is a big decision, and it will likely be hard (near impossible?) to jump back into the pool of ever-increasing applicants without recent publications and grants on my CV should I regret abandoning academia and decide to return.  Mostly, I am sad to be leaving behind the science, which may or may not be temporary.  I do feel a certain amount of guilt and shame for deviating from the technical skills for which I was trained.  Thinking about this for the post, I realized I’ve been in this same spot before.  After my undergrad, I didn’t end up in a job related to my field of study, and felt shame about that for a long time.  At that point, I still didn’t understand the value or even the purpose of my degree.  Looking back, I now realize the value of each degree and the skill sets I developed and polished in each one.  Really, the PhD shouldn’t be looked at any differently.  The ability to critically think through complex problems, focus on details while understanding their context in the big-picture, communicate clearly, manage large data sets, etc.  These (and many more) are skills that I excel in now, on top of the intimate knowledge of physical geography.  If you look at it this way, content knowledge is really the framework we use to sharpen these other skills, and is of secondary importance.  We (everyone involved in the process of education) need to stop talking about PhD programs as though they are a pipeline in to academia.  We need to stop lamenting the “glut” or PhD students and/or resources we “waste” preparing graduates that later opt out of academic career paths.  We need to embrace the fact that most graduates, men and women, will end up in a career outside of the academy and actually help foster that transition (e.g., see here).

As for me, I am still on the fence, but leaning towards choosing a non-faculty path.  Hopefully I will end up using my science background too.  Regardless of the path I choose, I take comfort in knowing that it may diverge again in the future and I will continue to grow and succeed.



17 thoughts on “At a crossroads

  1. Gracie, I haven’t read in this what you really want to do and what your dream is – just cerebral “management” of your career. Go for what you really want. If you don’t get it, then have a safety net option but I think it is not about how hard it is to get an academic position, or whether your first teaching didn’t go well. (mine didn’t, by the way). It is about how hard you have worked to get where you are, and what you want to do with your life now. Life is short, sometimes cruelly so, and you should go for what you really want to do, even if you have to do something else while waiting for the right opportunity. I’ve graduated about 30 phd students and I can tell you that their success definitely was affected by whether they were doing what they really wanted to do.

    • Alice, thank you so much for your advice. I have applied for 3 non-faculty positions so far; only 2 of which are in an area that I think I could be happy doing. The other position is one that I know I would be great at and makes decent money, but I wouldn’t like it much. I think part of the cerebral career management, and considering the administrative position, is that being in my mid-thirties after nearly a decade of graduate school has me feeling desperate for some financial and job stability. Your advice encourages me to hang on just a little longer for what I really want, which is to be doing science outreach of some sort. Maybe that outreach is to policy makers, the general public, or to students in my class. Anyway, I appreciate your comments!

  2. Gracie, I grew up hearing “a PhD is not training for academia, it is analytical training”. For me, this has been such a helpful thing to keep in mind, because even though I stayed in academia, at every step of the way it felt like a choice.
    I have seen friends who, after finishing a PhD in various science fields, have done things like teach high school, work for Mckinsey Consulting (who, by the way, hire PhD’s at the same level as MBAs), work for Hedge Funds, work for funding agencies, government/policy, industry (big and small), professional editing, professional science writing, and law.
    I agree with Alice Parker here – don’t focus on the “leaving” part, focus on the following what you really enjoy doing.

    • yes, agree with the above. Also, there are not enough academic positions for all the PhD students who actually graduate – it is good that we are all different and contribute in various ways to society. Agree that Science = thinking – you don’t lose any of your training in thinking, it just all adds to your life experience and you don’t know when or how you will use it again. Good luck and good management. d.

    • Thanks NatC. I especially appreciate the examples of non-academic jobs your friends have gone into. For me, I got into academia to teach at a small liberal arts college under the assumption that I would hate research. I now find that I love research, and only sometimes love the teaching. I think you’re lucky and that we should all promote the kind of advice you grew up hearing.

  3. I can relate to much of what you wrote here. One of my biggest questions still remains: What else is out there? I have zero idea how to begin looking for a nonacademic career. There is a big flaw in the current academic system in advising graduate students on careers out side academia.

    • Wendy, I totally agree that most of our departments do not train us for (or even frown upon) non-academic careers. I certainly don’t have all the answers for where to look, but some of the things I have found to be helpful are: being on listservs (e.g., Earth Science Women’s Network jobs and geomorphL–these are mostly academic, but every once and a while a non-academic job announcement pops up),,, looking at specific organizations/companies in an area you’re interested (if just to get a feel for the backgrounds of people who hold positions you’re interested in), and of course, networking (start talking to people you know about what you’re thinking about career wise; see if someone could set up an informational interview with someone in a field you’re interested in). Two of the jobs I’ve applied for so far were off of the listservs I subscribe to. The other position was based on an informational interview set up by a friend of mine, with whom I was casually talking about my career options. Nat C above also listed some great examples of non-academic areas that employ PhDs. I don’t know if any of this is helpful for you, but good luck!!

  4. I agree with the previous commenters, that you must be doing what you love no matter what type of position or setting it is. You never know where you’ll end back up, however. I “left” academia after a couple years in a lab after undergraduate when I realized I wasn’t interested in the research I saw available. Only about 12 years and 2 more careers later did I return for a PhD. As someone who just graduated and is in a non-tenure track research position (but faculty, not post-doc), I had similar struggles with where to live (I’m at least in a bigger, warmer college town than my graduate institution), and whether there’s really job security in the position (or academia at large), but so far (1 month in), I love it, and I went with my gut when I wasn’t sure whether the cross-country move to an unfamiliar state for a grant-funded position in a department where I am sort of a novelty in my research path was right.

    And a bit off your general topic, I just would like to point out one thing about your prospective teaching appointment (to you and many others from whom I have heard similar opinions). You say a con is “teaching content I love to gen-ed students (who often don’t care and resist education that isn’t spoon-fed for exams).” As a science educator and science education researcher, I think this is all too often an attitude that definitely sets you up to fail in that part of it. It sounds like you have more teaching training than most grad students get, but still have missed a big part of what science education’s major problems at all levels of schooling are: too much focus on content and (standardized) assessment. If you teach them about how that content is relevant to them and *why* you love the content, you might be surprised at how much better attitudes about science in general (including less fear of it) the students might have after your classes. No, they may not have a “deep” understanding of the content, but you yourself admit you didn’t even have that depth until you went to teach it. If you engage the students (even in large lecture courses, there are ways to do this), the content will sort itself out. What is it you want the gen-ed students to get out of the class? A bunch of obscure (to them and their careers) facts or an understanding of what science is and does, its strengths and weaknesses, and how to find the facts they might need when they need them? There are lots of folks out there trained to help you create courses that have those latter aims.

    Good luck with the job search! It is a harrowing thing to be worrying about on top of writing that dissertation.

    • agree with this too – I never thought I would ever enjoy teaching and it was ‘later’ in my career that I engaged in any. But to my surprise, i found that the teaching I loved most was to ‘gen ed’ students and mature-age students who needed my subject as a mandatory first-year unit. I ended up specialising in that area and doing quite a lot of pedagogical research in making curricular ‘broader’ and contextual rather than ‘deeper’ – just as Katie has explained. Now, in retirement, I am part of a program that ‘does science’ in elementary schools, and I love it.

      This is meant to be an example of a surprise in my career, not advice about what you should do. The advice is, as others have said, just keep going forward, you don’t know where you will end up, but keep away from things you already know you don’t like.

    • Katie (and d), thanks for your comments, and especially for sharing your experiences. I am considering applying for a job I think I would love, but it is at most, a 2 year position on the east coast. Although I really would like some stability, I am going for the position because I think the experience would be excellent and who knows where it could lead.

      I’ll definitely blog about my teaching experiences in later blog posts. For now, I will just say that I think my difficulties with teaching gen-ed classes it has a lot to do with my personality. I wanted to do a PhD to teach at a small liberal arts college, originally. You are right–I set myself up for failure by envisioning I could (in my first year) get the overwhelming majority (or everyone) of my large (>160/section) classes to LOVE earth science, or at least care about how it is relevant to their lives. To me, turning on only a handful of students was a complete failure. Again, I’ll blog about my teaching philosophy and experiences in future posts.

      Thanks again, and good luck with your new position! g

      • you are an absolute SUCCESS if you managed to enthuse even one person in your favourite area. In fact, those students who did respond are the ones you know about. You will never know how many others you influenced in some way, even just by being enthusiastic in your field might encourage them to be enthusiastic in another field. They might not even know for years. For every one you know about, I estimate there are at least 5 others you don’t know about, and then more in subtle ways that won’t be recognised.

        Stop feeling guilty. Look to your strengths. Look in the mirror each day and tell yourself 3 times to stop feeling guilty. Guilt is something that many people (many women, anyway) keep putting upon themselves. I know, I am advising you do what I say and not what I did in this regard.

        I hope you get the 2 yr position, if it works it will be 2 yrs of fun that will lead to something else – if it doesn’t work, you have a chance to start over again in 2 yrs with something you may find in the meantime.

        Again, good luck, you seem to have the ‘good management’ under control.

  5. This is an excellent post. It sounds like you’re mindfully considering your heart and options. The only thing I would caution you against is putting too much weight on the “leaky pipeline” problem. It’s your life. Make the decision that’s right for you.

    There are many ways to learn about alternative careers besides quitting. In my case, I spent a year of evenings and weekends learning to code, and am now considering an unpaid leave of absence from my postdoc to do more of it. This is an extreme solution but one that was warranted by my particular circumstances. Mostly, it involves something we’re all good at: research!

    • Thanks Casey. I spent a lot of time over the last year teaching myself Dreamweaver and CSS, hoping those skills will help me land a job in a non-academic career. Good luck deciding about the leave of absence from your post doc!

  6. Gracie, I recently wrote about the same issue too. Although I’m not as close to finishing as you are, the thought of what I’m going to do after graduation scares me. I’m not entirely sure that I would like to spend my time stressing out about grants, or going to ridiculously boring faculty meetings. I’m not sure where life is going to take me, but I do know that I want to be doing something that makes me happy.

    It sounds like you already know what makes your heart sing. Being an academic or going into industry are not the ultimate goals, but being and doing what makes you happy are. Good luck in everything you do! 🙂

  7. Pingback: The offer refused | Tenure, She Wrote

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