The PhD’s Crisis: On Finishing, Sunk Costs, and Leaving

In Professional Development on May 17, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Years before I finished my PhD in English Literature, I made the decision that I would not pursue a career in academia. In the past several months, many academic friends and colleagues have approached me to ask for advice about switching careers post-PhD. The idea being that, as a writer with a PhD, that I’ve been able to get some work, is somehow a siren call for them. Why? Because the academic job market is appallingly bad – doubtless worse than the freelance writing market is or will ever be. The prospect of a decade-long job search prior to achieving some stability is, unsurprisingly, a bit of a turn-off.

I usually tell them that in order to find success either inside or outside academia, they’ll need to make a commitment to one side or the other, and make that commitment now.

I thought I would use this post to write to everyone who is in the process of finishing their PhDs, and who are experiencing doubt about their future careers, and are thinking about pursuing a career in writing. Even if you’ve already finished your PhD, and are considering switching careers, there will be something here for you. (If you’re doing a PhD “for the hell of it,” I have nothing to suggest, except perhaps that you see a therapist, or look into a past-time involving less self-abuse.)

The preliminaries

Let me begin by stating that I am wildly unqualified to be making career advice. That won’t stop me, but be aware that just because I’ve made a successful transition from academia to private-and-not-for-profit-sector content development doesn’t mean that I should be upheld as some kind of paragon of inter-career virtue. I’m still very, very much in transition, and my trajectory can reliably be identified as “unstable.”

That said, I think I’ve learned a few things since starting my non-academic writing career in 2008. And I think I my experience might contain a few lessons for those ABDs looking to make a transition. Please keep in mind that this advice is based almost entirely on my own experience, and from my conversations with friends and colleagues. It is general in nature, and is intended mostly for those people in the humanities looking to pursue research- and writing-based careers outside of academia.

The PhD outside academia

There is a lot of dithering and disagreement within academic professionalization circles about the applicability of PhDs to the non-academic job market. Let me make this as simple as I can for you: it’s mostly bullshit.

The vast majority of hiring managers – and they are the ones you need to impress, if you are looking at entry-level positions – will be utterly baffled by why you are applying to their organization. They will ask a variety of questions to themselves, which could be variations of: “Why isn’t this person pursuing a tenure-track job?”; “Is this person ‘slumming it’?”; “Is this person not competitive in the academic world, and if so, what makes them of value here?”; “Is this person going to be a prima donna in our organization?” Now, you should never let the perceptions of hiring managers determine your career path. But they are something to consider. Ultimately, they are the frontline for a lot of questions anyone outside the academy will ask you – they’re just more pragmatic (and cutthroat) about it.

The reality is, outside of a very narrow band of government policy-making and the applied sciences, PhDs are a liability in industry and the workforce generally. You simply don’t need them to do most jobs, so hiring managers will typically shy away from candidates they (erroneously) consider to be “overqualified.”

I want to return to the question of how to find value in your extra-academic career using your PhD. First, I think it’s important to take a step back, and ask some more fundamental questions.

To finish, or not to finish

This might seem like a foolish way to initiate a conversation about the role of the PhD in your career. When the thought of dropping out of my PhD program first occurred to me, I was in my fourth year of the degree. That’s a long time to have spent working towards a goal you likely won’t ever go back to finish. But for many people, the question occurs to them at a later date, usually when they’re finishing their dissertation. Years of coursework, teaching, research, writing, editing, negotiation, and more writing: who wants to give all that up because you’ve had a change of heart?

The answer to the question is not as obvious as it might seem, at any stage of the process. In order to sort out what answer might be best for you, I think it’s helpful to ask yourself two questions (and in this particular order, too):

1. Do I want to become a university professor or professional researcher?

If your answer is “yes,” without hesitation, then obviously, you should continue on and complete your PhD. There really isn’t any other way to do it, other than gain decades of experience in a particular field. University departments, particularly at large research institutions like the University of Toronto (where I completed my graduate degrees), are very good at preparing their doctoral candidates to become professors. They’re also getting better at streamlining and professionalizing the process. (Mind you, they’re committing what I consider to be a gross ethical violation in taking in as many PhD candidates as they do, but we’ll save that issue for another post.)

If your answer is “maybe,” you need to make some decisions, and soon. Most of the people who come to me to discuss the career transition topic answer with “maybe.” It’s a dangerous answer, and one that will likely lead you to disappointment unless you get your act together. If you’re answering “maybe,” it means you’re probably not devoting yourself to publishing within academia, nor are you following a path to professionalization outside of it. I was lucky during my PhD career in that I had the opportunity to participate in several major research projects that had broad public appeal and academic market penetration, as well as editorial work that gave me directly-applicable, non-academic experience. Not everyone who answers “maybe” to the question above will be so lucky.

The major problem with “maybe” is work record. If you vacillate now, chances are, by the time you finish your degree, you won’t have built up a strong record of publication either within or outside academia. You might do a bit of both, but you would obviously be better served focusing on one area.

If your answer is “no,” then we’ve got a problem.

2. Do I want to finish my PhD just because I started it?

There is a pervasive fallacy amongst PhD students that seeing your project through to the end will justify your having started the degree in the first place. This is the academic version of a “sunk cost fallacy.” In short, having put so many years into a project becomes the rationale for putting even more years into finishing it. But this is, in balance, a terrible waste of energies and resources. This is known colloquially as “throwing good money after bad.”

Ultimately, if you have made the decision to leave academia, you should probably leave it. The main sticking point, as I suspect, is pride. Well, maybe that is a bit harsh: in my case, it was pride mixed with a sense of obligation to my parents, and knowing that they would have been disappointed that I left after investing so many years (and so very many dollars) into what was, in the end, an aborted exercise. I held out for the vague notion that by finishing, my fortitude of character would shine through. This justification is, however, more an exercise in self-affirmation than a verification of professional value.

Because here’s the thing: not finishing does not indicate failure. Some will inevitably see it that way; they will say you lack “stick-to-it-iveness.” That criticism will likely never change. Assuming you can get past the injury to your dignity, however, you may come to see that the greater lesson in leaving when you’ve made a strategic career decision is that you value your time, the time of others, and understand the value of what you are pursuing. It is, fundamentally, a very empowering and courageous move: to stop doing something when it doesn’t makes sense to continue forward. This is a sound philosophy in almost any sector you will be working in, and there’s no reason you should not embody this decision yourself.

Finishing with the intention to depart carries repercussions you might not be prepared for. Holding a PhD outside of academia, without a strong work record to show you’ve been doing something else, will cause you no end of headaches. Every single interviewer, in my own experience, has raised it as a liability; and I have no doubt that I did not attain an interview at some organizations because I listed it in my academic experience. (I have on occasion left it off my resume, as an experiment. In the few instances where I have secured work without mentioning my PhD, I have invariably been asked, “what were you doing for so many years between your BA, MA, and today?” And then you’re back to square one. I’d rather be honest and open about it, and try to spin it as a strength, than lie by omission.)

On being committed and prepared

So, you’ve decided to keep going and complete your PhD anyway? OK. You need to start making some strategic decisions right now about where you want to take your career after finishing.

Upon completing my PhD, I was fully committed to leaving academia and pursuing a career as a writer and content developer. I was, however, only semi-prepared. I could have used a lot more advice on how to get ready for the expectations of a very different job market. After all, being an academic writer is very different, in nature and in practice, than being a writer outside of academia. I assumed, like many people in my position, that I would be a natural fit for writing in policy, or in the not-for-profit industry. These assumptions were largely based on the self-aggrandizement within academia, with respect to its general applicability – and they proved just as ephemeral as most assumptions are, once I began investigating job prospects. Put short, I was not as ready as I could have been for the change in expectations.

These are questions I’d like to explore more fully in another blog post. For now, I’ve identified six strategies you can use to get ready for a career in writing outside of academia.

1) Make a decision about which sector you plan to work in.

I’ve had the privilege to work as a writer in a huge number of sectors: government/policy, corporate, not-for-profit, academic, media, blogs, journalism, and even museums. While that variety is itself impressive, it is not necessarily an advantage to someone who wants to advance in a career. For better or for worse, most organizations value deep experience rather than broad experience. If you know which sector you want to participate in, start developing a writing background in that area. Once you’ve made this decision, you can move on to which style or form of writing you want to work in: copywriting, proposal-writing, speech-writing, technical writing, etc. The point is, you will be better served by creating a label for yourself, and that means giving thought to both sector and type of writing activity.

2) Start reading.

Luckily, this is an area where you will be guaranteed some success. The goal here is to become acquainted with the idiom, history, communications policies, styles, and new developments of the sector you’ve decided to work in. Choose a few examples of companies or prominent organizations working in the field you’ve selected for career direction. Study patterns and changes in tone, style, audience. You’re good at this! There is a huge difference between the kinds of writing you’d be doing in the ivory tower and on the ground in your chosen sector. You need to start learning about those differences now.

3) Blog.

Probably the biggest concern expressed by most people switching careers, in any field, is that they lack experience in the field they’re switching to. Writers are blessed with the ability to gain experience by sheer force of will: if you want to write about something, you can. Blogs give you the tool to reach a wide audience with little to no cost. If you’re really good, you’ll get noticed. And here’s the thing: in almost every sector, blogs are becoming a recognized form of journalism. They’re an easy way to demonstrate interest and ability. (I’ve been a bad boy in not updating my blog lately, and I wish I’d started it years ago. If you put your blog URL on your resume or LinkedIn profile, there’s a good chance a hiring manager will read it.)

4) Start networking now.

Soon after making my decision to leave academia, I was lucky to get involved with an organization called East Coast Connected. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made as a professional and as a writer. Not only did it give me the opportunity to network with other young professionals, and to gain work opportunities as a result, but it also allowed me to solicit advice about sectors I had little to no experience in. Networking organizations are a powerful tool, though people making a transition from academia are sometimes wary of them, given the general unimportance of networking in the academy. (It does have some importance there, but it is also possible to do well in academia without doing any at all.) Forget all that, and go out there and shake some hands. Practice networking, because it’s a skill, and being good at it can make a big difference in whether you get noticed or not. You’ve already done your research (see #2), and have some experience writing already (see #3), so you should have a few things to talk about.

5) Decide whether you’re looking for full-time or contract work.

As a writer, this is a crucial question. There are a lot of writing gigs out there, between freelance jobs and full-time positions. But not all freelance gigs are as “junior” as you might think. I did not put enough thought into the distinction when I started out. I thought that I could style myself as a “writing consultant” with little experience to back me up – the thought being that an employer would value my academic writing expertise, allowing me to gain some experience before moving on to a full time position somewhere. I knew I had the ability to call myself a “writing consultant,” so I wasn’t padding my resume, but my work record did not suggest that I would be a strong candidate for a consulting position. The lesson here is that you might think that contract work means “easy to get” – but that is not always true, and whether or not you get it is largely dependent on your sector and what you plan to be doing on the contract. After years of doing freelance writing, I now have some room to work with the title of consultant. Looking back, I kind of put the cart before the horse. I think I would have been better served looking for a full time job, developing some embedded experience, and using that as the launching-pad for a consulting career. You should strongly consider your strategy in applying for jobs, keeping in mind a 10-year goal, and building the steps to how you hope to get there. Go back to step 4, and speak to people about how they got to where they are, and ask them advice on how, in your shoes, you might make a similar transition.

6) Workshop your cover letter and resume.

This will be an ongoing process in any career. Like networking, it is a skill, and requires vigilance and practice. I have put an absolutely huge amount of effort into refining, changing, and editing my cover letter and my resume. I don’t have much to add to the absurd wealth of detail online about this matter, but would stress that, for people leaving academia, not to leave your academic experience off your resumes. That’s not an easy decision, and many will tell you otherwise. My next blog post will be asking about “How to make use of your PhD outside of academia?” so hopefully we can find some more assertive reasons to keep it on there than “I want to own it.”

If you’ve made it this far in my post, thank you. This has been a hard transition for me and my family, and is doubly hard on my relationship. There’s no reason everyone should have to go through the same difficulties as I did without some guidance. Hopefully some of these suggestions have been helpful to you.

  1. This is beautifully written. I’d be lying if I said that the thought of leaving the Ph.D. program didn’t occur to me. Right now, I’m sticking to it, but this post is definitely enlightening. I’m a writer too. Do stop by my blog if you get a chance.

  2. Thank you so much for this piece. I’m a social science Ph.D. candidate and I’ve known for several years now that I do not want an academic job. Somehow I failed to connect that knowledge with getting out of my Ph.D. program until a few weeks ago. Part of it was pride, and part of it was the belief that if I could just get past stage x,y, or z, I would find the process fulfilling again. I’m still struggling with how to communicate with others about my decision – I was doing quite well in my program, which has only lead to more questions and more pressure to return. I have filed for a leave of absence in case I change my mind, but I am fervently hoping that I will find something I am more passionate about outside of academia. This blog post has been very helpful to me, as I am contemplating grant writing or content development in the non-profit field. I will follow up on your advice to start networking posthaste!

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