Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Making Other Plans

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Making Other Plans

Article excerpt

Universities benefit from the large pool of cheap labour provided by PhD students and postdocs, but there aren't enough academic jobs to go around, so young scholars should prepare for the possibility of a future outside the academy, one postdoc advises.

Not everyone who completes a PhD gets an academic job. I knew that. But still I thought that my prospects were good.

I have degrees from some of the best universities in the world, in the UK and the US, and currently hold a postdoctoral position. I have had no problems securing funding for my research, and am close to publishing some of the results.

This year, however, I have had some interviews but no job offers. I may be able to find an academic position next year, but it now seems unlikely.

On a good day, I feel confident about my research and believe I have something to contribute to my discipline and to wider society. But increasingly I wonder: if others do not value my research enough to pay me to do it, what else can I do to make a living?

The truth is that I don't have a Plan B. There are some good reasons for this and some bad ones, too. But I think it is important to break the taboo and discuss why too few young scholars make plans for non-academic work, and to consider what I (and others) might have done differently.

It is well known that the academic labour market is in a bad state, but even in the good times there are too few jobs to go around.

In a recent report in the journal Perspectives on History, titled "The Ecology of the History Job: Shifting Realities in a Fluid Market", Robert B. Townsend notes that the number of PhD recipients has exceeded the number of academic jobs advertised for most of the past four decades. The gap in recent years has been as large as at any time since the late 1970s.

The situation is not necessarily any better for those with postdoctoral positions. According to the Royal Society's 2010 report The Scientific Century: Securing our Future Prosperity, in the UK, 30 per cent of science PhD graduates go on to postdoctoral positions, but only around 4 per cent find permanent academic research posts. Less than half of 1 per cent of those with science doctorates end up as professors.

The gap between expectations and reality is most pronounced among scholars in the arts and humanities. A report published earlier this year by the UK research careers organisation Vitae, What Do Researchers Want to Do? The Career Intentions of Doctoral Researchers, says that three-quarters of students in the arts and humanities plan on pursuing a life of letters, yet this is the field where jobs are most scarce.

Under these circumstances, graduate students and young scholars would be well advised to prepare for the possibility - indeed, the likelihood - of employment in non-academic fields. But this is not the advice we are given.

It is rare for professors to talk honestly with their graduate students and postdocs about the uncomfortable realities of the academic labour market. Their reluctance is understandable, since preparing for other kinds of employment might distract students and detract from their research. Those who make such preparations might also be seen as signalling low confidence in their academic abilities.

However, there are also bad reasons why honest advice is not commonly heard. In much of academia, especially the arts, humanities and social sciences, there is a strong norm against discussing non-academic employment.

For example, I recently explained the grim outlook to a student working towards a PhD in history. When I suggested that he might want to think about alternative ways to make a living, he was offended. In universities, people who can't land academic jobs are seen as failures.

We know in the abstract that it takes not just skill but also luck to find a workable dissertation project and a suitable adviser. Luck also plays a role in who is assigned to review the papers we submit, and in the make-up of the committees that hire faculty members. …

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