Mid-Career Reflections on Non-Academic Work for Social Scientists

Over at Al-Jazeera English, Sarah Kendzior has just tossed a large and very cold bucket of water on the professional asiprations of many aspiring scholars with a bleak but frank assessment of the declining state of the academic job market. Writing about a friend she saw at this year’s annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Kendzior tells us that

My friend is an adjunct. She has a PhD in anthropology and teaches at a university, where she is paid $2100 per course. While she is a professor, she is not a Professor. She is, like 67 per cent of American university faculty, a part-time employee on a contract that may or may not be renewed each semester. She receives no benefits or health care. According to the Adjunct Project, a crowdsourced website revealing adjunct wages—data which universities have long kept under wraps—her salary is about average. If she taught five classes a year, a typical full-time faculty course load, she would make $10,500, well below the poverty line. Some adjuncts make more. I have one friend who was offered $5000 per course, but he turned it down and requested less so that his children would still qualify for food stamps.

If things are that bad in academia, I suspect more and more young Ph.D.s are going to be looking for work elsewhere. I’ve never held an academic job, but I have spent the 15 years since I received my doctorate working on related issues in the private sector, so I thought I’d take Kendzior’s lament as a cue to offer some mid-career reflections of my own on the non-academic alternatives. I can only speak from personal experience, but I’ve been asked about those experiences enough times to think there’s an audience out there somewhere that might want to hear about them, so here goes:

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. That dream job you’ve always pined for, the one where you get paid well to engage in thoughtful conversations with smart people on topics that interest you, and maybe sometimes even bend the ear of the powerful? It doesn’t exist, or at least it might as well not. Sure, there are a handful of think-tank perches that probably come close, but there are so few of them that your chances of landing one are statistically indistinguishable from zero. If you thought getting into a top-level Ph.D. program was competitive, imagine how much harder it would have been if there’d been just one or two programs in the whole country for the same applicant pool, and personal connections and professional experience were also part of the equation. You might have written a great dissertation, even published a buzzworthy paper in top journal, but you’ve never been an ambassador or a deputy assistant secretary or an NSC staffer? Fuggeddaboudit.

I say that as someone who’s both had those dreams and occasionally bemoaned the unfairness of it all. But you know what? It’s not unfair, it’s life, and the sooner you figure that out, the sooner you can move on to a more practical response to the very hard problem of trying to earn a living and being happy at the same time.

In some ways, this whole conundrum reminds me of the elite post-collegiate runners I had a chance to run with (or behind, really) in grad school. They were a pretty humble crowd on the whole, but every once in a while, someone would bemoan the dinky prize money, the dearth of quality sponsorships, and the nearly nonexistent TV coverage on which the whole problem seemed to be founded. If we could just get distance running covered properly on TV, the thinking went, people would start paying attention, and the career opportunities would finally grow. Add some pizzazz, make it more like NASCAR, get better commentators…

Sadly, though, I think they had it backwards. The market had spoken, and viewers and shoe-buyers and teen athletes just didn’t care enough about track and road running to make it a viable career for all but the very best and the luckiest. These guys were excellent at something they loved to do, but that something held little interest for the rest of the world. It turns out that excellence and passion were only two-thirds of the package. To make a decent living, you also need a market—other people who value that excellence and passion enough to want to pay you for it. But, hey, don’t take my word for it; go ask a poet or a painter or a musician.

So where does that leave a social scientist trying to make a living outside the academy? As far as I can tell, there are really two major options: either a) you seek work as a social scientist, probably either for the government or for a government contractor; or b) you look to apply your strongest talents—research design, analytical writing, statistical analysis, whatever—in some other field where your Ph.D. is irrelevant but your skills are not.

I’ve spent most of my 15 years since grad school doing the former, so I can speak more confidently about that path. The good news is that there seems to be a sizable number of public-sector and contractor jobs for social scientists nowadays; the pay’s often pretty good; and the demand appears to be growing. Lots of government agencies hire social-science Ph.D.s to work on interesting problems, and many of them also pay outside firms lots of money to do still-more research they can’t cover in-house.

The bad news is that these jobs often won’t involve doing research on the topics that most interest you. When someone else is footing the bill, you answer the questions they want answered, not the ones you find most intriguing. What’s more, the more senior you are, the more time you’re likely to spend managing and writing and reviewing proposals instead of researching and writing. Some firms have a “senior scientist” career path, but the reality for most Ph.D.s is that more experience means more management, not more freedom. This is not academia without the course load and faculty meetings; it’s bureaucracy and hierarchy of another kind.

If your work requires a high-level security clearance—and nowadays many of these jobs do—then you’ll also want to consider how much you value the freedom to speak and write spontaneously in public on the subject of your work before you sign up. When you receive that clearance, you make a promise to guard what you know, and that means giving the government a chance to review your utterances on work-related topics before you spout off. In an age of real-time global publishing and constant social-media chatter, that can be a hard promise to keep. But…you signed a contract, and your career, among other things, depends on your ability to uphold it. I don’t mean to discourage anyone from going down that path, but I do mean to encourage anyone considering it to do so fully mindful of the commitments it entails.

I have less to say about the other path I mentioned because I have only dabbled in it, mostly in the past year and a half, when I’ve been trying to make a living as an independent consultant. As the academic job market shrivels, though, I suspect more and more social scientists will go this route.

Here, I have one thought to offer: If this is the path you expect to follow, I doubt it’s worth going through a Ph.D. to get there. If you plan to trade on a specific skill, you’ll probably get a better return on your time and money from learning and demonstrating that skill than you would from training for a career you don’t plan to pursue. To be a great carpenter, you don’t need to know the history of carpentry, how to design a house, how to cut and cure lumber, and how to teach those things to other people, and the time you spend learning those things is time you’re not spending honing your craft. I’m increasingly convinced that the same logic applies to would-be Ph.D.s who are really budding data geeks or writers or teachers.

The longer this post goes, the more self-indulgent it gets, so I’ll stop there and invite readers to weigh in. As someone still trying to figure out how to make this work, I’d love to hear from other Ph.D.s who’ve made a living outside the academy about their experiences and any advice they can offer, and I suspect that other readers would, too.

Leave a comment


  1. Thank you for this post. I have been struggling for over a year with whether or not to pursue PhD studies…I already have a (US) law degree and will soon be licensed to practice and I’m already working for a government. Yet I kept hearing that PhD (vs an LLM or working as a lawyer whether government or privately) would be useful because of the field I am interested in (international development)…useful how I have not yet heard a satisfactory answer for. And no one has been able to help me overcome the issue of cost especially after accumulating massive loans for law school. So, this post has provided well-needed clarity and frankness. Thank you.

    • You’re welcome, and good luck. Those are hard choices to make.

    • Cucumberjuice, having worked in development for more than a dozen years, and hired quite a few people, my feeling (without knowing anymore particulars) would be that you should not do a PhD. In development you ultimately get hired on your last job, and on how you delivered. Getting things done, gaining experience, going to places, building networks, all of thatis going to be much more valuable for you. I myself have a PhD, it was the right thing for me, but it was an end in itself, not a means to an end.

      Yes, there may be 15-20% of jobs in which having a PhD will be helpful (in particular if you’re supposed to watch over other people that have PhD’s), but there are plenty of jobs out there that just require you to be able to deliver. With an interesting background, my recommendation would be just to get going, and do things that you enjoy, with people that you like working with. If After four years you have a particular topic you are intrigued about, or it is the right thing to do in your phase of life, sure, by all means. Right now, if you’re not sure, already have debt, the potential upsides are small, and the downsides considerable.

  2. continental

     /  August 21, 2012

    Dear Jay,
    thanks for the post, it opens a topic that has only recently gained attention in academic circles. Since you might have quite a few non-US readers here, I thought I would share a non-US view on this issue.

    I am from a certain Central Asian country and will get a PhD from an okay Italian school early next year. For me, getting hired is further complicated by two things: 1. in Europe, or Italy at least, hiring is a very murky business, much less transparent (and fair, I would say) than in the US 2. I am not a citizen of a European country and hiring internationally here is a mess.

    Therefore I am looking forward to both of the paths you listed. I faced the problem of under-valued PhD a bit earlier: my spouse is in financial services industry and is really lost thinking why so many bright and ambitious ones end up getting their first jobs around thirty when their peers in other industries are mid-level managers. The answer is obvious – we like what we do, but it is really high time that academics started diversifying creating jobs instead of hunting for the few ones available. In the emerging markets like my region, there are great opportunities for Western-educated ones and many more unexplored knowledge market niches with very weak competition.

    If I am qualified to give any advice to people with my profile, I would also advise them to market themselves more aggressively. There are many mediocre grad students out there who land perfect jobs because they are smart in marketing themselves effectively. Part of this aggressiveness should also be about diversifying ones academic interests and trying to reflect market tendencies in their research portfolio. If your expertise in comparative presidentialism in the post-Soviet space does not look promising, maybe you should try doing something connected to risk analysis, oil and gas, foreign aid and what not.

    By the way there are not many people out there who left academia for corporate or public jobs and come back and talk about it to students. Two or three in risk industry in UK whom I talked to said you don’t need a PhD to do that job well and that PhD might even hurt you in certain cases.

    • Thanks very much for adding this perspective. I know I’ve only seen one tiny bit of the elephant, so I’m really interested to hear how things look to other Ph.D.s, grad students, and non-academics.

  3. Nils

     /  August 21, 2012

    Jay, as you know I am athwart the same path as you, and I must say I concur heartily with everything you say about how pursuing a non-academic path can allow you to do interesting work, albeit not necessarily topics of exactly your choosing. Then again, even on academia you don’t really get to choose to do interesting work of exactly your own choosing: there too, increasingly, what topics you work on needs to be geared toward some reasonable assessment of what “the marketplace of ideas” (in the form of editors at academic journals of record, nicer with presses, tenure committees, etc) will value. Ultimately the dream of pure freedom of intellectual pursuit is not noble, but merely self-indulgent – and perhaps even rooted in a rather childish definition of freedom as the right to do whatever you want and be rewarded for it.

    So where does that leave the value of a PhD? I think manly in that it provides a semi-structured, moderately remunerated space where one can ruminate deeply on some subject, pick up a few technical research and analysis skills, and get accredited for having done these things. This is only worth it if you have a personal passion for the topic you are studying. I continue to love history (I have a deep antiquarian streak, as all historians do); my PhD was simply a way for me to indulge that passion while picking up a credential, as well as some deep knowledge about qualitative social scientific methods.

    • Great points, Nils, thanks.

      On the need to answer other people’s questions, it’s funny: sometimes that can even be a positive thing, forcing us to strike out into new territory instead of just diving deeper and deeper down the same narrow hole. Take my time with PITF. When I started with that program, I hadn’t given much thought to the problem of state collapse and wouldn’t have named it as a research interest. Ten years later, it’s one of the topics on which I’ve most enjoyed working, and one where I’m still learning lots.

  4. Evelyn Dean-Olmsted

     /  August 21, 2012

    Great post, thank you. However, there is one thing that bothers me about it and the some of the comments on Sarah Kendzior’s piece in Al Jazeera. It is popular to assert that “the market has spoken” and that nobody cares about/wants more anthropologists, historians, whatever. The fact is, there are more college students now than ever, many of whom are majoring in social sciences and humanities, and departments are scrambling to meet the demand. But budgets have shrunk so drastically, even before the recession, (I’m esp. thinking about reductions in state funding for public U’s), that they can’t/won’t hire full time professors even though they desperately need them. So they exploit a bunch of adjuncts, which is Kendzior’s point about how the neoliberal model has affected academia. Higher education is an essential commodity these days (jobless rates for those with a college degree are much lower than for those without). It doesn’t make sense to claim that there is no demand for those trained to provide it.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting. Just to clarify, though: my “the market has spoken” comment was about think tank-style jobs that pay you to research and write what you please, not about academic jobs.

      That said, as someone who’s tried to keep a foot in academia, I do worry that the model on that side is more broken than your comment implies. Demand for degrees may be booming, but as Sarah Kendzior’s piece describes, that boom is not driving growth in the supply of livable academic jobs. if anything, the opposite seems to be true. So it’s not clear to me that continuing growth in college enrollment portends better times ahead for new Ph.D.s.

  5. BMandeville

     /  August 21, 2012

    Having dabbled in both the private sector and government consulting fields, some additional thoughts.

    1. To reinforce what Jay has already posted, absolutely positively avoid a “career” of adjunct positions at all costs — they can literally kill you. As in “falling asleep from exhaustion while on a highway driving between gigs”: it has happened more than once. If your objective is research, they certainly will figuratively kill you: I know of zero cases where someone gets out of these after more than two or three year on the career adjunct track. Adjunct transitions to teaching jobs are possible but…you’re expendable and there’s always a bigger sucker out there. Think “Star Trek + red shirt.”

    2. Whatever formerly existed in the defense consulting from the glory years when we had to defeat an al-Qaeda embarking on a thousand-year reign of terror and the Chinese indefinitely loaning us money for this, them days is gone. With sequestration tossed into the mix as well, there is a growing and palpable sense of complete panic in the consulting community. In the great game of consulting musical chairs, they just hauled off a couple Ryder trucks worth, and the music stopped. Not a good time to get into that market.

    2. Which reinforces what Jay said about security clearances: that was probably a really good investment in 2000 (and keep in mind, for all practical purposes you first have to find someone to sponsor you first, and put up with what can be a *very* long delay before you get it) but much less so now. You are entering a market where 800,000 people have security clearances, and by definition also have more experience. And if your idea of fun is visiting remote countries and doing whatever strikes your fancy, up to and including visiting the occasional refugee camp, sneaking past military checkpoints and/or meeting with the local militants (yeah, some of us do that on vacation), folks looking into that security clearance will not be pleased. They want predictability: you know, reliable and trustworthy folks like Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen and Jonathan Pollard.

    3. If you’ve got quantitative skills, those are almost 100% transferable (and very lucrative), but it takes a while — and some luck — to find the right job: firms don’t tend to advertise “We’re five years behind the data mining curve and paying a law firm $400/hour for something a computer can do better for free, please help!” But in contrast to the declining defense consulting business, we’re entering a golden age (like most golden ages, likely to last about 10 years) of data analysis, and now the Python/R combination has emerged as a nearly universal skill set. And in my experience, these jobs actually can be fairly interesting if you are at all fascinated with corporate bureaucracy and anthropology. Also the private sector is generally less of a snakepit than academia, despite what you’ve seen on television. At the very least, they don’t involve blue books, plagiarized term papers or audiences reading the student paper during your lecture.
    And hold out for the experience of someone i knew (this is first-hand, not an urban legend!) who had been on one-year appointments teaching methods at a Big 10 university, and was told by the chair that they would never give him a tenure track appointment (“Miserable quantoid scum, you think we give *you* tenure?? Ha!”) and, by the way, he was going to teach the entire grad methods sequence and the undergrad kiddy-survey-research course the next year. Shortly thereafter he was back at his home town over Labor Day (didn’t go to the APSA, apparently) and ran into a high school friend who worked for an insurance company, who all but offered him a job on the spot.
    He resigned the day before classes started (semester system…classes started after Labor Day…), and the last I heard was managing an $11-billion portfolio. Revenge may be a dish best tasted cold, but it’s pretty good warm as well…

  6. Charlie

     /  August 21, 2012

    Great post, Jay. A few thoughts from perspective of one who went into government service. First, your comments on working on questions not of my own interest and/or choosing is true enough, but I satisfy my urge to work on the questions I do have a passion for by occasionally writing a conference paper and presenting it on my own time and expense. This makes working in my field more akin to a hobby, but I do see this as a positive contribution to the general profession, as an “independent scholar.” This is about as much as I can do given demands from my day job, and comes with the realization that occasional conference papers, book review essays, and the occasional journal article is about as much as I’ll ever accomplish outside government. I’m OK with that.

    Second, when I have those occasional bad days in government when the bureaucracy seems unnecessarily thick, and I think I could take my degree and skill-set elsewhere… I am forced to confront the fact, as you point out, that there are very few places I could go to work on these sort of problems. Given that my education ended with a mere terminal MA, and my choices are even more limited. True, I could go back to grad school and get the coveted PhD, but a) my family cannot afford the pay (and health insurance) cut, and b) I’d be pushing 50 by the time I got the degree, and given the difficulty of mid-career folks getting into academia, I frankly don’t see the point, especially when the gig I have is really not so bad. (i.e. entry level government folks do earn a whole lot more and have much better benefits than adjunct professors).

    In sum, the grass isn’t really greener between the fields of academia and government–the grass is greener in some areas, but browner in others. At the end of the day, I’m glad I have *any* opportunity to work in my general field, and as imperfect as all this may be, let’s face the fact that we’re not exactly starving, and/or facing foreclosure or significant economic uncertainty in a way others across the country.

    Charlie Brown (@charlie98022)

  7. James C.

     /  August 21, 2012

    This is a great post and thanks for sharing. I’ve recently decided to put off plans for a PhD for similar reasons to Charlie B. (above), but that career of “thoughful converstations” in the academy has always been my dream (so many of my professors/mentors seemed to have it). Instead I’m starting a Political Economy degree at LSE for grad school to explore the private market for these skills and if a PhD is something I want later on.

    Does a PhD really matter over a Masters degree in the same field? Will even the greatest MA or MSc still place you under PhDs in the private workplace? I’m currently a policy/political consultant and hoping to explore this field more after grad school.

    Kind Regards,

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, James. I can only speak from personal experience, and that’s mostly with one firm working on one program for one U.S. government agency. With that caveat in mind, though, I’d say yes, a Ph.D. really does open some doors in the public and consulting worlds that a Master’s does not. If you want to be a working social scientist in those markets, then the added credential often does make a real difference. I think it’s in private-sector jobs that call for specific skills where the Ph.D. doesn’t confer much advantage and, from what I hear, can sometimes even be a bit of an albatross.

  8. Reblogged this on POLITICAL PSYCHOLOGY and commented:
    On the (very) bleak prospects once you got a PhD.

  9. I’ve worked in a variety of different jobs since leaving the academy roughly a decade ago – mostly in and around journalism but with a strong policy bent as well – and my PhD has been a huge bonus. It has given me contacts, provided me with an analytic framework which I bring to everything I do, and – rightly or wrongly – afforded me a certain status in the professional world. Don’t despair if you don’t land an academic job. It’s a big world out there and this is still a really valuable credential.

    Delia Lloyd

  10. Jeremy

     /  August 21, 2012

    I’m somebody who decided a long time ago that I had stopped believing in the institutions of academic science and consequently determined to go into government work (I think we may have crossed paths at a PITF meeting last year). Before I did this, I had a successful time as a graduate student I that I had some academic opportunities; having had both experiences, I think my ideal job would be one rather akin to the google “one fifth” type of setup where four fifths of one’s time is spent on the legitimate business that you’re supposed to be paid for, and one fifth of the time is spent on whatever you like, with the provision that your employed has right of first refusal on whatever intellectual product emerges. I’m willing to bet that the USG would get a lot of great ideas out of that sort of setup.

    I suspect that even with a research setup like that that it would still be very difficult to move back and forth between academia and the real world in political science. One of the things that your post most reminds me of is how very different political science is in this regard from most of other fields; computer science, physics, mathematics, economics, law, and many other fields have people who move in and out of the academy repeatedly. For example, I was an assistant to a polymer physics professor as an undergrad and his rolodex consisted primarily of researchers industry, rather than in academia.

    In any case, thanks for your post – very thought provoking!

  11. Jamie M

     /  August 21, 2012

    Thanks for this insight into post-PhD, non-academic life. As someone just wrapping up their Political Science MA these are exactly the kind of questions I am asking for myself.

    I’ve spent my MA learning as many technical and research skills as I could cram inside my head and the thought of ending up as ‘analyst’ at an insurance company doesn’t exactly fill me with joy. However, I’ve not invested a ridiculous amount of effort to leave my hard-earned quant skills out of whatever I do next. Can anyone help clarify the relationship between technical skills and career paths? I cannot see data analysis going away any time soon, however, I’m still (proverbial) light years away from touching python/java. Come September a group of my MA peers and I are sitting down to learn R and possibly even some GIS, but at present I’m an SPSS/STATA kind of guy.

    If I did a PhD, I would most certainly aim to invest heavily in quantitative skills; however, I’m hell-bent staying away from academia for a few years (at least) before I make the choice to PhD. As an MA student, I’m nowhere near as qualified for research and data analysis as those who’ve recently finished up their doctorates. What does a PhD offer that 5+ years of public-/private- sector research experience doesn’t?

    Thanks in advance to whoever replies! Jay, keep writing and good luck with whatever you end up doing next.

    • My short answer to your question about the difference between a Ph.D. and 5+ years of work experience is: a credential. I gather that credential doesn’t matter much in private-sector jobs that trade on skills instead of knowledge, but it does make a real difference in many government and government-funded jobs that involve doing social science. So, if that’s the direction in which you’re thinking of going, the investment in the credential is more likely to pay off.

  12. John

     /  August 22, 2012

    I am presently considering pursuing a PhD in political science. I’ve been hearing about the poor academic job market for years (in fact, most of what I hear now agrees that today’s market is slightly improved from the last half-decade) and decided to tailor my application list to give myself the best chance at good placement upon graduation. I will only pursue a PhD if I am accepted at a top program.

    The schools I’m considering all make available their placement data and most seem to have fairly impressive records. For example, UCSD claims that 12 of its 14 graduates in the last two years have landed tenure-track positions, most at research universities. Its records indicate similar success going back over ten years. Are these representations trustworthy? Since graduating from law school, I’ve started to see how professional schools massage numbers, but this would seem more difficult to pull off when you’re listing the actual names and employers of graduated students.

    In other words, your post and the speed with which it circled the blogosphere gathering “+1!!”s seems to imply that even students at top programs will face another gauntlet of almost insurmountable odds to move the next rung away from Adjunct Hell once they graduate. The (admittedly self-interested) data supplied by these same programs suggest otherwise. How should I reconcile these two views?

    • Thanks for commenting, John. I don’t know enough about the academic job market or those placement data to talk intelligently about them, but maybe some other readers do.

      On the prospects outside Adjunct Hell, though, I’m not as pessimistic as your comment makes it sound like I was. As the writer, that’s my fault, but what I was trying to say is that there are lots of possibilities for work outside academia, and many of them involve doing real social science. I just wanted to underscore that they aren’t like academic jobs minus the teaching, and people should go into Ph.D. programs and the job market aware of what those jobs really look like. When I was in grad school in the mid-1990s, we didn’t hear much about these options, so I hoped it would be helpful to say a little more about them. I tried to do that in the post, and some of the comments have really helped flesh that out.

      • John

         /  August 22, 2012

        Ah, I had taken the message that for most non-academic jobs, pursuing a PhD would not provide the greatest return. It wasn’t that you were so pessemistic about non-academic work as that assessment of the cost/benefit of a PhD should rely primarily on assessing the likelihood of landing a non-adjunct teaching position. My comment and questions were written from that perspective. Thanks for your response!

  13. Starting your own company, working self-employed is the best way. It’s tough, you also don’t earn more in the first years, but any investment (money and time) will build up something that is yours and that nobody can fire you from.

  14. You write: But, hey, don’t take my word for it; go ask a poet or a painter or a musician.

    Or a novelist!

  15. A few days after I’d written this, Sarah Kendzior tweeted a link to this great post from 2009 on how to start a research consultancy:


    Based on my experiences from the past 18 months, I’d say it’s spot-on, and I wish I’d seen it a year and a half ago.

  16. PaulfromNoVa

     /  August 23, 2012

    Fine posting, fascinating thread.

    Jay, re. your ” That dream job you’ve always pined for, the one where you get paid well to engage in thoughtful conversations with smart people on topics that interest you, and maybe sometimes even bend the ear of the powerful? It doesn’t exist, or at least it might as well not.” That surprises me, because for 30 years, I had that dream job. By the standards of the social science market, whatever that may be, I was well compensated. From time to time I was able to bend the proverbial ear, even, at times, with findings from the State Failure Task Force, regardless of what Gary King might have thought of the reports and methodologies.

    I had always thought a government job might be where I wound up, even when I thought I was preparing for the professoriate. In grad school, as an East Asia/comparative politics/political philosophy wonk, I envisioned three paths out: think tank, university post, government (specifically, intelligence). I had not the faintest inkling that commercial private-sector opportunities existed – this was of course the ’70s, pre-“reinventing government” and the advent of massive outsourcing of national security work, and pre-9/11, when the entire national security policy research model blew up and bled into outsourcing – but, as Nils, BMandeville, and others observe (and as you well know, as as I can now attest), those opportunities do exist, and sometimes they compensate more than simply fairly, particularly by university-salariat standards.

    Lately, however, as one federal bureaucracy after another joins the collective scowl at contractors, the trend is moving in the other direction, back toward what the intel world calls “back to blue” – luring contract staff into the arms of Uncle Sam as civil service staff. And that’s not a bad thing (unless a young scholar wants more than anything in the world to pursue his/her own private scholarly ecstasy – and even that’s not ruled out. But it may be. Depends.).

    It becomes plain to me, however, as I slide into my dotage, that the advice to students that they “follow their dreams” or “study what they love” remains good advice to undergraduates but that times are different than in the 1960s-1970s, with fat National Defense Language Fellowships, etc. etc. enabling a lot of sustained dream-following deep into graduate school. For most people thinking about enrolling in a scholarly PhD program – as opposed to a policy-relevant terminal MA/MS program like Georgetown’s or SAIS’s – they should think twice if they’re not independently wealthy, and then think again if they haven’t been accepted into a Tier I program. And even if they HAVE managed to get into programs at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Michigan, Yale, Berkeley, MIT, or another of the great departments, if they want to teach, they surely know the jobs aren’t out there for any but a fraction of the potential applicants.

    BUT A PhD from a top program should be able to find gainful employment in or around his/her primary area of concentration. That association remains a powerful ticket, even among those whose default view is to sneer at the elite universities – there are reasons they can be elite. Needless to say, it matters what you’ve studied – whether that’s Chinese politics, Hegelian ideas of right, or fickle electorates in urban polities – and how you’ve approached the discipline – if you’re a heavy quant, come out of an economics or physics or math or statistics background, you have options that most of us, forced into “calculus for poets” by distributions requirements, simply never had.

    But for a lot of people in PhD programs who “continue simply to continue,” keep on keeping on, etc., the decision to enroll should include a sizable “future economic prospects” variable. What really do you want to do? Simply continue to read and write and talk to others about what you’ve read and written? There’s a lot of that to do in government, and not just on the national security side, and much of it is redeeming work – some of the work I participated in on humanitarian relief, food security, and the like I’d put (admittedly without having a particle of religiosity in my being) in the mitzvah column – work I knew what contributing the a greater good, both in abstract and in levels-of-analysis personal terms. And on most days, I had some moment of stimulating interaction with a colleague or outside acquaintance who was much brighter than me, had an idea that opened a door to a universe of ideas, handed me “a book that changed my life,” etc.

    Fine, this isn’t everyone’s experience, and in hindsight I may romanticize my own. But there are interesting, rewarding things out there for social science PhDs to do in government, things that may turn out to be that dream job or that lay a reasonable foundation for, or provide paths of entry to, that dream job.

    And now I’m going on and on…there’s much more to say, but a man has some work to do…

    • Thanks very much for weighing in, Paul.

      You’re right, of course, that great jobs exist. I guess I’m just skeptical that there are enough of them to make it realistic for most new social-science Ph.D.s to expect to land them. The numbers I’ve seen suggest there’s a large and still-growing oversupply of Ph.D.s for the academic market, and I’m assuming that glut also translates into more intense competition for non-academic work as well.

      That said, you don’t need the “dream job” to do satisfying work, and I think there are more options available in the non-academic world than grad students realize. The hard part is figuring out how to find them when your teachers don’t know about—or, in some cases, are even hostile to—that other world.

  17. I can only echo many of the comments made by others already. I just left the world of academia a few short months ago. I’m now a consultant at a small company in Silicon Valley.
    I spent 10.5 years of my life in academia. Six years in grad school and then 4.5 years as an assistant professor at two prestigious universities. As a result of various things out of my control and the culture of “publish or perish,” I had a hard time finding work after being let go from my first institution. My commitment to my partner and geographic area also made finding a job difficult. But the real top reason I decided to leave/give up on an academic jobs was because I was bored.

    So, I wanted to just emphasize one thing. The fact that academia is not satisfying one’s life or career EXPECTATIONS is not the only reason one may consider leaving the profession. You may also just find your current job/career unsatisfying for a variety of personal reasons. Teaching the same courses over and over again (your “service” courses), grading papers, writing articles for journals no one reads, doing research you’re not just interested in, dysfunctional departments, etc., can all push you out. In any case, so many people start so many different careers at the different stages of their life that no one should feel guilty if they decide to get up and leave at some point. You may just not be enjoying it any longer. And if you’re bored, you’re not going to do well at it.

    And now on that I’m on the other side of the door that I just exited, I just wanted to share some emotions and thoughts that others might have or had. First, there is always a sense of failure and loss. Failure compared to your grad school peers, some getting tenure already, and blaming yourself for not getting a hold of the golden prize. Or loss in terms of leaving your first love–the quad and “luxurious” ivory tower. Second, there’s a great deal of uncertainty and it will take a while to find the right job for you. I was frustrated very early on about being at the low-end of the career ladder and not having the salary I wanted. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right corporate environment and people to work with. Third, being in academia can make you pretentious and judgmental of those who didn’t spend another 5 years in school getting a PhD. Third, beware of being snotty or arrogant just because you have a PhD.

    So, the answers to those feelings:
    1. Don’t judge yourself based on what others are doing or have accomplished. It’s your life and no one has the right to judge you or why you changed careers. And if you do feel like you haven’t succeeded, then learn from that. A close friend of mine who also left academia for a think tank said to me, “We can all learn from our failures, not just wallow in them.” And I’ve become a member of the school of thought that says if you truly LOVE what you’re doing, then you will succeed, even if you can’t control for everything else.

    2. Be patient. Even though you’re older and did spend some formative years in grad school instead of gaining relevant job skills and working your way up the career ladder like your peers did, you are still much more mature than others at your level. And once you have a year or two under your built in the private sector, more opportunities can open up.

    3. Be open minded and acknowledge that there are a lot of other smart people out there in the private sector. Just because you can’t discuss queer theory everyday at work, doesn’t mean you can’t have thoughtful conversations with people.

    So good luck to you all who decide to switch out. And here is one more great resource for all considering it, working on doing so, or have successfully exited:


    And where I try keep my analytical skills sharp and be creative:



  18. Also, here’s an oldie but goodie from Paul Graham called “How to Do What You Love”:


    There’s a blind spot to socioeconomic constraints in this piece, but I think it’s great advice for many people who are fortunate enough to be able to consider, or already have, a Ph.D.

  19. Excellent post, and lots of excellent comments. Here some of my impressions, with a British PhD, having worked in various development things over more than a dozen years.

    1. The PhD is best approached as an end in itself, and not as means to an end. If you’re fundamentally passionate about being in grad school, do it, and again do something that you’re passionate about, don’t try to guess where the market will be, because it will have moved on by the time you’re out there.
    2. I really love teaching, with is why I left academia, which to me seemed like a silly bureaucratic exercise. Wherever you work with teams, you will be teaching in one way or another.
    3. Your dream job is, in most cases, the job you have right now, as long as the pay is halfway decent (i.e. not adjunct) and your colleagues bearable. In many jobs you can do pretty exciting things, if you approach whatever you do with lots of curiosity, and look for excellence by getting the details right. That takes months, but is worth it. (Also, there are plenty of opportunities for randomized trials in most things you do will do.)
    4. One fundamental problem with PhD’s is that often they’ve spent 10 years just “managing up”, i.e. impressing people above them, rather than bringing something to conclusion with colleagues, or even managing others. If you do a PhD, make sure you have “getting things done” experiences, in whatever field, in whatever context, even if it’s organizing the volleyball tournament or the local Tedx conference, before you are 27. Ideally, much earlier.
    5. The underappreciated reality is that most institutions work like “Yes Minister”, or, if you want a more formal statement of that, “ask of institutions not what purpose they serve, but what tensions they are the site of” (which I think was John Passmore). This means that getting things done and delivered is much much much harder than it looks from the outside, and requires these “getting things done” skills, and if you’re passionate about delivering (and thus good at it), plenty of opportunities will open up, that you never dreamed about. That has definitely been my experience.

  1. Social science jobs outside academia | UNL Political Science Graduate Student Blog
  2. On American Academia | Sarah Kendzior
  3. So You Want to Study Political Violence? | Political Violence @ a Glance
  4. Non-Academic Job Searches in DC – What to Know » Duck of Minerva

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