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.