Thoughts on Preparing for Non-Academic Employment During a PhD

Will you sell your soul and hate your life forever if you can’t work as a faculty member? Sometimes it certainly seems that way.

Given the modern precarity of academic work I’m hesitant to say (in front of non-academic staff) that becoming a traditional ”academic” is my goal after finishing my PhD. Thanks to the conversation about the precarity of academia for new PhDs happening on social media, I realise that the movement away from academic institutions and into “the real world”’ is a growing trend — and one that I should be preparing for. Before following the social media accounts of many others who have left the academy, I simply thought I was alone in my hesitation to desire academia.

Now, while my advisor has slightly different aims in mind for me, I refuse to let his vision limit my potential. In my industry it is far more likely to become an academic researcher within a medical institution than it is to become an academic in a university.

In studying hospital management and being a “key-worker” between the disparate professions of medicine and management, I have quite a lot of scope as a professional. I built my PhD this way on purpose because I knew for starters how poor the recruitment levels are for PhD students at universities in my home state, let alone internationally. I entered my doctorate with clear knowledge of what jobs I was aiming for after graduation, what it would take to get there, and how I intended to develop required skills. My advisor, on the other hand, insists that I “have potential” and that he runs a “one-stop-academic-shop” for his students, teaching them everything they need to become “pre-packaged academics” upon graduation.

The idea that my advisor is directly assisting me in finding a university research job after graduation is a nice thought, but not one that I can hang every hope on. He could be wrong, universities may not hire in my specialty over the next five years, or the issue of universities downsizing in my home state could continue regardless of how attractive my work is.

So while I work on my advisor’s “one stop shop” program, I continue to both openly and privately look around. I’m making network contacts, telling them that I’m open to every idea that comes my way.

I have heard some great ideas.

I’ve been approached by the administrator of one of the hospitals I’m studying to shadow their job in the hopes I’ll apply for it when I graduate. I’ve been steered towards a private consulting firm that only performs the corporate-level research I’ve been undertaking and are looking to expand into the hospital sector. I’ve had hints that a university liaison organisation is interested in hiring non-STEM researchers, and that local governments are dying to get their hands on a PhD graduate to help them fix their problems. I’ve done job searches in the first year of my PhD, with phrases such as “post grad” and “research,” but also broadening out to fields I know I would be qualified for, such as “administration officer” and “human resources officer.”

I would be lying if I said that the idea of a well-paid job outside the university didn’t interest me. The working conditions of many academics, to name but one reason, are a huge detractor when I could literally have it all outside the academy. Why be forced to teach, and research, and mentor students, and not have autonomy over my work for relatively low pay, when I could choose to do only one of those things at a well-paid position in a hospital?

For me, it makes sense to follow the numbers.

I will not be selling my soul if I can’t get a job as a faculty member. As a matter of fact, the reverse might be true. Fighting tooth and nail to remain gainfully employed by a university that forces you to compete with senior, established academics can lead to desperate behaviour in an attempt to be competitive. What choice do junior academics have, but to consider tweaking numbers and slacking off in an area that doesn’t get ranked highly in a performance review in order to keep their jobs?

It’s a bad business model, and the research (ironically) proves it. Instead of prescribing to a flowery ideal that academics in the lower ranks get a nice office, time for a coffee break and freedom to read and write (spoilers: they don’t), I prescribe instead to a reality that a PhD, like any other degree, is preparing me for a job elsewhere.

I’m using my PhD as a springboard to something well-paid and useful, like someone who provides management cross-training to clinicians or someone who improves the working conditions of emergency rooms.

Regardless of what jobs I pursue, I can be sure that it won’t be a role where I’m forced to look for work every twelve months, and it won’t put me in a situation where I’m expected to do the work of two professionals for the pay of one.

Madeleine Kendrick is doing her PhD in Hospital Governance and Resilience at LaTrobe University in Australia.

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