When Should I Quit The Academic Job Market?

This is a difficult question to answer because it is so deeply personal. It’s also a difficult question because everyone we know has a different opinion about our job prospects: our advisors, parents, friends, partners, and neighbors. “It’s time to get a real job”; “keep going, your work is so important”; “you’re such a great teacher”; “there are few jobs but so many PhDs”; “why don’t you go back to school and become a lawyer”; “have you thought about teaching high school?”

And then there are the stories of academic lore: you’ll hear about a person who was an adjunct for seven years who finally landed a tenure track job, or the person who won a prize for their research and then everything changed for them and they had multiple job offers.

It’s hard to mute the noise and competing voices, to really focus on who you are and what you want. Deep down inside, we all know the truth that there are not enough jobs for all the talented people; we’re just hoping that there is a job for us.

This was my experience when I finished my PhD. I spent three years working as an adjunct, working on articles, and applying for tenure track jobs. In the end, I decided that the academic career I imagined for myself was not possible in the post-2009 job market. Despite my love of teaching and research, academia was demanding too many sacrifices, and demanding more and more.

And so I decided to leave academia for something else. At the time, I had no idea what was coming next. I just hoped that whatever came next would allow me to be happier, and to be freed of the stress and anxiety that came with the uncertainty of the academic job market.

Here are 4 questions every PhD can ask themselves to determine if they should quit the academic job market.


1) Is academia the right career for me?

That might seem like a silly question, but it’s an important one.

What do you love about the academic work you’re doing, and will a tenure track job allow you to do this kind of work? At Beyond Prof, we interview PhDs who realized that, while they loved certain parts of their academic career, a tenure track job wouldn’t allow them to do this kind of work in the future.

You may really love teaching, but learn that many teaching-focused institutions have large class sizes, lots of online instruction, and high levels of service to the profession. You may love doing research, but learn that PIs spend most of their time writing grants and sitting on committees, and a lot less time at the bench.

There is also no guarantee that you’ll land a job that resembles your advisor’s position. Academia is a prestige economy, and schools tend to “hire up.” Look at where alumni from your program work, and interview them about their life as faculty.

Is this the academic career you want?

2) What are my chances of landing a tenure track job?

How many new PhDs graduate each year in your field, and how many new jobs are posted? What are the odds that you’ll land a job?

To determine this, you can use the Survey of Earned Doctorates to see how many PhDs graduate each year in your field. Look at job advertisements, either on Academic Jobs Wiki or through your professional association’s job board.

How many jobs are you eligible to apply to? Don’t consider stretch jobs or open positions. Just look at the number of jobs and estimate the number of PhDs.

Consider the prestige of your program. Remember, academia is not a merit based job market, it operates on prestige. Unfairly, people from highly ranked programs are more marketable than people from lower ranked programs.

In my field of early American history, realistically, there were 5 – 10 jobs each year that for which I was a match. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a top program in early American history, which gave me a competitive edge. But, the longer I was on the job market, that competitive edge declined. By year three on the job market, I was receiving fewer interviews. When I was ABD, I was interviewing at R1 schools. By my third year on the job market, I was lucky to be receiving interviews for teaching-intensive visiting assistant professorships.

While advisors and friends encouraged me to continue on my job search, I looked at the evidence and determined that it was time for me to move on. I was becoming less, not more, competitive.

Are you becoming less, or more, competitive?

3) What are you doing to add prestige to your CV?

Adjuncting is not prestigious. Teaching is not prestigious. Many postdocs are not in labs led by rock star PIs.

To remain competitive in academia, you need to be winning fellowships, grants, and awards, and publishing your work in top journals and university presses in your field.

This is incredibly difficult to do when you are an adjunct or as a visiting assistant professor. It’s difficult if not impossible to be teaching enough to pay your bills, publishing, presenting at conferences, and applying for academic positions. It’s not a failure if you can’t manage it all; it’s a Herculean effort few can manage.

It is also incredibly difficult to do as a postdoc in a lab if it is not cutting edge or at an elite institution in your field. It’s not enough that you supported the work of another scholar – you need to prove that you, too, can also shine.

If you are not actively adding prestige and accomplishments to your CV, then it’s probably time to find another career path.

Academia rewards prestige. And even then, there are too few jobs for all the talented people.

4) How much money are you prepared to lose?

There are many financial costs to remaining in academia. Starting salaries in industry and non-profits pay more than most adjunct and many post-doc positions. Many companies provide benefits to employees.

For humanities and social science PhDs, not only are you losing out on lost wages and paying out of pocket for health care and other necessities, there’s the cost of funding your own research to stay competitive, or traveling to conferences to present.

The average salary of an adjunct in the US is about $25,000. You can do almost any other job and make more money. Starting salaries, even in non-profits, start close to $40,000. According to one study published in Nature Biotechnology, a PhD who remains on as a postdoc in academia instead of moving into industry will lose about $250,000 in lost earnings over the first 15 years of their career.

Then there’s the cost of moving between one visiting appointment or postdocs. These moving costs are seldom covered.

Plus, if you’re moving, and making low wages, you’re not able to purchase a house, pay off student loans, or make significant contributions to your retirement account.

How much money are you prepared to lose to pursue an academic job, with the risk that you’ll never land one?

We are not encouraged to take a frank assessment of our career prospects in academia. We are surrounded by people who have chosen academic careers and have little to no experience with other kinds of professional work or life. It is assumed that academic work is superior to other kinds of work. That moving in to business or industry is selling out.

But what if walking away is the smarter choice? You’ll get paid, have career advancement, be able to live in a town you choose? If you hate your colleagues, you can find a new job without having to blow up your entire life and move across the country.

Many PhDs fear that they won’t have the life of the mind, or they won’t be intellectually engaged when they leave academia. This simply isn’t true. There are many kinds of jobs and careers that use critical thinking and problem-solving skills. And you’ll have time in the evenings and weekends for other kinds of intellectual pursuits.

At Beyond the Professoriate, our community is a space for people to ask these questions, to explore career options, to express doubt and concern over their careers and futures. It’s a space where we teach job search strategies, answer questions, and provide support for PhDs who have decided that enough is enough. They are curious and open to new opportunities, even if they are unsure of how or where to find them.

What we all share is the belief that job searching is a journey best done with new friends.

L. Maren Wood earned her PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the co-founder of Beyond the Professoriate.

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