[Disclosure: I was lucky enough to have a postdoc offer, which I took up very soon after submitting my thesis.]
Having read this article and commentary in the THE, I can’t help feeling that somehow the issue (for me) is the reverse of what has been portrayed. Perhaps I have missed the point, or I am too close to the issue. As an early career researcher, the topic of academic career progression comes a very close second in my list of priorities. Of course, my research interests are my top priority (academically speaking), but the freedom to pursue ones research interests is lost without a career within which to pursue them.
The article in question, ‘Making other plans’ (published anonymously), provides a frank view of the reality many PhDs are confronted with when they attempt to stay in academia; that “not everyone who completes a PhD gets an academic job”. Having secured a first postdoc position, the author discusses the possibility of having to leave academia once his or her current position ends. With fewer jobs available for each successive rung of the academic ladder (the Royal Society illustrated that less than 0.5% of UK science PhDs will end up as professors, and only 3.5% even as permanent academic research staff), the author rightly portrays a bleak and difficult situation that PhDs will more likely face than not; having a non-academic ‘plan B’.
I cannot disagree thus far. It is true that most PhDs, therefore, will need to pursue a career outside of academia. However, there is one aspect that the author approaches differently from my own view. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then I read the accompanying commentary by Phil Baty. This commentary picks up on the idea that it is somehow ‘taboo’ to seek a career outside of academia after completing a PhD. Both authors imply that there is a conspiracy within higher education to push the idea that PhD=permanent academic career, and that discussing or considering the alternatives is frowned upon and avoided. This hit a nerve with me, for reasons I will get to.
In the original article, the anonymous author admits feeling the regret of not having established a plan B earlier. For example, the author suggests earning a teaching qualification alongside a PhD, for easy transition into secondary education. The author regrets that help and advice is unavailable for PhDs thinking about non-academic options, and Phil Baty (in the commentary) picks up on the idea that there is a taboo that needs to be broken. The idea that PhDs should not be made to feel like a failure for pursuing other options; that we could all be making better-informed choices about which direction to take with our PhD.
Again, I cannot disagree with the idea that more alternative career advice would be beneficial for PhD candidates and early career researchers. Who couldn’t benefit from well-informed and relevant career advice? However, what that leaves me with a bee in my bonnet is that somehow PhDs are mislead into thinking they will automatically become a professor, the idea that the system makes us stay by offering false promises of an unobtainable career, and the idea that we are somehow sucked up by the system and spat out once we have provided our supervisor with our best years of research. This seems completely backwards to me. If I had been given other career advice, and told honestly how dire the prospect is that I will ever get to call myself ‘Prof’, I wouldn’t have done a thing differently, and I am still not intending to change. Of course, it depends on why you are still in academia in the first place, but I am still here because I still have a burning desire to pursue my research interests, to collaborate with other academics, to share in the growth and accomplishment of my students and colleagues, and because there is just nothing that I want to do more. I don’t love everything about the daily realities of my job, and the weighty pressure of finding the next short-term contract (and the one after) is constantly present. There is also a nagging voice inside that reminds me that I may (as so many women do) decide, or be forced, to leave academia in favour of settling down with a family. It will probably be disappointing if I have to leave, but I feel like I would be wasting precious time if I started preparing for that possibility now. Yes, I may need other qualifications if I want to change direction, and no, I don’t have an infinite pot of money to keep me going while I retrain, but I will remain optimistic and throw my full efforts into academia. If my time is limited then I want to hold on for as long as I can, and I don’t think I can do that if, mentally, I have already given up.
Yes, we should be allowed, and possibly encouraged, to take our PhDs elsewhere. Yes, we should be proud of what we have accomplished and throw ourselves enthusiastically into our alternative careers without shame. But no, this is not the problem that young academics face. In my opinion, fear is not what is holding PhDs and postdocs in academic limbo. It is not stigma that stops us leaving, it is the desire to stay!
The fact is, I do it because (right now) I love it. I will come up with a plan B when the time comes (and it will more than likely come), and I will feel no shame.