No one true path for PhDs

So, there’s a nice little op-ed piece up at the Chronicle for Higher Education. (For the non-academics out there, it’s sort of like People magazine, but with History professors instead of Kardashians.) It was written by Jon Bardin, a current PhD student at Cornell Med School, who is planning to abandon the canonical academic path. Unfortunately, it’s behind the Chronicle paywall, but basically he argues against the idea (much hyped, recently) that there is an over-production of PhD students. At least in the sciences.

He mentions the common complaint that graduate school has become a sort of pyramid scheme, where huge numbers of PhD students enter, with the implicit promise of a tenure-track position waiting at the other end of the tunnel, while there are not nearly enough such positions available.

This is true, but he argues that we should look at the situation from a different perspective.

First, he argues that there are many alternative careers for PhDs. Of course, we all knew this already. After all, Starbucks is almost always hiring. But, actually, he argues that the skills that you develop in grad school are widely applicable. He talks specifically about the humbling experience of having his first manuscript rejected:

Through this and subsequent experiences, I learned to absorb the sting of harsh rejection, to ingest criticism, to accept its value, and to turn it to my advantage. These are life skills, not scientific skills, and rejection was only the beginning. Since then, I have had to devise and adopt quick, practical solutions to unexpected problems, to communicate clearly and concisely in front of crowds, to think on my feet in response to an unexpected question, and to pick my battles within my own research group. Perhaps most important, I have learned to approach problems by reducing them to their component parts and solving them one by one.

These are experiences and skills that will carry me through many dark days as a writer. But the same skills would have benefited me if I were leaving for the pharmaceutical industry, or for consulting, or to open a microbrewery. Everyone needs a problem solver, an articulate communicator, a thoughtful arbitrator. If graduate students can learn to approach their education as a series of learning opportunities rather than a five-year-long job interview, I think many who choose to leave would find that they had not wasted their time but rather that they had learned a great deal in a safe environment, while being paid, to boot.

These are great points. Now, the availability of funding varies a lot from field to field, but, at least in the sciences, I think the typical graduate student stipend is somewhere on the order of $30,000 per year. Now, that’s not huge money, but it is enough to provide a comfortable living. Add in the fact that grad school is a great social environment (at least, it is if you’re a dork, and you like hanging out with other dorks, which, if you’re reading this, you probably are, and probably do), and you’ve got the makings of a pleasant and rewarding five years.

The trick, of course, is to find an advisor who’s not a jerk, but that’s a topic for another post.

The other point that Bardin makes is that the problem is not one of the availability of a certain type of job, but of the perception that the tenure-track path is the only honorable one. What is needed is a change in attitude, from the students themselves, and from the advisors responsible for them. In Bardin’s words:

Such a change in attitude should start with graduate advisers, who must fulfill their role as true mentors, helping students explore the range of opportunities that their training has enabled, both inside and outside the box. Crucially, they must make it clear that leaving academe does not suddenly brand them a waste of their mentor’s time; graduate students—and their older siblings, the postdocs—by virtue of being cheap, productive labor, are anything but a waste of time.

In a way, maybe we need to start viewing graduate school more like undergrad. After all, professors don’t resent teaching undergraduates who are smart and engaged, but who are going to do something other than academia.

Or, rather, most probably don’t. I’m sure there are some who do. (Those are also the ones you want to avoid when choosing an advisor.) But, they probably also resent the students who are going to follow in their footsteps, just for different reasons. What are you going to do? Resenters gonna resent.

h/t to Ronin Kristina Killgrove.

This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.


  1. “Such a change in attitude should start with graduate advisers, who must fulfill their role as true mentors, helping students explore the range of opportunities that their training has enabled, both inside and outside the box.” That’s a nice idea, but I suspect rather few academics are competent to advise their graduate students about becoming anything except academics. Most professors I know, including my doctoral and postdoctoral advisors, haven’t worked outside academia since they were undergraduates, if then; the academic way of life is the only one they know. Yes, chauvinism (“the perception that the tenure-track path is the only honorable one”) is a problem, but ignorance is a problem too, and not necessarily easier to solve.

    One of the many good things the Ronin Institute and similar initiatives could accomplish is to assemble groups of scholars who do know ways of life besides the academic one and could offer grad students and postdocs useful advice. This could be particularly helpful with respect to fields such as my own, evolutionary biology, that have little presence in industry.

    That last bit, by the way, is another important topic. It may indeed be that “[e]veryone needs a problem solver, an articulate communicator, a thoughtful arbitrator,” but my observations and experiences suggest many nonacademic employers, including corporations that employ some Ph.D.s, don’t know what to make of you if your Ph.D. isn’t in some narrow range of specialties they recognize as relevant to their businesses. Smarter employers (e.g., Google, I’m told) recognize that what they really want is highly intelligent people who are willing and able to learn absolutely anything it takes to do the job, of which a Ph.D. in practically any field can be good evidence. Unfortunately, many employers aren’t so smart.

  2. I know no science phd students (who are not funded by some fancy outside fellowship) who make anywhere near 30k a year. I think 15-19 is typical.

    Otherwise, interesting post.

    • That’s an interesting point. I was basing the 30k figure on the current NSF graduate fellowship rate, which I assumed set at least a ballpark standard. If a lot of grad schools are paying half that, well, that’s just sort of sad.

      • Social science PhDs at large state universities (non-NSF, beholden to the vagaries of state, uni, and dept budgets) make just under $15k a year. It’s bad. But not as bad as the virtually non-existent academic job market.

  3. That’s a good point, Ralph – I don’t think many profs know what job opportunities there are other than academia. Particularly in some of the social sciences, like anthropology – we’re not humanities (and therefore not taught in K-12, so we can’t go be grade school teachers) and we’re not the sciences (and therefore can’t find a job in a lab, or be K-12 science teachers). For my part, I’ve tried to tell students about some of the opportunities they could pursue with a BA or MA in anthropology – like working for the medical examiner’s office, becoming an EMT, etc. But I’m constantly learning what kinds of jobs are out there as I look for one myself.

  4. Ralph, Kristina,

    I think that’s right that ignorance is a huge part of the problem, and one that is not easily solved from within academia. But, it should not be insoluble. I mean, Law School professors presumably don’t expect all of their students to become Law School professors. Med School professors don’t expect all of their students to become Med School professors.

    Beyond the ignorance problem, I think that there is huge variation in the degree to which advisors support alternative paths. Many are very open, and while they may not have ideas of their own, they will be supportive of students who come to them saying that they want to do something other than academia. On the other hand, there are many advisors who feel that any student who is not headed towards a research career with a big lab at a major university is letting them down, or even embarrassing them. I have seen many cases where students or postdocs are actively punished when they announce a career move that does not mesh with what their supervisor perceives to be the right one.

    Ralph, I think you’re right that this is a place where the Ronin Institute has an opportunity to make a big difference. If we can publicly promote and showcase alternative paths for scholarship, maybe we can help to change the culture.

    • There is indeed huge variation in support for nonacademic careers, part of the overall huge variation in quality of advisors. My own advisors, especially my doctoral advisor, were disappointed I decided not to become a professor, but they weren’t dismissive or hostile. However, I realize not all faculty members are so sensible.

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