Considering Alternatives to the Academy?

Considering Alternatives to the Academy?

At the Institute for Humane Studies, we’ve spent decades helping graduate students pursue a career in the academy.

The unprecedented shock of the coronavirus to the academic job market is prompting PhDs, particularly those on the job market this year or next, to think about alternative careers. The future will still need academics to teach and research, and given the uncertainty of the pandemic, those with a passion for the academy should not drop those plans prematurely.

That said, reflecting on my own experience in graduate school during the Great Recession, I wanted to share a few thoughts that may be helpful to students who are considering other job opportunities should the need arise.

First: Be Kind to Yourself

Job searches are hard and the present circumstances are difficult. So it is understandable that you will experience periods of anxiety and frustration. Added to that, the prospect of leaving the academy can cause unease and sadness.

This makes it important to remember that you can be successful and happy outside of the academy. It may take time and work, but there exist careers that are financially and intellectually fulfilling that you can pursue. To look at it another way, if you had the skills and habits to get into and succeed in graduate school, you have the skills and habits that employers value. 

Second: Explore and discover your options

Initially you might think to apply your skills to an adjacent field or elsewhere in the university. In some instances this can be a good choice, but it is worth casting your net broadly. There are a great many different careers in the world and if for the past several years you have been focused on your studies, you may not realize how many there are.

Considering Alternatives to the Academy?

To broaden your horizons, reach out and connect to those already working in other fields. This might be a friend from undergraduate days, someone whom you met in your community, or a colleague from a previous job. Setting up informational interviews with those in other careers can help you think through what type of job you might like, connect you to openings, and help you practice your self-presentation. While not everyone you talk to can land you a job, people are often willing to help with advice and further connections.

Third: Non-academic life has flexibility and variety

Academic tenure track jobs are generally held for many years (even decades), and while faculty often change jobs as their career progresses, they generally do so much less than those outside the academy. One trap to avoid is applying this thinking to your life outside the academy. Your first post-academic job is not your destiny.

While the scope for reinvention is not infinite (the opportunity to be an Olympic gymnast has, alas, likely passed) it is much broader than those in the academy often suppose. This means that while you want to search for and pick the best possible job you can at the moment, realize that choice is not irrevocable. Those outside the academy change jobs, and even careers, much more frequently than those inside the academy.

A good option to consider, if you have a career pathway you are strongly attracted to and your personal circumstances allow, is an internship. You will likely find that your skills and maturity will allow you to stand out, while at the same time being given space to learn and adapt to a new industry. While not guaranteed, a short internship can be a good stepping stone to a permanent job.

Fourth: Adapting to non-academic culture

Life outside the academy is different than life inside the academy. This can lead to culture shock for those who have spent the past several years in study. The good news is that it is very possible to adapt and non-academic culture has many positives. While every working environment is different, here are a few key differences that you might find.

The first is that the effort put into a work project is calibrated to the outcome and impact of the project. In some instances the level of rigor of academic work is appropriate, but in other instances the work will need to be “good enough” as new projects and challenges come over the horizon.  An academic tendency toward perfection can sometimes get in the way of a need for action.

Secondly, in contrast to some academic disciplines, non-academic work generally requires working productively in teams. This means being able to collaborate on projects in contrast to the often solitary work of study and research. 

Lastly, non-academic workplaces value professionalism and collegiality. Because so much work is done in teams, maintaining good relationships with co-workers is very important. While the academy can often allow grudges and resentments to fester without any immediate impact on an academic department, this is not the case in most non-academic workplaces.

Don’t be a stranger!

Finally, it is important to note that seeking a career outside the academy does not mean abandoning many of things that attracted you to the academy. Many jobs offer challenge and intellectual stimulation, and it is still possible to follow some of the most interesting work that is being done in a field.

Further, with the movement of many of our programs online, IHS is making more and more of its supported lectures and discussions public. For example, you can view the keynote speeches from our most recent summer seminars.

If you do choose to leave the academy but are interested in someday returning, or are looking to stay in touch with the IHS community, please reach out and sign up for our newsletters here. We would love to hear from you.


Michael Tolhurst

Michael Tolhurst is the Director of Graduate Talent Development at the Institute for Humane Studies. Prior to this role he was a senior program manager at the Charles Koch Foundation where he worked extensively on academic grantmaking. He also taught for several years at the university level. He brings to IHS an excitement in the promise of liberalism and a commitment to helping graduate students succeed. He has received masters degrees in political science and philosophy, both from Northern Illinois University.

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