By John Paulas
In my professional practice helping PhDs find their way to gainful and satisfying work, I only occasionally encounter PhDs who say they went to graduate school with the express purpose of joining the professorate. Typically, PhDs have a deep interest or feel a strong association with a particular field of study that compels them to pursue graduate work and, ultimately, the highest academic degree obtainable in that field. They very rarely say that they pursued the PhD with a faculty job in mind.
But students’ expectations quickly change once immersed in the culture of the university, the culture of their student peers and of their faculty. I have found that this culture produces in its individual members a single, monolithic idea about what employment success looks like, both in those few for whom a faculty post is, to begin with, the greatest desire and in those for whom it is not. Success and failure as a PhD then become internalized as dependent on obtaining a lifetime university faculty job.
The first step in PhD career development is to reverse this process of mistakenly equating one job possibility, the university faculty post, with the only way of personal professional flourishing and, more importantly, mistakenly equating this job with the “profession” of the PhD. If our culture is to change to reflect the simple realities of PhD employment, the university faculty job must be understood by our culture as simply one of the job possibilities for an individual, not the natural professional outcome of PhD training.
Professional outcomes and intellectual outcomes are different matters. University culture has long presumed a complete overlap between these two outcomes in regard to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. The PhD degree and all the wonderful things that go along with it fall under the category of intellectual outcome that produces the highest-level intellectual identity for the degree holder. The PhD degree does not produce any particular professional identity outcome. As we have done with our view of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in all humanities and social sciences fields, we must correct our error of understanding particular jobs or groups of jobs as the natural outcome of the PhD degree. A career for a PhD is any career path a PhD has.
Being a professional classicist, therefore, must not mean only being a professor of classics. When I declare that I am a professional classicist, the classicist part relates to a deep-seated intellectual identity that I share with that community of experts, a number of whom have a university faculty job as a profession. My PhD intellectual identity has generated other deeply intellectual identities as well and connections to various intellectual communities in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.
If the university faculty job represents singular “success” and “the profession” in the blinkered terms of the culture of the university, then, given the increasing scarcity of this job title, “success” and the continued existence of “the profession” within the university seems increasingly unlikely. Until the culture of our university community changes—and change is surely happening—it is best to be conscious of these limiting attitudes towards success, failure, and profession and not to allow them to form an overriding outlook on the lives and livelihoods of PhDs.
We must see that each of us experiences the world as an individual with our own unique way forward and that there is no such thing as a generic outcome or even group of employment outcomes for PhDs. Our lives and livelihoods should allow for that reality. If there is only one takeaway from this guide, let it be that getting in touch with our career aspirations for ourselves is a continual process, not like buying a household appliance and not thinking about it again until something catastrophic happens to it.
The sections that follow offer practical advice on PhD careers. First, we begin with a section on faculty careers in higher education by Catherine Connors. This section covers community colleges, universities, and liberal arts colleges. Next, Keely Lake offers advice on careers in primary and secondary education. In the penultimate section, I provide guidance on the pursuit of careers beyond the classroom whether in the private sector, academic administration, non-profit, or government. The final section addresses the distinction between the résumé and CV, with some remarks on cover letters, as an encouragement to get started.