Can non-academic careers be plan A yet?

I encourage graduate students and postdocs to have a plan B in case the common graduate-school plan A, an academic job, does not work out for them.  Some find the term “plan B” inappropriate, as non- or alt-academic jobs after the Ph.D. may be some students’ goal from the beginning, and “plan B” sounds like a mere fallback outcome.  Which raises the question: can non-academic careers be plan A yet?  Can students enter a program with the intention of pursuing a non-academic career, say so to faculty, and be confident they will be as well supported as those who seek academic jobs?

Students who take my four-hour course in how to engage the non-academic workforce tell me the answer is “no.” At every single institution where I have taught this course, some students have told me that they would like to pursue non-academic work, and some have always intended to.  Without exception, they have told me they cannot say this openly: they believe, correctly in my experience, that they will immediately be labeled “unserious,” the deadly term that drops them to the bottom of the pile for everything from getting an advisor to winning summer stipends for thesis-writing to getting a good letter of recommendation for employment.  While they believe that a relatively few faculty members do support students like them, they also believe that a much greater number do not.

How do we get graduate programs to where non-academic career choices did not prejudice students’ progress through graduate school?  where non-academic career plans are not considered shameful and intellectually disqualifying, where we don’t need a term like plan B?

Responsibility for solving the institutional part of this problem lies jointly with senior administrative faculty in graduate schools, department chairs, and department directors of graduate studies, because they set policy and culture for graduate programs.  Three significant parts of the solution are simple, if not easy: gathering data on employment outcomes and discussing them jointly with faculty and graduate students; discussing career paths at the outset of every year, also jointly with faculty and newly entering graduate students; and discussing with faculty their responsibility in supporting, or at least not hindering, students’ varied employment outcomes.

Data on employment outcomes are central to this effort because, when shared publicly and broadly, they create common context and clarity: someone who reminisces fondly “remember [student], who got that great tenure-track job?” must be able to be answered “OK, but that was NN years ago; XX% of students getting degrees in the last fifteen years got no academic work at all, and a further YY% got sessional work. No more than ZZ% got tenure-track jobs.”  Contextualized in that way, non-academic employment is not an exception to be tolerated when needed; it is now in many departments the majority outcome, and needs to be acknowledged and discussed as such.  Broadly shared data allow those outcomes to be described correctly, which destigmatizes them.

Discussing career paths jointly with graduate students and faculty (and I don’t mean on the same email thread: I mean in the same room at the same time) is critical because so much of an individual graduate student’s experience gets filtered through a tiny number of faculty.  Data about the percentage of non-academic outcomes turn into support for students pursuing them only if that knowledge is broadly shared.  It must be impossible for a faculty member to say, privately, “oh, you’re so good, I am sure you’ll a tenure-track job” without all parties knowing that have been told that preparing for other outcomes is wise, necessary, and supported by both department and institution. It must also be impossible for a faculty member to say to a student “I’m surprised you would think of non-academic work right off the bat” without being able to be told by senior faculty peers “that’s the kind of job [large percentage] of our grad students wind up, and they’re doing really good work.”

Some faculty will continue to believe that their responsibilities are enriching their discipline’s knowledge, teaching, and renewing the profession.  To them, turning out graduate students who take non-academic jobs takes time and resources away from their core mission.  That attitude, if present, has to be addressed with faculty by deans, chairs, graduate chairs – while faculty may not welcome the incursion of acknowledging and supporting students’ paths to non-academic employment, at the very least the faculty must not stand in the way, and they must treat students without being prejudiced by their postgraduate employment plans.  As long as departments accept and produce more students with PhDs than they place in faculty positions, supporting paths to non-academic employment is their ethical responsibility.

Of course, many other things also need to happen to support non-academic job outcomes; what I have outlined is the bare minimum necessary to make students and faculty able to discuss a range of postgraduate outcomes, and by having institutional leaders discuss and support them, make it more likely that faculty generally will support them.  Beyond that minimum, though, I seek and work for a time when we will respect and value non-academic career outcomes, rather than merely tolerate them.  We will get to that expanded understanding of what outcomes deserve the profession’s time in the same way we got to an expanded understanding of what new fields of study deserve the profession’s time: by challenging each other to look at what is new to us, examining who does those things that are new to us, and considering why we did not value them in the past.