Non-academic career options for PhDs?
April 6, 2014 7:48 PM   Subscribe

My partner is finishing a PhD in a social science next year and is unsure about staying in academia. Have any MeFites been in a similar position?

If so, how did you decide whether or not to seek a tenure-track professor path? If you decided not to, what are you doing now for work? How do you feel about your decision?
posted by AceRock to Work & Money (11 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
This is much bigger than AskMe.
The Professor is In blog has a ton of resources. There are dozens of blogs on this.
Also read the book Professor Mommy for a good look at both life styles.
Does s/he have skills that are useful in the non academic world? Methods? Analysis?

What is it about academia that s/he does and doesn't like?

Fwiw, I took a non TT position for 1 year and then went into a TT position happily. TT works for me though.
posted by k8t at 8:13 PM on April 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't mean for this to be gloom and doom, but for many PhDs, the decision of whether or not to seek a TT position is effectively made for them, since in most disciplines there are very, very few TT positions compared to the glut of candidates. Of course it varies from subject to subject, but speaking as the spouse of a history PhD, it is GRIM out there. My husband has a degree from a top university, two years as a postdoc at a prestigious research library, and has been adjuncting at a state school for the past 4 years. He is currently working to make the switch to teaching at a private high school, which will (hopefully) have the benefit of all the parts of teaching he likes (interacting with students, molding young minds, yadda) without the BS, huge classes, and low wages of adjuncting at State U.

So, if your SO likes the idea of teaching but is less sold on the TT portion of it, s/he should consider broadening the net and teaching at different places. There are placement firms that can help with finding a job at private schools.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 9:01 PM on April 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm working as a software dev / data guy and it was the best decision I could have made. I feel really super great about it. Here's why: I'm in control of my life now. I can't overstate how heavy the existential pressure was about trying to find a pathway into a system that was so existentially punishing and crushingly random. My next move after PhD was going to be a postdoc, but the major government fellowship that everyone wants, and which was my best chance of making something happen, had a success rate of 9%. And you could apply once, ever. No pressure or anything, but you better crank out a few more papers before you apply next year...

Academia is kind of like an abusive partner, at least for me, but I think for many others as well. It sucks you in and makes you feel like you need it, like you can't make it in the real world, like it's impossible to be happy or fulfilled in any other setting -- while simultaneously demanding you completely crush yourself and your own needs to keep feeding it. You can't even take a vacation without feeling guilty. It took me many months to get used to the idea of leaving academia, while I was still a PhD student, and I really did feel like I had zero prospects at the time. But that turned out to be totally false, and most of the downsides to leaving academia proved to be illusions, too.

Going for TT can be the right choice for some people. Not because they can't imagine doing anything else, or because they think they would not be able to find work outside of academia -- those are bad reasons, based on fear -- but because they've weighed their options and decided it is the right life for them, and the opportunities line up. I think, though, that being in a good place to make such a decision, to take the next step down this path, should come after a really serious consideration of what other paths exist. Academia is one of many life paths post-PhD and there's no reason to make it the default.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:37 PM on April 6, 2014 [13 favorites]

I have a TT position in law, which I gained immediately after finishing my PhD. During the last two years of my PhD, however, things were looking bleak job-wise and I gave serious consideration to abandoning it. Naturally, I am glad I did not abandon and now I very much enjoy my position. I had promised myself, however, that I would not under any circumstances (short of inability to pay my rent) take a post-doc position anywhere - it was going to be TT or bust. My reason for this was that I already given up a tremendous amount of lost income / years effectively out of full time employment seeking the PhD, and I wasn't going to give up any more to purse a postdoc with no guarantee that it would turn into a TT position within the next year.

The market for TT social science positions generally is even tighter than for similar positions in faculties of law, so how confident are you that he or she will get this TT position? I would say if they can get an offer, take it, and if they hate being a prof they can always quit after 1 year. It would be very hard to go the other way - decline a TT position, do something else for a year, and then try and get back into academia.
posted by modernnomad at 11:02 PM on April 6, 2014

I got a PhD in a social science (many) years ago. The last few years of graduate school - when you're teaching and doing research, but not taking classes - is about as realistic a job preview of a tenure-track professorship as you'll ever get. I just couldn't see it as a viable option for me. I'm such an extrovert that working alone on a research paper was torture.

So instead of a university position, I went into an HR consulting role and with the exception of a few years working inside a large corporation, I've spent my whole career as a consultant and have been very happy with it. (Despite what my faculty thought, however, it took me several years working as a consultant before my salary surpassed what it would have been in academia. Of course, at least at that time, business schools paid much better than psychology departments.)
posted by DrGail at 4:59 AM on April 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Unless your SO is passionate about being a TT professor, I wouldn't bother.

For grins, go to and plug in his discipline in the search bar. You would not believe the number of Ph.D.s the government employs.

There are seven jobs alone that ping on HUMANITIES!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:11 AM on April 7, 2014

"Social science" isn't specific enough to know if this will be of interest, but tech companies like Google, eBay, and Facebook have (and are hiring) economists in research roles. It's possible that they're interested in employing skilled social scientists in general.

Even if this avenue isn't open, "data science" is a hot career and probably attractive to PhDs who spent their grad school years doing a bunch of stats and such in front of a computer.
posted by L0 at 10:14 AM on April 7, 2014

I decided while still in grad school for sociology that academia wasn’t for me, and dropped out. I’m currently working at an evaluation research center within a university and it’s great in a lot of ways. State agencies and other researchers contract with us for independent evaluations of programs of all sorts, and we apply for grants on our own as well. Most of our staff are Ph.D.s and, if teaching is your thing, some of them choose to teach for the department we are in occasionally (though that wouldn’t be possible at all centers like this).

I have also worked for a for-profit center and had a pretty similar experience.

So this is another career option to consider while you make your choices!
posted by metasarah at 10:34 AM on April 7, 2014

I have a Ph.D. in social psychology and work in market and branding research doing survey design and analysis. I do miss teaching, but I don't miss weekend and night hours, not getting overtime, and the pressure to put out research that maybe only four or five people will ever read in its entirety. I get paid more in my industry work and I am making much more of an impact with useful work that gets applied almost immediately. I'm very happy that I'm out of academia. Feel free to MeMail me with any specific questions.
posted by Fuego at 7:33 PM on April 7, 2014

I was a science PhD, but the future in there is only slightly less grim. There's a lot of good advice above, so I'll just bullet point a few ideas:

* There are lots of ways of having an interesting, worthwhile career outside academia. But you won't hear this from inside academia, which almost universally holds the myth that life "outside" is dull and without impact. Obviously, that's not true.

* Cui bono? It's in the interests of academia to make it look as if PhDs don't have other choices. Someone has do all that teaching and fill all those postdocs. Without the constant flow of menial labour, the system would fall apart.

* Statistically, looking at all the numbers, a PhD doesn't lead to a permanent academic position. The "success" rate is about 10%, so they are the exceptions not the rule.

* To which the response is "But what if I work really hard? Then I'll be sure to make it!" Everyone is already working really hard. Everyone says this to themselves.

* There's huge pressure to stay in academia from sunk costs. "I already spend 4 years on a degree, 2 years on a Masters and 5 years on a PhD. If I leave, all that will be wasted!" No, it won't. That time is already gone, you can't get it back by throwing more time after it. And those skills can be used in other arenas.
posted by outlier at 5:25 AM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

There have been personal essays and columns about this subject in The Chronicle of Higher Education's Advice section.
posted by orange (sherbet) rabbit at 4:10 PM on April 9, 2014

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