Non-Academic Career Paths: The Dirty Secret of Academia?

18 October 2019, 1539 EDT

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the academic job market is tough. Faculty openly warn political science PhD students that there are very few tenure-track jobs available, that they will be competing for those few positions against their most talented and accomplished peers, and that multiple publications and the imprimatur of an Ivy League school have become de facto pre-requisites for the top jobs. The academic job market has changed so rapidly that first-year professors often boast more publications than their tenured senior peers. From their first semester, students are steeped in a culture of scarcity that provokes fear and uncertainty (indeed, it’s not surprising that PhD students suffer from anxiety and depression at “astonishingly high rates”).

Over the past couple of decades, according to NSF’s Survey of Doctorate Recipients, the proportion of PhD holders who find careers in academia has declined precipitously in every field. In 2017, only 23% of PhDs in life and health sciences held a tenure-track or tenured position, down from 33% in 1997. Math and computer science have declined from 49% to 33% over the same period; engineering from 23% to 16%. In the social sciences and psychology, 30% of PhD-holders had a tenured or tenure-track job in 2017. 

Yet given all of this, it is also a universally understood truth that pursuing a non-academic career path as a PhD candidate in political science ought to be treated as a dirty secret, at worst, and a less prestigious alternative to winning a coveted tenure-track post, at best.

Some PhD students come into the program with their hearts set on finding a tenure-track job at an R1 school. Political science departments are reasonably well-equipped to help these students find jobs. But many students would prefer a policy job, or are at least interested in considering both academic and policy options–I (somewhat naively, in retrospect) went into my PhD program with the aim of working in the policy world when I graduated. I had worked in DC for two years before starting grad school, and saw my lack of credentials and policy experience as a serious impediment to long-term advancement. I figured having a PhD would help me circumvent that. 

As it turns out, that gamble worked for me–but largely due to a series of happy coincidences, involving wonderful individuals (including, I’m grateful to say, my fabulous dissertation committee), and participation in programs like Bridging the Gap along the way, than any institutional structures that could have helped me get to where I am now.

Most PhD-granting departments in political science simply don’t make opportunities available for students who are interested in pursuing a non-academic career. But even worse, this interest is often framed by faculty, in a norm that quickly trickles down to students, as a dirty secret that students must keep to themselves. Policy work and policy-relevant research is not valued–and in fact is often looked down upon–by departments obsessed with getting their students placed in tenure-track jobs, despite (or perhaps, perversely, because of) the paucity of available opportunities in the academy.

The message that policy work isn’t serious, rigorous, or valuable is signaled both openly and indirectly. “To date, my advisor has never acknowledged the years of policy consulting work I did over the course of my PhD program,” a recent graduate recently shared with me, adding “Still, I feel lucky that he ‘allowed’ me to take time away from field work and defended the integrity of my academic research. Other faculty pressured me to take publications in non-academic journals off my CV and made clear that reports published through think tanks–even if peer reviewed–didn’t count towards my departmental ranking or eligibility for supplemental funding.”

This kind of social stigma in the academy means that opportunities remain hidden and students are discouraged from pursuing viable (and lucrative) career options. The students who do pursue these kinds of opportunities tend to keep it a secret from their committees. “One professor (outside of my subject field) publicly called me a CIA plant and accused me of war mongering,” the same recent graduate said. 

Some departments host one or two events each year intended to introduce students to the idea of pursuing jobs outside of academia. But too often, students who attend these events do so with the fear that expressing interest in a non-academic job will permanently mar their reputations and prospects within their department.  As another student told me, “Students worry about being seen at non-academic job panels at conferences or in their department, concerned it might weaken their letters of recommendation if their faculty know they are pursuing other positions.”

The culture of discounting, and even actively disdaining, non-academic accomplishments in academia also discourages students from even exploring non-academic opportunities. One recent graduate told me, “I was one of two PhDs at my graduation ceremony with a permanent job–it’s a competitive position at a world-recognized institution, but since it wasn’t in academia, the department chair chose not to announce it in the placement list.”

Plenty of people say that you shouldn’t bother getting a PhD if you want a non-academic career–indeed, I heard this a number of times from faculty in my own department. This message contradicts academics’ simultaneous effort to defend their field’s important against growing budget cuts by emphasizing the distinct value of specialized research expertise, and the vital importance of uncovering knowledge that helps us understand our world. But the basic proposition that a PhD isn’t necessary for employment is also unfounded. Confronted with a glut of MA-qualified candidates, a growing number of institutions now require a PhD. In others, having a PhD can help you advance within the institution. This is particularly true in the think tank community, where a PhD can help applicants bridge the gap between junior positions and the very senior research positions, where there is often no viable path between these levels internally.

Universities have structures in place that could help PhDs in this area. But too often, departments and schools fail to connect students to these resources. Many universities, for example, have corresponding public policy and foreign service schools with a host of illustrious, well-placed alums. But political science or government departments in the university’s college tend to be stovepiped, leaving PhD students unable to access these schools’ alumni networks and career centers. In some universities, PhD students are even prohibited from accessing the policy and law schools’ career resources. Many departments also have alums from their own PhD program who are well-placed but inaccessible to current students, simply because there’s not institutionalized network to contact them.

Additionally, another PhD candidate pointed out that “even when universities do promote outside career options, they tend to either be geared toward private sector tech and consulting common in hard science and engineering, or in academic administration. That severely understates the options available for the very humanities and social science scholars who often need these options most.”

There are also indications that departments are taking on more students than they can place in tenure-track roles. APSA’s most recent Graduate Placement Report found that tenure-track placements accounted for just over half of all first-time placements in 2017-18. This may be in part because departments need PhD students to TA classes, grade work, and hold office hours. While that may well be a reasonable tradeoff for a free education, those departments still have a responsibility to help place those students in fulfilling, well-enumerated work when they graduate.

As a result, support is often highly idiosyncratic and depends to a large extent on their committee members. I was lucky enough to have a committee who valued policy career options and were supportive of my choices. I know other students who had faculty members who retired, or moved institutions, or went on length sabbaticals. With different committee members, I could well have had a completely different experience. 

There are a few options particularly tailored for grad students to break into the policy world. The Presidential Management Fellowship (known as the PMF) is a highly competitive position open to anyone who has recently received, or is slated to receive, a graduate degree. The PMF is highly regarded as an opportunity to give talented candidates a major boost in getting a government career, although it too faces budget cuts.

Some research institutions have summer programs that are specifically geared toward PhD students. RAND’s Summer Associates program (applications open this month!) is a notable example, as are similar programs at CNA and IDA. (As a bonus, these pay well; this is not a negligible quality for PhD students whose academic-year stipends barely cover their basic living expenses and who very often struggle to find adequate summer funding). The Pew Research Center has an internship program aimed at graduate students. The U.S. GAO has a paid internship program focused on social scientists, and the Pathways Program offers internships for students at a variety of federal agencies, including DoD and State.

There are workshops and training programs expressly designed to help PhD students connect to the policy world. Bridging the Gap’s programming, including its New Era Workshop designed for PhD students and post-docs, provides opportunities for participants to learn how to frame their research for a policy audience, and to explore non-academic career paths, in part through meeting alums of the program who work outside of academia. Notably, students have flocked to these programs, and organizers note that application numbers climb every year.

Overall, though, there are far too few institutional structures within departments to connect students with these kinds of opportunities, on top of a toxic culture that regards non-academic options as second rate. And that’s a shame, both for students who are warned away from pursuing a potentially fulfilling career path, and for departments, who will fail to place students at prestigious non-academic institutions for this reason.