The number of secure academic positions* is not increasing at the same rate as the number of students in higher education. The additional work of teaching all those students is largely being done by short-term and casual employees.
The number of potential applicants for those secure positions is rising much faster as universities add or expand PhD programs.
The combination of those two facts means that the de facto requirements for an academic position have increased. As a friend noted of a recent hiring committee he was on, all of the short listed candidates had stronger CVs than any of his colleagues would have had when they were first hired.
It is unreasonable to expect that you will have all of these additional requirements at the same time as you are awarded the PhD, though it seems that some American universities encourage people to delay submission until they do. For most people, there is going to be a period of some other employment between finishing the PhD and getting that secure position.
Immediate post-PhD options
When considering your options, keep in mind that no one will care why you didn’t publish. If you don’t publish, you are unlikely to be successful in getting that secure position.
Post-doctoral research fellowships are probably the best interim position. These may be awarded directly or be part of a larger research grant awarded to an academic researcher who then hires a post-doctoral fellow. Either way, a post-doc offers an opportunity to move beyond your doctoral research, publish from the PhD and from the post-doctoral project, and build your network.
Beware: in the sciences, where post-doctoral fellowships have long been a standard step in the career trajectory of academics, they are becoming a “parking lot”. If you are not getting interviews for secure positions during your second post-doc, start seriously looking for a different career.
Staying in the higher education sector may be less important than keeping up your research and writing. In fact, with increasing pressures for academic research to have wider impacts, jobs outside of academe that are directly related to your research may have advantages. Knowledge mobilization (the process of making that impact beyond academe) depends on solid relationships between knowledge producers and knowledge users. There is nothing like actually working in an organization that uses research like yours to build those relationships.
Teaching experience may also be important but it will never substitute for a complete lack of publications. Few institutions consider their temporary and casual teaching staff as a pool of potential permanent staff. And the importance of teaching experience declines rapidly the more prestigious and research intensive the institution. I’ve written about the pros and cons of sessional teaching (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4). It may be a good option but remain vigilant about getting stuck in low-paid teaching positions with no security or benefits.
Whichever option you choose, if you want to keep the possibility of a secure academic position open, find a way to write regularly and submit your writing for publication.
You do have other options
If all of this seems a bit frightening don’t despair.
You have a lot to offer. And there are probably several other good options. Just knowing they are there can make the process of pursing an academic career less fraught. After all desperation isn’t attractive to anyone.
*I use the generic term “secure” because different countries have different systems. In North America this refers to tenure-track positions. In the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand these are more likely referred to as permanent positions or open contracts. In all cases, there may be some process for confirming the appointment after a few years.
This post was edited July 13, 2015.