On Wednesday November 17th, 2010, I spoke to graduate students at Carleton University about careers after grad school. This post is based on part of what I said.
It is directed not only to graduate students but also to the faculty that advise them.
For most doctoral students, the tenure-track position is the daisy in this photo.
The focus on the tenure-track job informs a lot of advice they get.
- Advice about what kinds of part-time jobs to take to fund their studies.
- Advice about how they should disseminate their findings.
- Advice about who they should be networking with.
In some cases, doctoral candidates wonder if their supervisor will stop giving them the support they need to write a strong dissertation and get the PhD if they admit that they are considering anything other than that daisy of a tenure-track position.
There is a lot more stuff in the field in that photograph.
The focus on the daisy makes it look like so much green background but if you shift the focus, all sorts of different plants would be visible: grasses, other small flowers, even trees and shrubs.
In contrast, when we look at a box of chocolates, we don’t have the same impetus to focus on one and fade out the rest to background.
We don’t think there is one kind we are all supposed to like better, and anyone who eats the other stuff only does so because someone better than them got the good one.
Maybe you like the hazelnut cremes better than anything else in the box, but you wouldn’t think less of me for preferring the dark chocolate covered toffee.
In fact, most of us like the fact that other people have different tastes in chocolate. It means that we can avoid the hazelnut cremes and still feel good about it because we know that someone else absolutely loves them.
Shifting the focus
It is my strong belief that the purpose of a PhD is not to prepare the next generation of academics. A significant minority of PhDs have always gone on to non-academic careers. Some of them, like Benoît Mandelbrot, have even done ground-breaking, discipline-shifting abstract research in those non-academic careers.
In the current climate, it is downright irresponsible to treat students as if a tenure-track academic position is the only acceptable outcome of a PhD.
Being a professor is a really good option for some people, an okay but not great option for others, and a downright disaster for others. It has nothing to do with how brilliant they are.
Neither the student nor the supervisor is a failure if the student does not pursue (or secure) a tenure-track position after finishing the PhD.
This post was edited July 9, 2015.