01 November 2012

Tenure and the Culture of Failure in Academia

Why are career paths that aren't tenure track considered failures by so many of us? Why do we use expressions like 'abandon the academic job search' or 'plan b' even when we're trying to explain that non-academic jobs are good outcomes of graduate studies? The easy answer is to blame the conveyor belt model of academia, and the lack of non-academic perspective of most academics. The reality is probably more a case of individual priorities and goals.

An interesting piece by L. Maren Wood was posted to the Chronicle of Higher Education two days ago that made the rounds of Twitter yesterday. For reasons that will become even more obvious in the coming weeks, I could not agree more with Wood about the need for universities to be more proactive and supportive of non-tenure-track career options. I also agree with her that there can be happiness outside of academia. There are many questions that are under-resolved in Wood's piece, but it is a good start to an important set of questions universities and graduate students need to ask about the overabundance of PhDs relative to tenure track jobs available.

I will give some of my own answers to those questions over the coming weeks and years, but for now I want to wrap my head around the bitterness of many of the commenters on the article, and even some of Wood's phrases in the article. Why do we consider ourselves failures if we don't land tenure track jobs? For some/most of you the answer is probably obvious. If so, then you'll probably find what follows simplistic bordering on condescending, but for those who don't understand why PhDs might be upset about not becoming a professor, please read on.

As someone who more or less stumbled into a PhD (in the history and philosophy of science and technology) out of intellectual curiosity rather than as part of some well-defined plan to become a professor, I've never quite understood the tenure track or bust mentality of most of my colleagues. I didn't think of graduate school as a gateway to anything, and if I had, I was disabused of the notion quickly, because during my MA year my program put together a panel of alumni who had pursued non-traditional (i.e. non-tenure-track) careers after graduation. If the theme underlying the panel wasn't enough, we were reminded repeatedly how bleak the tenure track market was and that, statistically, it was unlikely we would all become professors. From that point forward graduate study was something I was intellectually interested in pursuing that I knew lead to a range of possible outcomes, one of which might be tenure track.

This approach to graduate school has been my approach to life goals for a long time, and it's a bit unusual. I'm already brainstorming a blog post about the benefits and pitfalls of my seemingly whimsical approach to goals, but let me continue with the question at hand. The normal approach to life goals, and the one most life coaches advocate, is setting specific measurable outcomes. If you want to be a teacher, doctor or lawyer then you know that you need the professional degree to get a job, and to get the professional degree you need to start an undergraduate degree. There are, for most careers, a well-known series of boxes that you have to tick, and no time limit in which to tick them (although I suspect more often than not that people abandon goals if they don't succeed in the first three attempts).

The process to become a professor is a quite clear series of boxes. To get tenure track you must complete a PhD in a timely fashion, with a solid history of publishing, earning grants, attending conferences, and even a little bit of teaching experience. To get into a PhD program you have to be an outstanding undergraduate, which means you need good high school grades. In other words, if for some reason you knew what a professor was at a young age, you could spend over a dozen years working towards that goal. And if you're the kind of person who can complete a PhD, you're the kind of person who is a combination of gifted and determined; you have surmounted any and all obstacles placed in your way.

Furthermore, the process of completing a PhD is a bit like a conveyor belt towards professordom. The part-time jobs that are easily available to graduate students are teaching and research; you have to take the initiative to find funding and partnerships with industries, businesses, governments and not-for-profits if you plan to pursue non-academic career options. Graduate schools have fallen into a pattern of behaviour that leads them to believe they are professional programs leading to tenure track positions, the way legal, medical and education schools lead to careers. But PhD programs aren't professional degrees, they are terminal degrees that might lead to tenure track jobs (for around 50% of graduates - imagine the outrage of lawyers or doctors if their placement rates dipped below even 75%). Being aware of non-tenure-track outcomes is not the same thing as promoting them nor is it the same as preparing students for them. This is where graduate programs need to improve drastically, but let me return to the question of why 'unsuccessful' PhDs are bitter.

Given that most PhDs have set a goal of becoming a professor, and most graduate programs train their PhD candidates in the art of professing, it is crushing, when you're as smart and hard-working as most PhDs, to learn that your career life goal has been denied before you reach the age of 35 (in most cases, excluding my own). And with the current veiled age-ism in most job postings, not having a tenure track job by the time you finish your post-doc is the end of any hope of ever getting one.

This is why many PhDs consider any outcome other than tenure track a failure. This is why we speak of 'abandoning the academic job market' or 'plan b.' Most of us, and I exclude myself, have set tenure track as a goal, and not reaching a goal - in the case of obtaining tenure track employment, through no fault of our own - is painful. Painful is probably an understatement; devastating might be more appropriate.

This is also why it isn't particularly helpful to remind PhDs that we should have known tenure track was only one of the possible outcomes of completing a PhD. And it's why it's not particularly helpful to tell PhDs that because we are so smart and determined, we shouldn't have any trouble converting our talents and experiences into something usefully productive and happy. Universities can't do anything about the feelings of disappointment when PhDs don't land tenure track appointments, but they can do a lot more proactively to support non-academic career options throughout graduate training (and maybe, possibly, not completely forget about us when we go off into the sunset).


  1. I told you I'd read it. :)

    I think that most of your conclusions wouldn't apply as much to the sciences as they do to the humanities. Science Ph.D.s can and, from my limited experience in these matters, do have options presented to them in other fields simply because science research is more easily applicable to the so-called "practical" pursuits. ...much more easily than something like medieval Islamic astrology, for example. :) Still, I do agree that there is a lack of any kind of preparation for a career other than academia. It's not a problem in and of itself so much as it's a social perception (to my view) that needs to change. That article you referenced states that only academic positions are tracked because those are the important ones, but why? Why is a professorship somehow better than a consulting firm, especially given the general social perception of professors being out of touch with the real world? It's an interesting dichotomy, I think.

  2. Jonathan, the funny thing is as I remember that panel on graduates who took non-academic paths, some of our fellow students took offense at it as if it was telling them "abandon hope" (I can't remember exactly what they said but that was the vibe I remember). So the non-academic job as failure mentality was in evidence.

    I have another perspective which is that compared to being an aspiring actor or poet being an aspiring academic is pretty good odds. Although I try to remain open to the possibilities.

    I definitely agree that a more open mindset and preparation for life post-doctorate would be a welcome change and would probably encourage people rather than discourage them.

    Allan Olley

  3. Teri. You're right that there are better existing partnerships for scientists and engineers, but I know from attending science policy conferences that it isn't enough. They want more support for entrepreneurship and more consistent rules to protect intellectual property; they also want more skills development so they can transition to policy-type careers. So slightly different manifestation of a similar problem.

    As for your dichotomy, you're right that there's also a social perception at play. Even if universities prepare us for the real world, we still have to overcome the perception that PhDs (especially professors) are out of touch. Which gets to the important question of whether we actually need a PhD to transition to these other career choices.

    Allan. I remember people being upset as well. It was a bit like pre-marriage preparation when they tell you that, statistically, half of you will get divorces; no one wants to believe it could be them.

    Interestingly, I had a series of comparisons in mind about the amount of time and preparation it takes to become a PhD (to artists, actors, writers, poets, athletes, etc.), but cut them in favour of keeping the post shorter. When I get around to posting about how my way of setting goals is a bit different, I may revisit that comparison.