By Laura Harrison |

Last month PhD student Charlotte Lauder wrote a vulnerable and powerful post for the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities blog. ‘Accepting You’re Ordinary and Saying Goodbye to an Academic Career’ is about her coming to grips with the fact that having an academic career may not be a possibility given the current job market. It was clear from the Twitter responses that this post resonated with a lot of people, myself included. I have the benefit of being a few years further in this journey than Charlotte, so I wanted to underline her ultimate point that having a career outwith academia is by no means a failure or a waste of your PhD. I feel like this statement should be obvious but I don’t think it is, and it certainly isn’t the message a lot of us are given while undertaking a doctorate, especially in the humanities.

I did a PhD because I love teaching. I trained as a teacher in Canada but I realised I wanted to teach at a university level. I did not have realistic expectations for just how difficult that process would be but in the beginning I felt pretty open to other career paths. However during the course of the doctorate I very much drank the kool-aid and by the end I felt it was an academic career or bust. This was aggravated by the fact I did a self-funded PhD as an international student, so I went into a hell of a lot of debt to get that Dr before my name. It felt like all of that debt would be for naught if I did not get the holy grail academic career.

I got a six-month postdoc right after finishing, which felt like an actual miracle. But after that none of my applications for jobs or funding schemes went anywhere. There were a few close calls, which were heartbreaking, but as my postdoc was ending I knew the repayment period on my loans was starting and I needed to make money somehow. I ended up getting a job that had absolutely nothing to do with a PhD except that it required really good project management skills. In the meantime I spent a lot of my free time applying for things and writing my book proposal. To be perfectly honest, I felt embarrassed that I’d taken a job so far outside academia and like I was somehow above the job but I also knew I needed it. It was a tough but very necessary hit on my ego. 

Here is the happy plot twist: I absolutely loved that job. I loved working in an office, and collaborating with other humans on a common project. I loved feeling like what I was doing was making a difference. I loved that my job was over at five and my weekends were totally free. I did not love spending that free time trying to make an academic career happen. A few months in I looked around and realised that an academic career wasn’t naturally going to give me those things. So I broadened my job search – something outside academia but ideally that still was related to Scottish History.

A few months later, in March of this year, I started my current job at a heritage organisation in Scotland. This was incredibly lucky, as job hunting inevitably has an element of luck to it, but I’m really proud of having gotten the job. It was competitive and I had to prove why my PhD experience would be useful. I don’t know what will come of this – given the current economic situation I think it’s natural to feel a little unstable – but currently I certainly don’t see my situation as some sort of runner-up career.

I wanted to write this post in case there is anyone else out there feeling like a failure if you can’t get or don’t want a career in academia. I also wanted to offer some advice for how to move past the feelings of failure.

  1. Figure out what other options there are that you feel good about. Talk to your supervisor about what their former students are doing. Follow people on Twitter and search on LinkedIn. When the only people you are interacting with are academics or are aiming to be so, it can be really hard to see the other options available. As Sir Ken Robinson said in the most-watched TED talk of all time, ‘…the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn’t it? … And I like university professors, but, you know, we shouldn’t hold them up as the high-water mark of all human achievement.’ 
  2. Think about what you want out of a career. I realised that I didn’t need to be an academic star to be fulfilled in my work. And I wasn’t willing to give up loads of my free time to do so. So I started to think about what skills I gained during the PhD that I could base a career around. If I hadn’t gotten my current job I was going to be focusing on roles in project management, which is something that really interested me. 
  3. Consider what else the PhD has given you. I used to often think about the negatives the PhD brought me: debt, an addiction to caffeine, a stress-related skin condition that made my hair fall out, etc. But I’ve found it helpful to consider what the PhD has given me instead. I wouldn’t be with my fiance if not for it. I wouldn’t receive post addressed to Dr Laura Harrison (which still hasn’t gotten old). I wouldn’t be living in a city and country that I love, with some truly excellent friends. And I would have always wondered whether I could have done it. 

I think the ultimate point of Charlotte’s post is really important – accepting that a career in academia may not work out for you. But I hope that if that happens you don’t see that as a failure.

Dr Laura Harrison is the founder and former chair of Pubs & Pubs. You can find her on Twitter

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