Who Lands Tenure Track Jobs?

From 2014 through 2015, I worked on a project funded by the Chronicle of Higher Education to study who lands tenure track jobs.

The study looked at all tenure track jobs posted for 2013-2014 in North America at four year institutions in 11 academic disciplines:  Anthropology, Communications & Media Studies, Economics, Ecology, English Literature/Comp Rhet, History, Mathematics, Musicology, Psychology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies.

The findings from the data challenge much of the assumed “wisdom” about the academic job market in the humanities and social sciences.  Did you know that most jobs in the humanities and social sciences actually go to those who have had their degree in hand for 2 years or less? In fact, the largest cohort hired were ABDs – graduate students in their final year.

There’s a lot more in this webinar, much of it quite sobering.  But remember, I’m available to chat. I offer free thirty minute consultations.  Don’t hesitate to reach out.

Learn more about my coaching services to help PhDs leave academia and find non-faculty careers here.

– L. Maren Wood, PhD
Certified Career Coach
Founder of Lilli Research Group

PhDs that work

Prepared notes for presentation at Future of the Humanities PhD in Canada held at Carleton University, May 18th 2016.


This is a study of 2100 faculty working as tenure or tenure-track faculty in English and History departments at universities in Canada. It includes all faculty in tenure or tenure-track positions at 47 schools ranked by Macclean’s magazine and 12 unranked programs (i.e. Grant MacEwan and Mount Royal). The unranked programs are limited to hybrid institutions (associate and baccalaureate degrees) with history, English, or humanities departments. For an institution to be included, it had to offer a 4 year degree in English or History.

This is not a placement study, and it’s not even a placement study of all English and History PhDs working in tenure/tenure track positions, since some are employed in interdisciplinary departments such as Religious Studies or Women’s Studies. In addition, PhDs may be working as full-time, permanent faculty at community colleges, CEJEPS, or at universities abroad.

What this study does provide is an overview of the main market for PhDs entering the professoriate: four-year Canadian institutions.  My goal is not to shame programs by releasing these numbers, but to push institutions to reflect on their graduate programs. If your PhDs are not landing tenure track jobs in Canada, where are they finding employment? How long does it take them to enter new career pathways after graduation? Do these positions provide employment security or are they insecure positions?  How can your department/institution better assist alumni in entering non-faculty careers?  What types of graduate student assistantships would prepare them for these careers?  Are there particular ways to strengthen your program by focusing on a combined degree that prepares PhDs in the humanities for careers in government, non-profit or industry?

Defining the problem

For decades, universities have been graduating more PhDs than tenure-track openings. This chart showing jobs data from the American Historical Association and the number of new PhDs in history from the Survey of Earned Doctorate, maps the mismatch between academic jobs and new faculty in History.

In the annual jobs report, the AHA includes all jobs advertised – non-tenure track, post-docs, senior hires – as well as new assistant professorships. The jobs included positions at non-US institutions (including Canada), but the SED numbers are for new graduates from only American institutions.

Less than half of all the jobs are tenure/tenure track assistant professorships.

PhDs_that_work_blog_2But there have never been more North Americans attending four-year institutions.  These two charts show the increase in enrolment in four year institutions in Canada and the United States.


PhDs_that_work_blog_5Yet to meet this demand, institutions are increasingly relying on part-time faculty. We do not have any reliable information on the number of PhDs working in contingent faculty positions, part-time or full-time in Canada, which is something that should be remedied.   Faculty from Wilfrid Laurier estimated that about 50% of all classes at that institution were taught be people off the tenure-track, while the administration said only 34% of faculty were off the tenure track (both could be true). [1]

To understand the adjunctification of the professoriate in Canada, we need to track (at least) six things: (1) the percentage of faculty at each institution off the tenure track; (2) the number of classes taught at each institution by non-tenure-track faculty; (3) pay; (4) if past work experience as an adjunct helps or hinders job candidates applying for tenure-track position and careers beyond the professoriate; (5) the number of adjuncts who prefer contingent employment over full-time.

PhDs_that_work_blog_blog_7This chart shows the growth in the percentage of adjuncts working in two and four year institutions in the United States. Note that the overall number of faculty has increased (there are more tenure/tenure track faculty than in the 1970s) but their share of teaching faculty in institutions has declined.

[1] On the lack of national data, see http://academica.ca/blog/part-time-faculty-what-we-know-and-what-we-don’t. For the story on Wilfrid Laurier, see http://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/margin-notes/sifting-through-the-scant-data-on-contingent-faculty/.

Faculty by the Numbers

Tenure/Tenure Track English and History Faculty in Canada

English faculty breaks about even between men and women, whereas men dominate in history departments. I don’t have information about the breakdown of PhDs in Canada by discipline, and we’d need historic data to know if this was representative of cohorts that graduated in the past 30 years.  In the last Survey of Earned Doctorates conducted by Stats Can (2008/2009), they found that women accounted for less than half of PhDs in the humanities.

PhDs_that_work_blog_8One of the oft-repeated myths of the academic job market is that most of the jobs are at “teaching” institutions. This is simply not true. As you can see, only about a quarter of all English and History faculty work at primarily undergraduate institutions and most work at institutions ranked Comprehensive or Medical/ Doctoral.

The same is true in the United States: more faculty employed at four-year institutions work at Research/Doctoral institutions than at baccalaureate (Carnegie Classifications).

PhDs_that_work_blog_9Why the confusion? Well, more institutions are undergraduate (57% of four-year /hybrid institutions in Canada) but they employ far fewer faculty than research-focused institutions.canada_us_institutions
In some ways, the Comprehensive/ Medical/Doctoral isn’t a helpful categorization for thinking about English and History faculty; York University and the University of Toronto end up in different categories, yet they are the largest programs for producing History and English PhDs. I’ve broken out faculty by large programs (30+ faculty), midsize (16-29 faculty or “Under 30”) and small (under 15) The most common faculty experience is in a midsize program, with less than a quarter working at small undergraduate-focused institutions.PhDs_that_work_blog_10


Only 4 history faculty in my sample had MA’s, but because creative writing is often part of English Departments, we see that a MA/MFA is the highest degree earned for about 4% of English. A much higher share of English faculty earned their PhDs in Canada.   More history faculty than English earned their degrees in a European country other than the United Kingdom. Most of the “European” trained faculty studied in France and work at Francophone institutions in Quebec. This perhaps explains the small number of European trained faculty in English, because most Francophone schools don’t have English literature departments.phds_that_work_blog_14.jpgThis graph shows faculty by area of specialization and where they earned their PhD. As you can see, while 52% of history faculty earned their PhDs in Canada, most teach/research Canadian history.

This below graph shows the same data with the plots reversed.

PhDs_that_work_blog_14_aAlthough we find Canadian trained PhDs teaching in all fields in English, many are specialists in Canadian literature. Most creative writing faculty hold an MFA/MA, but we also see PhDs who studied in Canada teaching creative writing.   (Other includes Children, Digital Humanities, linguistics.)


PhDs_that_work_blog_12Our largest programs hire most of their faculty from institutions outside of Canada. As you can see, departments under 15 hire more Canadian trained PhDs as a share of faculty, but have fewer faculty over all. Our largest departments hire a majority of faculty who are trained from institutions outside of Canada.

Of the 136 faculty trained in Canada working in the largest departments, 73% are Canadian Specialists.

Of the 217 Faculty trained in Canada working in mid-sized departments, 62% are Canadian Specialists.

In our smallest departments, of the faculty trained in Canada, 74% are Canadian Specialists.


Even though English has a larger share of faculty trained in Canada than history, the largest schools (McGill, York, Toronto, UBC, etc.) hire a majority of their faculty from outside of Canada (Only about 45% are trained in Canada).

The mid-sized programs, about 60% of faculty are trained in Canada, and at the smallest programs, 77% are trained in Canada. So, for Canadian trained English Lit PhDs, it is more likely that you’ll end up in midsized or small program than at the larger programs.PhDs_that_work_slides_17_bHere are the top 10 programs where faculty earned their degree (sum total). In both English and History, the University of Toronto dominates.

PhDs_that_work_slides_18This is a sum total of tenure/tenure track faculty in history departments who earned their PhDs at Canadian institutions. 14% of History Faculty earned their PhDs at the University of Toronto. If we look at the University of Toronto alumni as a share of Canadian trained faculty, that number jumps to 26%.

PhDs_that_work_slides_19It’s a similar situation in English: 16% of all faculty come from the University of Toronto and 28% of all Canadian trained faculty earned their PhD from the University of Toronto.

In a in a recent study I completed for the Chronicle of Higher Education, I looked at who landed 2500 tenure track jobs in North America in 11 academic disciplines (more info in a later slide). Only 51 of the 2500 jobs (or 2%) went to Canadian trained PhDs. Of 51, 18 took up positions in Canada.

So, at least, in this job market, there are not that many PhDs in the humanities being picked up by American institutions in any large number.


For this graph, I looked up each of the 2100 faculty in my sample in Worldcat to find the year they earned their PhD.   Each dot represents a cohort.  For example, 50 faculty in English earned their PHDs in 2000.

Nearly 40% of English faculty earned their PhDs between 1996-2005.  If we include 1991-1995, then it’s about 53%. But only 6% earned their PhD before 1980, and 7% earned their PhD between 1981-1985. In History, 42% earning their PhD between 1991-2005 and nearly 60% of history faculty earned their PhD between 1991-2005.

This means we’ll have a very slow trickle of tenure lines opening up in English and History over the next ten or so years.  Only when that bubble of faculty who graduated in the mid 1990s through the early 2000s retires will the academic job market open back up. (If those tenure lines are replaced and not slashed).  This mirrors what is happening in the United States. (Rob Townsend)

One thing I noticed as I was collecting data was how few Assistant Professors there were in most departments. This chart shows that in history and English, 54 PhDs from the last 5 cohorts are working as assistant professors in Canada. If you look at Canadian trained PhDs, that number shrinks to 27. In history, this is on track – about half the current faculty are trained in Canada. In English, this below the current number of 58%.


But Maren! You say. Give people time.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education study I completed earlier this year, we found that the single largest cohort of new hires in the humanities were ABDs (all but dissertation) and that the numbers drop dramatically after that year. In English, 50% of new hires were ABD or had their degree in hand for 1 year; in Comp/Rhet that number was 75%. With only a few exceptions, the ABDs graduated prior to taking up their posts.

PhDs_that_work_slides_24It was similar in History, with 53% of jobs going to ABDs or year 1 with degree in hand. Most of the hires after year 3 were assistant professors making lateral moves.


While ABDs represent the largest single cohort of new hires, they are not the majority of new hires. Most people were working in a previous position (usually 1-3 years out for humanities, 3-5 years out for STEM).

I aggregated titles, since they can very across institutions. :18% of hires were going to Assistant professors making lateral moves. To be counted as an “adjunct” the hire had to use that or a similar title that signified a semester-to-semester contract on their c.v. Term Limited Assistant professors, lecturers, instructors, were categorized on VAPs.

The other question people ask me is: how likely is it how often will a VAP or Post-Doctoral position lead to a full-time job at that institution? The answer: rarely. Only 87 people were hired into a tenure track position at the institution where they were in a limited term or post doctoral position.

So, where do PhDs go when they don’t land tenure track jobs?  Soon, we’ll have complete TRaCE data, which will be amazing!  Until then, we’ll have to look south of the boarder because, again, Canada lags far behind our southern neighbour on collecting, publicizing, and studying trends in higher education.

In 2013, I worked on a study for the American Historical Association tracking career pathways of 2500 history PhDs from American institutions who graduated between 1998 and 2009. Remember, these were “the good years” on the academic job market, so it is unlikely that current cohorts will see a similar 50% placement rate in tenure track positions.


From the same study, this is where 25% working beyond the professoriate found employment. Students often find this chart frustrating, since it shows a very fragmented cohort working in a variety of industries. But what this reflects is how the non-academic job market operates: people are finding employment using their own network, finding opportunities within communities they live in, reflective of their own personal industries, knowledge, and skill set.


People Stopped Going to Grad School

Over the past two weeks, in between on campus visits and workshops, I’ve continued my research on the history of the academic job market crisis.   One of the many interesting things I’ve learned is that, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, several universities offered summer programs to train PhDs in the humanities and social sciences for careers in business.

The first such program, called “Careers in Business” was created by historian Ernest May in 1978.  The program was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the New York State Education Department.   The goal was to provide PhDs in the humanities with a crash course in business to make them attractive employees to for-profit businesses.  Tuition for the program $1,200 (around $4000 today), and it was selective: only 50 of the 500 people who applied were accepted.

The PhDs attending the program studied a variety of topics aimed at preparing them for careers in industry.   At the end of the program, companies were invited to campus to conduct interviews.  And, the program worked.   In the first year, about 35 went on to careers in industry, while others remained in higher education.

The NEH grant lasted two years, but the program was such a success that Stern School of Business decided to keep it running.  Other schools started similar programs, including the University of Virginia and The University of Texas at Austin.

Then, around the mid 1980s, these programs all closed.  According to the New York Times, the NYU “Careers in Business” closed in 1987 because there was a drop in the number and “quality” of applicants. There was also talk in the academy of a looming shortage of professors. (I know. I almost snorted my coffee reading that). Here’s Edward Lewis, President of St. Mary’s College, Maryland:

 “The most obvious problem in academia is the shortage of professors. It will be across the board in two or three years, and before the year 2000 almost half of the current professors will retire … I think young people considering careers should think about getting a Ph.D. It will be a very attractive sellers’ market for them. “

With the benefit of hindsight, we know the (long-term) shortage of professors never materialized.  Instead of hiring tenure track faculty, universities turned to cheap part-time adjuncts. But, the closure of the programs due to a declining number of applicants made me wonder:  Why, after investing so much time and energy into building these programs, did universities shutter them? They all closed around the same time – the mid 1980s.

Well, it seems one very short and simplistic answer is that people just stopped going to graduate school.  There would have been fewer applicants by the mid 1980s because  the number of new PhDs had  declined.

Here are charts showing how many people earned PhDS in History and English.  The data comes from the Survey of Earned Doctorates.



I wondered how this dramatic drop in PhDs lined up with jobs.  Well, check out this graph (reprinted below) put together by Rob Townsend when he was at the American Historical Association.  It maps the dramatic drop in PhDs in history with “jobs” listed with the AHA. (Source)


For simplicity sake, Rob has counted all jobs published in the AHA jobs database for a given year – so these numbers include tenure track, one year, post-docs, and senior hires.  Nevertheless, what it shows is an evening-out between the number of people graduating  and positions in the academy in the mid-1980s, followed by a very, very short-lived moment when “jobs” outpaced new PhDs (maybe 4 years?)

So, there was a very, very, brief window when “jobs” surpassed the number of new PhDs, right around the time  when “Careers in Business” ended.   Yes, in part because there were more jobs, but largely because the number of PhDs graduating dramatically declined.

This is exactly what universities are hoping to prevent during our current incarnation of the job market crisis, and why so many are promoting careers beyond the professoriate.   Will it work? Or, will people, once again, just stop going to graduate school?  If a bright 22 year old with a BA is thinking about a career in policy or advocacy work (or any of the other post-ac careers we champion),  there are other more direct routes into these careers than a PhD in the humanities.  And, these other career paths will allow her to gain relevant work experience, become professionalized, earn money, and experience career advancement.  This is not to say she can’t use a PhD in the humanities to enter the world of policy work, I’m just wondering if she will (or should) choose that path.

More to the point:  Is the current support by universities and departments for altac/post-ac careers reflective of a changing culture within academia, or just seen as temporary until “things improve,” however unlikely that might be.

For those who are in graduate school or recently graduated, there are (again!) programs to help you transition to a new career, including Beyond the Professoriate, a two day online conference I co-host with Jennifer Polk.  If you’re interested in what else you can do with your PhD, and how to find a nonfaculty career, join us May 7th & 14th.  It’s online, so you can attend from the comfort of your couch.

Academic Job Market Crisis: 1970 – ?

Today, I’ve been reading through Washington Post articles on the academic job market crisis, starting in the 1970s.   Yup, the job market crisis has been going on for longer than I’ve been alive.   As an historian, I’m interested in understanding the backstory on the current job market crisis.  I want to know what was said and written as the job crisis unfolded in the 1970s.  I want to know how individual people responded and adapted to the economic realities of “no jobs.”  I’m curious to know how professional organizations and universities respond.  What about faculty?  But more than anything, I want to know why, in 2016, we’re re-inventing the wheel.   Or are we hampsters running on the wheel?  There’s a wheel/stagnation/failure-to-move-forward metaphor that needs to be deployed here.

Today isn’t my first dive into the archives.  But every time I spend an afternoon researching the history of the job market crisis, I’m both fascinated and perplexed.  We’re still having the same conversations.  We’re trying the same solutions to the “problem” of too many PhDs, not enough tenure track jobs.

I’ve got lots of questions swirling in my head, but the primary one is: why didn’t the reforms of the late 1970s/early 1980s take root?  There were altac/postac career panels at the AHA and MLA annual meetings.   Elite universities offered summer programs to retrain PhDs for non-academic careers, and graduate deans celebrated the transferability of skills and knowledge of humanist PhDs.   There are stories of poverty and hardship, of people working as part-time faculty for crap wages and no job security.  There is talk of unionizing. In one of the articles I read today, a Columbia PhD in literature decided to become a welder.

So. What happened?

Well,  as I write this, I’m looking at a chart on the job market for History that Rob Townsend put together from his own research, and he was kind enough to share with me. The chart shows we’ve seen periods of gradual increase in jobs, followed by devastating “busts.”

So, maybe the uptick in jobs that occurred in the late 1980s  was enough to erase the 15 years of academic job market trauma.  But, that “rebound” lasted only about 5 years and then there was the”downturn” in the early 1990s followed by a gradual “recovery” in the early 2000s, followed by the “bust”of 2009  and the steady decline in jobs to the present.

But, even if there were relatively “more jobs,” there couldn’t be enough tenure track jobs for everyone that wanted one, could there?  I’ve yet to meet an academic who said  “oh, when I finished my PhD, I had a pick of jobs” (probably because I don’t know anyone who got their PhD in the 1950s).  In fact, even friends and colleagues who graduated during the period of “more jobs” talk about a tight market and how lucky they were to get jobs.

So, here’s some highlights from today’s research.  It’s pretty obvious why I’ve chosen these quotes.

If you’re one of the people who came through the job market of the 1970s, I’d love to talk with you.  And, if you kept in touch with friends who found non-faculty careers, I would love to chat with them, too.

Or, if you want to direct me to resources/archives that could be useful to me as I begin researching and writing on this topic, that would be most welcomed.  I’m @lilligroup on twitter or you can email me at marenwood [at] lilligroup. com

Here’s a quote from an article discussing the plight of job seekers at the 82rd American Historical Association annual meeting in 1974.

“Historians Face Bleak Job Field,” Washington Post,  31 December 1974, pg A2

The convention had concluded several hours before, but Dr. Bruno Schlesinger, of tiny St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind., still had a line of Ivy League-educated historians waiting to see him today.

Schlesinger wasn’t giving away gold, but to the troubled academics he had something as valuable  – a job … Schlesinger had one of 100 available jobs for some 800 unemployed persons who were seeking work here.”

A seminar on “alternative employment” offered standing room only.  Academics heard about possible jobs in such areas as retailing.

“We’re still turning out 1,000 PhDs a year and there are only about 100 job openings a year,” said Esteen Hardee a job adviser with the AHA.

And from the 1976 AHA meeting:

“History PhDs Hit by Job Shortage: Academics at Convention Here Besiege Employment Center,” Washington Post, 30 December 1976.

Last year the number of new doctorates in history exceeded the number of available junior faculty jobs by more than 4 to 1.  With the backlog of historians who haven’t gotten jobs, the Historical Association estimates that only about one-sixth of the history PhDs in the country have the teaching and research jobs that they are trained for.

Among those who do have jobs, an increasing number are academic vagabonds, travelling around the country with one-or two-year appointments, teaching part time or without hope of tenure.

“It’s a horrible way to live,” said one professor in his early 30s who said he has had four different jobs in the past sic years. “I keep taking them because I keep hoping and I want to stay in there.  But I don’t know who long I can go on.”

Here’s an article from 1975 about the job market crisis:

“Job Drop Pinches Educators: Decline in Enrollments Jeopardizes Teaching Careers,” Washington Post, 12 Jan 1975, pg 4.

Fulbright Scholar and Ph.D in English from Columbia who always ranked near the top of his class, Fred Whitehead, 30, is in school again – learning to be a welder in Lawrence, Kan. …

For Whitehead and other unemployed faculty members, there is little relief in sight. “We’re just approaching the crisis point,” said Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California, now chairman of the Carnegie Council on Higher Education. “We should have seen it coming in the 1960s,” said Kerr, who believes even an economic upturn cannot prevent the crisis in college faculty employment from extending “well into the 1980s.”

Here’s an article from on the job crisis in English/Foreign Languages from 1978 MLA convention.

“92 Degrees in the Charade: The PhD Job Hunt is a Losing Game,” Washington Post, 30 December 1978.

Here before your very eyes, a celebrated chronic condition springs to life: the PhD job gap.  For years, American’s universities have been spewing them out, then refusing to take them back in.  PhDs gotta teach. Teaching jobs are scarce.  So the doctor is out. Here at the Modern Languish [sic] Association you can see them twisting in the wind, no longer mere abstract statistics. … Many of them were reading the walls, which is just one step removed from climbing them.  There were jobs on the walls.  The wall said for instance that the University of Manitoba is seeking teachers of Ukrainian language and literature …

[One PhD student] was … peeved at the MLA.  He said that he had to borrow the $600 to come here from California to look for a job in his chosen field and this was annoying.  So was the non-member registration fee.  “It’s a racket for the MLA,” he said.  “Everybody who comes here begging for a job pays $40 and staying in one of these hotels costs $30 a day.”

For the first time, the association invited to its convention hirers who are not academic – people from business, publishing and journalism. “We have to assume that supply and demand will catch up,” said [Roy] Chustek [Coordinator of MLA’s Job Information Service], “and people will wise up and drop out.”

And here’s an article from 1982 describing programs at several elite institutions to train PhDs for non-academic employment.

The Retrofitting of the PhD: Growing Number from Academia are Retraining for New Careers,” Washington Post, 19 July 1982, pg B1

Calvin Hoy, 31, who holds a Columbia University doctorate and supports himself by working in a liquor store, is joining dozens of other PhDs across the country in returning to school – this time to be retrained for a job in business or government … This summer, Hoy and 41 other PhDs are spending six weeks and about $1,700 at the University of Virginia attending a crash program to learn something about business and their own marketable skills.  They are also making contacts they hope will lead to good nonacademic jobs.

“There’s only a PhD glut if you think all you can do with these degrees is teaching and research in universities,” said Clinton W. Kersey Jr,. coordinator of the U-VA. institute. “Business and government tell us they need people who are good analytical thinkings, good organizers, writers, and researchers.  These are the very skills that PhDs have … and they’re readily transferable.”

While there are no complete figures on what jobs they get, the Modern Language Association reports that in English and foreign languages, the fields it covers, just 40% of recent doctorates have found full-time college teaching jobs that could lead to tenure.  An additional 20 percent received temporary jobs, while the remainder taught part-time or left academia, the MLA said.

To Dexter Whitehead, dean of the graduate school of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, PhDs working outside their fields show that “the humanities and social sciences have a great deal to contribute to society.”  By helping more of them get good jobs, Whitehead said, the career change programs raise the value of the advanced degrees themselves. He said the programs also promise to strengthen graduate studies at a time when fewer top-quality students are enrolling.

“Maybe some people can afford the avocation of a degree in the humanities.  But really most [PhD] programs don’t prepare anybody to be anything except clones of the professor … Anyone who says the PhD is a good way to prepare for the business world is self-serving or dishonest or simply wants cannon fodder for his own graduate courses.” [– Lewis Solomon, an education professor a UCLA. He directed a five-year study of the job market for PhDs.]

Post-Ac Job Search Q & A

Have a question about the job search process? It can be something specific to your situation, or a more general question.  Submit your question to info at lilligroup . com or use the form below.  We’ll answer it in our weekly blog post (published on Wednesday).  And, if we don’t know the answer ourselves, we’ll consult with our colleagues, many of whom have presented information at the Beyond the Professoriate conference.

All questions, names, and identifying information will be anonymized.

Week 1

Q: I recently had a job interview (I didn’t get the job) and the hiring manager asked me, “what’s to stop you from just going off if Harvard or Yale called.” I wanted to laugh in his face, and I didn’t really know how to handle that question. If I get that question again, how should I answer?

A: Aah, yes. Most people have no idea how the academic job market works, and they certainly don’t understand how few real opportunities there are in the academy. The default response is, “Well, they’re not calling me, ever” but that doesn’t really answer the concern underlying the interviewer’s question – what’s to stop you from leaving this position in a few months when something better comes along? They are worried you’re over qualified. They are worried you’re not serious about this new career because you have spent 10+ years in an academic career. If you understand the concern, then you can think of a stronger answer.

Even if leaving the academy was plan B, you need to make the employer feel like this new career is your first choice. Say something like, “I’ve been working as an academic for x number of years and I have decided it is not the career path for me. I enjoy researching, and so much of academic work is actually teaching and sitting on committees. That’s why I’m so excited about this policy analyst position.” Or, “I enjoy the Bay area, and I’m interested in staying here and putting my skills to use in this community. I’m not interested in moving across the country and would not be interested in that type of position.” However you spin it, make them understand that you are very interested in working at their organization, and you’ve tried academia but it is no longer for you.

Q: What do you say when people tell your education makes you overqualified for a position? It seems that I’m overqualified and yet I don’t have enough work experience. It’s driving me crazy!

A: The conundrum both over and under qualified at the same time! Like I mentioned above, you need to think about the underlying motivation behind this question: they are worried you’ll leave or you’ll be bored. The best way to handle this is to admit the truth, but do so in a positive way. “Yes, I do have a lot of education, and I think it shows that I’m able to learn and I’d be able to learn what I needed to be successful in this position. But, I also lack a linear work history, and that’s what I’m hoping to begin building with this position.” You can also add “as I gain more experience, perhaps there will be other opportunities for me to build and grow within your organization.” This last sentence is a bit of a risk – it may sound like you’re gunning for a more senior position, and if it’s a small company, the person hiring you may have to die before you can move up. This last line is probably better used within a larger organization.

Q: I keep getting interviews, but I don’t get hired. The feedback I’m getting is that I don’t have enough work experience. But how can I get experience if nobody will hire me?

A: Well, the good news is, if you’re getting interviews, then your professional documents are in order and you’re getting noticed. You’ll just need to be more creative about getting work experience. Volunteering is a great way to get relevant experience. You need to be careful, though, that what you’re doing is building your career. If you want to be a policy analyst, volunteer with a political campaign, but make sure you’re not answering phones. Make sure you’re actually writing briefs. I know, this doesn’t solve the money problem, but it’s good for networking and it’s good for gaining relevant experience. Remember, on your resume, you can list unpaid positions along with paid.

Another idea is, as you’re networking, ask people about contract work and temporary positions. While the goal is, of course, to land full time work, it’s much less risky for an employer to bring you on in a temporary position. They can see your work ethic, if you’re a good fit for the company, and perhaps hire you on full time at a later date. And, if it only ends up being a contract position, then you’ve gained valuable work experience, contacts, and references, which can help you get a full time job.

Thanks for your questions this week.  Have a question about your job search? Ask us using the form below!

What Informational Interviews Can Do for You

Ph.D.’s in the early stages of a career transition out of academe express frustration at how difficult it can be to find a nonacademic job. They don’t know what else they can do that will be interesting or where to look for job ads. They spend hours crafting résumés and job letters, send them out, and then never hear anything back. “What am I doing wrong?,” they ask.

My advice: Begin your career transition by setting up informational interviews. For most Ph.D.’s, that is news to them. What is an informational interview? It is pretty much what it sounds like: an opportunity for you, the job seeker, to learn about someone else’s job, organization, or company. It is not—and this is critical—an opportunity for you to ask for a job.

Informational interviews will introduce you, as a Ph.D. job seeker, to career paths you’ve never considered. As people who have been inside academe for upwards of a decade, we often have a limited understanding of the work force. Many of us chose academe because it promised an escape from the perceived dullness of the business world. As such, we have pretty limited imaginations when it comes to nonacademic careers.

Through these interviews, you will build a network of people who can help you land your first job. Most employers prefer to hire people they know or those who were referred by a trusted source. Networking will connect you to people who can recommend you for opportunities. Your new contacts can also give good advice on how to enter your new field: What experience should you acquire while you’re searching for a job? How can you tweak your résumé?

Ph.D.’s are simultaneously overqualified and underexperienced, and, on paper, may not look like a good fit for an entry-level or midlevel position. But when you meet, face to face, with people in an informational interview, you can showcase your talent and highlight your abilities. It may take 20 interviews, but you’ll eventually talk to someone who knows of an opportunity and can put in a good word.

How do you set up informational interviews? One key way is through alumni networks. Your Ph.D. department may not keep accurate lists of alumni (or share that information with students), but you can find them yourself. I obtained a list of recent Ph.D.’s in my department through an alumni database and tracked people through LinkedIn and company Web sites.

Conduct research on organizations and companies in your area, and contact people who work there. In seeking an informational interview, make sure you phrase your e-mail as an opportunity for you to learn, and not as a request for employment. Informational interviews are common, and most people will agree to meet with you.

You are probably already connected to people who can help you. Write a short e-mail that describes your education and background, and the type of work or opportunities you wish to explore, and send it to everyone you know. Someone will know someone who works somewhere who will agree to speak with you.

Within a few months, you will build a network, narrow your job search to a specific industry or field, and (with luck) land a starting position. So save yourself the frustration of applying for jobs online and start speaking directly to people. That is how you’ll get your foot in the door.

Deciding to leave academia when it was your dream profession

Walking Away 

There are many blog posts written by people who decided to leave academia.  With the tight academic job market and the broken and exploitative adjunct system, there are many more people like me leaving higher education.  We leave because we can’t find a job.  We give up on our dream for a variety of reasons.  Some of us leave because we can not afford — financially or for personal reasons – to fight on for our academic careers.  We have student loan debt, children, or partners that limit our ability to take crappy, low paying, temporary jobs.

To those who fall into this category, I say – it is not you, the system is broken.  You did not fail.  The system is designed and stacked against you.  Hiring for tenure track jobs is random and landing one requires a lot of luck.  Sure, many people with tenure track jobs assume you couldn’t hack it, that you wouldn’t suffer for your art.  That may be true, but suffering is overrated, and there are too many people filling professorships who gave up everything to be there.  Do you really want to join their ranks?

But I am no longer employed as an academic historian. I no longer work on my dissertation to turn it into a book.  I’ve walked away after 3 years of job searching because the writing was on the wall.  I spent several months depressed, drinking too much cheap red wine and watching Downton Abbey in the afternoon.  I will not be another adjunct. I say no to my own exploitation.  I will not give away my excellent teaching abilities to a school at a discount.  I am doing other things and finding success in other ways and, one day, I hope that this new path will provide me as much satisfaction as looking at a room full of undergraduate students.

How do you know when enough is enough?  How do you decide to walk away from your dream job, the only career you ever really wanted?

Here are some things to consider in making that decision. I have researched career paths of 3,200 history PhDs.  It is this information, combined with my own experience and the experience of my friends, that informs this post.

1.  The first step is to evaluate the likelihood that you will ever land a tenure track position.  What year are you in?  The weeding out process begins early on in the job market search.  People who start out in decent jobs or win prestigious post-docs upon graduation tend to continue on to better positions.   I see people all of the time in my research who held a multi year non-tenure track teaching position and did not end up in a tenure track job.  Some of these people continue to adjunct, while others have moved into administration.  But these multiyear postdoctoral positions are not necessarily a gateway to a tenure track job.  In todays academic job market, less than 40% of humanities PhDs end up in tenure track jobs, and it is even more dismal for the sciences.

If you are an adjunct and you’ve been in temporary positions, it is time to consider your options.  You probably won’t get a tenure track job at this point.   If you do, it will probably not pay well or be at a very respectable school.   Is this fair?  No.  But it is what it is.  If you’ve been in temporary positions for more than 3 years, it is time to walk away.

2.  Consider your financial situation.  Can you afford to adjunct or work for $30-40,000 a year?  Most people can’t and nobody can for very long.  People who earned PhDs expect to be middle class.  They have middle-class tastes and expenses.  You will never have the middle-class lifestyle you hoped to have on an adjunct salary, and you probably won’t have it with many starting professor salaries.  Starting salaries for professorships in the humanities are the 40s and low 50s.  Right now, there are pay freezes and wage rollbacks, not wage increases.  Many faculty salaries are not keeping pace with the rate of inflation.

What are your financial obligations?  What are your financial goals?  Who relies on you to make a living?  Who else is contributing to the running of the household?  In my own situation, my partner is able to pay the bills, but I did not get a PhD to be dependent on my husband.  If that was going to be my lot in life, I would have stayed in Southern Alberta.  I got a PhD to make a living, be financially independent, live in a nice house, drive a reliable car, drink decent wine, eat fresh organic food, and travel.  I did not get a PhD to be dependent, worry about my finances, rent crappy apartments, drive shitty cars, and make $25 an hour.  (Do the math: $50,000/50 weeks/40 hours = $25/hr. )  And I have student loans, so I can’t afford to work for low wages anyway.  I’ll never get ahead.

There are other things I can do that will allow me to live the life I want to live and make the money I need to afford a middle-class lifestyle.  Yes, I love teaching.  But there is also something to be said for paying my bills, planning my future, being an equal financial partner within my relationship, and having economic stability.  No, money does not buy happiness.  But not having enough money isn’t the pathway to happiness either. In fact, more stress and anxiety and unhappiness comes from not having money.  Don’t underestimate the importance of making a decent income.

3. People don’t move. Yes, your PhD advisor did, but your PhD advisor is at an R1 school and is super fortunate.  Your PhD advisor also lives in a pre-2008 economic recession world.  You don’t.  I’ve done the research on this.  When I track someone’s current career outcome, I generally can see their career path.  Most people are teaching at 3rd and 4th teir schools in parts of the country you’ve never heard.  That is where most of the jobs are, and most of the students.  And these people do not have the publishing record needed to land more advanced positions.  Moreover, people also end up with partners and children attached to the towns they are in, which makes relocating that much more difficult.  Some people advance through administration, and that is always an option. People also have trauma over the academic job market and do not want to go back for more psychological warfare. Who can blame them.

In my research, I see that most people’s first tenure track job is the job they are still in 5-10-15 years after graduation.  If it is this hard to get your first job, why do you think you’ll get a better one?   If your PhD advisor told you to take the job, even though it was not anything near the type of job you thought you’d get with your PhD, and now you are miserable, quit and do something else with your life.  If you are unhappy with your current tenure track job and you’ve been back on the job market, but you haven’t been successful, move on with your life.   The idea that people move is a lie perpetuated by the system.

4.  There are other things you can do and be.  There are hundreds of blogs written by people who made the transition.  There are other people out there like you who did not land the job, were depressed and devastated and sad and broken, but they picked themselves up and moved on.  Read these stories, then begin your new job search.  Talk to people who left the academy.   In following weeks, I will post blogs helping you begin your transition.

5.  Seek out professional counselling and mental health services.  It’s o.k. to be depressed.  You may even need counselling to help you deal with the death of your dream.  Mourn your loss, but don’t dwell here.

Hiring a career coach can also be an excellent idea.  There are thousands of people ever day who being the process of changing careers, and there are experts who can help you.  Yes, it will cost you some money, but it will be worth the investment.  Think of all you’ve invested thus far in your PhD; why not invest a little more to learn how to effectively use that degree?

6. We are not the first generation to suffer enormous personal disappointment.  Many of us are children of baby boomers who were raised to believe in a system of meritocracy.  Our parents’ world is not our world.   In many ways, we have more in common with our grandparents’ and great grandparents’ generations.

Last summer as I began my own transition, I went home to Southern Alberta.  On my grandfather’s wall is pictures of his parents, Ida and Harold Wood.  Looking at these photos helped me realize the truth that many generations, like ours, have their fates dramatically changed by circumstances beyond their control.

Harold and Ida were immigrants who moved from Utah to Southern Alberta at the turn of the 20th century.  He was a butcher and then a sheep rancher.  He leased a section of land in Southern Alberta, about 1.5 hours from the Canada-US border and 1.5 hours from the Rocky Mountains.  There isn’t a tree to be seen on the land. There was nothing there when the family lived there in the 1920s, and there still isn’t anything there.

The family lived in a run-down shack by a creek, until one winter all of Harold’s sheep froze to death, and that was that.  Harold’s sheep ranching days were over.  Plus, my great grandmother Ida had always hated living in the middle of nowhere.  Her sons were growing up wild.  Her nearest neighbor was several miles away.  She lost one son to scarlet fever when he was sent away to finish high school.  She wanted her children to have an education and to live in or near town.  Ida and Harold moved the family to a section of land near Taber where they built the basement and foundation of their small farm house.   Then they ran out of money and the Great Depression hit.   For the next 20 years, they raised their family of 8 in the basement of a would-be farm house.  They even held a two-sitting wedding reception for one of their eldest children in the basement of that house.  Finally, after World War 2, Harold and Ida had enough money to finish their house.

I’m not sure what Harold and Ida’s dreams were.  I never met Harold and Ida died when I was 8.  But I can’t imagine that this was the life they dreamed for themselves.  Maybe it was.  They owned land, after all, which was  a step up from sheep ranching.  But this small success – owning a couple hundred acres – came with enormous sacrifice and their lives were marked with personal defeats, set-backs, and disappointments.   These people survived the Great Depression, sent 4 sons to war, lost a child,  all while living in a basement.   They probably didn’t waste time wondering what to do with their lives, if they were happy, or if this was their “dream” life.  They didn’t have that luxury.

In fact, feeling disappointed that our dreams did not work out is a luxury most people don’t have.  It is middle-class privilege to have a dream profession to begin with.  You are lucky that you get to dream, that you have options, and that you can make decisions.

I think of Ida and Harold.  These hardworking, honest, people, who accepted their circumstances and worked hard their whole lives, but suffered enormous personal disappointments.  When I look at the below photograph of the sheep ranch were Ida and Harold lived, it puts my own disappointments into perspective.  And it helps me see my own achievement.   No, I didn’t get to be a history professor like I always imagined, but I had the luxury of having this dream.  I am the descendant of a sheep rancher and farmer.  Through the benefit of a good public education system in Canada, I was able to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a top 10 program in my field, and earn a PhD.  I will make my living with my mind, knowledge, and intellect.  I will live a middle-class lifestyle.  I have traveled. I live in a major US city.  I am already successful.

And so are you.

Accept the realities of your circumstances.  Accept the disappointment.  Accept that we are not the first generation to suffer great personal disappointment.  And know that what you have already achieved is an enormous success.

Now go search for new adventures, for new opportunities, and continue to be your fabulous, successful self.

Ida and Herald Wood's sheep ranch in Southern Alberta
Ida and Harold Wood’s sheep ranch in Southern Alberta