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Non-Academic Careers: The Mouse in the Room


I went to a panel the other day that gave advice on how to prepare/promote yourself for a career in academia. I was a little surprised to see that so many grad students I knew went to it – but then, maybe they went for the same reason I did (workshop credit and free pizza)?

OK, I’m not a representative sample of the grad student population. I don’t particularly want to be a professor. I can imagine taking a teaching-heavy position at a small, undergraduate institution (like Rose-Hulman! Surprise!), but the fractional time commitment (that is, as a fraction of my life) is still large enough to turn my stomach. I’m young! I’m hip! I want to get out into the world and get my hands dirty making changes, not spend the next five to ten years pulling my hair out in postdoc after postdoc, only to sweat under the looming possibility of never getting a full-time position and eventually coming to the realization that I wasted all those years and all that hair. Blegh. (Note, with relevance to Julia’s recent post, that I don’t suffer from the confidence that many future-faculty-types have.)

All that struggle, for what? Because the faculty that have come to dominate my mindset over the last six years feel so strongly that they have the best jobs in the world? What if it’s not what I really want? (Here we come back to the question of whether it’s OK to leave the field like so many others and not make an example of yourself by succeeding against the odds, sweat, and hair loss.)

Anyway, though I gritted my teeth as everyone assumed that, like them, I worship at the temple of academia, I reminded myself that not all career panels are like that.

I’m referring of course to the Women in Astronomy conference in October, 2009. At that meeting, a panel was assembled that included PhDs and non-PhDs who had left the “traditional”* path to pursue outreach, policy, administration, industry, non-profit organizations… I was heartened to see that one could use one’s smarts AND science training and make a difference outside of academia. (I should also point out that a similar panel took place on campus a while back, focused at environmental science grad students, but plenty in my acquaintance attended that, as well.)

It made me strangely excited. Perhaps if I aimed myself and my training toward one of these (exciting!) careers, I would not be forced to butt up against hundreds of other recent, highly-qualified PhD recipients for a few faculty hires? I would not feel the pressure and disappointment of failing to achieve what the faculty had expected of me, and what I convinced myself I wanted? I would instead be happy about achieving something great that might otherwise be seen as a second choice?

Having come to this realization, I still don’t understand why so many of my fellow grad students want to be professors. Oh well. Some people really will be professors, if they want it enough and work hard enough. But maybe someday I will organize an “alternative”* career panel and expose to them the rich world beyond liberal arts professor vs. research university professor.

*I hate to use the “traditional” (academic) and “alternative” (everything else) dichotomy because, face it – about 80% of PhD recipients from my department (higher, I imagine, at some others) don’t get faculty jobs. So what does “alternative” refer to, if it’s representative of a staggering majority? Why doesn’t anyone break down the alternatives? Why don’t a representative fraction of alumni from alternative careers appear in the databases? Are we to be ashamed of them?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 02/23/2010 1:55 pm

    I feel the same way. Every professor I have spoken with does not understand my desire to explore the world outside academia. There is so much more out there, there has to be…right? Unfortunately for us, it seems it’s really hard to learn about them from our advisers. I wish there was more of a push to incorporate alternative career paths into the grad school experience.

    Great Blog!

  2. 02/15/2010 11:37 am

    I agree, one can totally make a difference in academia! Many of my professors have impacted my life. But I’ve had enough people (S.J. types) who confront me with, “Why would you EVER want to do anything outside academia?!” that I’m not too worried about being sensitive to others’ desired careers. But I guess that varies depending on the person, as you suggest. (By the way, he justified his response by arguing that tenure is pretty much the best thing in the world, and it’s not worth it to have a job that doesn’t give you tenure.)

  3. Julia permalink*
    02/15/2010 11:17 am

    I recently talked with my advisor about my future career plans, and while explaining why I didn’t want to be faculty like he is I suddenly got this “Oh no, you’re telling him that his life doesn’t matter and probably sucks!” moment and I felt so rude. It made me at least see the ways in which he does make a difference even within academia (and I do think that he does), but it didn’t exactly change my mind 😉


  1. “I wouldn’t stand for that!” « A Scientist and a Woman

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