It appears that higher education is finally on the cusp of meaningful change. Doctoral resources looking for non-academic careers continue to grow, and reformers are reimagining what doctoral programs might look like if they were designed to support careers beyond the tenure path.
And while these developments are to be commended, some doubts remain. Faculty members may wonder why their field should change to accommodate the outside world. Officials may question the wisdom of investing scarce resources to help their best and brightest graduate students. Students may worry that the time they give to explore various careers will slow their time towards the degree, reduce the likelihood of them getting a stable job or come up with a one-time prohibitive cost – on top of the effort they have already put into earning their degree.
Maybe. But the academy is already the alternative career for most PhD holders, and nothing indicates that experience outside of disciplinary research or teaching is detrimental to one’s ability to compete in the academic job market. Other doubts remain justified. We might rightly ask, is it wise to spend so much time and so many resources helping people who have trained in one profession to get into another? What is the return on this investment?
I ask myself these questions often. My exit from the academic realm of the corporate communications strategy world has been a success, by most objective metrics. I am happier, richer, and more optimistic about my future than I have ever been as a graduate student or visiting assistant professor. But I often wonder if I could get to this point faster or with less discomfort. Central to the academy was two and a half years of doubt and anxiety. The desire to extract more value from that experience – to take difficult lessons and pave the way for others – was the main force that drove me to write my book, Leaving academia: A Practical Guide.
Through this work, I have had the opportunity to talk to many other people about their career transitions. Without fail, their biggest fear is that they will make the wrong decision. They have already given five, 10 or 20 years to a profession that many people consider their passion. The majority feel they are leaving the academy under duress. If they must make a change, they want to be strategic – and make the right decision once and for all.
Ironically, such anxiety can cause paralysis. The versatility of career possibilities is truly astonishing once you begin to explore the modern professional world, and it can be difficult to narrow your focus until you feel like you have complete information. The line between deep thinking and overthinking is blurry, especially for academics.
Patriot missile approach
To evade this trap, we must rest with uncertainty. For me, this shift in thinking occurred after a media interview with Brook Manville, Ph.D. in ancient history. who has spent more than 30 years in strategy consulting.
He said, “Chris, you need to stop thinking about your career like honor path [the fixed series of political offices in the Roman Republic]. It will not follow a specific path. Instead, you have to think of it like a Patriot missile.”
He went to explain.
The Patriot missile is a surface-to-air defense system that fires other missiles from the sky. Its engineers faced a dilemma: the mathematics involved in guiding one supersonic projectile over another was too complex in a real-world environment. Every time they tried, they missed it.
To get around this, they did something smart. Upon launch, the Patriot missile does not attempt to anticipate the place of its impact. Instead, it takes a directional correct trajectory. Then, each time the missile halves the distance to its target, the radar beeps for the target and instructs the missile to recalculate and adjust its trajectory. This chain of events happens over and over again until a Patriot missile is within range of its target detonation and neutralization.
Brooke puts a finer point on the measurement: careers are long and influenced by countless variables. If you shoot yourself at a target decades later, you probably won’t end up where you think. Instead, you should act like a Patriot missile: Move in a better direction than you’re moving today and plan to reset if or when you realize you’ve gone off course.
Given these terms, it is easier to bypass worrying about making the right decision about your post-academic career. This is because there is no right choice. You simply need to find a job that allows you to build specific skills, work on specific problems, or engage with a specific group – whatever you think will align with your career and life goals. This decision is not final. You will have many, many opportunities to improve your career path as you progress.
This, after all, is the genius of the Patriot missile metaphor: it provides an example of how to get where you want to go without knowing where that will be along the way.
Sweating and swinging your career
Modern economics supports the professional vision I just described. The days of joining GE after high school and climbing the corporate ladder are largely gone. This strategy may have made sense in the 1970s, when the average company age in the S&P 500 was more than 35 years and promises of promotion and pensions justified a lifelong commitment. Today, that average lifespan has been cut in half. When companies are created or merged, they reassess their needs, rationalize roles and introduce new technologies to solve old problems or seize new opportunities.
Professionals have adapted to this change with change on their own: Today, the average person has five jobs in a lifetime. While some of these shifts will be more extreme than others, each entails leaving a job for new experiences and, one hope, higher wages and better bosses. The workers mainly compete to ride the waves as they go up and avoid being swept away by those on the verge of breaking down.
A “career in many jobs” makes sense in a rapidly accelerating world where even today we can find countless jobs that would have been unimaginable two decades ago. If social media marketing was a human, it wouldn’t be allowed to drive yet. When today’s emerging technologies are equally mature, the leadership may not be there.
Hence, if you hold a Ph.D. Student, you should realize that career changes will remain a normal part of your career for the foreseeable future. And they won’t be single, perpetual hubs from one job to the next, but a recurring zigzag that responds – or ideally with – an evolving market. Fortunately, when you make them, such adjustments will come more easily and faster each time you repeat the cycle: the process will not be new anymore, and you will know the best tactics for your character and style.
A new vision for vocational training
The Professional Patriot model also holds classes for university faculty and administrators. Preparing for its inevitability is essential for the 93 percent of graduate students entering programs in the humanities and social sciences who will not secure a steady job. For the faculty who teach them and the administrators who assess their results, it is both ethical and prudent to do so. But what should this preparation look like?
First, you must learn a repeatable process. This is vital considering that one’s professional guidance is a lifelong responsibility. Second, it must be strategic—in other words, it should help students survey the options available to them and choose one that has a high probability of delivering the experience, salary, or satisfaction they decide is most important in the next stage of their lives. Third, it must be practical, developing discrete skills such as how to identify professional strengths, conduct informational interviews, and translate one’s experience to professionals who have no background (and often do not care!) in the specifics of one’s current job.
Crucially, this setup should train people to recognize when they are veering off course. The signs are hard to miss: We get bored, detached, distracted, and frustrated easily. These feelings are uncomfortable, but they are a gift. It’s the radar test tool that tells us it’s time to recalibrate. When we notice it, it’s time to look for new opportunities that generate even more significant possibilities for meaning and happiness.
In other words, professional development should prepare graduate students to take control of their lives in those exact moments when they feel exposed to external forces.
This vision of vocational training is not about linking a neoliberal productivity drive to existing academic disciplines for altruistic purposes. Rather, it is about bringing back the power of self-determination that is supposed to define the study of the liberal arts (Latin, liberal arts– “The right skills to liberate people”).
The academy is developing in this direction. Colleges and scientific societies create career diversity programs. New books on reimagining and improving the Ph.D. It appears that professional results are released every semester. Private coaches and learning platforms make strategic career change training accessible to those who lack institutional support. (I provide links to many of these resources on my website.)
My answer to whether this is a good idea is, yes, it certainly is. What is often not said is the extent to which these investments are among the most valuable investments that individuals and organizations can make. They may feel born out of necessity in response to a collapsing tenure-track job market, but they prepare students for professional life in ways that research and teaching cannot. Although they feel like an individual and time-bound effort, they generate frequent returns as students fall back on career-altering skills over and over. Most importantly, it is fully in line with the liberating mission that higher education has always sought to develop: to equip students to take control of their own future rather than leave them facing forces that feel beyond their control.
At this inflection point in graduate education, it is best for leaders across academics to expand their investments in career diversity programs and make them central to their doctoral training. Doing so will put empowering students at the center of the curriculum and preparing the PhD to navigate the world as it is – even as they shape it into what they think it should be.