Thursday, January 26, 2012

Doing everything right and still not getting a job: Or, what every graduate student needs to know

Today I thought I would follow up on a suggestion made on one of my previous posts by recent Phd on how doing everything right is still no guarantee to getting a job.

I am not sure though that I have anything much to add to the already well-documented issues that everyone who is struggling with the question of what to do next will have already encountered. There is an oversupply of graduates for the number of jobs; graduate programs are not honest about the job prospects of their students because Universities are focused on recruiting more students who finish more quickly in order to increase funding; governments are spruiking an innovation policy approach that is increasingly deregulating any caps on student numbers in order to enhance competitive advantage in the global knowledge economy on the premise that 'a clever country is a lucky country'; there is a rise in so-called 'creditionalism' that means that for even the most generic job you need a qualification; and, here's a new one that I heard at my last aca job interview: there is a decline in student numbers as the demographic profile associated with the baby boom means less new students each year, and thus, correspondingly, less staffing requirements (ha! tell that to the overworked and underpaid responsible for teaching those students).

Here are a few other random justifications I have heard for why there is no job security in higher ed: international students are being put-off by perceptions of racism so we don't have enough demand for teachers (yet internal documents show inreased numbers of international admissions); providing first-class facilities is a first-order priority necessitating budget cuts elsewhere (the argument currently used by the most prestigious university in Australia); and, of course, that tired old line about the looming skills shortage when all the baby boomers retire (who are, in actual practice, never replaced).

However, the single biggest hurdle for any graduate of any discipline at any level is this: the job market sucks right now. The global financial crisis, the European debt crisis and rising levels of unemployment globally are chronic, systemic issues that are having an impact on everyone, everywhere.

Thank you corporate wankers, I mean, bankers. While you file away your taxpayer funded bonuses in various tax evasion schemes, the rest of the world is drowning in poverty, unemployment and uncertainty.

So that means that competition for those few jobs that do exist is extremely fierce. The people who have gotten jobs over me in the past have track records that are unheard of. They have better track records than many a tenured Professor. This means that where once upon a time (ie the late 1970s, when most of our PhD supervisors would have been appointed) you might have been able to get a job with just a PhD in hand, these days you need a PhD, at least one book, a long-list of peer-reviewed publications, an established record of successful competitive external grant applications, significant experience in undergraduate teaching, including, preferrably, a qualification in teaching as well as exceptional student evaluations, ideally, experience in attracting and training postgraduate students, significant experience on committees, excellent interpersonal and relationship-building skills and outstanding expertise in community engagement.

I am sure I don't need to mention that the ability to build many of these skills is dependent on actually getting a job in the first-place. Which is of course a typical chicken-egg scenario - how do you get the experience you need when you can't get a job?

I have heard recent PhD graduates talking about how it will take them around 5 years to get a proper job. In the meantime, they can expect to work on short-term teaching contracts at most and spend their 'free' time writing publications. If you factor in 5 years as the average completion time (for a full-time student) and then another 5 years on top of that, then you've got ten years of marginal pay, fractional employment and working for free. In any other industry, it would take you 2 years for a postgraduate qualification, and 5 years out from graduating you would be well-established in your career and earning a respectable salary.

I would also like to add here that the post-PhD years are in actual fact the most critical. No-one cares what you do during your PhD. Ever. What you do post-PhD is going to make or break your career.

So for heaven's sake, don't go and have a baby in those critical first few years after a PhD. That way you will be "throwing it all away". Quotable quote from the arsheholes of the year. This is what happens when competition is so tough that things considered quite normal in other professional contexts are regarded, not just as, (the equally abhorrent) "mummy-tracking" but as "Throwing. It. ALL. Away." As though child-birth is equivalent to having your brain removed and that the only job worth having is an academic one.

I am beginning to rant...

To conclude: this is what every potential graduate student needs to know:
-the market sucks and there are no jobs
-competition is so tough that it will take you more than 5 years post-PhD to get a job
-the post-PhD years are the most vital so do not think that you can have a life once you finish your PhD
-you would be better off doing a trade instead.



  1. Bravo!! Well-said.

    I agree with all of your points, but in particular with the criticism of the argument that choosing an alternate track for your career (or even just doing some outside things that make you happy, like having kids or traveling or just putting work AWAY for a few minutes) you're some kind of stupid slacker.

    More and more, I'm beginning to think that academia is a seriously poisonous environment. The lack of jobs combined with the culture is, in my opinion, doing real harm to smart young people who should be thriving rather than struggling and getting beaten down emotionally.

  2. Ditto JC on the toxicity of the lack of jobs combined with the culture. I don't care how much you love the work -- and I do/did, the teaching, the research, the thinking, the writing, all of it. It just doesn't counterbalance the rest. I don't know about other people, but I can't function on a day-to-day basis well enough to DO the work unless I can live out the nonacademic parts of my life in a "normal" way. The financial constraints and lack of job security make that impossible.

  3. Good post and good summary of the key points. Yes, the culture of the PhD student sucks..and its increasingly getting worse.

  4. Given that there are about 40,000 PhD students at this moment in Australia, and over 7,000 of them graduate in any given year, it's not really surprising that academia can't find a job for all of them. The fed govt is concerned that we won't have enough academics once the baby-boomer generation has retired (5-10 years away), but no-one knows if this is true or not. And that's not true that there are less students - more and more people are coming to Uni - although that might not be a good thing!

    I have to say this: I'm not sure why you thought that if you had a PhD you would get a job. No-one in our society is finding it easy at the moment - I have a son with 2 Bachelor's degrees who has been made redundant twice and is really struggling with his self-esteem. Academia is not exempt from movements in the financial world. Getting a PhD means that you have demonstrated you have certain skills. If the world doesn't want those skills that's outside your control. You have to figure out what is in your control and act on that. I've chosen to do my PhD part-time, while working in a full-time job. It's taken me many years, but I will still have work when I've finished - and I may have (or may not have) expanded my employment prospects. I didn't do this to get a better job, or any particular kind of job; I did this to find something out.

  5. The study of unemployed PhDs is different from unemployed physicians or lawyers or whatever because generally speaking they didn't enter graduate school just to get a job. They didn't dream of seeing patients or clients but to leave a legacy and/or learn how to leave a legacy.

  6. I quite agree. Having got to the stage where I have a monograph, 10 articles plus the rest, I wonder. But it perked me up to see this. In fact, in my case it has taken 6 years in the UK to get to a stage I'm being shortlisted: irony is, so much expended energy, I'm exhausted!

  7. How can I put employment in the background when I have student loans to pay? I'm an MSW (social work) who doesn't do clinical, I'm administrative (grants, funding, policies, government, etc) and can't for the life of me find a job. I'm only 3 years out of school and had a crappy job as a coordinator for 6 months (still not enough experience).

    Still waiting to show the world my work.....

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