What does the future hold for PhD graduates? Marie-Alix Thouaille has found that for many the post-PhD transition is characterised by exploitative, often unsustainable working conditions, emotional upheaval, financial worry, and poor wellbeing. Despite this most PhD graduates remain absolutely determined to forge an academic career, unwilling to even entertain the idea of working in another sector. This paradoxical condition can be seen as a type of “cruel optimism”, with early-career researchers remaining attached to the fantasy of the academic “good life” despite a precarious lived reality. This may be attributable to the culture of doctoral training which centralises academic careers as the “norm”, devalues other career paths as “alternative”, and views leaving academia as “failure”.
As a doctoral researcher nearing submission, I often find myself anxiously wondering about my post-PhD prospects. What does my future look like? What kind of job will I have? Where will I live? What will it feel like to finally be “PhinisheD”?
One way to answer these questions is to look at existing data on postdoctoral employment. In my disciplinary home, the arts and humanities, doctoral graduates have been heavily “affected by changes in the labour market”. Indeed, “a faster-rising proportion [are] employed on fixed-term contracts, especially on short-term contracts,” and there are “higher levels of portfolio working compared with other disciplinary groups”. While this data is crucial to understanding post-PhD career paths in my discipline, what it doesn’t tell us is what it feels like to be employed in this way.
My placement project with Vitae, where I conducted a survey investigating the professional development of arts and humanities early-career researchers, provided answers of sorts. The free-text responses, in which respondents described their post-PhD transitions, powerfully resonated with me precisely because of my own personal investment in these questions.
In what follows, I draw on the data published in my report, “One size does not fit all” (2017), to sketch out the post-PhD experiences of arts and humanities PhD graduates whose employment is precarious: unaffiliated researchers, hourly paid lecturers, teaching fellows, and research fellows. In a nutshell, for many, the post-PhD transition was characterised by:
- Exploitative contracts (e.g. fractional, fixed-term, zero-hours, etc.)
- Conducting research unpaid, reliance on savings or family support
- Limited access to career development support or funding
- Emotional upheaval, sense of abandonment, poor wellbeing
- Financial worry
- Liminal experience, lack of direction
- Uncertainty of long-term prospects, difficulty with life-planning
- Perception of “failure”, reluctance to “give up” a long-held ambition.
What struck me both in the data I collected and in subsequent conversations with my peers, is how many of us remain attached to the idea of an academic career despite significantly compromised conditions of possibility. In other words, despite critiquing exploitative and often unsustainable working conditions, few of us seem able to entertain the idea of looking for work in another sector.
This paradoxical condition, whereby “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” is known as “cruel optimism”. Under “cruel optimism”, affect theorist Lauren Berlant argues, good life fantasies which give your life meaning or enable you to “add up to something” also impede upon your wellbeing. In this case, the optimistic attachment to the pursuit of an academic career is life-giving (giving doctoral researchers and graduates a goal to work toward, a reason to get up in the morning) and simultaneously damaging (because it turns out the neoliberal university does not much care about its casualised early-career workers). In this way, the dream of the academic “good life” functions as “enabling object which is also disabling”.
My key contention here is that arts and humanities academic research thrives on cruel optimism, in part because of the reliance on the idea that academics are motivated by passion rather than financial reward. As Angela McRobbie has shown, discourses of “passionate work” function as a “disciplinary mechanism for tolerating not just uncertainty and self-exploitation but also for staying unprofitably” employed within particular sectors. In academia specifically, Rosalind Gill argues, our attachment to a “myth of what we thought being an intellectual might be like” works to “bind us more tightly into a neoliberal regime with ever-growing costs, not least to ourselves”.
That arts and humanities doctoral researchers and graduates remain attached to the fantasy of the academic “good life” despite a precarious lived reality may seem puzzling. Why not seek work elsewhere? Why persevere in what is already not working? This continued attachment, I suggest, hinges partly on the current culture of doctoral training; a culture which centralises academic careers as the “norm”, devalues all other career paths as “alternative”, and thus gets away with providing little or no provision in this area. This cultural devaluing also means that where such provision exists, it is often poorly taken up due to a perception of “betrayal” or “failure”. As one doctoral researcher in English literature notes:
“There are currently a few optional services which help students to think about careers outside academia, but because leaving is viewed as such a failure, people often actively tell you not to go, or that it’s a waste of time. Moreover, if you do go, your supervisors seem to think this means you’re not committed to academia, or as if it’s a reflection on them, and they act really shocked and surprised, as if you’ve betrayed them.” (One size does not fit all, 28)
(Though, as is implicit in Erin Batram’s recent piece, “The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind”, it is the sector that is betraying individual researchers, and not the other way around.)
“What do research staff do next?” (2016) provides valuable insights here. This report shows that the perception that leaving higher education research is a “failure” acts as a significant barrier to individuals considering a career change. That “What do research staff do next?“’s sample was dominated by STEM subjects, and comprised of only 6% of arts and humanities respondents, suggests that this pernicious perception exists across disciplines, even though industry career paths are arguably more straightforward in certain STEM fields.
But for those who do manage – however painfully – to detach from the fantasy of the academic good life, there is some good news. The Australian report “Tracking Trends in Australian Industry” (2017), for example, suggests that there is a significant “hidden job market” for PhD graduates. The Canadian 10,000 PhD project similarly claims that “the specialized knowledge and skills obtained from advanced degrees can be successfully transferred to a broad range of professional contexts even within a challenging job market”. Both the upcoming “PostAc” TM app and the recently launched humanities-focused Imagine PhD platform promise to enable PhD researchers and graduates to explore alt-ac and post-ac job opportunities.
Meanwhile, “What do research staff do next?” goes on to suggest that postdocs who leave academic careers for other sectors or non-research careers within higher education are highly satisfied. While 78% aspired to academic careers while postdocs, only 18% would now go back. Though this statistic is telling in itself, it’s unclear how far it applies to arts and humanities PhD graduates given the survey sample’s STEM bias.
In the end, I’d argue that too little is known about arts and humanities PhD graduates’ career paths, how happy they are in their jobs, or even how relevant their PhD experience is to the jobs they eventually secure to satisfactorily answer my initial question: “what does my post-PhD future look like?” Much more work is needed in order to improve our understanding of postdoctoral career paths, and, in turn, to meaningfully support career diversity across disciplines.
You can download “One size does not fit all”, the full report into arts and humanities doctoral and early-career researchers’ professional development, and “What do research staff do next?“, the report on careers of research staff who have made successful transitions to other occupations, from the Vitae website (free registration required).
This blog post is an updated version of that which originally appeared under a different title on the All the Single Writing Ladies blog and is published here with permission.
Featured image credit: Jonathan Daniels, via Unsplash (licensed under a CC0 1.0 license).
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
About the author
Marie-Alix Thouaille is a CHASE-funded doctoral researcher at the University of East Anglia (UEA). Her doctoral research explores representations of authorial labour within the contemporary “single woman author film”. As part of her CHASE studentship, Marie-Alix undertook a placement project with Vitae investigating the professional development of arts and humanities doctoral and early-career researchers. She blogs about her research at mariethouaille.wordpress.com and tweets @legomarie.
Indeed, since submitting my dissertation, my life has been unemployed and insecure contracts (in academia). I would like to focus on the research I a doing now but I am everyday looking for new opportunities. I know that my contract will end in a few months and I am stressing out what will come next. It undoubtedly affects the quality of my work and I am not happy about that. On the other hand, whereas I was loyal and confident in my first post-PhD job, my loyalty to my current University is almost inexistent. If there is another better job opportunity (hopefully in academia), I will take it and leave my current position.
Leaving academia: I always wanted to be a professor since I was a child, wearing a white lab coat (you don’t wear that in humanities so that did not happen) so leaving academia would feel as giving up a dream. Furthermore, once you leave, it is difficult to get back in.
Pursuing your dreams isn’t a crime. It’s selfish, but in a good way.
STEM here, I am coming to the same conclusions. This emotional shackling is the foundation of research, almost all of which is done by PhDs and early postdocs as advance payment for a prize that most of them will never receive. The star cult around individual successful academics is fundamental in allowing each early career researcher to be simultaneously aware that the deck is horrifically stacked against them, yet confident that they can be The One who succeeds. This confidence is all surface – it’s mostly terror and cowardice underneath. Fear of losing the glamour, the internalised sense of identity, the romanticised sense of purpose.
I don’t think this is due to malice or sinister plotting: it’s just the unhealthy, self-perpetuating dynamic of a system that is strangled by increasing requirements, diminishing prospects, and a complete breakdown of any sense of community or care thanks to the ever-tightening screw of maximum competition at all costs. Those who succeed are no less terrified than those who don’t; and so they must self-police, they must uphold the warped value system in which they won, the meritocratic belief that winners must be, retroactively, deserving; they must invest in the machine that ground them so that their own grinding has not been for nought.
The only part I would disagree with is the notion that “the specialized knowledge and skills obtained from advanced degrees can be successfully transferred to a broad range of professional contexts even within a challenging job market”. This has not been my experience at all. In the non-academic job marked, I have found that I am invariably regarded as comparable to a new undergrad in terms of experience and employability, albeit one who has taken 10 years off work in the meantime. I think the idea that a PhD is still a valuable experience even outside of the academic path is just a platitude to mollify prospective students who are, rightly, worried about what the statistics suggest about their future prospect. Once they acquiesce to the PhD route, they have committed to several years of labour whose profits will almost entirely be reaped by their supervisor, and largely locked themselves into further years of misery and exploitation aided by the sunken cost fallacy. This is where I am now.
A PhD is a great thing to acquire..if done in the right fields. The problem is there are too many “very narrow” PhDs in subjects that have no benefit to the wider job market as a whole. Yes, you have shown great discipline over a long period of time, but what else?
Sometimes, it seems like people are in an extended version of Master Mind – answer questions on your narrow favourite subject. Why should society pay for or subsidise or hold out a plus job for those people? No, you can join the undergraduate with a relevant subject field in the job queue.
A good analysis, but with weaknesses in appeal and self-reflection. As a humanities PhD, I can only recommend to my fellow grad students to actively pursue career prospects outside academia. As long as we don’t we are easy game for greedy supervisors and an often exploitative system. If we can believably argue that an attractive position is waiting for us after this last, sh…y project, chances are we will gain a lot of money – or at least not lose our self-esteem. As people who’ve been through the grind, we should be telling others that you can’t beat the system. At least not if you are too eager to stay within.
Anchoring on just one future career path shows a lack of imagination amongst PhD students. No wonder they become trapped in the illusion that academia has become. Entrapment is the perfect condition for slavery.