You Do You: New Career Paradigms for PhDs

Purdue University Press spoke with editors Katie Kearns, Karen Cardozo, and Shannan Palma about their new book Higher Education Careers Beyond the Professoriate. Higher Education Careers Beyond the Professoriate is the latest volume in the Purdue University Press series Navigating Careers in Higher Education which utilizes an intersectional lens to examine and understand how faculty members and administrators navigate careers and their aspirations to succeed.

Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?

This volume features engaging, reflective narratives by PhDs from a variety of academic disciplines, identities, and employing institution types that describe myriad trajectories into advising, administration; diversity, equity and inclusion; faculty development; instructional technology; libraries; institutional research; student affairs; business operations; advancement; enrollment; marketing and communications; and community relations. Reviewers especially liked our curation of five thematic sections on: new career paradigms; inter/disciplinary transfer; crafting blended positions and identities; centering values to find fulfillment and navigating institutional structures and cultures to foster equity and inclusion. While most contributors touch on all of these themes, grouping essays in this way yielded some distinctive insights. The book also features an excellent Afterword that walks readers through a robust career development process. Besides readers wanting to explore a range of options for working in higher ed, our target audiences include advisors, policy makers and leaders charged with doctoral mentoring and related needs for institutional transformation.

Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?

Most PhDs are socialized in a “track” mentality to pursue a specialized academic career. In this context, it is hard to freely explore alternative careers. Yet the track mentality ignores the disruptive realities of capitalism, which demand greater adaptability. As noted in The New PhD (Weisbuch and Cassuto), only about a quarter of aspiring PhDs will end up in academe and the faculty majority (including, technically, those on the tenure-track) works in contingent positions. As editors, we knew firsthand and from mentoring others that academics are deeply stressed by this instability yet unfamiliar with a wider range of options. We wanted to foster resilience by offering actionable advice and hope in the kind of book we wish had been available to us when we were “navigating the crossroads,” as Diedra Wrighting puts it in her essay. Ironically, many fruitful opportunities are right under the nose of every PhD, but such roles are either invisible or do not seem viable if unrelated to their field of academic expertise. Thus, HECBP emphasizes how skills transfer into what contributor Alyssa Canelli calls “a constellation of possibilities”—an array of roles beyond the traditional faculty—and illuminates the means of getting there.

Q: What are a few things that are being studied for the first time in this book?

The shrinking tenure system and rise of contingent labor in the neoliberal academy (along with related concerns about academic freedom and increasing diminishment of shared governance) have prompted a burgeoning critical university studies literature. However, HECBP is the first to connect academic labor issues and related need for PhD career versatility to discourses on diversity, equity and inclusion, and to do so in the rapidly shifting context of a global pandemic. This volume clearly shows that to support marginalized populations, we must recognize their divergent experiences of academic socialization, as well as diversity of vocational aspirations. Not everyone wants a research-intensive career! At the same time, we must adopt new career paradigms to meet ongoing disruption and precarity, shifting from rigid track/ladder metaphors to more iterative processes, as described in chaos theory or design thinking. This book captures a historic moment of working through crisis and transformation – within the higher education sector, within individual institutions, and in personal experiences. At the same time, by illuminating ongoing processes of assessment, change, exploration, risk, and reward, this book reveals how PhDs can navigate disruption to build satisfying careers and lives. 

Another unique feature is that, because some of our contributors are both academics and career coaches, the book proactively engages useful frameworks in career and life design. We take an empowering stance that affirms the agency of diverse constituents to make decisions in alignment with personal and professional values. At the same time, we do not shy away from systemic analysis, identifying difficulties faced particularly by those with non-normative identities amidst recalcitrant structures, and celebrate their efforts to transform institutions while embarking on liberatory journeys that lead them into ever more fitting situations.

Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?

While we were not necessarily surprised, we were struck by both the consistency and clarity of the resounding theme that efforts to support career diversity are inextricable from larger attempts to achieve equity, inclusion and belonging for the full spectrum of intersectional identities in higher ed. These essays remind us of the importance of community when facing uncertainty, especially for those whose identities are historically marginalized. They show us that a supportive community can be built horizontally through peer mentoring and through administrative contributions that foster belonging. Yet they are also fearlessly honest about the limitations of diversity work and the perils of navigating narrow professional pathways, especially for queer, transgender and/or nonbinary professionals. Indeed, you could say that this collection itself productively queers the very notion of “a career” by showing how identity-driven values and a thirst for equity and justice may lead one to make different choices, break into new territories, and build new communities. Together, they illuminate the versatility of PhD pathways and expand our understanding of how to find meaningful work in a fulfilling life.

Q: How do experiences and expectations differ for Ph.D. candidates of color? Is this more pronounced based on gender?

This volume underscores that faculty careers unfold most smoothly for those with normative identities and substantial privilege; all contributors that note the dissonance between their own identities/values and academic norms was a significant factor in their decision to make career and life changes. In addition to ethnicity and race, gender and sexuality are key aspects: the decision to start a family and related health or financial issues—particularly for queer families—loom large, as do concerns about quality of life and the desire for safe, inclusive communities. Many contributors made career pivots at such junctures for these reasons. Across varying identities, we see that sometimes a career change is an elective, affinity-driven choice while at other times, bias or lack of institutional support was the “push” factor onto a new path.

Particularly in the pandemic context, many also call attention to wellbeing concerns: managing burnout and health issues, negotiating insufficient flexibility for accommodating different neurotypes, seeking work/life integration, and finding belonging. They advocate for the real needs of diverse brains and bodies while challenging the preeminence of faculty tracks in PhD career discourse. Overall, contributors (like we, the editors) reject having to discard pieces of ourselves – values, identities, desires – to fit into the narrow confines of what is, for most, actually contingent employment. Our authors acknowledge the challenges of deprogramming their own fixed mindsets and of negotiating change, grief, and inspiration when considering how to move forward and deciding which aspects of identity to claim and which to release upon making career and life transitions. In all these ways, the collection reveals that PhD career versatility must be connected to broader discussions of wellbeing within efforts to advance diversity, equity, belonging, and social justice.

Q: Does/Would a different academic experience better prepare candidates for a non-academic job market? What should graduate-level instructors and administrators do to aid and encourage candidates in exploring jobs beyond the professoriate?

The biggest shift that institutions could make would be to normalize PhD career versatility from the outset – admit graduate students with the affirmative understanding that the credential leads to myriad paths. Faculty and doctoral advisors must remind themselves daily not to presume that they are looking at “a future faculty member.” For myriad reasons, you cannot know who will end up on the faculty and who will not. Academe especially needs to correct the systemic devaluation of teaching, including reliance on contingent labor. Many of our contributors identify as educators, noting that teaching hones many transferable skills (curriculum design, presentation, assessment, group facilitation, etc.), yet they lament institutional messages that teaching is a lower priority than research and an unstable vocation.

Institutions also need to ensure graduate curricula that render career versatility and transferable skills explicit, not only in professional development courses but also in subject areas. In addition, there should be funding for nonacademic internships or other professional opportunities. Even one “alternative” experience during doctoral training can be the bridge to new opportunities if an academic career does not materialize or is not desired.

A related commitment would be to involve alumni to showcase diverse outcomes while cultivating networks that could lead to internship and other work opportunities along the way. Our main message is that people should no longer think in sequential, singular ways but engage in more fluid exploration and ongoing reflection, connecting to mentors beyond academe. Section 1 on “creating, finding and opening new doors” brings out this theme strongly.

However, all of these efforts will be undermined without shifts in organizational culture: doctoral faculty and advisors must be educated about the realities of the postdoctoral job market and incentivized to have transparent and supportive conversations about myriad pathways. Ultimately, this collection contests the idea that working beyond the faculty is a “failed” outcome for PhDs, largely because the metrics of success are entirely dependent upon an individual’s priorities and values. Academic socialization breeds professional conformity, but this historic moment demands a more authentic, creative and nimble approach. HECBP offers plenty of evidence that “you do you” may now be the most meaningful advice, and programs that support diverse trajectories are not only likely to be more inclusive, but also to yield more satisfactory outcomes at both individual and institutional levels.

You can get 30% off Higher Education Careers Beyond the Professoriate and any other Purdue University Press book by ordering from our website and using the code PURDUE30 at checkout.