For most of your time in graduate school, there is little time for self-reflection. It is easy to get caught up in the details of completing your degree and forget about the big picture — that is, until you schedule that dissertation defense. Suddenly, the end is in sight and you have a decision to make — stay in academia or leave your cozy ivory tower for a non-academic career.
In many ways, grad school is like training in how to become an assistant professor. But what if you have doubts about teaching being the right career for you? Maybe you want to make more money or have more freedom to choose where you live, or perhaps you are feeling increasingly stifled about refining your interests and sub-specializing to a point where you can count on two hands the number of people who actually understand your research.
There is a lot of peer pressure from other academics to try for those coveted tenure-track faculty positions, and it can often feel easy to drift into academia after graduation only because that's what is expected of you. Certainly, there are perks to academic careers — job security (once you have tenure), freedom to make your own schedule, day-to-day variety and all the fulfilling aspects of teaching and research. But there is also the tough job market, the geographic restrictions of academic job-hunting, the endless grant submissions and the single-minded pursuit of a sometimes obscure topic.
Deciding to leave academia can feel like a betrayal. You might worry about losing the respect of your colleagues and disappointing the adviser who has put so much time and effort into your training. But choosing a non-academic career after graduate school is not admitting failure, nor is it a last resort for those who can't "cut it" in academia.
So if you are interested in non-academic career options, what can you do? First, think of your time in grad school as a valuable experience, even if you don't plan on staying in academia. Though it might not feel that way, you have developed real-world skills while in grad school that can translate into other areas.
Next, assess your situation. Think about your interests, what you like to do, what skills you want to make use of in your career. Does the topic you chose for your dissertation reflect a particular interest that could be nurtured outside of the academy? What have your experiences in grad school taught you about yourself and the kind of work that would make you happy?
After the panicking and soul-searching comes a step which, to a grad student, should feel very familiar: research. There are all kinds of resources for exploring non-academic career options. The Brown Career Development Center regularly holds events focused on non-academic job searches, resume writing and interviewing.
Once you have an idea about the sort of career in which you're interested, talk to anyone and everyone in that field. Alumni who have pursued similar careers are an excellent resource, and can give you tips on how to use the knowledge and skills you obtained in grad school to succeed in a non-academic job. Remember that everyone is a potential contact. Don't be afraid of networking.
There are myriad non-academic career possibilities for Ph.D.s, including jobs in industry, non-profits, publishing and media, business and consulting. The CDC offers counseling, career fairs and resources to help you research career possibilities and search for jobs. It's also a good place to hear about the experiences of other grad students making similar decisions and to connect with alumni who have built successful careers outside of academia.
While the merry-go-round of post-doctoral positions, grant applications and searches for that elusive tenure-track faculty spot may seem inevitable, remember that you do have choices. It may be scary to admit to your adviser that you're not sure you want to follow in his or her footsteps, but going through the motions when you know an academic career isn't for you is much scarier. Convince yourself that you're not overeducated and unemployable outside of academia — haven't you learned to think critically, self-motivate, collaborate with colleagues and read and evaluate large amounts of information? You've got skills. And there's a whole world out there beyond the ivory tower.
Mary Bates GS is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Psychology. She can be reached at mary_bates (at) brown.edu.