How honest should I be about my career goals? My post-PhD story.


My post-PHD journey is peppered throughout the posts I write here but I was inspired by a blog carnival over at the Contemplative Mammoth to put together a single post. After May 28th Jacquelyn Gillpromises to compile all the links, so if you’re interested in what people do after their PhDs, head on over there.

Long before I finished my PhD, my path in academia was never particularly clear. I came to research late in my undergraduate studies and at every stage I have thought: “Well this is interesting, challenging and fun, so lets see if I can find a masters/PhD/position”. I knew that at each of these filters there was a real possibility that I wouldn’t be able to find the next position. So I remained cautiously optimistic but always thought that at some point I would have to figure out what to do when I go up. Since I was aware of the possibility that I wouldn’t find a position along the academic trail, I’ve never been focused on a tenure-track position as the only career choice that will make me happy. But as I have progressed, I wonder how honest I should be about this fact.

You see I’m not convinced that I will end up as a professor. I know that it takes an incredible combination of skill and luck to land a position. Although I ended up doing a PhD in one of the top programs of my field, when I applied there were other top schools that didn’t invite me to interview. So even at that stage I was aware that there is variance in decisions and that I am not one of the applicants with a flawless CV (at that stage I had good research experience but less than top undergraduate grades and GRA scores). Last year I was one of the selected candidates to interview for two positions in Sweden. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get either but what was interesting was that I applied for the positions with two of my colleagues. The person who got one of the positions wasn’t even invited to interview at the other and the two of us that did interview for both flipped in ranking between the two jobs. I don’t take this as a sign that the system is random but rather that when comparing good candidates, how qualities are weighted will always vary between selection committees. But of course it does worry me that I might never quite make it to the top of the list.

So given what I think is a somewhat realistic frame of mind, I have always taken the ‘let’s see what happens’ approach. That means that in conversations throughout my career I have not been dead certain that being a professor is my one and only goal. But when I’m honest about my uncertainty, I find that it can be mistaken for a lack of desire or drive. Like hinting that you are aware that there are few permanent professor positions and the reality is that you might not get one means you aren’t interested in continuing in academia.

To be clear: I love my job. I am sometimes afraid to admit how much I enjoy it, like a kid not wanting to jinx my chances. Sure there are lots of things that stress me out about this path but when I take a moment to think about it, I love my job. I love being able to think about new questions and new problems all the time. I love teaching and getting students excited about the world around them. I love the challenges I face that force me to grow and learn all the time. I love to write and present findings at conferences. I love talking to people about their work and collaborating. As a career, I can’t think of any better and I truly hope that I can keep on doing what I’m doing.

But here’s the catch: I’m not willing to sacrifice everything to achieve a tenure track position. I have a family that I need to consider if we make a move for a position, but I also have a family that I want to spend time with. For me that means I work less than I could and that is certainly is reflected in my publication rate. So when I look at my CV, I see that I could do better but I also know that I don’t want to trade-off my happiness now for some uncertain happiness in the future when I have tenure.

So should I be honest about my uncertainty? I have become wary of talking too frankly because I don’t want the perception to be that I’m not dedicated. Thus far I have been fortunate that I have been able to keep going in academia and I haven’t seriously considered other options. I might have to do that when my current funding runs out but for now I continue on working towards an eventual permanent position.

So for me, my post-PhD story doesn’t have an ending. I still feel in flux and don’t know where I will end up, geographically or otherwise. But for now I’m enjoying the ride.

8 thoughts on “How honest should I be about my career goals? My post-PhD story.

  1. Lie through your teeth. Also, delete this post.

    I’m only sorta kidding here. Most academics (ime, ymmv) have no clue about the world outside the Ivory Tower, and if you express any interest in working there they will immediately and forever consider you second-rate. If you want to be taken seriously inside the cloister, pretend that being part of that club is your sole goal in life. As you point out, it’s well nigh impossible to land a tenured spot already; if you are considering trying for it anyway, why make it harder?

  2. Rah, rah! I’m right there with you.

    I tend to tell people that I love research (which I do) and I think a tenure-track position would be great because of the freedom to do research (which it has), but that I’m not unilaterally excluding other options (because I’m realistic). If you talk up how much you love the sort of academic position you’re in and how much you’d like to keep doing it, I don’t think anyone will think you’re not dedicated. You clearly have passion for your work; let them see that.

    • I agree. Recently had a conference conversation where it became clear that the person initially thought that I wasn’t so interested in continuing on. So I thought I should be careful about how I express my realism in the future (ie if I do, I should make it very clear that I would really like the TT position first). Generally I feel like if I can’t make it in this game by being honest, then it isn’t one I want to play. But truthfully the longer I stay the harder it is to imagine not being a academic. I really do love my job. And I really hope that this post doesn’t make finding that permanent position harder! Not sure I’d want to work in the department that would discriminate against me for it though so I’m leaving it up.

  3. Yes, you should be careful about what you post under your real name…why do you think I write under the pseudonym “nameless adjunct”? I love teaching too…but I hate my job under these conditions. I feel devalued and demoralized so I am actually planning on leaving academia altogether because I’m too old for this nonsense and too young to give up on life. Good luck to you!

  4. “I love being able to think about new questions and new problems all the time. I love teaching and getting students excited about the world around them. I love the challenges I face that force me to grow and learn all the time. I love to write and present findings at conferences. I love talking to people about their work and collaborating.”

    You can do all these things in lots of jobs! Maybe “students” will be replaced by “colleagues” or “clients” but the essence will the same. I say go talk to people outside academia and see if you can find similarly-minded folk whose jobs/careers you might consider for yourself! How FUN!

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