To Work or to Finish?


What you should know about nonacademic careers for Ph.D.'s

After spending a year collecting data in Mexico, I returned from my fieldwork in early 2003 tanned but cash-strapped. The combination of a young family to support and three years spent working on a Ph.D. in rural sociology had decimated our savings.

To make ends meet, I jumped at the chance to make a few extra bucks doing any research even remotely relevant to my own interests. Of course, that took time away from sifting through mountains of data and transcribing dozens of interview tapes. But those tasks seemed so daunting that I welcomed a change. For one precious day a week, on a temporary research contract off campus, I could think of something other than my dissertation, and talk to "ordinary" folk outside the hallowed halls of academe.

Meanwhile, I had begun to dip my foot into the bottomless pool of hopeful candidates all competing for a handful of tenure-track jobs. Sure, I didn't have my Ph.D. in hand yet, but the way I figured it, what did I have to lose? I encountered two streams of thoughts on that. It was either, "You're wasting your time. Since you're A.B.D., departments won't even look at you," or "Go for it. I did the same when I was about halfway through grad school. Sure, I didn't get any interviews, but I got my name out there."

I leaned toward the latter view and started applying for tenure-track jobs. It wasn't long before the rejection letters began to arrive. One of the universities didn't even bother to write back, but the rest gave curt but polite responses. Rather than worry me, the rejections made me more determined than ever to finish what I had started and get my degree.

Then, as if according to some preordained plan, a telephone call threw a wrench into everything. "This job is meant for you," my dissertation adviser gushed, as she filled me in on the details. It was a contract position -- at least to start -- with a highly respected, for-profit research company based in my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta. We were living there but had expected to leave once I graduated. The job involved a three-month stint in northeastern Paraguay on a sustainable-development research project in the Interior Atlantic Forest.

I knew I had a lot to offer. I had worked previously for several years in Peru and conducted my master's research there, not to mention my research work in Mexico. I was familiar with the issues and fluent in Spanish. Besides, the project seemed perfect. Company officials even said that I could continue to work on my Ph.D. when I returned.

At first, I got so excited I could think of nothing else. After arranging the interview, however, the reality of what I was considering started to settle in.

"Was I crazy?" I thought. With two young children, and a history of going off for weeks or months at a time to work elsewhere, I was getting tired of the routine. My wife had patiently stood by me during 11 years of marriage as I tried to "find my way." Often that had meant taking on work commitments that brought us income, but kept me traveling or temporarily based in remote locations. Besides, taking on a job now would only defeat my purpose of finishing my Ph.D. within a year.

So I did the unfathomable. I called the company back and canceled the interview. It had come too soon, I said, apologizing for any trouble I might have caused. Although the company officials expressed disappointment, I assured them that I knew someone else who was a solid candidate.

Much to my surprise, they asked me to come in anyway and give them a presentation of my research experiences as an environmental sociologist. They admitted that most of their scientists didn't have a clue what a sociologist did, let alone one with a mixed background in natural resources and rural communities.

I accepted, and breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed like the right decision; meeting my potential employer face-to-face could lead to something else down the road.

The day of the presentation, I arrived at the agreed-upon time and was shuffled off to a meeting room. Four people were present, all managers of some sort. "We want to ask you a few questions first. Then we'll have you do your presentation," one of them said. "Sure," I replied, "Ask away!"

As they did, it began to dawn on me that the questions were not simply about what environmental sociologists do. They were interviewing me. They wanted to know, for example, what I thought of the Paraguay project and what changes I would make to it, if I were hired.

"Wait a minute!" I protested. "I think there's been a misunderstanding. As I said on the phone, I'm not interested in working with you at this time."

"Yes, we know that," one of the managers said. "But what would you say if we were to offer you a part-time role as an adviser until you're finished with your Ph.D. next year? After that, you could come on full time. You would be a part-time supervisor on contract to the project until then."

I was floored. Not wanting to sound too eager again, I said that might be acceptable. After the interview, I gave my research presentation. It was well received, but I went home scratching my head.

What was going on here? Were they being facetious? How could they go from offering me a short contract to full-time work, especially after I had turned them down in the first place? Or perhaps the initial contract was the bait that they had thrown me, and since I had rejected it, they had thrown out an even larger chunk that I couldn't resist?

The next week, one of the directors called me in for a personal chat. He proceeded to offer me exactly what had been suggested in the interview: a part-time advisory role, with only the odd day or two expected of me, and perhaps a very short trip to oversee the Paraguay project. Then, with Ph.D. in hand the following year, I would be hired full time. He offered me an attractive salary, with all of the benefits expected of an intermediate-level scientist and manager. He also encouraged me to work out an agreement with my department to maintain a role as an adjunct professor.

It seemed too good to be true. But as promised, a contract came two weeks later. Of course I couldn't say no twice in the same month. I signed it, took another deep breath, and started a new chapter.

In May, Ph.D. in hand, I joined the company as a full-time resource sociologist. My advice to those of you in a similar quandary -- whether to take a job before finishing your Ph.D. -- is to assess your own strengths carefully, and not cave into a "dream job" before you're ready, or before your degree is in hand.

Even if money is tight, a full-time job taken while you are still A.B.D. may make it more difficult to finish and successfully defend a dissertation. If a company wants you badly enough, then it should be willing to wait until you are done. If not, then so be it. There will be other opportunities, most likely better ones, if you finish your degree first.

Now immersed in creative work in my new position, I feel more relaxed than ever. My dreams of being a tenured professor may never be realized. Then again, this may be the step I need to get there. We'll see what happens from here.

Ross Mitchell is an environmental sociologist at a for-profit research organization in Canada.