Deprogramming From the Academic Cult


One of the recurring themes from my mail has been about "deprogramming" from the cult that academic research careers are superior to others. Graduate students spend years in a culture that views academic careers as the crème de la crème (this is especially true at elite institutions), and pretty soon they begin to believe it. Not pursuing an academic career can be seen as settling for second best, if not downright failure. There are several variations on this theme, for example:

A feeling of personal failure born of abandoning a dream or of letting people down

After talking with more people I'm now convinced that a successful academic career at a prestigious research-focused university would require sacrifices in my family life that I'm not prepared to make at this time. ... It is extremely hard to let go of my own expectations. Even though I know now that I would be happier outside academia, it was my dream for so long. It would be such a relief to finally accept that a different path is for me and to let go of the guilt and uncertainty. Will people be disappointed? Will I regret it? -- Ph.D. in Educational Psychology.

Internalized pressure from the academic culture

Although I never intended to become an academic when I started graduate school, I was brainwashed into believing that was the ONLY thing worth doing by the time I graduated. I was miserable in academia, but I pressed on believing that if I could only do it well enough to achieve real success, then I would be rewarded and happy. -- Crystal Blyler, Ph.D. in Psychology.

I think there is a feeling that the alternatives are for the people who cannot make it. I am still struggling with this feeling. -- Assistant Professor, Economics.

My career change has been more like a family secret: an accepted but not-discussed fact. ... So along with the anger and grief I still feel about my unsuccessful efforts to get a teaching/research job, I feel let down by my mentors. ... The messages I've heard have been confused and confusing: 'Do your level best, but it won't make any difference, and, besides, we don't care.' -- Ph.D. in English.

The pressure of expectations outside academia

People I encounter at work often can't understand why I am working there [in a state office of communications]. At times I feel ashamed if my educational background comes up in conversation. People often ask why I'm not teaching at some institution. They imply that my job is beneath me somehow. -- A.B.D. in English.

With all due respect to those who are thriving in academic careers, I write this column to support people struggling with these issues, by showing you that you are not alone. Except where noted, I have drawn the examples accompanying my advice below from a recent e-mail message from Crystal Blyler, the Ph.D. in Psychology quoted above. Crystal recently switched from a postdoctoral position at a prestigious research institution to the federal government; and she exemplifies the struggle (successful in her case) to "deprogram."

Look deep inside and be true to yourself. That is the only legitimate "should" in my view. On your deathbed, what are you going to regret more -- disappointing your advisers or not being true to yourself?

When my mentor told me that conducting research should be 'like music,' I knew I was in the wrong field. A long-time piano player, I find a sweetness and beauty and fluidity in music that was at perfect odds to my experiences in research. If research was music, it was either a dirge or a modern cacophony of discordant simulations. I was out of there!

Remember that there are many ways to be true to yourself and still fulfill certain obligations, such as supporting yourself and family or taking a spouse's career or other needs into consideration. For example, the Ph.D. in Education quoted above found a non-tenured job at her university that involves teaching and directing research but that allows her time for her two young children.

Reframe your "failure" into a success. You got your Ph.D. for legitimate reasons, and it has given you impressive skills and expertise valued beyond the academy. (See my earlier column on transferring your skills.) If you buy into a sense of failure in the least way, you will unconsciously communicate it to others. Conversely, if you truly believe yourself to be a success, others are much more likely to see you in that light. And if they don't, you will see it as their problem, not yours.

I began a social-science-analyst position at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration two months ago, and I am not looking back. My work here IS like music. The government is a very different world from academia, but it has much to offer: good salary, good hours, nice people, and decent workspace. Most importantly, contrary to what academicians would have you believe, interesting work and intelligent people are available in many different kinds of businesses.

Network with people who are happily ensconced in careers outside the ivory tower. This will help you reframe your "failure" as well as discover possible career options.

Another reader, a Ph.D. in Modern European History who is currently having "a grand time" with non-academic endeavors, writes: "After graduating I faced the Battle of the Somme which is the modern job market. All my fellow Ph.D.'s went "over the top" with me; no one landed a job. I received a ton of sympathy from everyone (bless their souls) but no really empowering advice, much less concrete suggestions. I say this not to blame but rather by way of comparison -- to my ultimate Frisbee pick-up game Saturdays in the park.

Although no one was doing anything remotely related to my field, and most were puzzled at first as to what I might do, within weeks I found myself deluged with ideas. Some of them were quite creative; others were lucrative, including a three-month consulting gig in Moscow that earned me some $12,000. My point is that academics are so worried about "the" job market (as if there were only one) and so insecure about the value of their skills that they fail to practice the basic networking and brainstorming skills which are the standard-issue kit of any other profession. To really improve the job prospects of Ph.D.'s, we need to encourage them to think creatively about careers, develop networks beyond their institutions, and maintain the sense of adventure that many seemingly less-spiritually rewarding professions preserve.

What if you love research but cannot get an academic position or have decided to take a non-academic job? Can you continue your research without an academic affiliation?

In principle, yes. You can if your job (assuming you have one) does not take all your energy, if you are disciplined, and if your research is not expensive or dependent on university resources. Nonetheless, it helps to have the imprimatur of a university affiliation, not to mention the stimulation provided by colleagues.

Most universities and research centers are flexible about offering non-salaried research affiliations, assuming that your research interests dovetail with theirs and that you have appropriate academic credentials. Your advisers or other mentors could be helpful in paving the way for such an affiliation. Check out Gale's Research Centers Directory for ideas.

Margaret Newhouse is assistant director of career services for Ph.D's at Harvard University. Even though she cannot answer e-mail personally, Ms. Newhouse appreciates comments, stories, and suggestions. Please send your comments to