Getting a PhD without wanting to be a professor: reflections on a fun but sometimes awkward career path

I’ve had a number of masters students and junior colleagues ask recently about the idea of doing a PhD without the explicit aim of going into the academy and becoming a professor. I’ve gotten the question “how and why did you do this?” enough times in the last few months that I thought it’d be good to write down the advice, insights, and experiences that come up in these discussions for others to see. The questioners envision jobs in government, places like the United Nations and World Bank, or other types of public and private sector organizations where research skills and deep thematic knowledge are useful. I enjoy answering these questions because I too am a ‘weird’ PhD – someone who pursued a doctorate with the aim of doing something other than becoming a professor.

As you read, keep in mind: I am only talking about a PhD in the social sciences in this post. The natural and physical sciences, and the humanities, have their own unique cultural idiosyncrasies and professional infrastructures. I’ll frame things as ‘opportunities’, ‘warnings’, and ‘tips’ that can be used to think about whether a PhD is the right thing for someone who doesn’t want to be a professor.

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I think context is really important in understanding generally why a PhD has unique positives, and some rather serious negatives.

I start by asking students “what do you think a PhD is?” It’s an important question, because PhDs are weird things. Unlike other advanced academic qualifications that are skills or job oriented, a PhD traditionally has been the qualification for a professorship and entry into academic peerage. This necessitates a warning: A lot of the things you get rewarded for in academia are not rewarded when you work in government, policy, or the private sector. This doesn’t mean there is no practical value gained from doing a PhD, but it will be entirely incumbent on you to translate that value to non-academic audiences. Further, with some exceptions, most disciplinary social science professors will have little idea what is valued in terms of skills and networking outside academia. Basically, if you want to do a PhD and then take that experience into the non-university world, be prepared to blaze your own trail (and manage the attendant loneliness that comes with that).

The next issue is where to do a PhD. There are big cultural and organizational differences between PhD training in different countries. While American, Canadian, British, and Australian academia is organized around departments of professors and annual cohorts of PhD students, European academia is still rather grounded in a model where students apply to work with professors directly. I would say that the American/Canadian/British model affords PhD students more scope to do the things that are necessary to build networks outside the academy. So, my first tip is if your goal is to do a PhD and do something outside academia I would recommend focusing on options in the U.S., UK, and Canada.

Once you’re ready to trail blaze keep in mind: it is still very unusual for people with PhDs to move back and forth between academia and practice. There are some exceptions; watch though for how many of these people are employed at highly prestigious universities, and often had tenure before embarking on the non-academic side of their careers. So now a warning: For early career researchers (those who are soon to defend their dissertation or are untenured post-docs), leaving the academy for a job in the practice world can be the end of one’s university-based academic career.

Enough warnings now, let’s talk opportunities. Government, international organizations, and the private sector are all great places to apply the skills learned during a PhD. You don’t need a PhD to work in these places, but you can build unique networks around your thematic expertise that can open doors into these places. In this way a PhD is an advantage if you want to find your way in a specialized area of policy or practice. A PhD is also an amazing (and at times agonizing) opportunity to learn something and contribute to knowledge about a topic you’re passionate about. With the usual ‘buyer beware’ warnings about PhDs covered I’ll now talk about my experience. Hopefully some insights from it can help others who are considering the weird journey of the PhD candidate who doesn’t want to be a professor.

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I decided I wanted to do a PhD when I was 23 or 24 and still working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa. I basically wanted to do it because it seemed like a good way to have a wood-paneled office at Georgetown University where I could think, have easy access to the halls of power in Washington, D.C. where I could influence foreign policy with my expertise, and get to wear elegant tweed suits every day. I imagined the job being something like “tastefully appointed public intellectual politico”, and since all the people I saw who had this job had PhDs I thought I should get one too. It wasn’t well thought out, but we all need a starting point.

Even though it was naive, I can draw two tips from this early experience. One is that if you’re going to do a PhD with the aim of working outside a university setting, you need to know it ahead of time. While I had no idea what a PhD actually entailed, I knew that people who did work I thought was cool had PhDs. Serving in the Peace Corps and working at a think tank research assistant in Washington, D.C. during my masters helped me decide that yes, indeed, I wanted to do the PhD but not be a professor and accept the hard path this entailed.

This brings me to the incredible group of senior researchers, academics, and policy makers I worked with in my 20s who gave me guidance as I embarked on the PhD journey. When I first applied programs, one of them said they’d only write a letter of recommendation if I listened to them explain why a PhD will ruin my life. Cherish the people who will tell it like it is – his insights, while couched in a funny way, were all true and would have been painful shocks to encounter unprepared. If you’re going to do a PhD with the aim of working outside academia, you will need your advisors, mentors and senior academics in your corner – nurture those relationships! Even with all the help, you still have to get into a program though. Here comes a warning.

I said earlier that PhDs are entry credentials to a peerage as much as a career. This means that from the application stage, you will be judged on how well you understand this peerage and the things that it values. You demonstrate this with your Statement of Purpose. Writing a PhD application statement of purpose is a very idiosyncratic activity so I will offer only one tip: Don’t say you don’t want to be a professor. One of the biggest signaling mechanisms PhD programs have to show how awesome they are is their academic placement record. It looks very good if they place lots of PhD students in tenure-track jobs at other universities. Conversely, it is of little value to them if one of their PhD students goes into a non-academic job. When I first applied, I made it clear that I didn’t want to be a professor, and I got rejected across the board. When I applied the following year I said “I want to be a professor” and did marginally better on the acceptance rate… so know your audience.

So now I was IN! I studied at George Mason University’s Carter School of Peace and Conflict Resolution. The Carter School, like it’s peers Johns Hopkins SAIS, Tufts University’s Fletcher School, American University’s School of International Service, and other international affairs professional schools have a strong orientation toward policy and practice. Their masters programs are feeders for diplomatic, government, security, and international organizations. The professional nature of the schools influences their PhD programs, which tend to be friendlier to candidates who have post-PhD aspirations that aren’t professorships. These types of professional schools are more prevalent in the U.S., UK, and Canada, hence my advice in the last section.

I knew I wanted to work in a hybrid policy-research job, so I also picked Carter school because it’s in D.C. Tip: If you want to do a PhD and then go into policy work, study where the policy work is being done. Then network, network, network. Find consulting gigs that are interesting but short term and flexible enough not to interfere with your PhD progress. I worked part time with a private sector firm called TechChange, picked up short gigs with UNDP and the U.S. Institute of Peace, gave talks at UN agencies, etc. This is the blazing your own trail part, and I’ll be honest: if you’re not comfortable with doing some self-promotion, it’ll be tough. Its not impossible, but you’ll have to think about how you’ll get comfortable making your skills and expertise available to audiences outside academia and which outreach channels will work for you.

[We’re almost to the end, but a quick note: If you harbor any notion that you might want to be a professor you should absolutely do all the academia ‘prep steps’ during your PhD. This means academic conferences, publishing working papers, trying to publish in journals, and writing a dissertation that is as top-flight as possible. These things won’t prevent you from finding a job outside academia, but if you don’t do them during your PhD you won’t be competitive on the academic job market later.]

So how did I end up at IDOS doing rigorous scientific research and policy advice and a lot of public science communication? After returning from PhD fieldwork in Samoa, someone at the World Bank found a paper in a conference archive that I’d written a few years before. They thought I operationalized a theory they had developed in a paper they wrote in a creative way, cold emailed me to tell me they thought my paper was interesting and asked me to lunch. We ate lunch, got on well, and they offered me a consulting gig. I did that for a few years, finished my PhD, felt like the Bank was too operational for my taste and went on the job market. I was in Germany and chanced across the job I ended up getting at IDOS – it seemed like a stretch, but I was enough of a fit to get an interview, and I did well enough to be the second choice candidate. As my luck had it, the first-choice candidate decided not to take the job so it was offered to me. Thus, my last tip is “make the most of the luck that breaks your way”. There’s a lot you can do to make your own luck, too – post papers to repositories, take a shot at an interesting looking job even if it’s only a loose fit, accept the lunch invitations, give talks to audiences outside academia who might find your work interesting.

Choosing to live between two worlds, academic and practice, is hard and comes with constant tension, but it’s a rewarding career path if it’s what you want.

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Important note on privilege and the dark thing behind the curtain

What you just read is a pretty sanitized version of things, so just a few less sanitized points:

First, it’s important to highlight the things that unfairly worked (and continue to work) in my favor as a professional social scientist. For starters I’m a white man whose parents worked at a university, and thus had social networks from within that world. I ‘knew’ the academic milieu before entering it to certain degree. Second: money. While I was at times personally uncomfortably poor during my PhD, I always had family resources available in an emergency. It’s a travesty that in the scientific profession class, race, and gender still have such a huge bearing on how a career will develop. We’ll see how this changes in the coming years, but I think these issues will be with us for a while yet. If you have in-built class or social advantages use them to hold the door open for others as much as you can.

What worked against me? Depression was a regular co-traveler during my PhD, and in the uncertain transition from PhD student to professional scientist (it continues to be as well). I was very lucky to have advisors, and now bosses, who care(d) enough to make sure my health was a priority, but this is not the case everywhere. Take care of yourself when you’re trying to make the PhD-but-not-professorship path work, because even in the best circumstances there will be some hard knocks.

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