The unhelpful academic/non-academic distinction

I’ve learned a lot in the 4 years since I started grad school, like how to analyze data in R, where to get the best food in San Diego, and how to file taxes (sort of). But one of the most surprising things I’ve learned is that there are two types of PhD holders — those who work in academia, and the others (people who pursue careers labeled as non-academic or alternative [to my knowledge, there’s no systematic difference in the way these terms are used]).

When you’re in academia, being part of the others is generally undesirable. Jacquelyn Gill described one pervasive mindset, that academics say “to the general public, ‘we want you to value us and our work, and be informed citizens, but we don’t want to walk amongst you– we are not you.'”

A lot of people ascribe to this strong categorical distinction between PhD holders “in” and “outside” the academy. But it’s a puzzling way to think about careers one might have with a PhD.

Talking about careers as either academic or non-academic suggests that those two are mutually exclusive, maybe even opposites in meaningful ways. But actually, whether PhDs are academics or non-academics, there are a lot of similarities in what their careers often entail: applying analytical and research skills to solving new problems, collaborating with others, reading, writing, teaching, and presenting. On the other hand, the only true difference between PhD-holding academics and non-academics (that I can think of) is whether their paycheck comes from a university or other organization (and even here there’s some flexibility). Is that difference really a meaningful one? One that warrants constantly separating PhDs into two distinct categories?

I also suspect that referring to non-academic or alternative careers turns many graduate students off of exploring those paths. If you had to choose to have either coffee or alternative coffee, what would you choose?! What if the alternative option was rebranded, maybe as a mocha or green tea? Under a new label, the option likely becomes more appealing for some people, and it definitely becomes more informative. Defining a massive suite of careers simply by what they are not is not very helpful.

Then why are so many careers referred to alternative or lumped together as non-academic?

In the not-too-distant past, receiving a PhD and embarking on a career that wasn’t traditionally academic was much rarer than it is today. There were fewer people graduating with PhDs than there are today, and there were almost as many academic jobs available as there were new PhDs, so remaining in academia was much more common. Now there are fewer available academic faculty jobs relative to graduates, and an exploding number of ways to apply PhD skills outside the academy.

Figure from The missing piece to changing the university culture, (2013). Maximiliaan Schillebeeckx, Brett Maricque & Cory Lewis. Nature Biotechnology 31, 938–941 doi:10.1038/nbt.2706

If we want to have meaningful discussions about PhD holders’ careers, we need to go beyond an academic/non-academic dichotomy.

Luckily, many people and groups are already raising awareness of the vast space of possibilities for PhD holders. For example, I’ve enjoyed following #withaphd discussions on Twitter, since they’re often initiated by PhD holders with jobs that help me realize there’s no end to the creative, impactful, and innovative work PhDs can do throughout their careers. I also participated in a Questioning Career Transition Group (though I do think the word “transitioning” reinforces the distinction I don’t love) at my university. In the group, we were guided through the process of introspecting on our values and goals for our careers, and to translate those into concrete career-related steps. I’ve also found the book So what are you going to do with that? to have great resources and anecdotes for PhD students thinking about post-defense possibilities.

These resources are helpful for raising awareness of the vast world that we often lump into the non-academic or alternative categories. I’m glad they exist. But I think we can and should go further to be more conscientious of our tendencies to juxtapose academic work and everything else, and the way this distinction might hinder career possibilities for grad students and PhDs.

6 thoughts on “The unhelpful academic/non-academic distinction

  1. Very good post. Since I’m a retired Ph.D. who got tenure in a major university and 5 years after tenure left for a job in the business world, I’ll speak quite frankly about this distinction. First let me say that academia is viewed as the alternative career for many Ph.D.s. “He who can’t do, teaches.” I realize that it is a slur against academics, and this is unfair, but there is a certain amount of truth in it as well. Certainly, staying in academia seems more comfortable to a grad student. What you will do is pretty well known. Going outside of academia requires more courage.
    In my case, my career took off when I got into the business world. I think it is because I grew up quickly in the business world, and also because I entered the business world with more knowledge about the field I was working in than most of the employees who were just hired by HR to fill a vacancy in the company.
    Let me also say that I see many profs who have the attitude that a non-academic career is less prestigious. Major profs for some perverted reason, want to brag that their student got a tenure track job at a research university. And even when the student accepts a job in the business world, the prof keeps telling them that they should switch to academia. It’s definitely a bias based on some sort of elitist ideology.

    1. Hi Charles, thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. I agree that there’s a real range of opinions and experiences on this distinction — many of them are unhelpful, or even hurtful. Hopefully conversations like this will help us make some progress, though 🙂

    1. Thanks 🙂 Actually… I defended my dissertation in November, and have moved to Washington DC for a research position at a communications think tank (called FrameWorks Institute —! I’m a month in already, and so far, so happy with this move. I wrote this post as I was firming up my plans to defend and reflecting A LOT on my next step. Thanks again for reading!

  2. I have learned a lot this year about “to do Ph.D.”, “PhDing”, and “post-PhD decisions” (I just coined the words randomly ;P). As I was reading your blogs and discussing this question with others, I also knew somebody said:”I like doing my PhD because it is intellectually challenging and I get to work with clever people.” But others would say in business or in industry, the challenges are more overwhelming and the changes are unpredictable. People grow up more quickly. Probably these are no longer the reasons that drive people to do PhD. I am still pondering the exact reason that drives me to pursue this degree…… Thank you so much for sharing your ideas with us, Rose.

    1. Yuhan, I’m so glad you find it helpful 🙂 They’re complicated topics, and I definitely don’t have total clarity on them for myself, but I’m sure as long as you keep thinking, talking with others, and experimenting and you’ll continue to find more clarity yourself!

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