Thinking about getting a Ph.D? Most experts will tell you it’s a bad idea. The average doctoral student takes about 8 years to complete her degree — if she finishes it at all. The Ph.D. Completion Project estimates that only between 50 and 60 percent of candidates finish their dissertation within 10 years. And even when they do, well, it's no guarantee they'll get a decent-paying job.
“Universities have stopped hiring tenure-track professors and have replaced them with adjuncts,” says Karen Kelsky, author of the new book “The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job.” Those adjuncts receive what she calls "Wal-Mart wages," some even having to go on food stamps to support themselves and their families.
That's why Kelsky — a former tenured professor and department head who has taught at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — started her blog, The Professor Is In. “My graduate students were desperate and scared about this job market yet weren’t getting the information they needed to deal with it.” Since then, she’s launched a consulting business, helping more than 4,000 clients get jobs.
We asked her for some of her tips.
Don’t get obsessed with your thesis
Graduate school isn’t just about doing research 24/7: it’s also about getting a job. “Students forget that and get obsessed with their research project — which makes sense! — but you have to remember that people go to graduate school because they imagine they're going to have a career at the end of it,” says Kelsky.
That means: start surveying the job market from Day 1 of school. “Look at the job ads and ask: ‘What kinds of jobs are available, what are employers looking for and how can I orient myself to be a candidate for this job?’” Kelsky suggests. Getting teaching experience — and not just as a TA — will also get your head out of the books and give you experience that you can later add to your resume, to boot.
Think of your thesis as a means to a job
Still, your dissertation is very important, and having the right topic is key. “It should be timely and about something your field considers important or relevant,” says Kelsky. (Students will know whether their topic is the right one from observing their field and talking with their advisor.)
As you’re writing, think about what chapters you can isolate for publication. “You have to publish at least one journal article during grad school — and probably more than one — before you go on the market,” Kelsky says.
Network, network, network
Sure, academics may not be known as social butterflies, but that doesn’t give them an excuse to shut themselves in their Ivory Tower. They have to hustle. “Relationships are the core to hiring,” says Kelsky. “While you’re in school go to your field’s major national conference and present a paper at it. Later organize a panel at it. That's how you network and get your name out there.”
Keep your options open
Just because you’re in graduate school doesn’t mean you have to go into academia. After all, Ph.D. candidates have many skills that are valued in all different kinds of job markets — from public speaking to statistics to writing on deadline. Go on informational interviews at companies that interest you, do an internship or volunteer in another field, and cultivate relationships and mentorships with those outside academia.
“I understand that it can be very painful and difficult to let go of the identity of professor or academic because a Ph.D. takes so many years,” says Kelsky. “But if you do it this whole world opens up to you and you see all the skills you have and all the directions you can go. So I encourage people to do that even while they're in grad school before it's forced on them by sort of a crisis situation.”