Lack of job security: PhD students reject academia

This week I wanted to write about a worrying phenomenon that is affecting the academic job market at the moment. PhD students coming up to the submission of their thesis are deciding to move out of the academic world and into other careers simply because of the lack of job security offered to them.

Anecdotally I have spoken to several PhD students about to finish their degrees and they have expressed grave concerns over the situation in the job market. When did it become normal, they ask, for someone who has already done 7 years at university studying their specialist subject to then have to do another 3 or 4 years working in temporary, part time contracts while they wait for something permanent to come along? That period in temporary work is crippling for some people who have already put off buying a house, or starting a family, for a number of years during postgraduate study.

Nobody feels that they are owed a job, but it’s obvious that in the current situation we are losing some of the brightest minds to other professions because our universities’ priority seems to be to get in from outside the best senior scholars and not bring on their own graduates through the ranks. This brain drain away from academia could seriously affect the future of scholarship in this country. It’s no comfort to know that the situation in the US is similar with many people forced into what they call ‘adjunct’ jobs while looking for something more secure.

What can we do about it? I think it requires a change of priority at upper levels of university management. Not everyone who does a PhD wants to go into academia, but many do, and so when universities realise this and offer more security to their newly qualified PhD students, the situation will hopefully improve.


About Catherine Armstrong

Dr Catherine Armstrong is a Senior Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University, specialising in North American History. She is a former teaching fellow in History at the University of Warwick and Oxford Brookes University. Catherine was also Director of Historical Studies in the Open Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her first book ‘Writing North America in the Seventeenth Century’ was published by Ashgate in June 2007. As a long-time jobseeker for an academic role herself, Catherine is in a unique position to understand and offer her knowledge and experience to those developing an academic career.

28 Responses to Lack of job security: PhD students reject academia

  1. What university, in the UK at least, can afford to make that kind of change of priority while their funding is driven by the RAE? They need high achievers, and there are so many people going through the process that there’s no shortage. I’m afraid that the most effective thing universities can do is decrease the number of Ph.D. students they take on and select only the best of the best. I don’t like that logic, but the jobs simply aren’t there for everyone that’s coming through.

  2. Stephanie says:

    I think this is very true. I graduated with my PhD in July 2008. I would love to go into academia and have applied for more than one post. However, so far I’ve only been called to an interview for an academic post once, and that one was for a temporary maternity cover job. I didn’t get it, but most of the people who were at interview were clearly in the same boat as me; recent graduates trying to get on the first rung of the ladder.

    Longer jobs, I don’t necessarily even mean permanent just more than a few months duration, we don’t even seem to get to interview stage. If I query it, then I either don’t have enough teaching experience, administration experience, research experience, publications etc. It’s kind of a catch-22 situation because whilst I am doing my best to boost all of these, it’s not easy to do so whilst not actually in academia. It’s not impossible, but it is harder. Especially since I do need some sort of job and paying for rent, food and so on cuts into time I could otherwise have spent doing something more career-wise.

    Sooner or later, if I don’t manage to secure a position (even a short one) I’m going to be forced into making a decision I don’t really want to make simply because there is a limit to how long I can keep trying to make ends meet in the way that I am at present.

  3. John Gibson says:

    I really do wish some proper research could be done into this phenomenon, as it affected me terribly. I thin kthere is a real reluctance within the profession to confront this serious issue.

    My stroy is as follows. I completed my PhD in Politics, did 2 postdocs (1 ESRC-funded, 1 at the LSE), have 2 articles published in leading journals, have been to all the leading conferences in my field, and have a clear research agenda for the next several years, including 2 collaborative projects with colleagues in other universities (one of whom is an American scholar at Miami).

    Despite all of this, I have applied for 120 (that is not a typo – it is one hundred and twenty) lectureships since 2006 and have never even had an interview, let alone a job offer. And only around 10% of PhD graduates secure temporary postdocs as I did, so what that means for those who don’t get such postdoc positions…well, I think they have no chance at all of ever securing academic work, quite frankly. If I can’t get a job, I don’t see how someone who “only” has a PhD will ever get one.

    With the odds so stacked against PhD graduates from ever securing academic work, it is no surpirse that we now have a generation of PhD students who have no intention of even bothering to think about academia as a prospective career. I now work in market research and although the pay isn’t particularly good for now, at least I have some job security and every prospect of becoming a senior consultant within my company fairly quickly.

    University managers are unlikely in my opinion to offer newly-qualified PhD students any kind of job security. The academic sector is following the US lead in casualisation, of increasing numbers of part-time teachers and casual seminar teachers. We are well past the RAE and, contrary to expectation, departments are still not hiring for the future. Furthermore, in my experience, over half of the jobs I have applied for (i.e. over 60) since 2006 have gone to North American scholars. I think the increasing exclusion of home-grown PhD students from the academic job market in favour of overseas candidates is (yet another) unspoken element of a picture in which we now have nothing less than a Lost Generation of talented and keen young scholars, frozen out of academia through having graduated with PhDs at the wrong time.

    I actively advise young people not to undertake PhDs now (indeed, I have steered at least 3 MA-level students away from PhDs simply through recounting my own horror story of joblessness and resultant mental illness). I believe the academic sector will face a crisis in about 5 years when vast numbers of existing staff retire, and the 15-20 new universities that are planned by the government begin to open their doors. Where will the staff come from?

  4. Stephen says:

    I enjoy this blog, and the issues it raises, as it is one of the few sources of information on academia from the perspective of a young academic.
    I regularly browse the humanities listings, and the significant mismatch between supply and demand will only continue, as there are more phd opportunities than job advertisements (especially first job advertisements).
    I’m not convinced however by attempts to blame the problem on the dark, always anonymous figure of the university manager. Older academics are quite happy to supervise phd students, for their own job security, without showing much regard fo the welfare of those people following their studies. This is a generational problem – the baby boomers have shown themselves to be the most short-term, self-centred generation in modern times. Because the same mismatch between supply and demand has also been created in business and industry, there is less cause for concern over a young ‘brain-drain’ – there are a decreasing number of opportunities for those smart young people outside of academia also (law is another bubble waiting to burst, for example).
    If you are smart, creative, and passionate, try starting a business – just as many of the world’s best companies were created in the 1930s, in order to secure long-term prosperity we need to create new technologies and businesses.

  5. I am glad I am not alone here!

    I have also been struggling since i graduated. I am a graduate of Molecular biology, which still has many active research centres. I played everything as best i could, and published in leading journals. I have sent out over the last 2 years in excess of 100 applications (all carefully written) and thus far have had 4 interviews.

    the situation at least in the UK is untenable. I have been left feeling that all my hard work and sacrifices are for nothing, and in fact I attempted suicide twice. I have since re-trained in IT, and am currently working for a middle-weight wage buliding websites. its not neuroscience (my real work was in that) but at least its work.

    I cant understand the logic in having a degree structure where there is no help or birdge to get post-docs into employment. if further training is needed, i.e. to go into industry, why is it not widely available? I have come across several schemes that help overseas students, not for us who live here. I am very upset by this.

    i would like nothing more than to carry out good research, and all i need is a lab and a grant. these are not available without affiliation to an institution. so we are left floating around ‘over-qualified’ for everything else. this is not acceptable.

    I hope that I am not alone in the sentiment that PhD really means very little to those who have one except a large amount of disappointment that hard work and sacrifices mean very little in the eyes of employers.

  6. Tim says:

    I know this might sound contrary to everyone else’s experiences here, but of the three PhD students who graduated from my (humanities) department last year, all secured full-time lecture-grade jobs at least 3 months before handing in their PhDs, and one started her lectureship a good 6 months before submitting her PhD. So there is hope at least!

  7. Pari says:

    The problem is not with the institutions. PhD students, and I include myself in this category, have very little in the way of “wordliness” about them on average. The questions are simple – what are employers looking for? Why am I doing a PhD? What transferrable skills? But the most important one is networking. I think we can’t train people in these skills directly. They need to find them through their ownlife and experiences. And academia does not give people the culture to do this. I did well after my PhD in securing new opportunities, but only after a soul-destroying 2 year postdoc and lots of self-introspection. I had to learn those skills.

  8. Dr. John Gibson says:

    Well, I have just received (yet again) confirmation that I will not be invited to an interview for another academic post (no. 130 in all). This was for a 1-year post in very average department in a low-ranking university. The position attracted 102 applications.

    The feedback I solicited about my application suggested I try to get some more teaching experience by writing to all universities in the immediate vicinity and asking for part-time teaching hours.

    I am 32 years old. I have already sacrificed a good chunk of my earning years to pursue a PhD. I have done my bit. I have finished a successful PhD. I have published my work in leading journals. I have won research funding. I have proven myself to be willing to relocate for the profession. It is time the profession paid something back, quite frankly.

    I cannot afford to leave my (non-academic) job and go into a casual stream of labour. What am I supposed to do in the vacation periods? How am I supposed to save for a property? How am I supposed to fund my eventual retirement without paying into a pension scheme? Does the academic profession have ANY F***ING CLUE WHATSOEVER about real life?

  9. Dr Brian Gourley says:

    I can totally empathise with the comments above. I have found myself in the same sort of position some three years after doing my oral viva. I have even been published internationally but have only been called to one job interview despite submitting applications on numerous occasions. The competition is absolutely fierce. In my opinion, it seems that universities only want to take on postgraduates because of the money that they bring in, i.e. the research funding. Take away the financial incentive and universities would recruit far fewer postgrads and doctoral students, since a great deal of senior academics (my own supervisor included) are selfish, vain egotists only interested in advancing their own careers at the expense of others.

  10. Darren G says:

    I agree with Jonathon Jarrett previously – there are simply too many PhD studentships and not enough post-doctoral jobs.

    The solution? At least in the short-term, academics should look to get funding for post-docs, rather than PhD studentships. The difference to them and the funders is minimal –
    for a PhD student: £13-15k stipidend+£4k tuition fees +£10k overheads/bench costs= £23-25k a year.

    For a PostDoc – £28k (22k) salary + £10k overheads/bench fees = £38k a year. And heck, I’m sure a lot of us PhD-graduates would be happy to work as Research Associates or whatever your university wants to call them, on a lower salary, if it meant a job (the 22k figure in brackets).

    When applying for funding – a £15k (£9k) difference is far from a deal-breaker. particularly in the sciences where materials cost will be the bulk of the funding application. Add to that the fact that a PhD student needs much more supervision, will require more training before s/he is ‘effective’ in research, and the cost difference is negligible.

    As a recent PhD-graduate, I found myself in a position where I was looking for technical or temporary (few months contract) jobs, simply because there are no permanent or 2-3 year academic jobs in the UK in my field. Even so, for these fairly terrible jobs, there are generally >100 applicants, for a vacancy that doesn’t actually exist because there is an internal candidate. (I’m just thankful that most universities pay the expenses of attending an interview, even if it does take them months to do so.)

    I’ve been lucky in that I managed to successfully apply for unaffiliated funding to allow me to convert the parts of my thesis not already published into publications, which works out well time-wise for the start of a PGCE course, so I can go into teaching.

    I’ve no doubt that if I wanted to – I could end up working for a company, doing a job I hate, using the ‘transferable skills’ I’ve learnt through my 6 years in university. My objection is that I love my subject, and so far have made a lot of sacrifices to study it. Whilst I’d love to stay in an academic world that worked, this one does not. To find a job in academia is basically waiting for someone to retire or die. Teaching is the only career I can think of that would give me some stability , whilst still working within my subject. Thankfully, I love teaching, so for me it is not much of an issue.

    • Ikay H says:

      Hi, I have an offer to do a Phd, but at the same time, am considering doing a PGCE course.
      So I am really weighing my options. what do you think?
      How did that go for you? plus how can I get info on how to successfully apply for the unaffiliated funding.

  11. Dr Glenn Athey says:

    I completed my Ph.D in 1998. The jobs market for PhDs was just the same then as it is now. I remember raising the issue at a workshop of universities for postgrads. Instead of doing something about it they said that ‘more research needs to be done about this!’ well, it speaks volumes really.

    About 2 years into my Ph.D., I knew I didn’t want to work in academia. This was for several reasons. One was the lack of entry level lectureship jobs, and the likelihood of taking employment as a temporary researcher on a subject that was outside of my area of interest. Another reason was the queue of people waiting for lectureships – so many PhD grads in these temporary jobs who had more experience and publications. Another reason was that I did a CASE studentship – working with an external sponsor (a govt agency) and saw that I would quite like to work in such an agency. The people working in such agencies seemed quite sharp, well read and understood a lot. This burst the bubble of my view of the academics as the ultimate experts. Clearly they did not have a monopoly on relevant knowledge.

    The final reason for me was that a lot of the performance of academics seemed to be assessed by the amount of journal articles and publications, not on the social value of their work.

    So I ended up as a consultant for 3 years, then have been a public sector economist for 8 years. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and am writing journal articles again, but with a big practical emphasis.

    Most full time academics I meet are pretty down about it – too much work, low pay, not enough resources, student demands have increased with fees.

  12. At rock bottom says:

    I’m so glad to have read these posts. I finished my PhD almost 5 years ago and am currently working in a dead end part time job which I was lucky to be able to get just because of work I had done before going to university. I have just resigned myself to the fact that I will never get work in a university as I have been away so long and I must admit, there are times when I feel so low about it all that suicide has crossed my mind. My self esteem is at rock bottom and I’m finding it increasingly difficult to function properly for the sake of my family. As a friend in a similar position said recently, a PhD is not a qualification -it’s a dis-qualificaton.

  13. jasmine16 says:

    I am in the same boat as many of you. I have recently completed my PhD, however I opted not to pursue a post-doctoral position. Instead, I have been looking to transition into clinical research, or scientific consulting. However, my lack of experience in these fields have been a deterrent. At this point in time, I feel as though I am going to be few steps away from homelessness if I don’t secure employment soon. So I may have to start applying for random contract jobs just to get by. Who would have thought after all of the sacrifice made to obtain a PhD in science, you’d face such obstacles in the end? This is incredibly disturbing!! Like many of you, the thought of suicide has crossed my mind, however my faith in God’s plan for my life motivates me to simply keep trying in spite of hardships. Nevertheless, when my career settles, I plan to return to my university in hopes of implementing an alternative career program for PhD students. I can’t believe universities have no programs set in place!! This is ridiculous!

  14. Don says:

    Why has the number of full-time jobs been reduced? Twenty-five years ago, 75% of the jobs in American colleges were full-time; today the proportion is 25% and projected to 15% by the end of the decade. However, enrollments and tuition fees continue to skyrocket. Where are these new revenues going? Has the government cut educational spending? I see, at many campuses in my country, average faculty salaries go down while acquisitions of real estate and construction of dormitories, classrooms, gymnasia, etc, continue at a prodigious rate, allowing contractors to make millions or dollars, while administrative salaries and bonuses continue to fly through the roof. I believe public education has been made into a huge corporate-welfare machine which only the legislatures can hope to dismantle.

  15. Shawn says:

    Interesting, the article is two years old, but becomes truer by the day.

    What is the difference between someone with a PhD and someone with a PhD plus 3-5 years of post doc? Nothing really, I mean the guy that gets the job will have the post docs, but really the only difference is that person has been taken advantage of for 5+ years.

  16. roberta says:

    Don’t do a PhD —-you are simply cheap –extremely talented –skivvy

    You don’t and WON’T get that ‘next post’ because the next -younger – cheaper bunch come along —

    Box Clever though—-I would say REGISTER YOUR COPYRIGHT all your suggestions for future work——as they may be worth a fortune in times to come—in fact challenge all the IP assertions of your PhD contract

    if you don’t you are giving carte blanche for your supervisor/departments to pinch your ideas for grants – don’t let them—-novel ideas are extremely difficult for established lecturers to come up with–they are desperate for yours

  17. Chris Parker says:

    I can’t get an academic job because I am underqualified
    I can’t get an office job because I am overqualified
    I can’t get a manual job because they think I think the job is benieth me
    I can’t go back into my old profession because I am ‘out of practice’
    I can’t learn a new profession because I have spent 3 years learning to be a researcher
    I can’t pay rent
    I can’t plan for the future
    I can’t do anything but wait

    Tell me, with a PhD What the hell am I meant to do?

  18. Shep says:

    I’ve been looking for an academic job for 8 years now, and despite vast teaching experience, a monograph, 2 edited books, nearly 10 articles on so on, I’m forced to conclude my time has passed. There are 2 related problems as I see it. One, institutions (or many of them) simply take PhD students to appear research active; they tell you little about what you need to do to get on, by the time I had worked that out, we’d moved to cutbacks. Two, instutitions seem only too happy to juice initial enthusiasm for a few years then move on to the next exploitables when you start asking for more sustainable work etc.

  19. gogo says:

    You should all be well appreciated. No matter whether you can find a job or not,
    you are the ones contributing the most in the world, sacrificing your precious time
    doing research and advancing the knowleadge of the world. You are all great
    researchers in the world. The god will bless all of you and you will all definitely
    have bright future. Don’t give up !

  20. Edward Tagg says:

    This trend represents the larger changes in society at this point in our history. Namely, that we are on the verge of a global evolution breakthrough into a higher spiritual development that sees beyond the materialistic narrow mindedness of the current world view… This can be seen in the Occupy movement, and somewhat limited development in the new age movement.

    To summarize, we are spiritual beings having a human experience, and as such, we no longer need “guarantees” about job security or home security or defense security, because we are higher than that, and these lessons are playing themselves out on a global scale before the curtain closes on the stage of our final lesson as an evolving planetary consciousness …

    Please excuse the fluffy new age language, because I do not generally listen to this style of language myself, but the important truth of our evolution away from fear cannot be expressed any other way… I counsel many academics that are generally not very courageous, and prefer to aim for a cushy life of security, but we do not grow in an environment within an illusion of security… (which is what an ivory tower is pretending to be).

  21. Holding a permanent academic post says:

    I was very fortunate to be able to secure a permanent academic position after graduating last year, or so I thought. Whilst the idea of a permanent contract sounds much more agreeable than years as a post-doc on short-term contracts, I feel as though my intellectual wings have been clipped and I’m tied down to a never-ending stream of administrative duties. As a result I’m ‘stuck’ in an institution from which I cannot escape because my research profile is having to be neglected in favour of filling out endless forms for government information requests, solving mundane timetabling issues, entering student data onto various systems etc., because the institution will not employ the administrative staff to support the academic talent for which I was originally employed. The number of hours that I work , stress I’m put under, skill sets (councelling, web design….) that are demanded from me and level of problem-solving skills that I must demonstrate on a daily basis would see me earning around double the salary I’m currently on were I in, say, marketing, in the City.

    Think twice before hankering after these academic posts-there is a reason why so many academics live in smaller houses, have failed marriages, commit suicide, go ‘crazy’, wear tweed……

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  23. Destaw says:

    I completed my PhD in law in 2012, and moved to the US, with the hope of securing an academic job. I couldn’t get one. Since I need to get job, I convinced myself to hold my academic ambitions for a while, and started applying to other jobs openings, even to paralegal positions. Yet, I coudn’t get one. Does anyone have any advice?

  24. Pingback: What comes after the PhD? | PhD Life

  25. PhD in Philosophy says:

    Nice Article… Very interesting.. I am doing PhD in Philosophy. My UG was BA(Hons) Business Administration , I obtained a MA in Philosophy and now I am PhD Candidate in Philosophy ( Business Ethics) .

    I think the problem is that the capitalism leads to total capitalism( insecurity, less salaries )

    I am not from UK ( I come from Greece) but I studied in UK ( UG and MA) and I am still continue as PhD student. The problem in UK is that the Universities try to attract many students throughout worldwide and they promise that they can help to get a job for them . Because UK has advertised as the ideal economy . Particularly you can see many students to get jobs in Positive Sciences ( Engineering and Computing) and in Medicine and less in other fields.

    There are many Employees in UK who have obtained at least one MA from a UK university and they work in Private Sector and Public Sector particularly in NHS. ( with the Graduate internships training scheme ) And my question is ; Is this sufficient ? Now in UK the sector is energy turbines is very improved and many European Employees work there… What does it mean ? If someone works for 5-6 years in UK means that he/she secured his/her future? My answer is NO.

    But why academia is so controversial than ever ?

    I think the problem in academia exists because today is very easy than ever to do a PhD. The academia has opened and it behaves like business for Profits while its purpose should be Not-Profits. ( From my first time in UK I hear the motto “Let’s go to make money” Let’s go for business ) This seems like American Style !!!!
    Surely, there are some entry standards such as Upper Second Class and at least a Masters for a PhD , but I think many students nowadays have achieved those scores and out of academia in private or public sector.
    Once someone is a good student and has a strong UG ( 1st Class or 2:1) then he /she desires to pursue the journey knowledge in MA or directly to PhD for first class students. And this journey might be the big trap…. Nobody says you the real things and how the life will be outside of academia..The Academics exploit you so as the research department to be active. The PhD studentships are ridiculous!!! ( I am self-funded) 13K-14K for PhD is less less less.. The Post-Docs are few and automatically there has been an crisis in Academia.

    I think that the era becomes very hard for everyone.

    Good Luck to everyone in these hard times!!!

  26. Jane Doe says:

    This article was published in 2009, now after 5 years situation has got even worse. Although my experience and understanding of these matters is not as vast, but what i think is, this problem is related not only to academia, in industry as well we are facing the same situation. It is really heartbreaking to see people jobless even after getting such higher studies. What i think is, in every field of study universities should limit the no. Of students who get admitted, so that the production of such highly qualified people balances out the demand. What fresh graduates do is, when they are unable to get some job, even of a lower rank, they decide to go for higher studies, because they think that it is better than staying jobless. At the end they are unable to find a job in academic sector and industry rejects them saying that they are over qualified. So again they suffer..

    Another option that can be provided to them is increase the research opportunities. There is a lot in the world that is needed to be explored, and that can be a good use of those talented brains..

    But despite all the facts mentioned in that article, still there will be many people who want to go for phd, reason is the same that they find it more valuable to stay in academic sector despite all the odds.

    Just to quote an example, there is a teacher of mine and its for almost more than a year that whenever i meet him in university, he says that “if a student like you will not go for higher studies, you will be doing disservice to yourself”, he always advises me to apply for fulbright..

    To conclude, what i can say is condition is worst both in academic sector as well as in industry. In academia, it seems more worse because people have spent so many years of their lives in getting that level of education..

    We can only play our part by making the young graduates aware about the whole situation. Just put the complete scenario in front of them and let them decide for their future themselves and afterwards we can just pray that may the situation becomes favorable for everyone out the..


  27. Joe Bloggs says:

    Interesting posts here, but no one has really faced up to the obvious: jobs in academia are awarded to individuals on the basis that their faces fit and who their supervisors are – it is a system of patronage and web of corruption. I was at a leading university, did more teaching than most, was invited to deliver public lectures , gave great conference papers, and did a good PhD. I did everything right. I completed the thesis, landed a part time teaching post, gained further lecturing experience in the institution that hosted my PhD, and what came of this?

    Quite a few contemporaries walking straight into lectureships without half s much. One example is of a female who landed a couple of temporary jobs before settling into a permanent lectureship at York. This person’s good fortune sent shockwaves among staff, who recognised her as a bit thick and not very good with an overpowering personality. This was not an isolated case.

    I have since left academia, tied up the remaining publications from my thesis, and now have a fulfilling career in another sector.

    Corruption should be discussed here, as should the fact that it is the rich public school kids who get to stay on and really give academia a shot: because they have the means. So, let’s talk about class discrimination as well, particularly in arts and humanities.

    To the guy who wrote the first post here: you need to think about your argument, or define how you would measure the best of the best…

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