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.

Schillebeeckx-et-al-2013.jpg
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.

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