Woman walking on a bridge

Credit: Fred Froese/iStockphoto

Feeling stuck

Rachel—not her real name—was at a crossroads. She was finishing the third year of her Ph.D. program, and she thought she knew what she wanted to do with her life. She had long assumed she would finish her Ph.D. in ecology, do a postdoc, and then get a tenure-track position at a top-tier research university. She knew all along that it wasn’t guaranteed; she and her classmates were “working under the full awareness that we might not get jobs,” she says. Still, the tenure track had been her implicit career goal for so long that it was hard to break away. She clung to it.

Toward the end of her third year in her program, though, that began to change. While she was doing fieldwork far from home, anxiety started to disturb her sleep. “Being in a Ph.D. program is like having a child that never sleeps. It’s always on your mind,” she says. She was lonelyfar from her family and her long-term boyfriend. Her exposure to faculty politics and the funding roller coaster had sobered her. “I had a loss in my family, and I just started to ask myself whether what I’m doing really mattered,” she says.

Leaving the academy is a very intense experience—to realize that you have to or that you want to, and to figure out how, and to actually do it. It’s a big journey.

—Paula Chambers
Paula Chambers

Paula Chambers

Courtesy of Paula Chambers

For Rachel, the decision to abandon long-held plans wasn’t as hard as answering the question that followed. The question she was grappling with, alone, more than 7000 miles from home, in a remote corner of the world, was: “If not this, then what? What can I do instead?”

What to do?

The Ph.D. has never been a professional degree, but traditionally, in most labs and in most fields, it led to a certain kind of career: a tenure-track (or at least stable) faculty position. That, anyway, was the expectation, and it’s what everyday lab work provided training for. Over the last several decades, however, tenure-track positions have flatlined even as the number of people earning science Ph.D.s has risen quickly. The career path that was for so long the default is now viable only for a few; estimates of the percentage of Ph.D. scientists who eventually win tenure-track positions range from around 40% (for mathematicians) to the low single digits (in certain fields in the United Kingdom). If not a tenure-track professorship, then what?

There are many different answers to that question—almost as many different answers as there are people asking it. Sure, there are a few obvious and well-trodden nonacademic careers (including a few, like pharma research and science journalism, that already are oversubscribed). For the rest, though, attaining a postacademic career is an act of self-creation; scientists don’t so much find a career as make one up from scratch. And that, says Paula Chambers, founder of The Versatile Ph.D., is precisely the problem. Many people with science Ph.D.s have to reinvent themselves, post-Ph.D.

For people like Rachel—a self-described teacher’s pet who “was used to having all the answers”—encountering that question at age 28 can lead to crippling anxiety and even depression. “People have a fear of being a failure, of disappointing their adviser, [of] wasting your time and money having gone to graduate school, [and] fear of not knowing what you’re going to do,” she says. “The unknown seems terrifying.”

Galen Panger, a Ph.D. student at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, School of Information, was part of the team that revamped the university’s decade-old survey of mental health concerns among grad students. The initial survey, which was published in 2004, was still being used by policymakers despite its age. So the university decided to update it, this time evaluating not just depression and stress but also the correlates of well-being.

Jennifer Polk

Jennifer Polk

Courtesy of Jennifer Polk

Like its predecessor, the 2014 survey report, which was released in April of this year, found high levels of mental distress among Ph.D. students—about 47% of Ph.D. students reported feeling depressed. Other graduate students, though, had a strong sense of well-being. What was the top predictor of graduate student well-being? It was their beliefs about their career prospects. “I cannot tell you how much better my life is now that I know I have a lucrative non-academic job waiting for me at the end of this journey,” one respondent wrote.

The alternative to the alternative

It’s common to see careers outside of academia labeled “alternative”—which may seem odd when you consider that the vast majority of careers are off the tenure track. But in some ways the label makes sense. “The academic career path is hegemonic. It’s the path. It’s the most valued, and it’s in the air you breathe and the Kool-Aid you drink. And you can feel like a failure when you abandon it,” says Jennifer Polk, a life coach specializing in helping Ph.D. students and recent grads at FromPhDtoLife.com.

That attitude is changing, but it hasn’t yet changed enough. “We’ve all heard the horror stories of people telling their adviser they’re not interested in becoming a professor, and all of a sudden, no one will talk to you,” says Jane Hu, who got her Ph.D. in psychology and now works as an outreach specialist for the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle. “Plus, you’re surrounded by other professors and postdocs who have chosen that path, and saying you don’t want that can be awkward.” Hu struggled with the fear that leaving academia would make people (including, possibly, her) believe she couldn’t hack it—or that she wasn’t as rigorous a thinker as those who stayed. Also, when you have spent so long working toward a goal, abandoning it can feel daunting. “If I spend 5 to 7 years working on my Ph.D., what does it count for if I don’t use it in some kind of direct way?” Hu says.

Sharanya Prasad

Sharanya Prasad

Courtesy of Sharanya Prasad

Just make a list

It sounds too easy, but some report that all you need to do to alleviate that career-related anxiety—at least somewhat—is to take realistic stock of your options. Sharanya Prasad, who recently graduated with her Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology from UC Berkeley, knew from the start that she wanted to go into industry, but she found the number of options and career paths to choose from overwhelming. “I had to take time to narrow it down to identify which options I really wanted to pursue,” Prasad says.

Chambers says that often when people see a list of careers that they can pursue, their stress level goes way down. “They can put words to what they want to do. Seeing a list makes it real,” she says. She advises other Ph.D. students to start this process early, so they don’t end up scrambling at the last moment. “Don’t clap your hands over your ears,” she says. (Science Careers’ myIDP, by the way, is a great way to explore the career landscape and settle in on a couple of concrete alternatives.)

Rachel says that getting an early start on exploring career options is a good idea for another reason, too: It can shape the work you do during your Ph.D. and the training you pursue. “A lot of professors just want to produce these publishing powerhouses, and they assume that all of their students are going to stay in research, but that’s not realistic,” she says. Instead, she advises fellow Ph.D. students to take the initiative and arrange training for the careers they’re interested in pursuing.

Focusing on practical matters like networking, revising resumes, and gaining experience outside the lab can have significant benefits. Knowing that you have a plan, Chambers says, often helps to reduce anxiety because now you have a list of tasks to work on instead of just flailing.

Sam Israel

Sam Israel

Courtesy of Sam Israel

Manage the stress

To cope with the worries of finding a career path, neuroscience Ph.D. candidate Sam Israel recommends sticking to the basics: adequate sleep, relationships, hobbies, and a life outside the lab. Polk helps her clients focus on who they are as people rather than just what work they do. Focusing on their nonacademic selves also helps cope with the grief and sense of loss scientists might feel about abandoning plans they may have held for more than a decade. It’s a real loss, Polk says. It’s appropriate to be sad and to have mixed feelings about moving on.

“Leaving the academy is a very intense experience—to realize that you have to or that you want to, and to figure out how, and to actually do it. It’s a big journey,” Chambers adds.

Rachel is still working to find a light at the end of the tunnel. She is currently focusing on her love of teaching, working with students informally when she’s in the field and teaching classes at the university when she’s not. Today, that’s her prime motivation for finishing her Ph.D. Talking to peers who are struggling with similar feelings has also been helpful. “It’s hard,” she says. “It’s not that you can’t do it; it’s just hard.”

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