Preparing Doctoral Students for Non-Academic Pathways

For students pursuing PhDs, the promise of tenure-line academic employment continues to shrink. Depending on which national survey one reads, only 10% to 30% of all PhDs, regardless of discipline, find themselves holding a tenure-track job offer.[1] And yet, despite this statistical reality, graduate programs continue to produce more doctorates than even a decade ago.

Is this ethical? No, it is not.[2] However, until structural changes are made nationally—at the university, division, and departmental levels—PhD mentors, department chairs and program officers can make small but critical changes to create environments supportive of non-academic career pathways. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Keep track of your alumni. Find out where they are employed, and use this information to shape professionalizing workshops offered within your department. Hold alumni panels that feature individuals who do not hold academic positions. This is as important for a department as it is for an office of graduate studies.
  2. Rethink what “placement” means. On the graduate tab of most department websites, a roster of former student names and university positions advertises the success of a PhD program. But what about all the students who are not on that list? What is silently telegraphed to these former graduate students and to prospective ones? Make placement tabs a space to celebrate the full spectrum of PhD employment. This takes away the stigma and shame that are frequently associated with non-academic positions and gives a realistic employment picture to prospective PhDs. Likewise, it demonstrates how a doctoral degree can prepare folks to make important contributions outside academia.
  3. Collaborate with Career Services. Academics are frequently ill-equipped to navigate students across the non-academic job market because we do not know how to translate academic skills into non-academic language. However, understanding this transferability is key to being a good PhD mentor, director of graduate studies, job placement officer, or department chair. If your department has not made available to graduate students informational documents on topics such as non-academic resumes, cover letters, job searches, or interviews, consider meeting with Career Services in order to develop and disseminate these resources.
  4. Educate yourself. While ten years ago “alt-ac” resources were few and far between, personal narratives, career tools, and professional development platforms Avail yourself of these resources so that you can speak compassionately and intelligently about the realities of academic employment and opportunities outside of the professoriate with the PhD students you mentor.
  5. Help your students see what’s out there beyond academia at the beginning of their doctoral program.[3] Be open to the reality that many if not most of your students will find work outside of the professoriate; and be honest with your students about the exploitative realities of adjunct teaching and “permadocs.” Talking about these hard realities does not have to come with a serving of pessimism, but it will enable you and your students to maintain an eye towards about how their work matters, is relevant, and is employable beyond the narrow scope of a narrow research field. It will also give your students a sense of worth and value beyond the Academy.


[1] Richard C. Larson, Navid Ghaffarzadegan, and Yi Xue, “Too Many PhD Graduates or Too Few Academic Job Openings: The Basic Reproductive Number R0 in Academia,” Systems and Behavioral Research 31. 6 (2014): 745-750.

[2] Frederick A. Winter, “Plus C’est La Même Chose,” Inside Higher Ed, 9 February 2021.

[3] Erin Zimmerman, “Being Alt-Ac Positive: A Guide for Academics, Canadian Science Publishing, 18 March 2020.

By Donna Beth Ellard
Donna Beth Ellard Associate Professor of Medieval Literature