Yes, the job market sucks. Especially for PhDs. No, we don’t see an end in sight.In fact, over 70% of higher ed faculty is now comprised of adjunct faculty.
I am aware of these realities.
But in an ideal world, where there were enough tenure-track jobs with decent salaries (that caveat is real), I’d highly encourage every new PhD to complete a post doc. In fact, I’d encourage even those PhDs with zero interest in entering Academe to complete a post doc. Actually, I am willing to go as far as to say that all people, no matter degree level or career field, should complete a post doc.
Post docs are the new internships.
Remember when almost everyone did an internship? When that was the norm for getting a job? In fact, that was how you got a job? Outside of law school and to a smaller extent business school, the pathway to post-graduation employment is, well, more like a trail these days.
As a college professor and as someone who did 4 internships during undergrad and just completed a 2 year post doc, I am a huge fan of the concept of dating before marriage.
See, in undergrad, I spent one summer working in the ER, an off term working in a psychiatric unit, 1 summer doing psychological research at Northwestern University, and 1 summer teaching in a middle school program. Each of those experiences taught me not only about the field in general, but also about my own interests, abilities, and capabilities. Frankly, I detested working in the ER. I didn’t like the politics of interpersonal interactions and it was just sad. But it wasn’t nearly as depressing as working in a psychiatric unit. I knew on day 3 that despite being a psychology major, that career path was not for me.
Spending the summer doing research was certainly more my style. I got to work independently, create my own schedule, read, and think. I had such a good experience, that when I started my senior year, I found my favorite psych professor and asked if she’d be willing to be my thesis advisor. I also learned that the world of academia could be cutthroat, isolating and depressing. Hell, have you ever tried working closely with a 5th year graduate student? They certainly aren’t walking rays of sunshine (I know I wasn’t).
The following summer before graduate school began, working as a teacher was when I really knew. I loved it! I’d had suspicions before then that teaching was my calling (as they say), but this solidified to me that being a professor, not necessarily a scholar, was what I should do.
My experiences at a Research I institution confirmed my thoughts about pursuing a career at a liberal arts undergraduate institution where teaching was of higher priority than research. So after 2 years as a post doc at such an establishment, I feel 100% confident in my choices. And what’s more, I am well positioned to excel in my tenure-track role for a myriad of reasons—all of which would not have been true had I chosen a tenure-track job immediately upon leaving graduate school.
2 years spent teaching 1/2 of a regular course load allowed me time to do a few very important things. First, I was able to decompress after 5 years in a PhD program. All of you PhDs out there know how stressful the dissertation process can be and basically, how traumatizing it is. It took me 6 months to release the tension I’d accumulated in grad school. But in all honesty, if someone mentions the name of my graduate school, I immediately tense up. PGSD (post grad school disorder) is real.
Second, I was able to slowly learn the difference between being a graduate student and being a professor. It may seem obvious on the surface, but the transition is a mental and emotional one that takes time. Instead of having someone sign off on everything I did, I could all of a sudden do what I want with little oversight and almost no feedback (unless requested). I could apply for grants without having to justify to an advisor why I needed this grant when in her eyes, I could do without it. Instead of seeking fellow students for support, I became a source of support for my students. I was forced to reconceptualize my perception of myself. And I had the time to do it.
Third, I got to know people. Although most of my colleagues thought my second year marked the beginning of my tenure track year, the reality is that deferring my tenure-track in favor of a second post doc year gave me time to meet at least one person in every department (not just academic departments). In fact, I would guess that of the almost 200 faculty members, I’ve personally met at least half of them…and certainly all of the faculty in related disciplines. This is important not only for a sense of inclusion but also because in transitioning from post doc to tenure-track, I was/am in the unique position of having input on a few important things. 1) I got to choose my faculty mentor. I was able to choose someone with complementing personal and professional characteristics who I know is well respected on campus; 2) I get to help put together my review committee. This means I can avoid the back stabbers and intentionally difficult faculty members in favor of those who will read my research with an objective but informed eye, and review my teaching from a pedagogical standpoint.
Fourth, I had time to develop my future courses. Teaching such a reduced course load allowed me to ‘experiment’ with varying course designs, texts, assignments, classroom activities, field trips, etc. Because the course evaluations from my post doc are not put in my tenure file, I could take chances without consequences. For someone like myself for whom teaching is priority one, this is invaluable. Having the time to properly plan a course, select the most up to date and relevant texts, and gather student input in course design is very rare in academia. But it can certainly only help ensure I am delivering content that is of interest and accessible to my students.
Fifth, I was able to revise my dissertation and submit it for publication (it was accepted). I conducted a two year case study that is now under review for publication. I wrote a theoretical piece slightly outside my research area that I plan to submit for publication next month. In essence, I had time to solidly start my research in a new city with new resources. I can’t imagine trying to do that while teaching a full course load.
I could certainly go on to enumerate other opportunities my post doc facilitated. For example, I spent one term observing other classes to see what more experienced professors do in our unique academic model. I was also able to participate in two search committees and serve on the advising committee for a new center on campus. I got to build relationships with students two years sooner than I would have so as my friends on campus say, I already have a ‘following’.
All of these aspects of my experience are things I never thought about when I went on the job market during my last year of school. But they are certainly aspects I encourage all soon-to-be- PhDs to consider in their haste to secure that tenure-track job.