Life Outside the Ivory Tower: New Careers for Ph.D.s

It's common for Ph.D. graduates to pursue careers in academia, be it teaching or research. But over the past few decades, there has been a steady decline in the postsecondary education industry for tenured and tenure-track professors. According to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), 75% of college faculty were full-time in 1960, but that number has dwindled to less than 30% today.

Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 17% increase in the teaching profession for postgraduate students, it seems international students will take up a large percentage of those roles. The Council of Graduate Schools reported an 8% increase for international students enrolling in U.S. graduate schools, while the number of U.S. students enrolling decreased for the second consecutive year, by 1.7%.

With the continual decline in full-time faculty positions across the nation and the average salary for professors hovering around $62,000, it's no wonder so many graduates are pursuing careers outside the academic realm. From Chemical Engineering to Anthropology, there are opportunities outside academia that might be worthwhile.

For Ph.D. graduates Adam Ruben and Bob Conrad, life away from academia definitely had more appeal, though both still dabble in education. Ruben, a molecular biologist, is in a field that is growing at a fantastic rate according to the BLS, while Conrad's industry, marketing communication, is also climbing.

The Comedian

As serious as what Ruben has had to go through to attain his Ph.D. in molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University, he has been able to put a humorous twist on all of it. His comedic take on life and a serious career has enabled him to stake several claims in two fields.

Ruben is a molecular biologist for Sanaria Inc. working to develop a malaria vaccine, which can't get any more serious. But he's also worked as a stand-up comic opening for Dane Cook's Tourgasm comedy tour, performing his one-man show entitled “Please Don't Beat Me Up: Stories and Artifacts from Adolescence” at the Capital Fringe Festival, and teaching an undergraduate course every January on stand-up comedy at Johns Hopkins. Although graduate school is no laughing matter, he wrote about his Ph.D. experiences in the memoir Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School. The title might make it sound like Ruben has regrets about his path, but he's actually happy with the way things have turned out.

Did you ever consider pursuing a career in academia after earning your Ph.D.? Why or why not?

I had considered academia, but my top priority was that I wanted to work on something I believed would benefit people. And all over academia, I saw tons and tons of “basic” research, research performed for the sake of expanding the knowledge base. Now, there's nothing wrong with basic research, and it's vital for eventual applications. But I was much more interested in working on one of those applications than in adding to the general body of knowledge. I once talked to a seminar speaker who said something that made an impression on me. He said, “The reason there are so many petty squabbles in academia is because there's so little at stake.” To me, that sounded like lose-lose.

A Ph.D. can often make a candidate look overqualified. In your industry, does a Ph.D.. create a higher demand from companies or does it do the opposite?

It depends. It creates higher demand for certain jobs, but will definitely overqualify you for others. For example, in my limited experience, companies looking to hire a candidate for a bachelor's- or master's-level position won't consider a Ph.D. for that position, simply because it's not the same level of work.

Do you think other Ph.D. graduates feel limited by the standard options of teaching or research, or do they feel just as free as you did to pursue different paths?

I think Ph.D. graduates box themselves in a bit when they consider their career options. I spent seven years getting my Ph.D. in biology, for example, so that's the kind of job I'm going to look for. But at one point, a recruiter from a consulting firm came to my department looking for Ph.D. candidates, the idea being that Ph.D. recipients are naturally good at analysis, regardless of their field, so they can be trained to be good business consultants.

Do you think the economic struggle in higher education, and education in general, plays a role in Ph.D. graduates pursuing careers outside of the academic world?

“In my field, in order to someday be a tenured professor making a good salary, one would need to first withstand 5-7 years making $20-25k/year (grad school), then 4-6 years making $30-35k/year (post-doc), before finally becoming an assistant professor for several years (with salaries ranging widely, but typically not spectacular). I definitely know people for whom grad school was the last time they'd be willing to subsist on Ramen noodles. Then again, it's also true that a lot of biologists are more driven by their interests than by money, or at least I'd like to think so.

Every good story usually stems from an interesting experience. How were you able to put your grad school experience into a comic narrative?

For a few years in grad school, I was writing humor pieces for National Lampoon. At one point, they asked me to pitch a book, so I pitched Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School (which was then called The Third Degree). They ultimately rejected the proposal since their demographic — drunk frat guys — tended not to go to grad school. So I worked on the proposal some more, then pitched it to agents, and luckily someone liked it.

How long have you been doing comedy? And have you always known you were funny?

I started performing stand-up in college, but I didn't really get into it until grad school, so I'd say somewhere around 10-plus years. I don't know if I really am funny, but I do know I've always been interested in humor writing. At summer camp as a kid, I'd read Dave Barry books over and over again, learning his patterns and rhythms and why his written jokes worked. I think stand-up was just a way for me to get humor writing to an audience as quickly as possible and with instant feedback.

There are a lot of comedians out there who aren't funny. Should there be a Ph.D. concentration in comedy?>

I'm sure someone's done it, a dissertation on stand-up comedy. Actually, I just Googled it, and here's a dissertation from 2007 at Georgia State called Stand-Up Comedy as Artistic Expression: Lenny Bruce, the 1950s, and American Humor. Here's one from the University of Iowa in 2007 called Was that supposed to be funny? A rhetorical analysis of politics, problems and contradictions in contemporary stand-up comedy. So these things do exist, but they're within concentrations in history, linguistics, etc. And “comedians who aren't funny” is a relative term — some people think certain comedians aren't funny, but they're comedians who thousands of others think are funny.

What are the benefits of earning a Ph.D. and working outside of academia?

“I can leave work by 5:30 or 6:00, and it's unusual to stay late or come in on the weekend, though it does happen. Most importantly, I can work on something that, if it turns out well, could actually be a real product that saves people's lives. That may be true in some parts of academia, but it wasn't in my graduate school lab, where we worked on drug design from a more academic and theoretical, not pragmatic, perspective.

Why did you pursue your Ph.D.? And what would you tell others considering attaining theirs?

I pursued my Ph.D. because it just seemed like the thing to do if you're good at school. You get whatever is the highest degree in your given specialty. And despite the title of my book, I'm glad I went to grad school. There are a lot of aspects of grad school worthy of complaint (hence the book), but ultimately it was a good decision. I hated not knowing when I would graduate, but I also got to learn a lot, practice lab techniques, and think about the world in new ways, which is kind of the point. I'd tell anyone considering a Ph.D. to know exactly what they're getting into. Talk to current students in the department you're considering joining, and see what their major complaints are. If they're things you can live with, you'll do just fine.

The Marketer

Bob Conrad stays engaged in academia through part-time teaching at Morrison University in Reno, Nevada, after working as the director of marketing communications at the University of Nevada-Reno, where he earned his Ph.D. in educational leadership and higher education administration.

Most of his time, however, is spent away from academia as energy outreach coordinator for the Nevada State Office of Energy and the founder and CEO of Conrad Communications. He has also written several books, including Spin! How the News Media Misinform and Why Consumers Misunderstand and The Good, The Bad, The Spin: Collected Salvos on Public Relations, New Media and Journalism.

Did you ever consider pursuing a career in academia after earning your Ph.D.?

I did. I had hoped to work in academia, but it would have meant relocating, which I was not keen on doing. That said, I did apply at a handful of institutions and had a few interviews, but nothing panned out. One offer I received would have meant a significant pay cut in addition to moving to an area I was not too sure about. Options for academic work in my area (Reno) are limited, but I do teach part time at a private university and have taught part time at a local community college. Teaching part time is a great way to stay engaged in academia.

How has your Ph.D. helped you in the energy field?

I think it helps from the administration side of things. Administration is where I've worked for the past 12 years (higher education, then government), so I am more generally qualified than specifically toward energy.

Do you think Ph.D. graduates feel obligated to dedicate themselves to teaching or research, or are other paths commonly explored?

A doctoral degree is a research-centered degree; however, my research was focused mainly on my dissertation, and I do not have a research background aside from my dissertation. That said, my work experience helped increase my job options, just not necessarily in academia. I think a Ph.D. combined with solid work experience can be helpful for non-academic but technical fields.

Do you think the financial struggle in higher education plays a role in Ph.D. graduates pursuing careers outside of the academic world?

Absolutely. Public higher education is in big trouble; hence, at least part of why my options in Nevada are limited. California is also in dire shape in terms of higher education. Having a Ph. D. can make you more marketable, but not necessarily, as it may mean a candidate could be perceived outside of academia as being overqualified. In some ways, it's a catch-22.”

How demanding is the field of energy? And how much pressure falls on your shoulders — directly or indirectly — to lead since earning your Ph.D.?

Our office is small, so I'm not feeling that pressure – yet. The field is very exciting, and there is a ton of potential in Nevada for energy. So far, the challenges have been exciting.

What are the benefits of earning a Ph.D. and working outside of academia?

I think it shows that you are an expert in a particular area, which many folks cannot claim (aside from maybe a lengthy career or experience). I think having a research-based mindset is very helpful for filtering out good information from bad information. That to me is the most valuable aspect that I think I can bring to the table.

The Ph.D. is the highest level of education you can receive, and but it's worth noting that economic demand for Ph.D.s in the educational system fluctuates even while students continue to get the degree. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the number of global Ph.D. graduates increased by nearly 40% between 1998 and 2008, which has created an open market for companies and institutions throughout the private sector to hire exceptionally qualified employees. As such, even though there will always be some opportunities for graduates to enter academia, Ph.D. holders might be better suited for the working world outside the ivory tower.