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PhD Skills Gap: Why Your Doctorate Needs More Than Research Training for Today’s PhD Job Market

June 20, 2024

PhD students are sitting in rows at their graduation ceremony, thinking about the PhD job market

I recently shared this article on LinkedIn about the need for more practical training in PhD programs to address the ever-changing PhD job market, and it struck a chord with many. PhDs from all over engaged with the post, highlighting how the topic resonated with their experiences. As we reflect on our educational journeys, many of us can now see the gaps in our training.

When I started my PhD, I had tunnel-vision. I thought I’d spend my entire career teaching and researching – so it was the only path I considered. But also my program didn’t encourage us to think beyond academia in terms of the PhD job market. There was no emphasis on developing skills outside of research methods and practices. I vividly remember a professor stating that the sole purpose of this PhD program was to create future professors and researchers. Nothing else. And sadly, this narrow focus isn’t uncommon in doctoral education.

Looking back, I wonder: How could I have anticipated that my career would change? What could I have done to better prepare myself for a wider PhD job market and a world beyond academia? These questions highlight a crucial issue in doctoral education – the need for more comprehensive career preparation and skills development.

The PhD Job Market

The PhD job market is brutal. We’ve got this weird situation where PhDs are churned out constantly, but tenure-track jobs? Where? Thankfully, I was in a discipline that was experiencing rapid growth when I was on the market so I landed a good academic position immediately. But I know many of my PhD brethren are not so lucky. 

And despite going through 3-6 (or longer!) years of study and training, most of us do not receive any career-related training or professional skills outside of research and advanced statistics. We are trained to be researchers first, maybe teachers second (if we’re lucky), and business-savvy professionals… never? Yet, given the PhD job market, programs are not adapting. But PhD students seem to be. 

Don’t just take my word for it. Seo et al. (2020) found 54.6% of doctoral students were aiming for academic careers with 45.4% were already looking beyond the ivory tower. Meanwhile, newly minted PhDs outnumber the number of tenure-track jobs by a substantial number. And have been for a while.

Now it’s time to say the quiet part out loud – PhD students keep programs alive. But at what cost? We’re talking about years of life, mountains of debt, and for what? To fight and scrounge over a few academic positions. And If they can’t secure a position, the post-doc position is an option but seemingly less of a viable one as it pays less than what you’d make managing a fast-food restaurant

It’s time we faced facts: the academic job market is oversaturated, and it’s been that way for a while. We need to start preparing PhDs for a world beyond academia because right now, we’re setting up a lot of brilliant minds for a lot of disappointment.

The PhD Job Market Is Not Any Better Abroad

The PhD job market crunch is global.

Sarrico (2021) found that only 1% of adults 25-64 year olds across the OECD had a doctorate in 2019, yet 2.3% of today’s young adults are expected to pursue one. And in this economy?!?

Over in the United Kingdom, it appears to be an academic exodus. Hancock (2021) found 70.1% of PhD holders leave academia within 3.5 years. At the other end of the earth, Australia is drowning in PhDs.

In China, 44% of recent doctoral grads are working outside academia (Chen, 2021). And in France? 9.2% are still job hunting three years post-graduation (Canolle, & Vinot, 2021). Yikes.

PhDs In The Private Sector Now Outnumber PhDs In Academia

Okay, here’s something that blew my mind – the private sector is now the biggest employer of PhDs.

Let’s break it down: The 2021 U.S. National Science Foundation’s Survey of Doctorate Recipients found that 43.7% of PhDs are working in the private sector, while academia only claims 42.3%. Throw in 8.3% in the public sector and 5% self-employed PhDs, and we’ve got a whopping 56.9% of PhDs working outside of academia. 🤯 The University of Toronto also did institution-level research on PhD careers and found over half of its PhD graduates are employed in the post-secondary education sector, and 26% as tenure-track professors further highlighting the diversity in employment for PhDs.

And while some degrees aren’t exactly private sector darlings, these numbers are wild. 

Some universities are finally catching on, embedding extra training into their PhD programs. But in general, there is a lack of career planning to prepare students for the PhD job market (Chen, 2021).

The gap between what PhDs are trained for and where we end up is too wide. Universities must do better to help prepare students for the PhD job market. 

My Experience

Let me take you on a little journey from PhD to tenure-track faculty to entrepreneur. 

Graduate School

My PhD program, located in the college of education, did not include any business-related courses, though I had many options to take any elective. I opted to enroll in advanced research and statistics courses to strengthen my research skills so I could be more marketable. Look where that got me. 🫠

But, as luck would have it, the graduate school offered an Entrepreneurship Academy one semester. We met once a month and listened to various entrepreneurs talk about their journeys, their businesses, and their purpose. I learned about social entrepreneurship, a wholly new concept for me. I was also introduced to the Lean Start-Up model. It was an incredible learning experience, even for just the short time. 

I was already super interested in the entrepreneurial world before I participated in the academy. I followed stories like Uber and other mega start-ups via the How I Built This podcast. The Social Network opened my eyes to the possibility of an idea changing the course of the world. I read books like Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber and No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, wanting to learn more about how these businesses went from a crazy idea to some of the most socially impactful inventions in our lifetime. None of this had anything to do with my discipline or research. It was just fascinating to me. I was (and still am) fascinated by how ideas turned into businesses, but never in one million years did I think I would become an entrepreneur.

Graduation day 2017, baby!

On The Tenure-Track

Post-graduation, I landed that coveted tenure-track position. Yet, years of ignored unhappiness, throw in a global pandemic and a family emergency, and boom – existential crisis ensued. I left my tenure-track position after 3 years with … no plan.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I had this brilliant idea to pivot to think tanks or federal government work. I did lots of research, a few informational interviews, found an amazing fellowship, and shot shots! I thought being PhD trained would be a shoe-in, despite my very unrelated research and discipline focus. Boy, was I wrong. After a string of rejections and nonresponse, I realized it was time to seriously reconsider my options.

I spent a lot of time scouring the internet for job search strategies, strategies for resume and cover letter writing, and anything that I thought would help me get a job. While I never quite landed a role, finding these resources made me feel less lonely and less of a failure for leaving a career I dedicated so much of my time and energy to preparing for. 

Entrepreneurial Awakening 

One summer day, I was virtually attending a talk about the anti-racist movement in France, when the idea hit me. I wanted to help people travel better and more effectively. My experience with travel at that point was pretty robust, and people were always asking me for advice. Could I be a travel coach? Did that exist? After some research, I found it was a thing! I enrolled in a travel coaching program that not only taught me about the travel industry but also taught me about the basics of running my own business. I worked on a travel business for a few months but didn’t feel it was my calling. 

Then, as serendipity would have it, a former colleague I respected asked if I would be available to help her build her professional brand. I realized my past experience as a marketing and public relations professional equipped me with the foundational knowledge needed to support her. I wanted to work adjacent to higher education, but I did not know in what capacity. After some soul searching, I realized this was my way to make an impact on the world – not through my own research (which I always felt was inconsequential), but through helping others make their impact. And now I am a social entrepreneur. 

Thus, in December 2021, I registered (Cintron, Revised) as an LLC in the Commonwealth of Virginia and began building a platform for research communication training and coaching for academics, scholars, and thought leaders. Since then, I built a framework for my research communications program, expanded to offer writing retreats for women scholars, and offering public relations-specific services like media pitching for academics and entrepreneurs. 

Current Entrepreneurial Experience 

I am self-taught in the ins and outs of business and entrepreneurship, but still learning so much. Where possible, I participate in any opportunity to learn more about business and skill development from my chamber of commerce to international business communities. I’ve read so many articles and how-tos. I was a part of an incredible virtual business community.

But it is being a traveling scholarpreneur that has done absolute wonders for my business evolution. I am a part of business and entrepreneurship communities in Mexico City where I have access to the most incredible and inspiring entrepreneurs. Being a part of WhatsApp groups where I can workshop ideas or ask for advice. There are always free business-related talks and seminars where we share skills and knowledge, and I’ve even led one. I am in several women-only entrepreneur groups who also meet for networking and brainstorming. I’ve secured clients from this network. Without this, I am not sure where my business would be. 

Related Post: Mexico City for the Traveling Scholarpreneur

I lead a presentation on media pitching for a group of entrepreneurs in Mexico City.

But its not the easiest route. I continue to struggle in my business and entrepreneurial journey. With a lack of capital, I am unable to invest much into my business, so I rely on getting clients and work to fund my business and life. I don’t have much room for mistakes. I work every single day and through the evenings most days. It is not glamorous.  

The Future of PhD Programs & Business Training

As I reflect on my PhD journey and my current entrepreneurial focus, I realize how much I limited my options. Maybe this was systemic. Maybe it was my hyper-focused nature. Either way, what I know is that given the state of (lack of) the PhD job market in higher education, students need practical career and business training to prepare them for whatever comes their way after graduation.

Now, I’m not going full doom and gloom here, but let’s be real. Expecting universities to make these changes on their own? Unlikely.

But here’s where I see hope – the students. They’re the ones who can drive change. No students, no programs. It’s that simple. 

Advice for PhD Students

So future PhDs: When choosing a program, don’t just select a program because of famous and prolific scholars. Ask yourself: “Will this program equip me for life after grad school, whatever that may look like?” Have a frank conversation with yourself before you commit to a program and continue to reassess your position and goals as you go through your program. And do what is best for you.

If you are already committed to a program, there are plenty of (free) resources that can help you develop more transferrable skills on your own. The London School of Economics provides some strategies for shifting from academia to the private sector. And here is a first-hand story on how you can network your way to a position. You may not realize it, but PhD training does prepare you for entrepreneurship

There is a wide network of PhDs who work outside of the academy on LinkedIn and Twitter. Students should take some time to identify PhDs who have taken another route and connect. This not only expands your network, it can also help you with your job search. You can also seek out PhD career coaches and job listings to assist you through this process. I am happy to chat and/or share the resources I used (email me here).

Bottom line: Not every PhD wants to be a prof, and it’s time PhD programs reflected that. The future of doctoral education needs to be as diverse as the careers our grads end up in.

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Alicia Cintron, PhD

Research Public Communications Trainer & Coach + traveling Scholarpreneur

Welcome! Here you’ll find insight, musings, and thoughts about research, public engagement, communication, travel, and higher education. Have an idea for a topic for us to cover? Shoot us a note

Alicia Cintron, PhD

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