There’s life after a Ph.D. — and it may not be in academe

Marc Rosenthal ’71

Ann Kirschner *78 spent her graduate-school years immersed in the great works of Victorian literature, but she didn’t stumble upon the sentence that launched her career as she was reading the novels of Dickens or Eliot. Rather, the powerful phrase came in the form of a short employment ad she read in The New York Times: “Come and join the new world of cable television.”

And she did, but that wasn’t her original plan.

Like many graduate students, Kirschner started graduate school with every intention of becoming a scholar and teacher, convinced that academia was both her vocation and her intellectual passion. But after finishing her degree, she assessed her career goals and lifestyle priorities and realized they did not point to a professorship. She loved New York City, and the energy of the business world, especially in media and technology, was calling.

So there she found herself at age 29, interviewing with TelePrompTer, a New York-based cable company that soon would be acquired by Westinghouse. Her interview almost ended before it began, though, when she discovered that the opening was for a franchise-proposal writer. “You could have put a gun to my head and I’d have had no idea what that was,” says Kirschner. “But a franchise proposal turned out to be suspiciously like a dissertation that a cable-television company would submit to a city government to explain why their cable-television design was better than company X, Y, or Z.” 

With that realization, Kirschner was off and running. Her path led her from cable to satellite television and on to founding Internet businesses for the National Football League (where she worked to persuade the league to put the Super Bowl online) and Columbia University. Somewhere in there, she found time to write Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story, a critically acclaimed book based on a collection of her mother’s letters that documented her time in Nazi labor camps.

Kirschner has now returned to the academic realm, though not in the lecture halls. She is dean of Macaulay Honors College, a selective honors program serving the colleges of the City University of New York, where she is responsible for everything from curriculum development and fundraising to student activities and managing the budget. Her Ph.D. always has come in handy, she says — even outside the ivory tower.

“I don’t think anyone should think twice about the value of what they will gain, not to mention the incalculable pleasure that you get out of studying the subject you love,” Kirschner says. “Doctoral training has many benefits — there is something that we learn in those years of immersion in our field and the long-term task of writing a dissertation.”

Kirschner’s view is shared by Maggie Debelius *00 and Sue Basalla May *97, authors of “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia. The book, written in 2001 and revised in 2007, had its inception when Debelius and May were friends and graduate students in Princeton’s English department. When May was halfway through graduate school, she realized she didn’t want to be confined to one topic and began to explore opportunities outside academe. She sought out Princeton alumni who were using their graduate-school training in a variety of endeavors and relayed their stories to Debelius, who then was juggling graduate school and working as a freelance writer (she is now associate director of the Georgetown University Writing Program). The two friends decided to bring what they had learned to a larger audience. The result was a how-to guide for graduate students, complete with case studies. 

The authors write about Stacey Rees *95, who left her Ph.D. program in Princeton’s comparative literature department in her fifth year, with a master’s degree but no doctorate, to work as a midwife after realizing she was more committed to her part-time job at a birthing center than to her graduate work. And Richard Bennett *99, now Princeton’s senior associate director of principal gifts, who wanted to have control over his location and a career that might be more wide-ranging than one as a comp-lit professor. And Robin Wagner ’88, whose first job after earning her Ph.D. in East Asian studies was training consultants — a great fit, because she loved teaching but didn’t like the solitude of academic research. (She is now associate vice president of a leading study-abroad program, IES Abroad.)

May and Debelius tell their readers early on that they don’t like to use the terms “alternative” or “non-academic” to describe the careers of Ph.D.s working outside academia. They use “post-academic.” “We feel pretty strongly about the importance of the term,” says May, who now works in higher-education marketing. “It is a fundamental point about how we see these types of careers.”
Point being: There are not just two career fields in existence — “academia”, and “other.”

Ann Kirschner *78 is dean of Macaulay Honors College in New York City.
Ann Kirschner *78 is dean of Macaulay Honors College in New York City.
Courtesy the City University of New York

Doctoral students have different reasons for exploring options outside the ivory tower. The number of tenure-track professorships available nationally is dwindling. According to a recent analysis by the American Association of Univer-sity Professors, only 35 percent of American faculty members had tenure or tenure-track positions in 2005, down from 57 percent in the 1970s. This spells major competition for the roughly 57,000 Ph.D.s being turned out by American colleges and universities each year.

Some newly minted Ph.D.s are hesitant to embark upon a nomadic existence in a string of low-paying postdoctoral positions in search of a plum spot. Brigid Dorsey *02, for example, found that the demands of starting an academic career conflicted with having a family. Now a freelance writer and editor, she was a single mother with a son in the eighth grade when she finished her Ph.D. in Romance languages, and she didn’t want to move her son repeatedly throughout his high school years while she pursued a tenure-track position.

A 2005 publication by Geoff Davis, “Doctors Without Orders,” summarized the results of the Sigma Xi Post-Doc Survey, including the dramatic increase in the number of postdocs throughout the 1980s and 1990s. This national trend holds true at Princeton: Of the 332 Princeton students who received their Ph.D.s in the 2006–07 academic year, 24 percent had accepted teaching-based academic positions and 28 percent were headed to jobs outside academia, according to a survey conducted soon after the degrees were awarded. The greatest proportion — 45 percent — took postdoctoral research positions, a marked increase from 1996–97, when only 22 percent of Princeton’s graduating Ph.D.s took those jobs.

“One of the things that are a real frustration for graduate students is that, when you’re in the academy, all the people around you are professors who’ve gone this ‘traditional path,’” says Peter Fiske ’88. “But, if you look at the numbers, only about one in four Ph.D.s in the sciences remains in academia.” The reason for this is simple mathematics: There are not nearly enough positions within the academy.
After graduating from Princeton with a degree in geological and geophysical sciences, Fiske headed to graduate school at Stanford University. He finished his doctorate during “the black hole in the Ph.D. economy,” and went to Stanford’s career-planning and placement center for assistance. He discovered that the center, at that time, catered almost exclusively to undergraduates, and he started to talk to other Ph.D. students about the employment situation. Later, he compiled his observations and advice in Put Your Science To Work: The Take-Charge Career Guide for Scientists (AGU Press, 2000).  Fiske is now the vice president of research and development at PAX Scientific, a California-based engineering research and product-design firm, and speaks with graduate students throughout the nation about the job-search process, including advice on how to present their Ph.D.s to prospective employers so that the employers won’t consider them overqualified and overly expensive. 

Sri Sri-Jayantha *83, who holds a Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering, intended to pursue a professorship when he started graduate school but saw professors struggling to bring in funding for their work, which took away from their teaching. He opted instead to do research in the corporate world and is now a manager at IBM Research. His personal experiences and love of teaching led him to develop a series of graduate mixers after joining the board of the Associ-ation of Princeton Graduate Alumni (APGA). The events, held since 2004, unite current graduate students with alumni working in a variety of fields within and outside academe.

“These mixers connect students with grad alumni who have sought other options and succeeded,” says Dorsey, who sits on the APGA governing board. “It’s a networking tool, but it’s also an eye-opening experience. They realize the job search is not just a matter of ‘What can I possibly do?’ but ‘What do I want to do?’”

At a mixer for the social sciences held in March at Chancellor Green, 22 alumni and 25 graduate students mingled as they enjoyed sushi and wine. Though some graduate students were tentative at first, the conversation soon was flowing easily on topics including advice and guidance about the working world. Networking was encouraged by organizers, including Donna Sy, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the history department’s Program in the History of Science. Sy volunteered to assist at the March mixer after attending a similar event last year — and getting an internship at the Princeton Theological Seminary library as a result.

Dorsey and Carol Barash *89 were inspired by the mixers to spearhead a careers conference at Reunions last year for alumni with graduate degrees. The conference will be repeated this year, with Peter Fiske as the keynote speaker. “I wanted other Princeton Ph.D.s to realize they have options — every possible option — and to do work that is professionally and personally meaningful for them,” says Barash, who turned down tenure offers that would have taken her away from the New York area and — after various positions in different fields — now works with Kirschner as the director of development, alumni relations, and communications at Macaulay Honors College.

Princeton’s career-services office also aims to give graduate students an “eye into the world outside the academy,” says Kathleen Mannheimer, the associate director. She and her team teach students to recognize and repackage the skills they’ve developed while earning a Ph.D., including public speaking, research, and project management.

According to May, that’s one of the most important lessons a Ph.D. interested in a career outside academia can learn. “Don’t mistake your dissertation for your greatest accomplishment or for your ticket into your next career,” she says. “It sounds like heresy. ... I fell into this trap myself. I thought the best foot I had to put forward was my expertise on Zora Neale Hurston’s folklore. Not surprisingly, there is not a huge demand for Hurston’s folklore outside academia. It took a lot of conversations with graduate alumni to understand that really what I have to offer are the skills that I gained in the process of becoming an expert.”

Hilary Parker ’01 is a freelance writer living in Princeton.