Leaving academia: Why doctoral students take non-academic jobs and how they are prepared


 Presenter (s) Shuhua Chen, Shanghai Jiao Tong University
Title Leaving academia: Why doctoral students take non-academic jobs and how they are prepared

Doctoral education is continuing expanding in many countries yet the academic labor market is not as promising. Lots of doctoral graduates are seeking non-academic employments, which somehow mismatches the goal of doctoral education of producing academic researchers. While there are statistics regarding doctorate holders’ employment immediately and years after graduation, how they plan on and prepare for desired careers during their doctoral studies is largely unknown. This paper reports on some of the preliminary findings of a larger mixed-method study that looks at doctoral students’ career preparations. In particular, it draws on qualitative interviews with four doctoral graduates from a Chinese research university and explores how they enacted agency in shifting career intentions from working in academia to working outside of it. The findings point to the roles of subjective career (how they make sense of career opportunities) and career agency (how they learn from their past experience and context to advance career thinking) in understanding the students’ experiences. The study aims to shed some light on why some doctoral students are leaving academia and how doctoral programs might respond to students’ diverse career choices.

Key words
doctoral education; career preparation; career agency; subjective career

Doctoral education is expanding worldwide and the number of doctoral graduates is increasing. The employment of doctorate holders is attracting more attention of researchers in doctoral education as well as research agencies and governments. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for example, initiated a Careers of Doctorate Holders database in 2005 and has been collecting information regarding doctorate holders’ job positions, salaries and mobility; there are government databases such as Great Britain’s Where do researchers go? Project, the U.S.’s Survey of Earned Doctorates, Germany’s ProFile, and China’s Quality of Doctoral Education Survey in 2007, in which doctoral graduates’ employment is an important section (Cai & Fan, 2011).

The traditional goal of doctoral education is to produce academic researchers. However, an increased number of doctoral graduates have begun to look somewhere else for employment opportunities than the academia. Research has revealed that, although the majority of doctoral students still intend to become academics, only around 50% of them actually end up working in universities (Castelló, McAlpine, & Pyhältö, 2015; Neumann & Tan, 2011; Luo & Gu, 2015). In some disciplines non-academic career tracks are becoming part of disciplinary norms (Schwabe, 2011; Gu & Luo, 2013)(Rudd & Nerad, 2015). Diversity in doctorate holders’ careers has led scholars to look at ways to develop students’ skills needed for non-academic positions (Kyvik & Olsen, 2012) and ways to adapt doctoral programs to address students’ different career intentions (Porter & Phelps, 2014).

While there is research and statistics about doctorate holders’ employment status, salaries and mobility, little can be found about how doctoral students actually plan on and prepare for the careers that the desire to take. The larger project that this paper is drawing on addresses this gap by documenting doctoral graduates’ career thinking and career preparation activities during doctoral studies. Specifically, this paper attempts to explore why and how some doctoral students make the decision to leave academia.

Theoretical Perspective
Tams and Arthur’s (2010) notion of career agency and Arthur et al.’s notion of subjective career offer invaluable insights in interpreting doctoral students’ career decision-making.

Career agency refers to “a process of work-related social engagement, informed by past experiences and future possibilities, through which an individual invests in his or her career” (Tams & Arthur, 2010, p.630). This notion recognizes individuals’ effort to learn from their own experience as well as the context in order to advance their careers and career thinking, and thus is highly relevant to doctoral students’ career preparation.

Subjective career is related to “the individual’s own sense of his or her career and what it is becoming” (Arthur, Kahpova, & Wilderom, 2005, p.179). In contrast with objective career, which refers to how a career is publicly viewed by a society, this notion stresses more an individual’s personal values and purposes of working and living.

Career agency emphasizes who takes responsibilities in making career decisions and subjective career, what makes sense in making such decisions. They are interconnected and both inform doctoral students’ career preparation.

Data Collection
The larger project is a mixed-method study being conducted at a large research intensive university in China. A short survey was administered to all doctoral graduates (over 1,000) from June 2018 to July 2019. The interviewees were being selected from the survey respondents, mostly based on whether and how they were changing career intentions/job positions with a balance on disciplinary areas, types of careers and demographic information. This paper reports on findings from an analysis of four participants, who have abandoned their original career intention of becoming an academic and taken up non-academic positions. Two are from STEM fields and two from life sciences.

Preliminary Findings
The four doctoral graduates agentively tried out various non-academic career opportunities during their doctoral studies, and made various meanings of academic and non-academic careers. For example, one answered a ‘calling’ in life (Hall & Chandler, 2005) and took a position that was not related to his doctoral research yet personally meaningful to him; another was aspiring to bring new technologies that he was acquiring from his non-academic position into his original disciplinary area.

Shuhua Chen is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, China. Her research interests are mostly in doctoral students’ experience and academic identity development.

101 Responses

  1. Jorge Enrique Delgado

    Interesting study, Chen. I want to play devil’s advocate with your argument, maybe looking to engage you in further analysis. You’re assuming that the career paths of doctoral students are expected to be in the academia. Your research problem is why doctors are leaving academia and if they are prepared. Recently, my colleagues Fernanda Pineda, Felisa Tibbitts, and I conducted an analysis with the support of a CIES Innovation Fund 2019, about non-academic career paths. Our argument is different from yours. We argue that people in doctoral Comparative and International Education (similarly to most social sciences and the humanities) are mainly trained for academic jobs but there are not enough academic jobs available. So, people end up pursuing other paths or even changing fields. Add to this that an important group end up working as adjuncts, waiting years for an opportunity to get a full-time teaching and/or research job. Some disciplines, mainly in computer science, engineering, and technologies, train doctors to work in the productive sector, that is, innovation and entrepreneurship. So, there is a mismatch between what’s taught and job skills and knowledge mainly in countries where doctoral education is well developed. My questions are, should we close many programs if there are not enough jobs? Should we change our curricula and make them more relevant to the reality?

    1. Shuhua Chen

      Thank you so much for your comments and thoughts, Jorge! I must admit I had a difficult time transferring a paper presentation to a poster! The CIES project that you mentioned sounds very interesting and I really want to check it out. Are there publications yet though? I would appreciate it if you provided a reference.

      I totally agree on what you said about the academic labor market. I recall there was a huge discussion about whether we are producing too many PhDs a couple of years ago in Academic Affairs (?) a few years ago. Maybe the question is not ‘how many’ phds we are producing but ‘what’ phds we are producing. This is what you were asking at the end of your comment, two questions with no easy or quick answers! For the second one, many doctoral programs are already adapting to the needs of students and to the labor market. For the first one, my naïve, quick answer is that, PhD is a research degree, which I believe it should be, and every small field deserves some decent research work – which legitimizes the existence of PhD.

  2. Jieyu Jiang

    This is a very interesting topic and research about PhD students’ career selections and transformations. It has a theoretical support on career selection, five interviewees out of 1000 surveys, and some preliminary findings about why and how they make decisions about leaving the academia. However, my questions for this poster and research are: 1. I didn’t find a relatively clear definition or an explanation for the notion of “academia” and “jobs in academia” in this research, which also has been proved in one interviewee’s reply–she/he thinks putting what you learned into practices is also related with the world of academia rather than thoroughly jumping out of it. So the notion of “academia” needs to be clarified: does it only mean working in universities and research institutions? Is it a common sense to specific groups of people or different disciplines? If so, how it is differently interpreted in various cultures and contexts?
    2. From the poster, it is obviously that the findings address interviewees’ contents and narratives a lot and to a large extent, the findings directly come out of them. Given there are only five interviewees and each of them varies a lot within different contexts on this topic, it might be more helpful not only for readers but also for researchers to understand their narratives if some individual experience, contexts and introduction could be offered here or in the paper. In this sense, the findings will be more persuasive and powerful in unique stories and the question of “why” could be more accurately answered–what has led to their values? Is it a popular phenomenon? Why their answers are meaningful to you and to this question?

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