As I approach the final stretch of my graduate program in Sociology, it’s curious to reflect on how my plans for my post-PhD career have changed since I started grad school, fresh out of my undergraduate program. I came to grad school because of my passion for thinking about why different societies are structured the way they are and how our social institutions have developed over time. Like many new graduate students, I entered my program with dreams of becoming a tenured professor at a major research university.
However, as I progressed through my program and learned more about the routines and rhythms of being a professional academic, I have felt a growing sense that pursuing a tenure-track job may not be the best fit with the goals I have for my career. While I continue to cherish many aspects of the academic life—the opportunity to enter new social worlds through my research, the chance to read widely and think deeply about questions of my choosing, the challenge of expressing new theoretical ideas in clear language—I have also become aware of the ways in which it can be restrictive.
Thus, rather than limiting my job search this fall to the traditional post-doc, visiting professorship, and tenure-track opportunities, I will also be seriously considering a move into a different field altogether: management consulting. As The Economist recently noted, top management consulting firms have increased their recruiting of those with PhDs and other advanced degrees, whom they value for their strong analytical skills and problem solving abilities (students with degrees in STEM disciplines are especially valued) . Consulting offers many of the things I have found lacking in my academic experience: the chance to work on a variety of projects rather than specializing in one area; the opportunity to work collaboratively with others on a daily basis; and the challenge of finding and implementing solutions to messy, real-world problems.
Consulting is also appealing because of the wide applicability of the analytical and problem-solving abilities that are the core of a consultant’s skillset, opening up a wide range of opportunities over the long-term. As for my own long-term goals, I would love to find a way to combine my interest in solving practical problems with my passion for writing and my ambition to be a thought leader. Given my social science background, I would be very interested in writing about and working to improve pressing social problems like poverty, educational inequality, and environmental sustainability.
My exploration of a post-PhD future in consulting has not been without its challenges. One of the most difficult aspects of considering this transition is the fact that such a move is not common among PhDs from my discipline. As in most academic fields, the gold standard outcome after finishing your PhD is a tenure-track faculty position. Compared with the STEM fields, those of us in the social sciences have fewer options for venturing into the private sector. Most of my colleagues pursuing careers outside academia seek work at non-profit organizations or government agencies. The possibility of seeking opportunities in the private sector, it seems, is not something discussed in polite company. While several colleagues have been supportive of my interest in an alternative career, disclosure of my plans has sometimes been met with quizzical looks, as if what I am contemplating is hard to fathom.
With few models to emulate from within my own discipline, I have relied on the resources available through the broader university community to explore my career interests, from working with a career counselor to participating in workshops and competitions sponsored by the business school. Through my involvement with a consulting club on campus, I met a PhD student from a science discipline who successfully made the transition to consulting this year. Her mentorship has been invaluable for learning the key steps in making this transition. After seeing the road map for breaking into consulting laid out before me, there is the hard work of studying to improve my business acumen, developing contacts in the industry, and honing the skills needed to enter and succeed in the consulting field that lie ahead.
I feel that, in many ways, my PhD experience has endowed me with many essential skills that will help me in whatever path I take, from learning how to organize and execute a major project to how to operate in an unstructured environment where self-direction and discipline are crucial. Despite everything I value about the experience, after spending eight years pursuing my degree, the chance to move into a new field and challenge myself in novel ways is exciting.
As the future of the academic career path becomes murkier as a result of the increasing reliance on part-time adjuncts rather than full-time professors, diminished funding of social science research, and the spread of massive open online courses (MOOCs), it is likely that graduate students will increasingly be looking for career opportunities outside of academia. I encourage students to keep an open-mind when considering their career possibilities, not limiting themselves to the options approved by the conventions of their discipline. It is also important to plan ahead so you can develop skills and gain experiences that will smooth your transition to a different field. In the changing academic environment, graduate schools and PhD programs will hopefully rise to the challenge of preparing their students to be successful in whatever their post-PhD lives will bring.
1. “To the brainy, the spoils.” The Economist, May 11th, 2013.
Geoff received his BS from Cornell University, majoring in Development Sociology, and his MS in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Geoff is currently a PhD candidate at UW-Madison and will defend his dissertation during the 2013-2014 academic year. His dissertation is an ethnographic study of the Tea Party movement, based on participant observation at rallies and meetings and interviews with participants in the movement. Geoff will be on the job market this fall, pursuing opportunities in academia as well as in management consulting.