o the tenure track…and beyond As Ph.D. candidates deal with a shortage of professorships, they’re being challenged to discover different ways to use their skills and new definitions of success.
BY LUCAS HUBBARD PHOTOGRAPHY BY ALEX BOERNER AND DANUTA OTFINOWSKI
Inside one of Durham’s brick-faced, vestigial tobacco buildings, Nick Troester Ph.D. ’10 speaks quietly. “I don’t know that anyone at any point in time says, ‘You’re a failure if you don’t find a tenure-track job somewhere,’ but it’s an expectation that I think I had,” he says. The space, now featuring neon-toned walls and open-desk designs—the employees clad in flip-flops, the La Croix freely flowing—is less ivory tower than Instagram. Troester, who studied humanitarian intervention for his doctorate in political science, seems comfortable working at Research Square, which primarily helps non-native-English-speaking authors better communicate and prepare academic papers. Yet his role of learning and development coach falls into a category that “didn’t become appealing until I was a few years outside of the Ph.D.,” he says. The shift from the academy to a new environment doesn’t always come easily. Those set on becoming professors have to, as Troester says, “psychologically and emotionally make peace” with the fact that they’re leaving such a path behind. Many Ph.D.s do end up with what are commonly termed “alt-academic careers.” They’re responding to a not-so-new problem: Advanced-degree holders, whose quantity greatly outstrips the number of
vacant professorships, face towering odds to secure tenure-track positions. As this supply-demand imbalance has gained notoriety, and as institutions move to better support students, the pivot has become easier. But after investing five-plus years doing coursework, fulfilling teaching responsibilities, and generally becoming creative scientists or dogged scholars, many graduates find that anything less than the ideal role will seem lacking. “There’s this belief that you might dedicate seven years of your life to this project and then you might have to go work in Starbucks,” says Ashley Rose Young, a current Ph.D. candidate in history at Duke. Or, if you’re not a fan of pumpkin spice lattes: “It’s professor or McDonald’s, really,” says biology professor Sönke Johnsen, of how he felt when he was getting rejected from jobs after earning his doctorate. “Graduate students put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed, and sometimes they’re working with a very narrow definition of what success looks like,” says Maria LaMonaca Wisdom, who came to the Duke graduate school in late 2016 as director of graduate-student advising and engagement for the humanities, a new role. Students, particularly within the humanities, may believe they need to become a faculty member, to the exclusion
Published on Nov 29, 2017