There is a heart-wrenching myth among us PhDs, which is that PhDs are failures if they do not obtain a tenure track faculty position. The “failure myth” has been perpetuated for decades and has thus been heard by most all graduate students and postdoctoral fellows (and many others…). This myth is wrong, very wrong.
The fact is, it is quite rare to be a tenure track PhD. For example, in the US, only 7% of PhDs in the life sciences are tenured and only a total of about 14% (which includes the 7% just mentioned) are on the tenure track. Likewise, only 46% of PhDs work in academia (this counts postdocs and PhDs in non-tenure track faculty positions) while the rest of us are doing all types of highly innovative and highly impactful jobs in all types of other industries (statistics are courtesy of Science and Engineering Indicators 2012). PhDs occupy nearly every type of job imaginable, and PhDs are being very happy in all types of positions (read this blog post about an English PhD happily working for the US Postal Service).
The very unfortunate part of the failure myth is that it holds many PhDs in [oftentimes low quality of personal and professional life] academic postdoc, non-tenure track scientist positions, etc. for years (sometimes a decade or more) before individuals realize that they can significantly contribute to society in other job markets while being much more satisfied, both personally and professionally.
I am continuously reminded of the failure myth. People mention it to me and I hear about it through other graduate students and PhDs. So, I’ve made it a personal mission to help change this myth. I’ve written about some of the underlying issues over the years and I’ve recently started several initiatives to help combat this problem. I started Integrative Academic Solutions and What Are All The PhDs? to help promote the fact that PhDs are doing highly innovate and impactful work in countless industries and job markets. My feeling is that the more we all do, the sooner the failure myth will be dispelled and no longer perpetuated or tolerated.
There are many issues with the academic system and culture that need addressed to prevent the further perpetuation of the failure myth. It will likely take decades longer to fix the academic system, so in the meantime, what everyone needs to ultimately come to terms with is that great happiness can be found in self-defined success. So, maybe a PhD finds a career path with the US Postal Service, for example, and is out-of-this-world happy about the job and maybe this person considers him/herself as being highly successful! The biggest point here is that we can and should define our own success! Once we do, we’ll all be much happier. Eventually, academia and the rest of society will come to terms with the fact that PhDs are highly successful in every sector of the job market.
So, have you heard the failure myth? How does the myth impact you? What are you doing combat the myth? Share your stories of overcoming this myth to excel at work you love. Share your thoughts on what issues need address in academia (and/or elsewhere) to stop the spread of the failure myth.
About the Author:
Nathan has a Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural biotechnology, a PhD in biochemistry, and an MBA with an operations management focus. He is the Assistant Director for Research for the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center. He is the founder of Integrative Academic Solutions, which aims to help individuals integrate multiple disciplines to achieve innovative job performance. He is also the founder/editor of The Daily PhD, a newspaper dedicated to graduate school issues and PhD career paths. Lastly, he is the founder/editor of What Are All The PhDs?, which is dedicated to putting a personal spin on highlighting all possible career paths for PhDs.