Perhaps rather predictably the poem from which this post takes its title, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (1920), tells of a traveller’s decision to walk one road in favour of another when he encounters two divergent paths on his way. He tries to predict, as far as possible from his position, where each may lead. Conscious that his choice comes with unpredictable implications, he is aware also that, once his decision is made, he most likely won’t return to explore “the road not taken”. We are told that the choice he made that day “made all the difference”, but not whether that difference is a positive or a negative one, or whether the “sigh” with which the story is told is one of relief or of regret.
What I want to address briefly in this post is not, however, where these roads may end but how we might equip doctoral students in a way that allows them to have a real choice between those roads in the first place. Too often a non-academic career is considered “Plan B” or, unhelpfully, as “not having made it” after your PhD, as many a discussion on Twitter under the hashtag #altac has revealed. Let me clarify from the outset, then, that I wholeheartedly agree that we should not construct academia as the one and only desirable career trajectory for PhD students, especially in the arts and humanities, and that we need to raise more positive awareness of the career options that do not lie inside the academy.
There lies a risk, however, in putting too much or even exclusive emphasis on these options in an attempt to address the current job shortage in UK universities. Careers outside the academy can only be a real choice (rather than a forced one) for PhD graduates if they have been given every chance and all the advice needed to develop the skills that realistically and as far as possible qualify them for an academic job upon completing their studies (providing they consider academia a desirable option, of course). And even then their choice will inevitably be impacted by their ability to get by on part-time, temporary contracts for several months to several years, no matter how qualified they are.
Telling prospective PhD students not to bother because of the bleak career prospects in academia and the cost of a postgraduate degree, and advising current doctoral researchers to forget about an academic career altogether because of the job shortage, is a dangerous form of exclusion on the basis of privilege, of keeping those out who cannot rely on their family for financial support during the job search, especially when that advice comes from people in permanent academic posts. The message is essentially: I’ve made it, but you won’t be able to. It’s a way of maintaining academia as an arena for those with inherited cultural and financial capital. Instead, what we should do as supervisors and mentors is ensure that our doctoral students are aware of what it takes to enter the academic job market. If someone advises a PhD researcher to focus only on their thesis during their studies and to start publishing, presenting, and applying for grants only once they have submitted, then to me that supervisor is utterly detached from reality, a reality which includes bills to pay. The quick retort is often that doctoral students shouldn’t be distracted from that one thing without which they certainly won’t get an academic job: their thesis. True, but just researching and writing for three or more years will neither prepare you for what an academic job actually requires from you, nor will it actually stand you a realistic chance to secure a post-doc or a lectureship. There are exceptions to this, of course, but usually only if you’re moving in the exclusive circles of certain universities.
If a student begins their doctoral studies with the intention to pursue an academic career then it is our duty to ensure that during their PhD they gain the experience relevant for that job, from teaching to publishing, and from presenting to writing grant applications, while ensuring they learn to juggle these activities with the writing of a thesis that will pass examination. If we do not prepare them sufficiently, then “alternative careers” will remain just that, an alternative rather than an equal option. Too often what we mean by “alternative career” is an exit route to escape the financial and emotional burden of part-time, temporary contracts and the indeterminate period of waiting for that permanent post to come along. Leaving academia becomes not an option but it becomes the only option. PhD training cannot alter the fact that there isn’t an academic post for every doctoral graduate who wishes to pursue an academic career. What it can do, however, is ensure that researchers are qualified and prepared to pursue that rocky path and to smooth it as far as possible.
If what it takes to secure an academic job has changed quite dramatically over the past decade or so, then arguably the qualification we achieve prior to entering the job market should change, too. I don’t think skills such as conference presentations or teaching should be formally assessed at PhD level, but they should form a compulsory element if the aim is to prepare the candidate for an academic career. If all we do during our PhD is research and write, then how can we really make an informed decision on whether or not an academic career is the right path for us? I don’t feel that introducing these activities dilutes the notion that at the centre of a doctoral thesis lies an original contribution to knowledge. This surely remains at the heart of why we want to pursue a doctorate and enter academia in the first place.
What I ask, then, is that we do what we can to ensure postgraduates are prepared for the road they want to choose and that they can make an informed choice between the two (or more) paths that lie ahead of them, rather than having to travel down one due to a lack of preparation for what the other demands. If we refuse to do this, then we as academics are actively imposing further barriers to a profession which is already a realm of privilege and which is under constant threat of becoming less and less accessible, be it due to increased fees or the often difficult transitional conditions under which post-docs work. I ask not that we forget about the research and the thesis, but that we acknowledge that this alone will not prepare PhD students if they hope to remain in academia after their doctoral studies. Rather than lamenting the situation or ignoring it, we must acknowledge that what used to be desirable criteria are now essentials, and we – individually, departmentally, and institutionally – must treat them as such when training the researchers of the future.