What’s Your Back Up Plan?

What's Your Back Up Plan? | New Faculty

I hate being “that faculty” but lately, I’ve been asking my students and friends still in grad school “what’s your back up plan?”

The conversation always starts out with something like, “what do you want to do when you’re finished?” and most students give me some ideolgoical crap speech about joining faculty in a tenure track job. I usually follow with “what’s your back up plan?” and many of them are thin on the response. I was texting a friend who is still in her program and her response (see photo above, it’s my screen shot),

“my adviser seems confident i’ll be fine.”

OK……that’s great…..but that’s because your adviser is already set up in her TT job. Your adviser won’t be hitting the job market like a ton of bricks. Your adviser won’t be too invested in where you land when you’re done because she’ll have tenure by then and is secure in her position.

I hate to be all ‘negative nancy’ on the subject, but it’s becoming more and more rare that we land in our ‘dream job’ right away. Not that I haven’t been super lucky in my life, but I’m also a super realist. Realistically, it’s not going to be exactly what you want. It’s going to be super sucky for a while, and you’ll probably be making some big geographical and intellectual moves for years until you get settled. Realistically, you’ll take whatever you can get your first job out of grad school to stretch your legs and recover grow from grad school.

Why are advisers doing this mass disservice to grad students? Why are they setting them up to be dissapointed? The same thing happened to me and while I do believe that ‘life works out’ I also know that sometimes: you’ve gotta get real. Dream world is really fun. It’s fun to dream, it helps us set our own personal goals, but when we land back in ‘real time’ we often get dissappointed by what HASN’T happened to us. That’s when we start getting let down.

The data in higher ed isn’t lying and the truth is this: fewer TT jobs, fewer resources in states, fewer resources from the fed, and more competition for coveted grants that will often drive a T&P packet at any R1 university. You don’t need a phd to see those numbers and trends. Many institutions are also cutting corners by cutting jobs, adding instructors, adjuncts, and other “fancy named” faculty to avoid paying benefits, retirement, and anything outside of a mere couple grand (if that) to administer a class. The whole thing sucks. However, it’s reality and it deserves some attention.

I sent this to three of my former grad school cohort survivors and all three came back with different responses:

“some things never change.”

“Yes, because when someone is “confident” it means that you will get the jobs that are there.  Seriously.  I would recommend NO ONE to go into their masters or PhD program.  They are big on selling you and getting you there but once you are there, they could care less about you or if you are successful after you leave.  For her sake, I hope she does have a backup plan because with the job market how it is, she will need it!”

“Ahhhhhhh. They were all confident that we were getting fab jobs. The market is getting better,  but sheeeeesh.”

Three very strong responses from people who all completed their phd’s and NONE OF US are in TT jobs. Which is ok, we have jobs, but let me repeat that for my GRADUATE SCHOOL STUDENTS:


So, without sounding like the world’s biggest party pooper, I’m going to relay this this week: HAVE A BACK UP PLAN. Have two. Maybe three. Yes, the market is recovering, yes the economy is picking up. No, the trend in higher ed is not changing.

As a new faculty or phd who did or did not land a TT job, what advice would you give?

**Steps off soapbox**

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2 thoughts on “What’s Your Back Up Plan?

  1. I bounced in and out of the private consulting industry throughout grad school, building a network of non-academic relationships that provided me with a back-up plan, and the skills to get a job in private industry. This is something that grad students would have to consider doing from the early days of their program – not as a last-ditch, didn’t get an interview this year, prospect. So, my advice: Be planning years in advance both both the TT/academic or private/NGO streams.

  2. Great article. I’d say the biggest thing to hedge your bets is to try to go to a good share of industry-rich conferences during the middle-to-end of your program in addition to jumping through all of the TT hoops. While you’re at those conferences, make good use of the time and develop contacts, and also hint you’re seriously considering industry. Obviously this is easier or harder to do depending on your program.

    Also, try to develop relationships with faculty that are industry-oriented. Have an prof on your committee that has a strong track record of placement in industry, and make sure he/she knows you well. That way, if (when?) things don’t work out on the academic track, that prof knows you enough to make a phone call and get you some interviews.

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