Seven Misconceptions about People with PhDs

It seems that people have a lot of pre-existing ideas about what someone with a PhD is, does, and wants, when we’re actually a pretty diverse lot.  Some of these are things I’ve realised by talking to people from outside the academy, and others have come up through reflecting and writing and reading blogs about post-PhD life.

1. We’re all geniuses

You know that saying about 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration?  That, exactly.  I can see how being a genius might help you understand concepts and connections more easily, especially if you’re in a really tough field, but you can’t get anywhere without some serious slog, whether it’s working through a load of records in the archive until you find what you need, writing a 10,000-word chapter, or the long, slow process of editing.  While my IQ is a little above average, I’m no way in ‘genius’ territory.  I’m just hella disciplined and hard-working (but not so much that I don’t take breaks … we’ve discussed this).

2. We all want academic careers

Picture the scene.  You’re in your mid-twenties, and embarking on a three-to-four-year program.  You think you want to be an academic, as that’s what PhDs appear to do (all the academics are doctors, right?).  Over the next three years, you see and hear things, and change your views, as young people are wont to do.  You meet friends who start their PhDs with other career options in mind.  You meet retirees who are doing PhDs as a challenge.  You hear about other options that sound appealing, you realise how tough it is to make it as an academic, you reach your late twenties and realise that your priority is stability in the form of having your own, permanent home with your partner.  PhDs looking for non-academic careers haven’t necessarily tried for an academic career but ‘failed’ (not that there’s ANYTHING wrong with that).  Some of us never even got to looking for an academic job.

3. We should be able to have an academic career

While some people (generally academics who had it much easier in their day) erroneously think PhDs looking for non-academic jobs ‘haven’t tried hard enough’ or ‘weren’t good enough’ for the academy (grr), I’ve come across non-academics who are utterly puzzled by this whole thing.  Surely, if you’ve done three or more years of studying and become a doctor, there should be a job for you within the academy?  I always explain the whole ‘one supervisor, more than replacement level students’, but actually, it is messed up.  You don’t train as a medical doctor only to not get a placement (I’m guessing).  The academy becomes like school all over again - when everyone in an institution has passed their 11+, or has a PhD, you cease to be special.

4. We’re ambitious

For me, sitting in my room writing an 80,000-word thesis for three years doesn’t mean I’m ambitious.  I took on postgrad study because I was stuck in a dead-end job with seemingly no other means of escape, and I wanted to sit out the rest of the recession researching, reading, and writing, which I love.  The crux is: I was motivated by escaping boredom and a desire to spend my days doing something that makes me happy.  And that also applies to what I want from a job.  I’d rather have enough money and enjoy what I do than have loads of money and dread going to work.

5. We don’t have any real-world experience

Even when a PhD student goes straight through from undergraduate to PhD, that doesn’t mean they’ve never done a ‘normal job’ at any point.  And there are loads of PhD students who’ve taken time out between undergraduate and postgraduate (like me), wanted a career change, or have to work alongside their studies to support themselves.  So no, we’re not all trapped within this ivory tower bubble, we have done ‘real world’ things like admin and cleaning and dealing with the public and getting up early and working hours set by someone else.  In fact, I think it was retail, not my PhD, that gave me unrealistic ideas of what work should be like!  Retail managers like to get their money’s worth, so you’re not allowed to be slack for a moment and have to be doing something profitable at all times.

6. We can get any job we want

A PhD isn’t a passport to any job in the world.  Employers want experience - nobody’s going to take me on as a manager (not that that’s what I want), in publishing (I’ve pretty much given up on that idea to be honest), or as a senior social researcher just because I have a PhD.  When I do job applications, I’m constantly referring my retail and teaching experience, as well as the year I spent volunteering one day a week in an office, to show employers that I am actually capable of things (and have the real-world experience mentioned in the point above).

7. We’re ‘above’ certain jobs

I know PhDs who work in retail.  I don’t want to go back, not because it’s ‘below’ me, but because it quite literally sends me mad with boredom.  Relating to the point above, I know I’m going to have to go for entry-level positions and hope that I can prove to employers what I’m capable of so that I can attain that dream job.

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK