Student Representative Column

The academic “Hunger Games”: Searching for employment post-PhD

Obtaining a desirable position after obtaining a PhD may be daunting, but following these guideless may help.

By Alexa Lopez

For those of you unfamiliar with the “Hunger Games Trilogy” books and movies, the “Hunger Games” are set in the dystopian future of the United States where adolescent male and female participants from each of the 12 districts (states) must compete in a televised battle where they fight to the death. While this may sound very different from graduate school, there are some similarities that can be drawn, and you may feel yourself as a competitor in a battle arena trying to find that perfect post-PhD employment opportunity. There is growing evidence that there are not enough tenure track positions for the number of doctorates being awarded, including those with degrees in psychology. According to an article in The Atlantic, less than 20 percent of those graduating with life sciences PhDs in 2011 had direct employment lined up. While the vast majority obtains postdoctoral training (44 percent), 37 percent do not have postdoctoral fellowships or employment positions and are essentially un/underemployed. For comparison, the unemployment rate in 2013 for those without a high school diploma was 29 percent. These “unemployed” PhD recipients may not in fact be unemployed, but rather “ underemployed” where they cannot find an adequate full-time position that reflects their educational training.

There is also increasing evidence that the number of full-time tenure track positions have been steadily decreasing, with the majority of college faculty being part-time employees. At public four-year colleges in 2009, 46 percent of professors were employed part-time. Within private colleges the split between full- and part-time was closer to 50/50. With the increase in demand for professors since the mid-20 th century due to college enrollment increases, there has been an increase in adjunct faculty by 300 percent—without the same increase for tenure-track positions.

So what can you do as a graduate student in order to increase the odds in your favor? A recent gradPSYCH blog post by Nabil El-Ghoroury paraphrased here offers four helpful tips that graduate students in all disciplines can benefit from:

  • Ally with your colleagues. Build alliances during graduate school by developing collaborative projects with fellow students. Funding agencies prefer collaborative grants, and you may be able to generate more publications through these collaborations.
  • Learn helpful skills. Think about what you need to land your academic dream job, and pursue opportunities to gain these skills. Departments are always looking for professors who can teach statistics or research methods, or you may want to gain experience with cutting-edge techniques such as fMRI to make you a more appealing job candidate.
  • Advocate for more resources. Advocacy for increased funding for science research at the federal and state levels could lead to increases in research faculty positions. Instead of deleting those emails calling for advocacy to your representatives, take the time to respond.
  • Create an alternative path to victory. You may discover in graduate school that academia isn't for you. With a psychology PhD you have a skill set that can translate to many nontraditional careers. Take the time to search for alternative career opportunities and seek guidance and insight from someone currently in a nontraditional career.