Academic Imposters and Failures

One thing that I hear consistently from graduate students after they make the transition to employment is how difficult the transition was. This goes for the small plurality who land tenure track employment just as much as it does for the majority who transition to something else. Granted, I work in a Career Centre and the majority of people I interact with daily are the ones who are struggling to make the transition, but even when I moderate a panel of people who make the transition successfully, they still have stories of overcoming adversity. This is also true of my own transition to academic administration once I completed my PhD. I am introverted and modest, which means I struggled with the kind of job-seeking networking that is generally the most effective way to get a job.

There are three potential reasons why this transition from graduate student to gainful employment is so difficult.

First, there is a culture of failure within academia. For instance, I have a PhD, but I neither have nor desire a tenured professor position. For those of you fully immersed in academic culture, this means that you view me as a failure and are unlikely to pay any attention to what I have to say. I know it’s not that you really think that I’m failure it’s that you think the possibility of doing what I do would make you a failure. I wrote about this culture of failure two years ago, and I stand by everything I wrote with the exception of my optimism about tenure rates – it’s more like 15-30% than 50%, and that could be significantly lower if we count people who start a PhD and never finish. It is absolutely painful to realise that you might not become a professor, but the modules here at MyGradSkills, and the professional development resources at your university, can increase your chances of getting a tenured position, and also help you transition to something else.

Second, there is a tendency for graduate students, PhDs in particular, to be so immersed in their thesis that they cannot separate themselves from it. Katina Rogers’ important study, “Humanities Unbound” demonstrates that employers value the advanced research skills of graduate students far more than PhDs working in non-tenured positions.  The blood, sweat, and tears that go into a thesis can make us lose sight of the fact that there was both a product and a process. The process is where we demonstrate our transferable skills/competencies, and the product is the demonstration that we are a content expert in that field. Even in situations where an employer doesn’t need to apply our content expertise, there is still room to use those research skills (literature searches, analysis of sources, concise critical synopses, etc.) in many working environments. Those who secure professor or post-doc positions usually do so based on their ability to persuade a committee that they can start and complete a new project using the skills they acquired in the thesis. The resources here at MyGradSkills can help you develop your skills or competencies.

Finally, imposter syndrome is detrimental to all types of job searches. The critical thought required in graduate school means that we can find fault in everything, especially our own work. If you’re looking for an academic position, and you’re struggling to present yourself as a successful academic, because you’re afraid that someone is going to find a fatal flaw in your work, you are going to struggle to find a position. If you’re applying for any other type of job (non-academic, alternative-academic, post-academic are the common monikers used within academia) and you feel you are both over- and under-qualified at the same time, then you will struggle to persuade an employer that you are the right person for their job. The coping strategy for this kind of anxiety is known as the field technique – visualizing the situation from the perspective of the hiring manager or committee. The key to successfully using the field technique is having realistic expectations of what the hiring manager or committee is looking for, and that can be a huge challenge if you suffer from imposter syndrome. This is where career professionals, informational interviews, panels, job-shadowing, and other types of career education and exploration can help.

The transition from graduate student to employment is tough, but there are plenty of people out there who want to help and/or have been through it (staff at your university, alumni from your program, the Versatile PhD community, etc.). Don’t be afraid to ask!

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