Life outside academia

AlienGetty460There is life outside academia, and by that I don’t mean that people are having more fun elsewhere. I am only suggesting that an academic career is not the natural, or even the most desirable outcome of a university degree.

As a lecturer in early modern history at a post-1992 university I know that only few of our undergraduate students will progress to a Master’s degree, and even fewer will embark on a PhD in the subject. Out of the few who do, not everyone will end up in an academic job; and with a highly volatile job market increasingly dependent on short-term temporary positions even a post-doc or a one-year teaching contract are not a guarantee of future employment in the sector.

Nevertheless, many universities still do too little to prepare their students for real life, while lecturers (in fairness) might not be the best qualified people to do so, as one of my colleagues pointed out at a recent meeting discussing ‘employability’. After all, most academics would have proceeded straight from their undergraduate degree to postgraduate study, finishing it all off with a PhD within seven or eight years before embarking on a career in research and teaching. The odd bar job aside, few academics will have seen much of the world of work outside when they are let lose on their undergraduate students. (In fact, I often feel a bit like an outsider because I worked in journalism for a number of years before becoming a full-time academic.)

Nevertheless, the percentage of graduates in appropriate employment within six months after leaving university is a key criterion in league tables measuring the success and quality of a higher education institution, and academics are supposed to prepare their students for the job market. So what can we do? 

The easy answer preferred by many academics is to let the Careers Centre deal with it – after all, they are the experts. The slightly less comfortable solution would be to teach academics more about the world of work, and how key academic skills, such as research, data analysis, writing, presenting, team work and effective communication of complex issues could be transferred to a non-academic job.

We send our students on work placements, which they usually enjoy and from which they usually benefit a lot. Yet, the fact that most of them aim for museums, archives, libraries and, above all, schools to me implies a certain lack of imagination. Is that all the jobs we can think of?

Maybe it’s time for academics to branch out a bit and get some real life work experience themselves. I wouldn’t mind seeing what it’s like out there for recent graduates. I’d happily spend a week or two each year working for a local business, learning about their aims and processes and reporting back to my students about it. After all, if I want credibility as a tutor, I should know what I’m talking about. In the drive to make university degrees more relevant to the demands of the job market, wouldn’t that be a first step?




By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.


  1. This is really well put. I’m pleased not all academics are university-focused. Even though you work in one, you have the foresight and desire to look beyond which, as you say, too few academics do. This is really great. I wish more PhD programmes were structured less solely on training you to be an academic (especially as the system seems to produce the same number of PhD holders for a dwindling number of jobs and competition is strong for these jobs) but on more generic skills which can be adapted to the workplace. And I for one would also welcome the introduction of specialist skills – e.g. the option of taking a class on coding, for instance, which has huge benefits not just outside but within the academy potentially.

    I think it would be great for academics to leave the ivory towers and experience business and industry, and the challenges faced there – but also, how a PhD can help in those settings. I think too many PhD holders leave and then have no real idea for what to do next, nor want to particularly publicise their PhD, given many people outside the academy, don’t really understand what it is or what you’ve achieved.

    So, really great article – I hope your colleagues, both in Newcastle and further afield, take note and start to train PhDs – and by extension, undergraduates, not only in how to be academics, but giving them a future skill they can use. And being imaginative in this (yes, PhD holders do work for museums and libraries, and these are wonderful, wonderful institutions. But there are many more places where PhD holders can work).

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