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Some background:

I have practically two PhD offers on the table (well, I have to apply as its "the way of things", but they were both personally suggesting me for this) and have two masters degrees.

I am 40 years old, I live in Northern Europe, and my field is nutrition. I have had some years of working in academia and already have some publications, but I have never been in an employer/employee relationship that is financially rewarding and offers me work/employment-security. The offers to continue my education and become a PhD have always been the expectations of my supervisors - even after I expressed my reluctance (repeatedly). Because my field is very small, I don't want to go into further details than this.

My problem:

I am greatly disappointed in how the financial situation is handled by the academic institution in general, and how all the work for achieving a higher education is not paying off in any of the aspects I had expected (financially, greater job security, work benefits, stability, intellectually, and personally rewarding). Other people with bachelor degrees earn more than working in academia, they enjoy free time and personal growth, they are financially secure, which lead to even higher salaries.

I feel the pressure of my age and that I have not been able to make any adult financial long-term decisions/plans and been dependent on my partner, student support and sporadic part-time work in entry level jobs. I have even been presented with the fact that many of my field-colleagues do free work because it is expected. In my opinion, this just undermines the whole field and gives the general view that if you demand a salary or a raise in your quite small salary you are not considered for continuation of contract. Furthermore, the way funding works here is never really spoken loudly about, as with quite a few of the possible foundations to apply for, you will basically have to forego all/most your social rights that is granted to any other employee in Northern Europe. The other thing about funding, is that in my experience it's never granted for the entirety of the project from planning - participants/data collection - analysis and publications, but often only until data is collected and then you have to apply for more. I find this whole ordeal to be quite questionable ethically, but somehow none of my supervisors or colleagues wish to discuss this.

My attempts of finding employment in the private sector, or in the public sector (just not academic positions) have not been fruitful because of the nature of my expertise and experience. I have often been told that "You are too skilled for this xx position". And no, as I anticipate anyone suggesting this: Working with a specialized psychologist on work-life did not lead to success either.

Does everyone else in academia just live like this, from funding to funding, having to scrape by and only occasionally been in the position to feel a tiniest bit more affluent?

I did not go into higher education to be constantly stressed over if I would have any work to go back to once the timer on your contract is out, have my sense of work ethics be shattered every time that funding ends before project completion, or having to stress with winning the constant popularity contest. No matter how good and skillful I am, it has not been taken care of by the employer by incentivizing my continuation to keep the intellectual and softer assets in-house, it is just expected of me (= they hand me PhD projects to apply for, or don't bother to come back).

Nor did I go into it for becoming rich. I only wanted a safe economical future, a stable work place and a knowledge that I had the long-term ability to provide well for my family while working with something intellectually rewarding.

What should I do?
I can't live this way any more, if described in its simplest terms it sounds very much like an abusive relationship. But I can't seem to be able to find any work outside of academia either. I don't believe that having a go at one of the PhD offers will help me out either, as I see many post-docs in my field have also only constantly repeated short-term contracts of employment.

Thank you for reading all this way.

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    Please shorten your question or at least add a TLDR, this is far too much information. Try to focus on key points of your inquery.
    – Sursula
    Dec 11, 2023 at 12:17
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    If money is your primary concern, don't go in to academia. Security is good once tenured, but the pay is less than can be earned elsewhere. I have friends with similar backgrounds, but in industry, who consistently made twice what I did. We were happy with the tradeoffs.
    – Buffy
    Dec 11, 2023 at 12:34
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    Welcome to Stackexchange. This question is likely to be closed as-is, because it is one person asking advice for their specific situation. I recommend seeing if you can generalize it to question(s) that is/are relevant to others. If this results in more than one question they should be asked separately.
    – Flyto
    Dec 11, 2023 at 12:53
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    I doubt that academia will get 'fixed' to your desires.
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 11, 2023 at 15:25
  • A career coach might help you. Dec 12, 2023 at 0:32

3 Answers 3

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You're thinking about the wrong question, because you've made the (incorrect) assumption that "doing a PhD = working in academia". The PhD does not shackle you to an academic job. You can do a PhD and work in industry afterwards. If you do not work in academia, then questions like "What happens to your hard work ... every time your funding wasn't renewed or applications dismissed" are not relevant.

The questions you should be thinking about are:

  • What kind of job do you want to do?
  • What kind of qualifications are required to do that job? Do you need a PhD to do it? If no, then what is the point of the PhD?
  • If you can't find a stable job now, what makes you think getting a PhD will help?

One of the worst reasons to get a PhD is "because I'm avoiding the job market". After you graduate, you'll still need to get a job, so you want solid evidence that a PhD will help before committing the several years' time required to get it.

But I can't seem to be able to find any work outside of academia either.

This sounds like your real problem, and if you already had several different job offers to choose from, then this question wouldn't exist. Figure out what's wrong with your applications, because something clearly is. The only diagnosis you've given is that you're overqualified for the jobs you apply for - which is easily solved, apply for more senior jobs (or convince the interviewer that you're still an appropriate hire, e.g. this).

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    "Overqualified" at least where I am means "this person is much less experienced in the real world than somebody comparable" or even "because of some laws, I would need to pay the person more than their skills are worth". This is not solved by applying for more senior jobs (ironically, here the reason given would probably be "underqualified").
    – user111388
    Dec 11, 2023 at 17:00
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    I disagree that "What happens to your hard work ... every time your funding wasn't renewed or applications dismissed" isn't relevant for industry positions. Industry projects get canceled or realigned all the time. Priorities and funding get restructured. And personnel get shuffled to different projects or are simply "let go" when projects are no longer wanted by management. That's normal in industry. The only difference is that in industry it's expected you'll move from position to position in your career. (It's job applications instead of grant applications.)
    – R.M.
    Dec 11, 2023 at 22:00
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There are two premises to your question:

  1. you cannot leave academia because the world outside academia no longer wants you
  2. you cannot stay in academia because working there sucks

That is a horrible position to be in. My sympathy is not much help to you, but you have it if you want it.

More practically, there is no solution to your problem unless you proof one of your premises wrong. So your way forward is either find a job outside academia, or find a worthwhile place inside academia. Neither is easy, but I don't know what else we can say.

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    I seriously don't get why this answer was downvoted. It's a brief and concise but completely accurate analysis of the situation described in the question. Dec 11, 2023 at 22:42
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Your observations about the poor (average) job security and conditions in academia are correct. This is a consequence of an incredibly large supply of PhDs relative to their much lower demand in academic roles, which gives the universities an incredible amount of choice of viable candidates. That situation is not going to change for the better, and indeed, it is likely to get worse over the remainder of your career.

Based on the information you have given about your age, education, and existing academic work, it seems likely that you will remain in the pool of candidates who have tenuous job security for a long time to come (possibly even for your whole career) if you stay in academia. For this you have my sincere sympathies; it is horrible to work so hard to establish academic research skills and then find that the job market does not give you a secure place to do the work you have trained for.

I have given advice to another forty-something starting a PhD and in that case my advice was in favour of continuing their study and academic work. In your case you are clearly already feeling burned-out and you say you can't live like this anymore. So my advice would be, don't --- eschew doing a PhD (at least for now) and instead try again to move to another sector with your existing qualifications.

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