Why PhDs need to have a ‘Plan B’ for their career


Tara Karns Subject Matter Expert

When I first discovered Kolabtree, I had a hard time containing my excitement.  I’m a recent Ph.D. graduate and I’m currently a postdoctoral fellow in a fast-paced, grant-driven department.  I love the day-to-day rat race of paper and grant writing, project design and implementation, etc., but because I am a recent graduate, I’m all too familiar with “Plan B” – that is, ensuring that you have a backup plan in case your ‘Plan A’ doesn’t work out for you.  I’ve always assumed that I would have a career in academia.

Like almost all other Ph.D.’s, specifically social science Ph.D.’s, I’ve been trained in an academic environment, and all I have ever known is academics.  Throughout my career so far, I have prepared myself for a job in academics.  However, as a postdoctoral fellow, I am a part of numerous groups and attend many seminars that are geared towards preparing us for the reality that most of us will not be able to get a job in academia.  Harsh, I know.  But this is the reality of our career trajectories.

Only the lucky few, and it does seem like luck AND hard work is how Ph.D.’s are able to make their dream career a reality.  However, a career as a faculty isn’t as dreamy as it used to be.  Reality also means accepting the challenging funding climate for those who apply for federal funding.  When you take all of this in combination, you realize that you need, and are encouraged by faculty mentors, to determine your ‘Plan B’.  As scary as this has been for me, it has also been exhilarating because I have discovered that throughout my training I have gathered many skills that are applicable to many different career trajectories, including being a consultant.

I’m thoroughly trained in the art of logically thinking through complex problems, analyzing and assessing challenging situations, among many other research skills.  However, some of the most challenging hurdles that I have encountered is determining 1) What kind of career outside of academia I would be happy with? and more simply, 2) What would my occupation title actually be?  Nonetheless, something I have learned along the way is that no matter what kind of research career path I decide I want to follow, the most valuable skill I’ve learned throughout my training is to always strive to be a good scientist.  Thus, if I can have a career where I take my skills and expertise and help develop and implement good science, then I consider my career a win – no matter whether it is ‘Plan A’ or ‘Plan B’ or if I choose or am forced into ‘Plan A’ or ‘Plan B.’

*This is a guest blog post written by Tara Karns, Postdoctoral Fellow at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

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