More than 2.9 million people in the United States have Ph.D.’s. Half of them teach at colleges and universities—but most are part time, and less than a quarter of these have tenure-track positions. Even tenure-track opportunities are declining as academia relies more heavily on low-wage, temporary adjuncts. And there are thousands more graduate students in the pipeline.
Clearly, the majority of doctorate holders will never obtain a tenure-track position at a university, no matter how hard they work or how much they want it. The positions simply don’t exist.
But I see another option. In fact, I took another option.
I have a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I never did a postdoc. For 20 years I’ve taught at Sir Francis Drake High School, a medium-sized suburban public school in San Anselmo, Calif. That choice has allowed me to earn a decent salary with full benefits, live where I want, enjoy life, and do field work, get grants, and publish in peer-reviewed journals.
I’m living proof that a tenured faculty position at a major university isn’t the only path to fulfillment for a Ph.D. scientist.
Few University Jobs…
Many graduate students aspire to tenured faculty positions because of the prestige and autonomy inherent in the job and because it would allow them to live a life of intellectual inquiry. But universities overproduce Ph.D.’s.
If every university professor had, on average, one graduate student who earns a Ph.D. in his or her entire career, then in a time of little growth in academia, we would be in a steady state. The actual ratio of graduate students to professors is far higher: it is something like 8 to 1 in most fields of science and engineering [Larson et al., 2014].
Indeed, the situation is so bad that there are Ph.D. support groups for the underemployed. A New York Times article, titled “The Repurposed Ph.D.: Finding Life after Academia – and Not Feeling Bad About It,” describes such a gathering on New York’s Upper West Side. The cult of academia has such a strong grip on the thinking of these otherwise mature and intelligent people that they need a great deal of support to even start to examine their nonuniversity options.
…But I Have It Pretty Good
There is another path forward. I have many of the perks of a university faculty position, without the years spent trying to get myself onto the tenure track. I have a long-term microbiology project that takes to me to deserts, polar regions, and mountaintops around the world. I’ve traveled to Namibia, the United Arab Emirates, the Canadian Arctic, California’s White Mountains, the Mojave Desert, and the Himalayas for this project. Often, I accompany some NASA scientists I know who visit these places.
The National Geographic Society has supported my work; some preliminary results have been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research [Warren‐Rhodes et al., 2013]. I’ve also led 14 trips with my students to the University of California’s White Mountain Research Center. We have a variety of ongoing projects there; a study we did on spiral grain in bristlecone pines has been published in the Springer-Verlag journal Trees [Wing et al., 2014].
Lots of programs will send K–12 teachers overseas: I’ve traveled for free to the Galápagos (courtesy of the Toyota International Teacher Program), Alaska and Finland (through PolarTREC), Costa Rica (through the Earthwatch Institute), and the Pacific Ocean (through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Teacher at Sea Program). The Finland trip was a monthlong archaeology expedition on the Arctic Circle. When I returned, my students and I employed the same surveying techniques to study an enigmatic line of granite boulders in our own county; we published the study in California Archaeology [Wing et al., 2015].
The editor of that journal is a professor at the California Polytechnic State University, and one of my students ended up going there. The first week of her freshman year, this 18-year-old visited him during his office hours and said, “Hi, I’m Emily. I am an entering freshman, and you published my paper!” In all, I’ve had five high school students as coauthors on my papers.
The Resources Are There
K–12 teachers have access to a lot of resources. We are well educated and intellectually curious. We have free time during the summers, winter breaks, and spring breaks. We have students who will work for free or for academic credit as long as the work is interesting. We have access to some laboratory equipment and field equipment from our schools. Many free travel opportunities and professional development opportunities are open only to teachers.
It’s probably easier for teachers to get grants of a few thousand dollars for their projects than it is for graduate students, postdocs, or professors—teachers don’t need large grants because they aren’t paying anyone’s salary. Most of all, we get a lot of goodwill from institutions like universities, museums, corporations, government labs, and national parks. Everyone feels that they should be doing more to help the public schools—they just don’t know how. So when a teacher calls with a specific and unusual request, the answer is often yes.
I know this firsthand. I got the go-ahead from the administrators of the White Mountain Research Center the same day I first pitched an idea to them, and it was a pretty wacky idea: We built a vegetable garden at an elevation of 3,800 meters!
High School Teaching Versus College Teaching
In terms of the pay and benefits, it’s a draw. I earn around $120,000 per year. That’s more than most tenured professors nationwide and much more than adjunct instructors. It’s also more than most K–12 teachers; there are whole states where K–12 teachers earn less than half of that. Teacher pay is highly dependent on geography. However, most high school teachers are full-time tenured employees who receive a living wage and health and retirement benefits.
As far as job security is concerned, high school wins, hands down. I got tenure in 2 years. University employees have better access to resources like equipment, grants, and labor, but high school teachers can frequently get access to these things by asking for them.
Many academics place a high value on the freedom to do what they want and live how they want; here again, high school teaching wins! Particularly when you consider geography: If you’re lucky enough to win a tenure-track university job, you have to move to that location, even if it’s a place where you and your family don’t really want to live. In contrast, you can teach school almost anywhere.
Of course, it’s not always rosy; 17% of new teachers leave the field in their first 5 years [Gray et al., 2015]. But that compares pretty well with most other professions.
What about status? It’s more prestigious to be a professor, but even that is not a particularly high-status job today (particularly if you’re not tenure track) compared to other fields requiring similar expertise and education. High school teachers enjoy a certain local prominence, and if this matters, thousands of people know who I am.
But anyway, we don’t go into the Earth sciences to win glory; most of us do it to get out in the field, to explore nature. If we wanted fame, we would have gone into some other line of work. Instead, we started by collecting rocks and fossils, tide pooling at the beach, designing spaceships with crayons and construction paper. We sought—and still seek—to engage with and understand the world around us.
Teaching means you have students. High school students can be lazy, distracted, funny, entitled, emotionally honest, and brilliant, often all at the same time. If they sense you care about them and their development—the whole point of the job—they will reciprocate. You can take them with you out in the field, like the trips I’ve led to the White Mountains. You don’t ever have to pay them. You don’t even necessarily have to like them at first; I was a bit afraid of teenagers when I started teaching. That changed. Now, they’re the best part of my job.
If You Need a Job, a School Somewhere Needs You
If you’re reading this piece and are not a professor, you may be wistful about having the good things that come with a professor’s job. If you’re a graduate student or postdoc, it might feel as though the older generation took all of the interesting jobs, leaving you nothing. Maybe you’re a working professional who wants something more from your career.
Take it from me: You can get a permanent job with benefits at a school and have the intellectual and emotional life you want.
If you are a professor, you know that most of your students have little chance of following in your footsteps. Your good opinion means a lot to them. Please be supportive as they start to explore their postacademic job options.
The world needs curious, engaged scientists everywhere—not just in academia.