Ivory Towers in the Rearview Mirror: Dr. Christopher Cornthwaite

We continue with our new column, featuring interviews with PhDs who have charted a course unrelated to the tenure track, putting academia squarely in the rearview mirror.

Our hope is that seeing and hearing from a wide range of PhDs who are celebrating their careers rather than settling for them will inspire every grad student, ABD and PhD to add the road OFTEN traveled to their list of options.

We are excited to hear and share your stories. If you have a PhD and are working outside of the academy and would like to share your experience with TPII readers, we’d love to hear from you!


Today we are pleased to feature Dr. Christopher Cornthwaite.

I received my PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Toronto. I started with the goal of becoming a tenure-track professor. But I was clueless about the realities of the academic job market. My department lied to me about their hiring record, so I didn’t know–although this was also my own fault. For some reason it never occurred to me to google whether or not PhDs get academic jobs. 

I actually loved the degree itself. I loved diving deep into a research question and feeling like I’d discovered something when I found an answer that made sense. And academia offered me two other things I really wanted: first, flexibility to work from home to be there with my two young kids, and second, getting research grants to travel the world (yes, the kids came too!).

The reality of the academic job market slowly hit me. Like most students, I thought I would be the exception to the rule and would get a tenure-track job. As I was buried in an avalanche of rejection letters, the realization slowly hit me. I’m not going to get a tenure-track job. I can chase this through visiting positions, post docs, or adjuncting, but I still likely won’t (I didn’t know anyone from my program who ever had). Finally, I had to shift my focus to getting ANY job outside of academia that could feed my family and pay my debt.

Throughout the PhD process, my main source of mental and spiritual support was my spouse–no one else. The lack of institutional support for my career choices post-PhD was a weird thing. Nobody talked about non-academic work, outside of a few mandatory seminars that gave us some ideas. Because of these seminars, the department boasted that they were preparing students for all career tracks. But nobody ever had a serious conversation with me about non-academic jobs, and the few times I asked I regretted it.

Ironically, at the time of my doctoral thesis defense, I was already working outside of academia making over 70k a year. I had moved to Ottawa, Canada’s capital, as my PhD neared its end. I didn’t know anybody and had no plan. But I figured that if I could get a non-academic job anywhere, it would be in Ottawa. I networked like crazy and, after a lot of disappointments and dead ends, got offered a job at a think tank running economic development projects. I left there to start my own consulting business and then got hired by the Canadian government to work on international refugee initiatives. I left this position a few months ago and am currently working hard to start my own research and design company along with my spouse.

To anyone who is thinking about leaving academia post PhD, I have so much say. In fact, I started a blog to talk about my journeys outside: Roostervane. But in a nutshell, I just want people to know they can have great non-academic careers, and that they are worth so much more than crappy adjunct positions. Many PhDs thrive outside of academia, doing amazing things. I know so many PhDs who are having more impact outside than they could have had inside! So, if you want to or need to leave, you do have options. It takes a lot of hard work, and you’ll need to take the initiative to reinvent yourself, but it’s totally possible!

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