These attitudes may seem outlandish, but they're often seen among doctoral students and faculty. Attitudes can vary among disciplines and departments. Still, the narrow view of success persists for many students, faculty, and administrators. Yet academic positions are very hard to come by and it appears that the real problem lies in the narrow way in which we define success and failure in academia. Only a small percentage of PhDs will become tenure-track professors at research institutions. The reality is that PhDs, if they are able to obtain tenure-track jobs, work at institutions different from their graduate institution.
Graduate faculty train graduate students to be researchers and seek to duplicate themselves, preparing students for positions at research intensive doctoral granting universities. When these new PhDs go out into the work force and discover that there are few jobs. They often are hired at teaching-oriented colleges. Small teaching-oriented colleges are fine places to work but very different from doctoral-granting institutions and usually are not quite what gradates expect. What's worse is that mentors may express disappointment at a graduate's failure to obtain employment at the most desirable research universities.
Academia is not the only road to success. Many PhDs hold nonacademic careers as administrators, consultants, writers, and researchers in nonacademic settings such as business, heath care, and government. What many academics don't realize is that the research and writing skills honed in graduate school are good preparation for careers outside of academia. A professional who can think critically, write, analyze, draw conclusions, and disseminate information is valued in all work settings.
Challenges of Leaving Academia
PhDs who seek careers outside of academia face several challenges. The first is simply recognizing that there are other options and a graduate education hones a variety of useful skills. A second is managing the negative feedback that mentors and graduate faculty sometimes give graduates who enter nonacademic fields. Finally comes the difficult task of changing one's own expectations and perceptions of what is an appropriate career for a PhD. Try to expand your perspective on careers for PhDs -- move beyond the limited traditional view of doctoral careers and consider other images of success. What is it that you need to be happy? What is success to you? Not your advisor -- you. Reconsider success and failure. We have overly narrow definitions of each.
As a graduate student you can prepare for a nonacademic career by simply continuing to pursue your other interests. Seek experiences that will prepare you for alternative careers (e.g., grant writing, leadership seminars, and more). Remember that changing your mind and moving away from the tenure track is right for some students. Finally, even if your hope is a tenure track position, prepare yourself for other opportunities.