Adjunct, Postdoc, Or Amazon Warehouse Worker: Where PhDs With No Plan End Up
My PhD story is a cautionary tale.
I got my PhD against the backdrop of today’s contracting skilled, or “white-collar” job market.
Armed with my doctorate and an unwavering passion for research and academia, I had set my sights on a future brimming with intellectual pursuits.
Little did I know that the unpredictable twists of fate would lead me down a path I detested—donning the uniform of an Amazon warehouse worker.
This is not a slight against those I currently work with. It’s just not what I thought my years and years of PhD-level training would bring me.
Sadly, after graduating, the doors of opportunity slammed shut again and again, and I stood at the precipice of a harsh reality.
The skilled job market, once a fertile ground for ambitious minds, had withered into a barren wasteland. The corporate world, once a beacon of hope, had become a fortress impenetrable by even the most qualified candidates.
Rejection emails stacked up in my inbox, mocking my years of dedication and sacrifice.
Faced with mounting bills and a dwindling sense of self-worth, I succumbed to the desperation that had become all too familiar. I begrudgingly accepted a position as an Amazon warehouse worker, a role that stood in stark contrast to my dreams of intellectual exploration.
The very thought of it left a bitter taste in my mouth, a constant reminder of the compromises I was forced to make because I entered graduation with no plan for what comes next.
I had an opportunity to do a postdoc or to teach but the contracts were miserable and I was over academia. I saw others bide their time for years until all that remained was a shell of their former selves doing the work of 3 people for less than I make at Amazon and with fewer benefits only to advance the career of their PI or advisor.
There’s no happy ending here for me yet. Days have turned into weeks, and weeks into months and years. It’s been 2 years now. Each shift – yep, I’m doing shift work with a PhD – feels like another piece of my spirit breaking away.
In the end, my journey from the ivory tower to the Amazon warehouse is a cautionary tale, a reminder of a job market that increasingly favors unskilled, “blue collar” work over skilled work.
The above story is just one of many such stories that I hear from PhDs with increasing frequency.
I wanted to recap this particular story because most PhDs today are completely oblivious to what is happening to today’s job market.
You’d be surprised by how many PhDs I’ve worked with who are Amazon warehouse workers.
Or, Uber drivers, or floor workers at Target and other department stores.
Each and every story shocks me. Every. Single. Time.
It’s hard for any PhD to hear about another PhD not using their degree in any way. Yet, very few PhDs who hear stories like these dig into why stories like these are becoming more and more common.
AI Is (Already) Shrinking The Skilled Labor Market At An Accelerated Rate
In recent years, the employment landscape has witnessed a notable divergence between the white collar and blue collar job markets.
While the former has experienced a contraction, the latter has been expanding at an unprecedented pace.
You can see this everywhere today if you look. The New York Post recently published an article discussing how many professionals hold a ‘stigma’ against blue-collar jobs. Even those who are uneducated are rushing into the white collar job market that doesn’t exist.
Other business articles have loudly proclaimed that “Blue is the new white? Labor market’s sudden shift towards skilled trade workers is a win for blue-collar jobs”. In short, there are more unskilled jobs than ever before and fewer skilled jobs, and this trend is not slowing down. In fact, it’s accelerating.
This shift has led many to question the dynamics behind this trend and its implications for the future of work. In this article, we delve into the underlying factors driving these changes and explore the reasons behind the expanding blue collar job market amidst the contracting white collar sector.
But why the shift? It’s simple, as Rand Worldview explains: AI is taking over the white collar job market already, quickly, and at an increasing rate.
Other reasons for the shift have been given, such as hyperspecialization of skilled labor, or a recessionary job market overall, but these explanations fall short. Hyperspecialization is the result of AI taking over more and more specialized jobs. And there is no recession when you look at the majority of jobs, which are unskilled.
The evidence is in the numbers and the numbers are simple. If there are 100 skilled jobs in your location, a few years ago, all those jobs could go to skilled job candidates like you.
Now, 50 of those 100 jobs are being done by AI. Only the most specialized 50 still require an educated, skilled job candidate.
In a few years, 90 out of 100 will be done by AI, if not sooner.
Do you have a plan for this?
5 Reasons Many PhDs Will Be Stuck In Academia Or Doing Unskilled Labor Soon
1. Technological Advancements And Automation.
One of the primary drivers of the contraction in the white collar job market is the rapid advancement in technology and automation.
As artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics continue to evolve, more advanced skilled tasks that were once performed by white collar workers are now being automated.
This has led to a reduction in the demand for certain research and data analysis roles, as well as business development, finance, programming and even user experience roles, resulting in a contraction of white collar job opportunities.
2. Globalization And Outsourcing.
Globalization has also played a significant role in reshaping the job market. The ease of communication and transportation has enabled companies to outsource certain white collar jobs to regions with lower labor costs.
Highly skilled functions such as technical support, research and data analysis are increasingly being offshored, contributing to the decline in white collar employment opportunities in some regions.
3. Changing Nature Of Work.
The nature of work itself has undergone a transformation, favoring skill sets more commonly associated with blue collar jobs. Traditional white collar roles often require specialized knowledge and expertise in a particular domain.
However, with the rise of the gig economy and the increasing demand for flexible workers, skills such as adaptability, problem-solving, and practical knowledge have become highly valuable. As PhDs, we call these transferable skills.
Blue collar jobs, which often involve more transferable skills than skilled jobs, have seen increased demand in all sectors of the economy.
4. Reproducibility In Isolated Environments.
The expansion of the blue collar job market can also be attributed to infrastructure development and economic growth. Investments in sectors such as construction, transportation, and energy have led to increased demand for labor in these areas.
As a PhD, you may not think this is relevant, but we are approaching an age where a journeyman or journeywoman working in HVAC repair, electrical repair, painting services, or similar, is much more valuable than you are.
Advanced robotics and algorithms will soon be able to do the research you’re doing now (in fact, they already are at today’s biggest companies). More importantly, these bots and programs perform very well inside isolated labs and they are much more capable of reproducing research results than you or I are.
In contrast, we are nowhere near a robot being dispatched to a house or commercial property to fix the site’s air conditioning or electrical systems. Why? As this news clip of delivery robots being attacked in the street, humans are the problem and the environments these robots would have to operate in for blue collar work have far too many variables.
5. Closing The Skills Gap.
Another factor contributing to the expansion of the blue collar job market is the growing recognition of the importance of vocational training and trades education.
As the shortage of skilled workers in fields like plumbing, electrical work, and carpentry becomes more pronounced, efforts to attract individuals to these professions have intensified.
Governments, educational institutions, and industry stakeholders are working towards closing the skills gap by promoting vocational training programs and apprenticeships, thereby creating more opportunities in the blue collar sector.
The diverging trajectories of the white collar and blue collar job markets reflect the impact of technological advancements, changing work dynamics, and global economic forces. While automation and offshoring have led to the contraction of white collar jobs, the demand for transferable skills, the ability to work with other humans in highly variable environments, and efforts to address the skills gap have fueled the expansion of the blue collar job market. As the future of work continues to evolve, it is crucial for PhDs to adapt and acquire the necessary skills to navigate these shifting employment trends successfully.
ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD
CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS
Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.
Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.More Written by Isaiah Hankel, PhD