Credential Regret: It’s a Thing

When you work in an academic line of work, at some point, you may find yourself facing credential regret.

Credential regret is the career form of opportunity cost (an economic concept in which making one choice prevents the gain you could have gotten from selecting another alternative). Credential regret is that sinking feeling that your time spent pursuing a Ph.D. or J.D. would have been gotten you farther along in your current career by simply working instead, putting in time on the job. You would be farther along – professionally, and even financially – had you used that time to simply climb the ranks in your current job family from the get go.

I would love to be able to tell you that your conclusion is probably incorrect, but the reality is that most employers – even higher ed employers – usually place greater value on the length and nature of work experience than on advanced degrees. Here are 2 points to help you understand credential regret.

Credential Regret is Real

You may think this is all in your head, or that you’re the only one who feels this way. You are not. Feeling regret over the expense of career advancement in your new alt-ac / post-ac career is normal, common, and real.

Practically every academic that I have coached has expressed some version of credential regret. Whatever form it takes, if you feel that your Master’s, doctorate, or whatever other degree is undervalued, underutilized, or even entirely worthless, believe me, you are not alone.

I remind clients going through credential regret that they made the best decision they could at the time; nobody can forecast the future. When I started my Ph.D. program in 2002, I was told all the time that the dismal job market in my areas of expertise (social sciences and humanities) would turn around as a result of all the baby boomers who would retire imminently. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before; I’ll wait here while you recover from cry-laughing, too. 😉

Or let me know if this one strikes you as familiar:  the all-too-common scenario among my more recent clients, who started a Ph.D. in, say, 2007 or so only to find that the job market swung from 75% tenure-track jobs in their field to >75% adjunct opportunities by the time of graduation. And that’s of the very few jobs in any given discipline, even pre-recession levels.

So not only is credential regret real, you have every right to feel the way you do. Knowing you are not alone and that your feelings are validated can help you figure out how to address them. But you must address them so that you can get on with the practical realities of life – figuring out a way to find and keep satisfying work.

Repeat after me: the future is always unknown. You could not have known what the future held; and neither could your advisers or mentors, believe it or not. My Ph.D. committee members, telling me the baby boomer retirement was imminent? For all they knew that was inevitable. But what they themselves could not have known was that

  1. many baby boomers would choose not to retire at retirement age when the recession threatened or even leveled their own retirement financial stability
  2. even for those who would retire, their lines would not be replaced as higher ed funding got decimated overall, nevermind in individual states (and that’s not even counting the additional deep cuts higher ed is facing in some states).

For many facing credential regret, their focus is that they feel they should have made a different choice. But imagine having made a different choice but with the exact same outcome. Most people go straight from college to an entry-level job in any given company. But what happens to them when that company goes belly-up? Or that industry all but ceases to exist? They are faced with the exact same circumstance of having to start over. You made the best decision you could have for yourself at the time, for the career you were planning at that moment, with the information you had.

Career Struggles Do Not End Once You Land a Job

Credential regret usually sets in only after you’ve been working in a new line of work It has a delayed onset. Why? At first, when you land a job after deciding to walk away from academia, you are ecstatic to discover that your skills, knowledge, and expertise are not worthless; someone actually hired you! But after a bit, you start to look at what’s next, at “how to get ahead,” in corporate parlance. And often, what it takes to get to the next step in your career ladder is on-the-job experience, which translates to time spent in that role successfully taking on progressively more complicated projects and tasks.

I know I felt this way when I went from museum work to academia. While at first I was thrilled to have landed not just a steady job, but a rewarding and challenging new career, after a year or two, credential regret started to set in. I wanted to get to the next level. As I looked around, I realized that people who were younger than me and had less advanced degrees were higher up in the organization simply because they had put in more time and therefore had more practical on-the-job experience. I concluded that the time I spent pursuing my Master’s and Ph.D. degrees to work in museums would have been better spent simply working and advancing over time in my new field.

Credential regret, in particular, can have an even more delayed onset because it takes time to get to know the more common credentials required for your new field. Another common form that credential regret takes is when you find yourself in your alt-ac line of work at perhaps an entry- or mid-level position, only to discover that your subject-field credential is not enough or the wrong credential to advance to the next level in your career ladder. This happens when you look at job openings that are a step ahead and see that the desired qualifications (or even the minimum qualifications) require a degree or a certificate in something that is specific to that line of work. For instance, maybe your degree in Biology lands you a job as, say, a Curriculum Specialist in the Life Sciences college at a university, but the job ads for the more senior Curriculum Developer jobs require candidates to have an advanced degree in Education (as opposed to your subject field) or Instructional Design.

It can be easy to think that once you have figured out a post-academia job, your career struggles are over. And they may be for even a good stretch of time. But don’t be surprised when career questions begin to bubble up to the surface, as many have a delayed onset. So even when you’ve cleared one giant hurdle – figuring out what you can / will do – you will still face challenges throughout your career, just different kinds of challenges.

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