As I've watched my graduate-school friends labor at their dissertations, obtain Ph.D.'s, and face an abysmal job market in which only 39.4 percent of new humanities Ph.D.'s find jobs at a college or university by graduation, I'm relieved to have gotten out when I did.
When I left graduate school with a master's degree in comparative literature, I suspected that I was overly specialized and unprepared for any occupation outside of teaching. (Whether I was even qualified for that is an arguable point.)
Almost 10 years later, building on an undergraduate internship at an academic press, I have a career I love in the field of scholarly publishing. My job is challenging in good ways, and I work with smart people in an environment much like what I encountered within the ivory tower.
By now, we all know that there are many reasons why an academic career should be pursued only by those visited by an apparition of Keats whispering "keep me alive" at one's bedside. William Pannapacker's "So You Want to Go to Grad School?" was published the year after I started graduate school and shadowed the rest of my time there.
The final blow came when, as the department's graduate assistant, I was responsible for mailing out the alumni newsletter. I wrote address after address directed to faculty members working at colleges I had never heard of, in towns I didn't know existed. I imagined the back stories of those people—working as assistant professors and lecturers for little pay in places far from home, or far from the place they'd hoped would be home. I knew I didn't love my work enough for that.
Many people who care deeply about teaching, research, and writing find it difficult to believe that they could satisfy those passions in a career outside the academy. I promise you that you can. There are occupations that provide opportunities to think critically, do research, dig into challenges, and have a happy and fulfilling life that does not involve moving someplace you don't want to live.
The choice of a nonacademic career does not mean forsaking the reasons you chose a scholarly path in the first place. A large and growing number of alternative careers for humanities students involve the production of knowledge and the circulation of important ideas to large numbers of people. The usual suspects are academic and trade publishing, grant writing, university staff jobs, and work at nonprofits, think tanks, libraries, and museums. But some new careers have emerged for which an academic background is an asset, including open-access publishing, curation of cloud-based research and data sets, and editing services for non-English-speaking writers (a North Carolina company called American Journal Experts hires Ph.D.'s to provide subject-specific editing to international authors).
Leaving the academic world doesn't mean selling out, forsaking your intellectual values, pursuing projects you don't feel passionate about, or competing for corporate bonuses. You do not have to eat in a corporate cafeteria or play on a company softball team. Your blazer, in fact, may be a cardigan. Publish-or-perish is replaced by doing-your-best-throughout-the-year-and-then-sitting-for-an-annual-evaluation. There are health benefits, living wages, relative job security, and the choice of living somewhere with your preferred weather and quality of life. The drive to advance scholarship through one's own work takes a backseat to collaboration with a group of like-minded people on projects of shared importance. You don't have to grade on the weekends.
After I left academe, I had a large and beautifully framed diploma, a fat master's thesis, and a résumé listing part-time work in addition to a marketing internship at a university press. But the biggest asset I had was that I was a smart, well-educated person willing to work at an entry-level job for little money. (As anyone who has been on the job market for more than a few months knows, ego is not your friend.)
To my new employer, a university press, more important than my expert understanding of 20th-century Puerto Rican literature was the fact that at my former jobs I had learned about the things that matter in offices: spreadsheets, databases, mailing lists, diplomatic e-mail correspondence, etc. I was hired as a senior marketing assistant, a title that belied the fact that I was technically senior to no one.
In my interview for that job, I didn't say much about my graduate-school background. But the experience I gained there has benefited me from the start of my career. The hectic, stress-filled years of balancing my graduate work, my teaching load, and what remained of my personal life left me with strong skills: organization, writing and editing experience, time management, and the ability to balance competing priorities. And because the audience for my work at a university press is academic, my firsthand knowledge of what researchers need also served me well. I found I was given more and more responsibility.
In scholarly publishing, I've found a career that's constantly stimulating, partially because the industry is in flux. Evolving digital-publishing models, the demand for open-access content, increased readership on mobile devices, an expanding global market, the circling sharks of the commercial academic publishers. It's like going to work each day on a pirate ship. It's not always fun, but it's always challenging, and facing these situations with my colleagues has made us a tightly knit crew.
A lot of intelligent, hardworking graduate students have become so beaten down by the dissertation process and the job-market search that they can't recognize how valuable they would be to a future employer. As someone who has hired a number of former humanities graduate students, I think a postcollegiate education is a tremendous asset. Two former graduate students that I currently supervise are early in their careers but have already made significant contributions to our organization. Both are critical thinkers, ask great questions, and easily visualize the full picture of whatever project they're working on. Their problem-solving skills are unmatchable, and they know our audience because they were part of it not too long ago.
I know firsthand how hard it is to cut one's losses, particularly if time and money have been invested in a degree. It would have made my parents proud to have the first Ph.D. in the family. But if you're not sure it's all worth it, then it probably isn't. Come, friends, join me in the office break room. It's Popcorn Thursday. You won't look back.