The key question involved money: Where, in a tight economy, could it be found? Tentatively, I suggested to my academic colleagues that it might be time to think more aggressively about fund raising among historians who had left academe.
There was a pause.
"Well," said one academic slowly, "I suppose we could ask nonacademics. But I just don't see cabdrivers and people like that having disposable income and giving it to a historical organization."
I was puzzled. Even as my academic counterparts made this comment, I was sitting among them, proof that nonacademic Ph.D.'s are often gainfully employed. Sure, I'd arrived at the hotel in a cab, but as a passenger.
I left academe in 2000, after four years of teaching, two in a tenure-track position and two in a visiting post. When I left, I did not know what a historian of early modern Britain could actually do in life, other than teach. Desperate, I ransacked the public library's career section. Because Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius had not yet published their wonderful book, So What Are You Going to Do With That? Finding Careers Outside Academia, I was limited to general career books. Those books and the Internet had good advice, but no one discussed the specific problems facing Ph.D.'s who entered the nonacademic job market.
At a loss, I spent nearly a year unemployed. Being single at the time, and with no other means of support, I was incredibly terrified about my future. At one point, I heard a story on NPR about flophouses on the Bowery. That night I awoke in a cold sweat, convinced that that was my future. I can laugh about it now, but that year was, and will hopefully remain, the worst of my life, barring the one in which my father died.
A few years after I left academe, I decided to turn those experiences into something positive. I created a Web site, Beyond Academe, that offered everything I had learned about the nonacademic job market. I limited myself to providing free career advice to historians because that was what I knew.
In some ways, I sought, via my Web site, to expiate the ghosts of that awful year, but the site also reflected my very real belief that understanding history has value throughout our society, not just in academe.
To my surprise, once my site became known, I began to receive e-mails from graduate students and nonacademic Ph.D.'s who shared their own struggles and fears about leaving academe. Like me, many of them stumbled during the first months after they made the break, but the overwhelming majority ultimately found work and satisfying lives. Most of them also confessed, with a twinge of guilt, that they now earned more than their academic counterparts.
Reading their e-mails made me even more passionate about nonacademic careers. So I continued to write about the subject, drawing on my own experiences and those of other nonacademic historians. I spoke to graduate career counselors at universities. I found nonacademic Ph.D.'s everywhere simply because I now looked closely at the people I met. Best of all, I discovered the Versatile Ph.D. (formerly known as Wrk4Us), a fantastic e-mail list devoted to nonacademic careers for Ph.D.'s in the humanities.
Along the way, my view of the world broadened. I do not believe that academe is a bad place, but I know now that it is not the only place that humanities Ph.D.'s can find intellectually satisfying employment.
While I have loved learning about the staggering diversity of nonacademic careers for Ph.D.'s, I have become increasingly frustrated by academics' utter obliviousness about their nonacademic counterparts—as evidenced by the comment I mentioned above during a recent meeting of a historical organization.
Time and time again, I hear nonacademic Ph.D.'s describe the same disturbing treatment. These are fully employed public historians who have published books with leading presses and organized major museum exhibits. Yet they are routinely told to take comfort in the fact that their work will set them up for a "real" job, meaning an academic job.
Academic departments fail to list the employment of nonacademic alumni on their Web sites, even when we provide that information and, amazingly, even when the Ph.D.'s in question are university administrators, public historians, editors, translators, and federal anthropologists—people whose work, in other words, closely parallels that of their academic colleagues. Conference sessions on nonacademic careers are sparsely attended. Offers by nonacademic Ph.D.'s to speak to graduate students are rejected.
Sure there are exceptions to such stories, but far too few, especially given the extraordinary crisis facing universities. The heavy dependence on adjuncts, the tightening of budgets, the declining numbers of humanities majors—those trends are extremely alarming, particularly to anyone about to graduate with a Ph.D. in the humanities. The trends are also of great concern to those of us who love the humanities, wherever we work.
Within academe, responses to the crisis have varied. Cut admissions to graduate programs, cry some. Stop employing adjuncts, say others. Provide full financial support to all graduate students. And, finally, give this advice to undergraduates considering graduate school: Just don't go.
While it has been interesting to read those suggestions, I have been puzzled about why no one seems to have thought to speak to those of us who have left the academy. We've had to be extraordinarily creative in both how we use our education and how we approach our careers. As a result, we have insights into how, and why, graduate study in diverse fields has value, even outside of academe. We also know how to better train historians, archaeologists, linguists, and Ph.D.'s in similar disciplines so that they can find work in their fields outside of higher education.
While that will not solve the problem of the overproduction of Ph.D.'s, or of the overreliance on adjuncts in higher education, a revamping of how graduate students are trained could resolve some of the immediate and glaring problems facing Ph.D.'s. Reform could also, indirectly, transform how academics interact with their nonacademic counterparts by encouraging faculty members to better understand how their disciplines are understood and used in the broader world.
My own field of history is a case in point. The failure of graduate programs to educate historians so that they can work outside of academe has been especially egregious. History departments almost universally neglect to train their students to work in museum education, in preservation, as curators at historic sites, as federal historians or historical consultants, and even in writing for a popular audience. In fact, the more prestigious the program, the less likely a graduate student will be exposed to such professions.
Unfortunately, employers looking to hire a Ph.D. historian tend to balk when the job applicant has absolutely no experience outside of academe. Consequently, jobs with tremendous potential to transform how the American public understands history often go to people who lack extensive academic training in the subject. On the rare occasions when those jobs do go to an academically trained historian, it is because the historian—independent of her program's requirements and often unbeknownst to her adviser—held an external internship or attended courses on preservation and workshops on museum evaluation.
Given the extremely conformist nature of academic culture, where graduate students live and breathe by the word of the adviser, it is rare to find students who buck their advisers by preparing for nonacademic careers. Much more common is the Ph.D. who must scramble upon receiving his degree to educate himself on the practice of history. Only after he completes that postdoctoral education is he competitive for a job in a museum, at a historic site, in a state preservation office, in a historical consulting firm, or as an agency or corporate historian.
Not surprisingly, many academically trained historians give up when confronted with a demand that they seek additional education. They leave the historical profession altogether; they may still produce historical scholarship (and large numbers do), but their day jobs are in unrelated fields.
Yet professors remain in denial, reluctant to consider unconventional solutions or let go of the mistaken belief that real scholars never leave academe. Sadly, academics have not only failed to understand the complexities of nonacademic careers related to their own discipline, but they have also often demonstrated an unwillingness to speak to nonacademics who have developed innovative careers that draw on their graduate training. Those failures bode ill for graduate-education reforms.
To remedy that, I would like to make a suggestion. It's so obvious that I am almost embarrassed to suggest it: Invite nonacademic Ph.D.'s into the conversation on reforming graduate education. I know we are eager to participate in the discussion.
Years ago, I found active communities of nonacademic Ph.D.'s simply by using Google. But for universities, finding and maintaining ties with nonacademic Ph.D. alumni is even easier. Alumni centers, which doggedly track B.A.'s, often have contact information for their graduates with M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s. But departments can also begin to compile their own data. Routine exit interviews of graduate students will provide base-line information on where students are headed after graduation; those interviews also create a culture where alumni, especially nonacademic Ph.D.'s, see real benefits in providing information about their career trajectories. Develop and maintain a Web page for alumni about their careers. Finally, contact and work with online communities and professional organizations of nonacademic Ph.D.'s, such as the Versatile Ph.D. or the National Council on Public History.
Taking the first step toward broadening understanding of nonacademic careers really is that straightforward. The only question is whether departments are prepared to finally take it.