• August 28, 2015

Whose Job Is It, Anyway?

Beyond the Ivory Tower Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

It is a question I have come to dread. Usually, the person asking it is a nervous graduate student who is, both figuratively and literally, looking over his shoulder as he whispers to me at the end of my talk: "But what if your adviser doesn't want you to search for a nonacademic job?"

Sometimes the question comes in an e-mail message sent to the Web site I run for historians seeking to work outside academe. There, the questioner often signs her message with just a first name, as though she worries she may be putting her career in jeopardy simply by asking. And sometimes the question comes abruptly when I am talking with a young Ph.D. who has come to see me for an informational interview.

Regardless of how it is asked, the question is impossible to answer—and yet it is central to the issue of how we think about both graduate education and the crisis that has faced the academic job market in the humanities since the 1970s.

At heart, those students are really asking me a series of fundamental questions about the nature of graduate school: Is graduate education intended solely to turn out professors? Is a student obligated to follow in her professor's footsteps, or can she shape her own career? Does being a graduate student really entail ceding control over your future career to your adviser?

As a historian who has worked outside academe for almost 10 years, I would like to say that the answer to those questions is a resounding no. But having also worked as a professor, and having been trained myself in a traditional graduate program, I know that it's not quite so simple.

Institutions under siege—and the university is under siege from a variety of forces, not the least of them deep budget cuts—often look inward rather than outward when a crisis hits. As tenure-track positions have become rarer and more difficult to obtain, their allure has grown. Students are routinely advised to expect a job search to take several years. Ph.D.'s who raise hesitant questions about the impossibility of waiting an additional three to four years before obtaining a tenure-track job, about wanting to live with their partners, or about preferring to live in a community that reflects their values are often told that they should be prepared to go anywhere—to accept any job—if they want to remain in academe.

The subtle message here is that students should want to remain in academe. Because what else is there if one has a passion for research and wants to educate others?

Yet Ph.D.'s in the humanities are well aware of the abysmal job market in higher education. In one shape or another, that has been a topic of conversation at most professional conferences for years. It is also a primary topic of discussion in publications dealing with higher education. Moreover, every graduate program boasts alumni who pursue nonacademic careers. In short, only an academic who has been completely out of touch with her profession over the last 40 years could be unaware of the state of the academic job market.

So if most professors are indeed aware that their students face daunting odds in finding a tenure-track job, that they will make impossible compromises to pursue an academic career, and that many are eager to apply their skills outside academe, why do so many graduate students believe they will be punished by their advisers for searching for a nonacademic job? Why do they believe their advisers will be grievously disappointed?

As a public historian who often confers with academics, I think the problem stems from many faculty members' fierce belief in a division between "academe" and "the real world." In addition, for the many Ph.D.'s who enter graduate school directly from an undergraduate program, the nonacademic workplace is an unknown and alien entity.

Further complicating all of this is the fact that those who hold tenured or tenure-track positions are the people who have succeeded on the academic job market. They are personally invested in believing in the market as a meritocracy and in seeing the sacrifices they have made to have an academic career as worthwhile.

Hampered by their limited and often prejudiced views, many professors are unable or unwilling to advise their students about nonacademic careers. As a result, discussions about such opportunities tend to be nonexistent in most humanities departments. And the silence sends its own chilling message.

By failing to discuss alternative careers, even as the academic market stagnates, faculty members indirectly imply that those careers are second-rate, are unrelated to the skills one acquires in graduate school, and, most damaging of all, are meant for Ph.D.'s of "lesser" programs. Indirectly, the silence also implies that the scholarly work of those of us working in the public sphere is irrelevant to the scholarly work done in academe.

Because so few academics provide graduate students with advice on nonacademic careers, the few who do are often met with fear and suspicion. "Why haven't any of the other professors talked about nonacademic careers with their advisees?" a student will wonder. "Is my adviser trying to tell me something? Does she think I won't make it in academe?"

Changing this culture is not only long overdue but critical in such hard-hit departments as English, history, art history, and the like.

In recent years, career centers at most major research universities have done a fantastic job of sponsoring talks on diverse careers and providing students with information about alumni who have followed those paths. But, unfortunately, the stigma of nonacademic careers is such that sessions often have an illicit aspect—they are held outside, and away from, the department. That illicit aspect fosters the belief among graduate students that their advisers disapprove of careers outside academe.

Doctoral programs must begin by looking honestly at the careers of their alumni. While many programs provide students with lists of their Ph.D.'s who have gone on to academic careers, those same programs routinely gloss over the fact that large numbers of their alumni have pursued nonacademic careers. (And yes, every program, regardless of its ranking, has alumni who have pursued nonacademic careers).

Recognizing that graduates from even the nation's most highly ranked doctoral programs—from all programs—routinely pursue nonacademic careers is a necessary first step. But it's not enough. Departments also need to actively promote nonacademic careers for their students.

How? There are a few easy steps that any department, even one strapped for cash, can take:

  • List all alumni and their employers on the department Web site.
  • If a department offers a workshop or seminar on the academic job market, it must offer a comparable program on nonacademic careers. Have professors attend both programs so that they can learn about the skills and experiences their students will need to be successful on the nonacademic market and so that they themselves can become more aware of the connections between their work and that of scholars outside academe. Faculty attendance at the workshops will also send a clear signal that the professors approve of nonacademic careers.
  • Invite local nonacademic scholars to speak to students about careers outside higher education. By inviting local speakers, costs will be minimal. Moreover, because many people who choose to leave academe do so because they are eager to remain in the city or town in which they have done their graduate work (and in which they have put down roots), local speakers will, by default, include many alumni. Inviting nonacademic alumni back into the department sends a clear and positive message.
  • Finally, conduct a survey among your alumni to ascertain their experiences during their job search. Ask them, point-blank, how the department could have better assisted them before and during their job search, and then use that information to assist current students.

Sounds simple? It is, and yet such steps could transform academic culture.

Alexandra M. Lord is a public historian who works for the federal government. Her Web site, Beyond Academe, educates historians about careers outside higher education.


1. danibds - March 07, 2010 at 06:54 pm

All these efforts of overcoming age-old prejudices against nonacademic careers are certainly laudable, but they often fail in two fronts. First, most of the graduate students currently enrolled in the humanities are pursuing their Ph.Ds. to work inside the academe and not outside. So when advisers in general suggest students to search for jobs outside the academe, they are in fact telling students to do something quite different from what they had originally set out to do. Second, the problem with nonacademic careers is not only the age-old prejudice but what kind of careers are we talking about here? We have seen a lot of people talking about "nonacademic careers" as a generalized category but very little effort has been made towards identifying or specifying such careers in terms of real alternatives. I am sure no one would like to step outside of the academe to find that the job market there is just the same as inside. In this regard, one should note, as Dr. Lord has rightly done so, that the academe is not a place without connections to the "real world." The latest economic recession has proved us all that both realms are pretty much integrated.

2. jovanevery - March 08, 2010 at 08:51 am

I disagree with the 1st commentor that most students enter PhD programs with a career in academe in mind. Many students do not have a clear idea of what they will do after their doctoral education at all.

It is indeed strange that humanists who routinely balk at concerns about the "relevance" of their undergraduate degrees and the very idea that a BA in the humanities should prepare someone for a particular job, then assume that their graduate students are motivated by the desire for a particular job (an academic one). I think the only thing we can assume about graduate students is that they are interested in learning more.

Perhaps, in addition to the excellent advice in this column, departments should also seriously consider the fact that helping students make career decisions is something they might do, even if that is just making more use of the existing careers services on their campuses.

3. speterfreund - March 08, 2010 at 09:21 am

Given the relative paucity of academic positions in Europe, doctoral students harbor no such delusion of a college/university position or bust. And even those who obtain such positions face daunting obstacles to becoming senior faculty members with tenure. Instead, many PhDs use their training to enter and advance in the public and private sectors.

Because of the growth American higher education from the time of the passage of the Morrill Act (1862), we have no experience with this alternative track and and no tradition of those who pursued it. Any conversation about jobs for PhDs outside of academe would do well to include the European perpective.

4. mmm1919 - March 08, 2010 at 09:44 am

I realize this is aimed at the humanities in general, but the job market for public historians or non-teaching historian isn't necessarily any better. Competition is stiff for historian and curator jobs. And having a degree isn't enough. One can't spend years preparing to become a professor and at the end decide to switch gears unless they have experience doing that type of work.

5. hollyridermilkovich - March 08, 2010 at 09:51 am

I agree with Dr. Lord's observation that many graduate students are unfamiliar with the non-academic workplace, its opportunities, its codes, its rituals. This unfamiliarity makes the non-academic work environment intimidating to many graduate students and makes their transition to that workplace more difficult. As someone who left her doctoral program to pursue a non-faculty career track, I say with delight that my docoral studies provided me with terrific training for any number of jobs with reasonable work expectations and appropriate compensation in places my partner and I wanted to live. What helped me in that transition was my previous work experience prior to entering the PhD program and my conviction that many, many jobs--not just tenure track faculty positions--were worthwhile, rewarding, and intellectually demanding.

6. spc09lib - March 08, 2010 at 10:37 am

I have completed two masters degrees. At each academy the faculty was required to have worked in the "real world" for a period of time (one required a minimum of three years, the other just real world work)before they were hired to teach graduate level courses. It is amazing how much that added to the relevancy of their instruction and the intelligence of their counseling.

I highly recommend real world experience for students and faculty before they are admitted to graduate work.

7. crunchycon - March 08, 2010 at 11:09 am

"As a historian" Thank you for using the correct article!!! "an historic/historian/history" in American English is a MISTAKE. We pronounce the "h" in American English, all native dialects, so one MUST use "a" Again, thank you!

As for the content of the article, I wholeheartedly agree!

8. merb047 - March 08, 2010 at 01:35 pm

I currently work as a public historian in a museum. I have a degree in history and think I would like to try for a PhD in History. I know I could find a public history program, but I haven't completely ruled out being a professor in History. Still, I find myself eyeing every possible institution warily, becuase I know that there are places where my work in a museum, and the possibility that I might return to public history, would be viewed with distaste and derision. If the academy in general were more open to non- or alternative-academic careers, I would be much more actively seeking to return to school.

9. ranaverde - March 08, 2010 at 02:13 pm

I am struck by the excellent advice here, but I wish to indicate my scepticism about how "easy" it would be to implement the three changes Dr. Lord suggests.

First, the list of alumni and their employers.
Several years ago, I worked for the placement department of a vocational school. Because of federal and state mandates, and accreditation requirements, the school was obliged to track just such data, and to keep it updated on a regular basis. It was FAR from easy. Alumni move, they don't leave forwarding information, they change jobs, they fail to tell you what their job was in the first place (or even if they got one) and so on. We had a dedicated staff for just that purpose and at least half of our time was spent on that one "easy" task. So while such a list is a very good thing, it's not kind to tell departments that it will be simple to produce, nor to note that maintaining such a list is an ongoing, time-intensive process. I pity the poor department secretary in such departments, if he or she doesn't get additional help.

On the second two points, which again I think are good ones, I again question how "easy" this would be. Dr. Lord notes that part of the problem is that most academic faculty have little or no clue about the world of non-academic careers, nor do they have any network connections with individuals working in such areas. So, how, exactly, are they to go about arranging these seminars and presentations in the absence of such information? Again, I'm not saying that this isn't possible, or that the difficulties presented should preclude the attempt, but rather cautioning that such efforts are not, in fact, easy to pull off.

Dr. Lord also claims that such efforts (all of the them) are low cost and not a burden on "cash-strapped" departments - but in terms of the extra time and effort spent on these administrative tasks, they are indeed a burden, if not a financial one. A department that can barely afford its adjuncts (that's why there are so few full-time positions, after all) isn't going to be in a good place to either hire new administrative staff to handle these tasks, or to take time away from existing academic responsibilities to address these new obligations.

Again, I agree that these are the sorts of changes that need to be made. They are not, however, "easy."

(As a postscript, I find it interesting that there's no way to indicate in the CHE registration process that one works for a non-academic institution, unless one selects the rather unhelpful "other.")

10. meyerk - March 08, 2010 at 03:58 pm

In addition to the excellent points made above (that, in such a desperate job market, we owe it to students to remove the stigma from non-academic careers, and that some [many?] graduate students may be seeking non-academic positions in the first place), it seems to me that we also should consider a third, namely: that the non-academic workplace could benefit from a strong influx of academically-/humanistically-trained professionals. It seems to me that the quality of discourse/commitment to humane values might be elevated significantly as a result.

11. marka - March 08, 2010 at 07:24 pm

Good article, and good commentary - Bravo for avoiding (so far) the flame wars on other blogs. Truer words never said: "... those who hold tenured or tenure-track positions are the people who have succeeded on the academic job market. They are personally invested in believing in the market as a meritocracy and in seeing the sacrifices they have made to have an academic career as worthwhile." And as others have noted, many academics simply can't believe that others might want something else, in part because many have never worked in the 'outside' world, and in part because they fail to appreciate that the academic job market has drastically changed. The irony is that current academics might actually benefit from guiding many graduates to outside jobs, thereby relieving the over-supply of graduates seeking academic jobs.

12. mbelvadi - March 08, 2010 at 09:08 pm

I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned the other motivation some advisors may have: in some fields, the faculty are actually judged in their own later careers by the academic success of their PhD advisees, for example, when seeking promotion from associate to full professor, or to an endowed chair, or even emeritus status when they retire (or even just overall prestige among their peers rather than salaried status). They may see their advising time with those students as an investment in their own careers which is wasted when the student leaves academe.

13. squidward - March 09, 2010 at 09:24 am

Lots of good points in the article and discussion. To me the big point is that we have to work hard to stop the stigmatizing of non-academic careers. It's bad enough that there are ambitious graduate advisors who look down upon those students who want to work at teaching-oriented schools; for those faculty, it's even harder to approve of non-academic positions, much less try to prepare a student for them.

One thing that has been overlooked here is that preparation needs to start at the undergrad level. Any faculty member who is asked to write letters of rec for grad school should make sure to sit down with that student and fill them in on job prospects and encourage them to think all along about preparing for non-academic careers.

14. davidhacker - March 09, 2010 at 11:20 am

I want to echo #9 that it's not simple to keep track of alumni's careers. At all.

But another point is that these "non-academic jobs" are varied and everyone seems to have a different experience and story. Notwithstanding some logical non-academic career tracks like public historians/museums, a lot of the research, writing and communication jobs most open to humanities and social science PhDs can be pretty eclectic (not to mention temporary, which is why we can't keep track of them). I have lots of non-academic contacts, but you have to do an awful lot of networking and connecting to create matchups that might lead to jobs.

But yes...supervisors that forbid you to have a back-up employment plan are evil.

15. alicina - April 06, 2010 at 06:20 pm

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for posting this article. I chose to follow a nonacademic career path after earning my PhD in the humanities at an Ivy Leagues school, and to my advisors it is as if I had never existed. None of them came to my graduation, and I never even spoke to them again after my final dissertation was submitted to the university. After the amount of time, money, heartache, blood, sweat, and tears that went into my research, to be rejected in this way had left me feeling heartbroken. Reading this article is the first time that I have ever found support for my life choices! A real breakthrough! I had been feeling "less than," as if I was not a "real Ph.D." because I didn't find a tenure track job. Now I know that this is not true, and that I don't have to be down on myself. After graduation, I was left feeling like I was no different a person than when I graduated from my undergraduate institution; as if noone outside of academia would ever care that I have a Ph.D. (outside of the occasional person at a cocktail party who finds it to be an interesting piece of trivia). Thank you for reminding me that there are employers in the world who do indeed care very much that I have a Ph.D. Perhaps even they will want to hear from me? You have given me the courage to put myself out there and give it a shot. Thank you!

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