NEW YORK — On a recent Sunday afternoon, a monthly meeting convened around a long table in a Whole Foods cafeteria on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As people settled in, the organizer plopped down a bag of potato chips and tackled housekeeping matters, like soliciting contributions. But she did not insist. “I know that some of you are in fragile situations,” she said.
One attendee recalled scraping by on $9,000 a year. “I was exhausted by years of living in poverty,” she said. Her neighbor chimed in: “Amen, sister.”
An eavesdropper might have been surprised to learn what the group had in common: formidable academic credentials. Sitting at the table were a historian, a sociologist, a linguist and a dozen other scholars. Most held doctorates; a few were either close to completion or had left before finishing. All had toiled for years in graduate school but, by choice or circumstance, almost none had arrived at the promised destination of tenure-track professorships (the one who had was thinking of leaving). Now they found themselves at a gathering of a group called Versatile Ph.D. to support their pursuit of nontraditional careers.
After a round of introductions, the participants broke into clusters to swap stories and tips. A 32-year-old man who had studied ancient religion at Princeton wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of his employer, a finance website; he talked up his job to a physicist who was finalizing her thesis. The historian, a teacher at an elite private school, advised a recent American studies Ph.D. on where to find job postings and how to package himself. That young Ph.D., Adam Capitanio, who completed his degree in 2012, had looked for an academic position for three years, focusing his search on the Northeast and applying for at least 60 jobs. He hadn’t received a single interview. Now he was working as an editorial associate at an academic publisher, trying to devise a long-term plan. “Things were kind of desperate before I had that job,” he said. “This gives me some flexibility to figure out what I actually want to do.”
Exploring other careers
Capitanio’s experience is far from unusual. According to a 2011 National Science Foundation survey, 35 percent of doctorate recipients – and 43 percent of those in the humanities – had no commitment for employment at the time of completion. Fewer than half of Ph.D.s are expected to land tenure-track jobs. And many voluntarily choose another path because they want higher pay or more direct engagement with the world than monographs and tenure committees seem to allow.
Although graduates have faced similar conditions for decades, the past few years have seen a surge in efforts to connect Ph.D.s with gratifying employment outside academia and even to rethink the purpose of doctoral education. “The issue itself is not a new issue,” said Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. “The response, I would say, is definitely new.”
The problem is especially urgent in the humanities. For Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), industry has long been a viable option. But students who study, say, Russian literature or medieval history have few obvious alternative careers in their fields. They confront questions about their relevance even inside the academy, let alone outside it.
In August, the Scholarly Communication Institute released a report titled “Humanities Unbound: Supporting Careers and Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track.” In it, Katina Rogers, the lead researcher, discusses the nascent concept of alternative academic, or alt-ac, professions. The term has gained widespread currency (and its own Twitter hashtag) and can refer to jobs within universities but outside the professoriate, like administrator or librarian, as well as nonacademic roles like government-employed historian and museum curator.
Rogers suggests that alt-ac is less a matter of where you work than how – “with the same intellectual curiosity that fueled the desire to go to graduate school in the first place, and applying the same kinds of skills, such as close reading, historical inquiry or written argumentation, to the tasks at hand.” The alt-ac ethos holds that nonacademic work is not a fallback plan for failures but a win-win: Ph.D.s can bring their deep expertise and advanced skills to a whole gamut of challenges, rather than remaining cocooned in the ivory tower.
A handful of professors at Stanford, sensitive to the exploitative potential of graduate school but convinced of its value, are trying to instigate meaningful change. Last year, six of them wrote “The Future of the Humanities Ph.D. at Stanford,” a much-discussed white paper promoting the redesign of curriculums to prepare humanities Ph.D.s for “a diverse array of meaningful, socially productive and personally rewarding careers within and outside the academy,” as well as reducing time to degree, which often takes close to a decade.
The professors called on Stanford to offer supplementary funds to departments that devised plans for alternative career preparations and shortening time to degree. The School of Humanities and Sciences requested proposals, but few departments responded. At the same time, new programs have been set up to help link humanities Ph.D. students with jobs in Silicon Valley and in high schools.
Initiatives are afoot at other schools as well. Collectively, they could begin to alter expectations.
The Praxis Network consists of “digital humanities” initiatives at eight universities, focusing primarily on graduate education. They aim to prepare students for roles outside the professoriate, stressing skills such as collaboration, technology and project management.
Ethan Watrall, a professor of anthropology at Michigan State University, runs the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative as part of Praxis. “I try to destigmatize this idea of not going on to a tenure-track job,” he said. “It doesn’t matter – who cares? If you’re happy and that’s what you want to do, that’s awesome.”