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Mobilizing the humanities for diverse careers

How do we turn the doctoral student’s significant skills into a career outside academia?

By ANNE KROOK | JUN 01 2015

I offer a four-hour session at U.S. and Canadian universities in which I teach humanities PhD students how to look for non-academic jobs. Students choosing to attend it typically come from one of two cohorts: second- and third-year students, or students in their fifth year and later. The difference in reaction of the two groups to my material is striking and remarkably consistent.

Second- and third-year grad students tend to find it liberating, and their reaction is most often something like this: “coursework and exams are over, and now I face the great white whale of the dissertation. But this material shows me I have more skills and employment alternatives than I thought I did. My dissertation is not my only path; good to know.”

Fifth- and later-year grad students, on the other hand, tend to find the very same material disturbing. Their reaction is most often something like this: “I’m finishing the dissertation, but I’m not likely to get a tenure-track job, or a job anywhere I want to go, or any academic job at a decent wage. Why am I hearing about an unfamiliar search? Why do I have to start over like this? What did I do all this for?”

In just two or three years, the students become significantly more resistant even to learning about entering jobs outside the academy, even though in that time they have become better acquainted with their chances of getting academic work, which you would think would motivate them to learn this information. The question is: why?

The two salient differences between those cohorts are, first, time spent on the dissertation under the supervision of the dissertation director and, second, greater proximity to the academic job market itself.

By their fifth year in programs that require a master’s degree at entry, their time as students has largely shifted from collective learning to the more individual focus on candidacy exams and the dissertation. Intellectual input comes from fewer faculty members, chief among those being the dissertation director, who is on the tenure-track and usually already tenured. This narrowing of faculty influences goes further because most departments have only one or at most two faculty members under whose leading direction a student could reasonably work.

The natural result is that students committing time and energy to the dissertation are most influenced by the intellectual and behavioral role modeling of a very small number of people who influence them directly and indirectly, the tenured or tenure-track faculty. When those students seek employment, their dissertation directors influence them directly, of course, about the market they themselves know best, the academic market for tenure-track jobs. But the indirect influence is even stronger. As the tenure-track job market is the one where these faculty supervisors have themselves succeeded, students understandably envision that as success for themselves, even though it is the kind of job they are statistically least likely to get. So, as their dissertations progress, they have an increasingly narrow range of chief intellectual role models modeling success in the type of jobs least likely to be gotten by the graduate students themselves.

Path to an academic job

Just as every day spent writing the dissertation increases the graduate students’ perception of their sunk cost, every day also brings the students closer to entering the academic job market. One of the peculiarities of academia is that while there are very few academic jobs, the path to them is straightforward compared to most for-profit, non-profit, and public-sector job searches: the known universe of the jobs is a manageably small number (smaller than any of us would like), and the application process is widely understood.

That relative ease of the application process contributes to the dynamic of too close a focus on too few outcomes. Given the intellectual complexity of the projects undertaken by the students, the relative simplicity of the pathway has obvious attractions; given how much time, effort, money, and opportunity cost they have sunk into the PhD, resistance to an unfamiliar, complicated, demanding job search toward a different kind of job makes perfect sense.

Graduate students realize what is happening, though they seldom fully realize how successful and happy they can be outside academia, or how to engage the non-academic job market, which is why my training work has a market. Their anxiety levels often rise as their time in their programs progresses. One response to their plight is a call for better support systems, which to my mind is essentially backwards, even though we do need better support systems. But more than that, we need PhD programs that don’t engender the need for support systems nearly as much as they do now; there are ways to accomplish that, ways which are relatively simple, inexpensive, and short-term.

Here’s the contrasting vision that I offer students at the end of this pathway: you have more skills than you may realize, but you need to remember them, learn to value them and develop new language to describe them. You know more people who can help you than you may realize, but they are not only the people the past few years have taught you to respect. Your work will help you enormously, but you will need to describe it differently and target different audiences. The PhD is an aspect of your abilities, not your whole identity: it’s not that you are a PhD, it’s that you have a PhD, and you can deploy your degree usefully, successfully, and happily without being employed as an academic.

A narrowing of privileged role models and proximity to a privileged job market – but not to the privileged jobs within it – cause students to react much more negatively toward learning about the non-academic job market as they progress toward their degrees. But what are the underlying problems in PhD training that lead students to react this way to what should be positive news – you have more skills and opportunities than you think – and how are we going to fix those problems?

It may sound counterintuitive, but one of the problems is not the academic job market itself. For purposes of our discussion, let’s accept the 2011 Statistics Canada numbers that 6,000 PhDs were granted in Canada, for which there were an estimated 500 tenure-track jobs, or a ratio of roughly twelve to one. Now let’s imagine having four times the number of open slots, from 500 to 2,000. That would still mean no more than one candidate in three would get a job, even before candidates from previous years and the international students were added to the applicant pool. So even if the job market magically grew from 500 to 2,000, we would still have a large-scale problem.

Put another way, we have to rethink the humanities PhD not only because the job market is bad but because even if it were unimaginably better, we would still have a great deal of human capital at stake, both those hired into the academy and the greater number who are not. Instead of focusing exclusively on the constraints of the job market, we should primarily focus on two problems whose fixes are within our own control: we train students in too narrow a range of dissertation lengths and types, and we most often implicitly and explicitly devalue non-academic job outcomes.

The dissertation problem

Dissertations should be shorter. When a higher percentage of graduate students were likely to get a research and teaching positions in academia, the pattern of a monograph-length dissertation that became a book for tenure made some sense. In that system, assistant professors had, with their dissertation, both a good foundation for their book and some time to allow that work to mature. But now that many more students are not finding work in academia, and another large group enters as adjuncts without time for research, many fewer of those monograph-length dissertations will be given the time and attention and resources they need to become books.

We are taking too much from too many students and employing too few of them ourselves to justify all that time, money, and opportunity cost, for them and incidentally for supervising faculty: we need to get them to do a solid piece of scholarship and send those who will not remain in research-supported academics into other jobs sooner than we now do. The students who do go on to research and teaching positions will still find the support to create their monographs out of their dissertations.

Students often reject the shorter dissertation I propose (and alternative forms such as those the White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities outlines) but not necessarily because they are bad ideas – more discussion and some trials will be needed to determine that. Rather, in a difficult academic job market, where we have modeled and valued the type of job above all others that students know they may very well not get, of course they hang onto the one tangible proof that they are in fact scholars and do in fact deserve the respect that goes with it. And of course they hang onto the chance to succeed in the eyes of their dissertation directors, who understand and respect (and themselves succeeded with) the classic recent form of the dissertation. The students hang onto the classic dissertation in part because they may not get much else out of our profession other than approval that they have completed it. That is an understandable reaction but a terrible reason to preserve the dissertation in its current form and length.

Whatever happens to the dissertation, whatever experiments we conduct will be valued by the students only if faculty members value them. For this to happen, faculty must understand the costs and opportunity costs of the sixth and seventh year of PhD programs where those dissertations become proto-books. We need to conduct the imaginative exercise of asking “what would happen if PhD programs had a hard stop after five years? What would the costs and gains be to the profession? And what would the costs and gains be to the students who pursue careers elsewhere, if those other dissertations were available options?”

The faculty point-of-view problem

The second problem is that some faculty devalue non-academic job outcomes. When students begin their degree courses, we can’t, of course, know who will finish, or who will get academic jobs once they finish, though we know the rough current percentage and aggregate numbers of those who do not. The professoriate must replace itself over time, but in doing so we will take in more than the one student who will eventually fill a supervisor’s tenured job, or, in [University of Alberta dean of arts] Lesley Cormack’s memorable phrase, “our replacement who lives in the basement until we retire, and then moves upstairs into the house.” The cost of refreshing the professoriate explicitly involves creating more PhDs than we need. Given that, we need to devote at least some thought, time, and resources to preparing students for the non-academic working world, where many will not only work but where they will be examples of and ambassadors for the value of advanced training in the humanities.

In spite of knowing this about the profession’s internal economics, most faculty members don’t much value non-academic job outcomes. Graduate students from every university where I have ever taught say privately to me: “I know I might have to look for non-academic work, and I know I need a reference from my adviser, but if I ask for one for a non-academic job she’ll never take me seriously again and I will have no chance for any academic work, ever, and probably get a crummy reference for outside work, too.” And every faculty member with whom I have discussed this behavior acknowledges that it is common.

Encouraging students to remain in academia, even as part-time, poorly paid adjuncts, happens in part because many faculty believe it is in graduate students’ best interest to remain there at whatever level possible to give them the best chance of eventual academic employment; they may be right in many cases. Two troubling facts underlie this comforting belief. One is the percentage of students who will eventually succeed in getting academic work of any kind and the sheer number of those who will not.
The second is more insidious: that tenured research faculty benefit from a large, low-paid contingent labor force, which does a great deal of teaching at low wages and thereby makes funds available for the kinds of teaching, research, sabbaticals, and the other benefits that the tenure-track faculty enjoy that the contingent labor force does not.

Most times, I believe, the encouragement to remain happens for benevolent reasons: “hang on to give yourself a chance of getting an academic job.” But sometimes faculty members simply do not know about or value other kinds of work, or don’t want to think it is necessary for students to seek it, especially when it comes to their best graduate students. Even if faculty mean well, and I believe they almost always do, we must give graduate students the best help we can to either stay in academia if they want or to help them leave it, honourably and feeling confident in themselves and their intellectual value, and we must do that absolutely without prejudice. It’s time for faculty to acknowledge, address, and remedy the dynamic in which we actively encourage graduate students to remain in academia, but punish them for seeking work outside.

So that is how graduate students in the humanities have wound up where I find them in the fifth and sixth years attending my course: given an opportunity to broaden their understanding of their skills and opportunities to help them get the jobs that the majority of them actually will get, many students reject that vision, because they have been trained to spend their energy and time on one type of dissertation for one type of outcome and because they and their role models do not value the many other job outcomes the students might have. Through the PhD program’s progressive narrowing of influence and work product, they have been trained to believe they have become something, so the opportunity to do something other than what they have become creates anxiety and frustration and a turning away from its perceived failure.

Proposals to drain the swamp

As someone who has both trained students with PhDs for academic jobs and, much later, hired other students with PhDs into non-academic jobs, I can say that often those who do not thrive in non-academic have not been taught effectively how to address their new working worlds in writing and speaking. Those are both solvable problems, with accessible, affordable, shorter-term fixes that will also benefit the profession.

One short-term fix is to teach students to write for broader audiences in a wider variety of venues, and not just at the dissertation stage. For graduate students starting PhD programs now, we should require that they write for parallel non-academic publication: every piece of scholarship, every seminar paper, should have a short parallel summary of the information and argument explicitly for a non- academic forum.

Publication is not the point at this stage; engagement with different audiences and styles of communication is. Graduate students would learn the discipline of writing short pieces for non-specialized audiences, useful even in academic careers (think: course descriptions, grant applications, conference proposals). Recruiting outside readers would develop in students and faculty the verbal skills of engaging with other workplaces and a network of people who could help them if they seek non-academic jobs. Students would develop a portfolio of short pieces that would help them if they decide to seek non-academic work.

Of all the proposals for changing PhD education that I make, this one gets the most resistance from humanities faculty, probably because it seems farthest from their areas of expertise and from their understanding of what expertise is. But there are those already on campus who have that expertise, often in career services or human resources departments, who understand how students now reach into the work world and how they address it, in speaking and writing. There are also a large number of people in the for-profit, non-profit, and public-sector worlds that desperately need and want the skills PhD students bring, but also want students to engage with them and their people.

A medium-term fix is to train faculty to value and support the non-academic jobs that we know many of our students will have to seek. The way to do this is first to set expectations privately among the faculty, then publicly and jointly with the graduate students. Faculty have to set the standard for and among themselves that, since we take in more graduate students than there are faculty slots available, we have to support student efforts to get non-academic work if they need or want to. Deans, chairs, and departmental directors of graduate studies have to make that clear to the entire faculty responsible for training and placing graduate students.

And then departmental faculty members, led by their directors of graduate studies and supported by their chair and their dean, need to sit down with the students and make it clear what their policies are. Once a year, sometime after the fall semester is under way, the director of graduate studies and the chair should invite all the department’s graduate students from every year to a meeting with all the departmental faculty and say out loud: “We know many of you will likely seek work outside of academics, either while you see academic work or as a permanent job. You have our support if you choose to do this, and it will not prejudice any subsequent recommendation.”

The sum of the changes I am proposing is this:

  • shorten the dissertation, so book-length monographs are a product of research faculty and so graduate students can enter the non-academic workforce sooner, if they need to;
  • test new forms of the thesis, and recognize the faculty’s role in hitherto validating only the standard form when gauging student resistance;
  • train graduate students to address non-academic audiences in writing and in spoken presentation;
  • support graduate students when they seek professional work outside academics, and train their supervisory faculty to support them.

Notice that none of this requires much money, though all of it requires a great deal of analysis and intellectual will, so these efforts are perfectly suited to us as academics.

The psychological sum of the changes I am proposing is to move away from treating the PhD as something that creates a graduate student’s identity and so causes it to collapse when it does not finish developing into a tenure-track job. Instead, we should start treating it as a collection of knowledge and skills they acquire that they may use in research positions but will statistically be much more likely to use in other ways, with other audiences. And we as faculty have to believe and act as though the intellectual challenges they will address are worthy of the best intellects and training. As Bill Clinton said in a different context, “We don’t have a person to waste.” If we are going to have all that expertise available to us when we need it, we have to train graduate students to bring their best work to a range of audiences and we as faculty have to be grateful when they do that.

Dr. Krook is a consultant based in Seattle, Washington. Previously, she has worked as an assistant professor of 17th and 18th century British literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, as director of global website development at Amazon, and as vice-president operations at Synapse, a product development company in Seattle. This essay is adapted from a presentation she gave at a conference on the future of graduate education in the humanities, May 21-22, 2015, convened by the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI) at McGill University. Her work is available at her website annekrook.com.

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