It’s almost Thanksgiving, which means that the faculty hiring season is well underway — and with it, comes an outpouring of essays on the dismal state of the job market in the humanities and the state of humanities graduate education. New this year, however, is a serious focus on “nonacademic” career options. Unlike last year, when I lamented that I thought the MLA wasn’t paying enough attention to the job market beyond faculty careers, this year there are multiple sessions at the MLA on the so-called “alt-ac” job market (see here, here, and here. Full disclosure — I am co-leading the first session linked to) and the MLA President published a piece calling for the reform of humanities graduate education (including, I am happy to note, many of the suggestions I made here last year). Roger Whitson also published a great post outlining the ways that graduate education in the humanities should be reformed to better serve students and also pleading with faculty to stop writing “just don’t go” pieces with a “sadistic and nihlistic tone.” While Whitson focuses on graduate (and undergraduate) students, Lee Skallerup points out the ways in which current contingent faculty make up a “lost generation” of Ph.D.’s for whom the MLA’s proposed reforms are too late.
In addition to the pieces talking about (much-needed) reforms in graduate education, there’s also the usual number ofpieces talking about the graduate students who will not be getting tenure-track jobs (in other words, most of them). Over at Scholastic Snake Oil, “Dona Furiosa” asks us to:
Think of how the talents and work ethic of the bright and motivated students who go to graduate and law school could be used if they were encouraged to use their skills, talents and education in areas outside academia, and if the schools provided some sort of guidance on how to do that. An education in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and arts does provide the sorts of analytic and writing skills that can be used in any number of endeavors. I think that, if anything, this society would be better off with people in government, the foundations and corporations who have a better understanding of many different points of view and the ability to work creatively rather than with a bunch more people who will compete for a shrinking pool of academic jobs.
Similarly, Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman recently proposed broadening thinking around what occupations make up acceptable employment options for historians (see “No More Plan B“) and the Chronicle of Higher Education has published a couple of recent pieces (here and here) on “nonacademic” career options.
What’s striking to me about this conversation, however, is the way in which it tends to be framed as academic (e.g. faculty) vs. nonacademic (e.g. outside the academy). There is some discussion of “alt-ac” careers, but with an almost exclusive focus on postions in digital humanities or libraries. This ignores the fact that there is a wide range of jobs within the academy that are not faculty positions and that could be fulfilling options for humanities Ph.D.’s. At my institution, for example, the director of our international programs office holds a Ph.D. in history, while I have a Ph.D. in German Studies. I also know many women’s center directors who have humanities Ph.D.’s and there are many more of us out here (including my two co-presenters at the MLA).
So what I’m wondering is why this doesn’t get more discussion in these conversations. Why are employment choices for humanities Ph.D.’s so often framed as faculty or leave the academy when it is entirely possible to build a career within the academy but outside of teaching? I, for one, would like to see more humanities Ph.D.’s working on the staff side — I believe that we bring a valuable perspective to our work and that a balance of folks with more traditional “academic” backgrounds working with folks from (to cite just one example) student affairs backgrounds ultimately benefits our institutions and our students. Why not then broaden our definition of “alt-ac” to include the vast array of positions available at universities and encourage graduate students to consider nonteaching careers within the academy?