Humanities Graduate Education and “Nonacademic” Careers

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?

6 thoughts on “Humanities Graduate Education and “Nonacademic” Careers

  1. Very good points – as a recently minted PhD, where would I start to look in terms of the academic careers you’re talking about? I have admin experience (actual office experience as well as academic) and have taught and created syllabi at community colleges and universities for the last four years. At what level should I pitch myself? I ask because it feels as though “Director of International Programs” might be a little high as a starting point. Also, I’m a Brit – would these alt-ac-within-ac jobs be willing to sponsor a visa, or is it impossible? Sorry for the question overload, v. interesting topic!

    • Thanks, Dan, for the comment! It seems to me that you would do well to look at entry or mid-level postions (I think you’re right that starting as Director is not a good strategy). Both Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education list all kinds of administrative positions. Knowing what area (advising, research office, fellowships, student affairs, etc.?) would be interesting to you is also a good way to start narrowing down positions. Regarding the visa, it depends on the hiring institution and how badly they want you. I have a Canadian friend who’s worked at several places and was sponsored before he got his green card, so it can work out. Good luck!

  2. Do you feel there are even enough “alt-ac” jobs to warrant the number of Ph.D.s? I worry there would still be a surplus of doctorates unable to get employment.

    The key question for me, though, is how will graduate students get experience in something other than teaching? It would be great if fellowship opportunities included administrative, as well as teaching, option, but I don’t see universities getting rid of their cheap labor force…and, if they do, it would have a chilling affect on the hiring for professionals in administration, undermining what you are trying to accomplish. Perhaps encouraging humanities graduate students to pursue more internships will help.

    I asked my employer what impact my MA in English had on hiring me…I was told it made no difference to them and that the deciding factor was my experience and professional writing samples.

    • Honestly, I wasn’t even thinking of the number of Ph.D. graduates when I wrote this. My real interest is the way post-graduate choices are framed as either faculty or outside academia (as Bethany Nowviskie also notes below). That framing has never made sense to me given that there are plenty of other options in the academy. And yes, I do think that every graduate student in an “academic” field should have to do some kind of administrative internship/assistantship/fellowship/whatever — for two reasons: 1) it would give folks who either don’t want or can’t find a faculty job some kind of practical experience and 2) folks who go on to be faculty would have some idea of what administrators actually do which I think might help cure some of the admin-faculty hostility we so often see. There are ways to do this without cutting out professional staff, I think. At UMass, I had several administrative assistantships and they were, without a doubt, the best thing I could have done in terms of preparing for my current career (even if I didn’t know it at the time).

  3. As the editor of the #Alt-Academy project at MediaCommons, I would like to invite you or anyone else interested in your call for disseminating information about #alt-ac positions beyond digital humanities and libraries to contribute an essay, or consider proposing and editing a cluster of essays:

    #Alt-Academy was designed to offer useful counter-examples to the prevailing “either-or” message grad students seem to get about academic and “non-academic” careers.  The DH community spoke out loud and clear in response to my initial call for contributors and, while we have a number of essays in the collection by publishers, public historians, and academic administrators in various spheres of the university, it’s absolutely true that a stronger, non-digital thread in the collection would be a service to the community.

    I think your framing of this issue in terms of humanities graduate education is spot-on, and would like to throw a recent blog post of my own into the mix:

    One important thing about the re-framing of methodological training I’m proposing here (and which we’re experimenting with in the Praxis Program at the Scholars’ Lab) is that it be agnostic about whether students go on to traditional faculty positions or enter #alt-ac roles.  Effective faculty self-governance, engagement with new research possibilities, and thoughtful support for the teaching and research enterprise require a similar skill set and shared vocabulary.

    • Thanks, Bethany, for the links, comment, and especially for your great work on the #Alt-Academy project. It’s much needed and very useful. I love the idea of proposing a cluster of essays and will work on rounding up folks I think could make useful contributions.

      And I agree entirely that the type of training/education that we’re talking about would be of benefit to all graduate students, regardless of the types of jobs they get — especially in your post (which I fear I missed, so thank you for sharing it) when you write: “we can no longer afford to produce humanities PhDs who have only a foggy notion of how universities work, and how they are impacted by external technological and social forces.” Combine your methods course with my requirement for admin experience, and suddenly our humanities graduates would look a lot different. And better IMO.

      Very much looking forward to continuing this conversation F2F in Seattle!

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