How We Reached This Point, Part 2

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

September 19, 2013

Editor's Note: After spending more than 25 years as a graduate-career counselor at the University of Pennsylvania, Julie Miller Vick retired this summer. In Part 2 of this column, she and her co-author look back at the trends that have created the crisis that academe now faces in graduate education. You can find Part 1 here.

Julie: The need to offer more and better career counseling for doctoral students intensified in the mid-1990s. Many faculty members were realizing that their doctoral students could turn to other professionals in the university for help with both the academic job search and "alternative careers," as they were then called.

The mid-1990s also saw growing attention to the particular career struggles of Ph.D.'s in the sciences and engineering. Science's Next Wave, a Web site developed and maintained by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and its journal, Science, started on the Internet in 1995. We know it today as Peter Fiske's book To Boldly Go: A Practical Career Guide for Scientists was published the following year. In June 1996, the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSE-PUP) held a national meeting on doctoral education, attended by hundreds of academics and scientists. At that meeting, the deputy director of the National Institutes of Health said, "We should not be cloning students in the image of their mentors."

That was an important moment for doctoral education in the sciences—an open admission that not all Ph.D. scientists would become, or wanted to become, tenure-track faculty members.

Jenny: With the rise of the Web, in the 1990s, it became much easier for Ph.D. students and postdocs to share questions and concerns about their career prospects. Wrk4us, an e-mail discussion group founded by Paula Foster Chambers in 1999, while she was a doctoral student at Ohio State University, became a space where doctoral students—particularly those in the humanities and social sciences—could talk about nonacademic employment. Since then Chambers has transformed that e-mail group into The Versatile Ph.D., a robust online forum and Web site that now has more than 32,000 members. Meet-ups are held in cities across the country.

Julie: In 2001, just a few years after the founding of Wrk4us, Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius, both of whom earned Ph.D.'s in English at Princeton, published the first edition of a book that remains an essential guide for Ph.D.'s seeking nonacademic careers, So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia (released in a second edition by the University of Chicago Press in 2007).

The title echoes the question that graduate students have heard endlessly at social events, and which probably has caused much unnecessary anguish. The book is particularly strong at helping students understand how academic culture can work to make them feel like failures if they do not seek or secure tenure-track work, and how they must work to change their own thinking if they choose to look for meaningful careers outside of academe. In 2005, Meghan Pincus Kajitani and Rebecca A. Bryant wrote an article, "A Ph.D. and a Failure" that nicely summarizes this attitude.

Jenny: As Web sites became easier to build, and blogs became common, more and more forums were developed to share information about nonacademic careers. Some of the best include Lexi Lord's Beyond Academe (for historians), Branching Points (for scientists), and How to Leave Academia. (Readers: If you've found other such helpful sites, feel free to mention them in the comments below.)

Julie: The Chronicle started its Career Network site online in August 1998 with a variety of columns directed at Ph.D.'s and their careers, including Ms. Mentor and Career Talk (which I wrote originally with the late Mary Morris Heiberger and now with Jenny). Since then the discussion of career options for Ph.D.'s has only escalated online, where Ph.D.'s can give voice to their challenges and frustrations and keep track of what's happening on the academic job market on the helpful—and intimidating—Academic Jobs Wiki for each discipline.

Jenny: The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation started Humanities at Work in 1999. The program explored ways in which Ph.D. students, faculty members, and academic departments in those disciplines could connect their expertise more fully to society at large. One of its most useful components, the Practicum Grants, enabled Ph.D.'s to work on real-world projects, often in the form of summer internships, by paying them a small stipend. Recipients of those grants ended up working in both academe and other sectors. The program gave a number of Ph.D. candidates and large employers an opportunity to get to know one another. It ended in 2006, when the foundation felt that the program had done enough to bring the need for nonacademic opportunities for Ph.D.'s into the public eye.

The American Council of Learned Societies' Public Fellows Program has a similar goal: helping Ph.D.'s in the humanities develop a strong set of nonacademic skills. More opportunities like this need to be made available to students.

Julie: A survey by Chris Golde and Timothy M. Dore, "At Cross Purposes: What the experiences of today's doctoral students reveal about doctoral education," released in January 2001, looked at students in 11 arts-and-sciences disciplines. It showed that "the training doctoral students receive is not what they want, nor does it prepare them for the jobs they take," and that "many students do not clearly understand what doctoral study entails, how the process works and how to navigate it effectively."

In 2002, Maresi Nerad and Joseph Cerny released their well-known study, "Ph.D.'s—Ten Years Later," which showed the feasibility of assessing doctoral programs in terms of the career outcomes of their graduates. Jorge Cham touched on some of the same themes in a comical way when he started Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD) Comics. He is now a sought-after speaker for groups of doctoral students and postdocs.

Speaking of which, in that same period, many campus career counselors who worked with Ph.D. students were also starting to see postdocs in large numbers seeking career guidance, including at our offices, at the University of Pennsylvania. Institutions began taking steps to improve the employment status of postdocs and standardize their wages, benefits, and work conditions. The National Postdoctoral Association was established, in 2003, with the goal of "fostering necessary improvements to the postdoctoral situation in the United States," to "crystallize the diffuse postdoc debate and provide a focal point for achieving administrative and policy changes."

Jenny: Throughout these developments, the Graduate Career Consortium, made up of career-services administrators at more than 100 institutions, including our own, continued to meet annually and communicate regularly via an e-mail list, discussing all aspects of the graduate-student career as well as issues like how to get reliable information about Ph.D. career outcomes.

I attended my first consortium meeting in June 2004, when the conference was held at McGill University. During that time, I began to meet Ph.D.'s from many academic disciplines, who, like myself, were employed in administrative roles in academe—from ethnomusicologists working in a graduate dean's office to neuroscientists (in fact, more than one) working in campus career centers.

Some of those Ph.D.'s continued their research and teaching, to some degree. Some were frustrated by the dismissive attitude often taken toward their work by faculty members and administrators, an attitude described well in a pseudonymous essay, "A 'Nonacademic' Career in Academe."

It was out of a desire to validate the interesting, intellectually engaged work being done by Ph.D.'s working in academe but outside the tenure-track path that the term "alt-ac"(or #altac) came into being, as Bethany Nowviskie details here. (She also wrote a helpful essay for ProfHacker about how to negotiate an alternative academic appointment).

Although the "alt-ac" is often associated with the digital humanities, the #alt-academy Web site and many of the resources listed on Katina Rogers's blog, Black Ink, White Page, give a sense of the range of careers that fall under the term. And we have written a few columns ourselves on what we call hybrid careers, including a four-part series called "Switching Sides" (here are Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.)

Julie: Many Ph.D.'s we speak with in the humanities and social sciences seem to think that their counterparts in the sciences have it easy on the job market. Let us dispel that myth once and for all: They don't. Much work has gone into developing similar career-planning resources for scientists, including "my IDP," a Web-based tool tailored to meet the needs of graduate students and postdocs in the laboratory sciences. It was developed by four people involved in the career development of scientists, two of whom—Cynthia N. Fuhrmann and Bill Lindstaedt—are university career advisers who work with graduate students and postdocs. The site helps users identify the skills they would like to put into play in their careers and points them toward professions that will capitalize on those skills.

More help is on the way. A 2012 federal report on the biomedical work force proposed: "NIH should create a program to supplement training grants through competitive review to allow institutions to provide additional training and career-development experiences to equip students for various career options and test ways to shorten the Ph.D. training period." This past spring the NIH announced the new Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) awards, which will "support bold and innovative approaches to broaden graduate and postdoctoral training" in biomedical, behavioral, social, and clinical sciences to prepare graduate students and postdoctoral scientists for a wide range of career options.

Jenny: Two years ago, the Graduate Careers Consortium expanded its membership policy to include graduate career advisers (and other staff members with responsibility for career advising and professional development for doctoral students) at institutions beyond the members of the Association of American Universities. At our meeting last June—when the group celebrated its 25th year—we voted to organize as a nonprofit organization.

Back in 1988, at the first meeting of what became the consortium, the topics of discussion were how to best assist doctoral students with the academic job search, with nonacademic job searches, and with graduate-school challenges, such as how to best work with faculty members. We are still discussing those topics and many more. At that first meeting, eight institutions were represented; at the June meeting, in Chicago, more than 70 people, from 45 institutions, attended.

Many who are reading this article will wonder what has improved in graduate education, particularly as a crucial question has yet to be resolved: How can graduate training across the disciplines prepare students for a range of career possibilities? Is there anything that has changed recently in graduate education that give you cause for optimism?

Julie: I'm optimistic by nature. And I find that, while many doctoral students suffer a drop in self-confidence while pursuing their doctoral degrees, they, too, are often optimistic people. Some become passionate about their research; some become passionate about teaching; others become interested in areas that are related to their graduate work but aren't academic, such as serving their country or working with elementary- and secondary-school children.

I am glad to see that the issues around Ph.D. employment are no longer seen as a problem for the individuals, but rather as needing to be faced by institutions and professional associations at the highest levels. Many problems in the humanities and other disciplines could be lessened if universities followed the recommendations articulated in Peter Conn's 2010 article in The Chronicle, "We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities."

In 2012-13, Anthony Grafton, a professor of history at Princeton University, and Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, brought renewed attention to these issues when they called for broadening the career options of Ph.D.'s in two articles, "No More Plan B" and "Time to Craft a Plan C." The latter made clear the role that a professional society could play in helping to reimagine career options for Ph.D.'s, and emphasized the important role that faculty members must play in that debate.

Institutions, too, must help to effect this shift in academic culture. One example is Stanford University's proposal for a multi-track Ph.D. At this year's meeting of the Graduate Career Consortium, many of the new attendees said they had been asked to work with faculty members and deans on their campuses to support the professional development of Ph.D.'s. Indeed, the term "professional development" is being used more and more across graduate schools to describe the ways in which they must support their students in developing a range of skills that will serve them well in and out of academe.

There is every reason for faculty members, graduate students, and administrators to be proud of having doctoral alumni work in a spectrum of careers and fields. That means, however, that all involved need to look at the Ph.D in new ways. As we ourselves said in a 2010 column, the world of work—whether the business, government, or nonprofit sectors—will be a better place with Ph.D.'s from all fields in it. And that will, in turn, be better for academe.

Julie Miller Vick recently retired as senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania and is now working part-time as a senior career adviser. Jennifer S. Furlong is director of the office of career planning and professional development at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York Graduate Center. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Send your career questions to, or post your question in the comments section below.