In Search of Hard Data on Nonacademic Careers

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

September 03, 2012

Discussion of nonfaculty careers for graduate students so easily disintegrates into dueling anecdotes. You have a story about someone who parlayed her Ph.D. into a great business career? Well, here's one about someone who had to drop his Ph.D. from his résumé in order to get a job at all. Stories cluster around both of those poles in the comments section whenever I've written about nonprofessorial career paths.

Personal accounts of career successes and disappointments are compelling, of course. They certainly interest me, and I want to keep hearing them. But one reason they lord over the landscape is because statistics are in short supply. Narrators of post-graduate-school stories can all claim to be representative because for years no one has bothered to measure the career outcomes of graduate students who leave academe, whether before or after getting a Ph.D. We simply don't have enough good data.

That neglect is finally giving way to attention—and activity.

The first serious study of doctoral career outcomes didn't appear until 1999, and it was limited to Ph.D.'s who had completed degrees between 1983 and 1985. (English was the only humanities field originally surveyed. The other disciplines in the survey were biochemistry, computer science, electrical engineering, mathematics, and political science.)

The narrow scope of the study raised questions: What about A.B.D.'s, for example, let alone graduates from other fields? Still, the report—by investigators Maresi Nerad and Joseph Cerny, both of the University of California at Berkeley—gave quantitative backing to what was already common sense by the late 1990s: Time-to-degree was lengthening, while the holy grail of a tenured professorship had become a more uncertain prospect.

The Council of Graduate Schools published a wider-scoped study this year. "Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers" focuses on the transition from graduate school to job. Its findings, based on consultation with students, deans, and employers, are now resonating in an academic culture that remains fixated on the tenure-track outcome.

The council's study found that professors don't talk enough to their graduate students about possible jobs outside of academe, even though such nonfaculty positions are "of interest to students." That lack of guidance is particularly egregious in light of where graduate students actually end up: About half of new Ph.D.'s get their first jobs outside of academe, "in business, government, or nonprofit jobs," the council's report said.

The CGS study included a survey but the results have not been published. Incredibly, there has been no significant survey of graduate-student career outcomes since Nerad and Cerny's—and they limited their sample to Ph.D.'s who had received their degrees nearly 30 years ago now.

So it's big news that the Scholarly Communication Institute is conducting a new survey of former graduate students who have (or are building) careers outside the professoriate—a career category now commonly called alternative academic, or "alt-ac." (You can tell how embedded an idea has become when it gets a handle as brief as that.)

At the same time, the institute is building an alt-ac database called "Who We Are," in which people list their names, employers, and job titles. The database has 200 entries already.

The institute's survey will analyze alt-ac employment data in our post-Great Recession era. Just as important, it will add to the scanty statistics we have on nonprofessorial job placement in general. Katina Rogers, senior research specialist at the institute, designed the survey and is administering it. She describes it as "an exploratory study" that's intended "to move from anecdote to data in conversations about career preparation in the humanities." That would be a helpful movement, indeed.

The survey is limited to the humanities ("and allied fields") for practical reasons, Rogers said. The sciences already offer more varied possibilities of industry employment, so alternative academic careers can look very different in those fields. "The humanities," she said, "has a longer road to travel toward improved awareness of the variety of career paths available to graduates."

The survey is aimed at the concerns of two main constituencies: professors and program administrators on one hand, and graduate students themselves on the other. Professors now realize that "graduate students are pursuing a wider array of career paths," said Rogers. Lots of our graduate students—more than we think—see alt-ac possibilities as viable choices, not doleful consolations to be considered only if the push for a professorship doesn't work out.

Graduate programs are notoriously slow to change, but they need to acclimate to the fact that not all graduate students will wind up as professors. And "as graduate programs take this into account," said Rogers, "we want them to have access to a body of data that leaders can point to when they want to make changes in their programs."

Graduate students need help surveying the ground ahead of them, too. "We understand the frustration that they feel," said Rogers. They know that they have choices, but they often get hazy information on options that lie outside the tenure track. "By increasing transparency and providing actual data," she said, "we think our work will help graduate students make more informed decisions about their careers."

Career decision points begin to appear while you're still in school. Graduate students know that you need to think about your specialties and skills in terms of what you're hoping to do with them. Is it a good idea to get involved with a particular grant proposal? To teach in that program outside of your department? That depends on what you plan to do afterward.

"The skills that we think are useful in alternative academic careers are useful in academia as well," Rogers said. "Incorporating them while in graduate school will be a plus regardless of the career path one chooses later on."

Which skills are those? Rogers identifies "management of both projects and people, collaboration, oral and written communication for varied audiences, and in some cases, technical skills." But she adds: "This is part of what we hope the survey will reveal. We want to know which skills matter the most, and where."

Here's the most important piece of news: You can participate in this survey now. All you need, Rogers says, is "graduate training in the humanities and employment outside the professoriate." There's also a separate survey for employers who have hired a former graduate student into an alt-ac position. "We welcome participants from anywhere in the world," says Rogers—but only until the end of September. The survey closes on October 1.

The more participants, the more robust the data will be. So here's the public service announcement to conclude this month's column: If you qualify, please take 15 minutes to fill out the survey. If you know someone else who qualifies (as either employer or employee), please share this Web address:

The link leads to all of the initiatives (employer and employee surveys, and the alt-ac database) that I've mentioned here. The data and report will also be available on the same site.

The survey will bring us much-needed numbers, but let's not forget about the human stories. Unlike the survey, which is anonymous, the institute's small but growing alt-ac database names names. The database already houses a rich collection of job coordinates and miniature career narratives. (The entries by Kim Cooper and David Wondrich are two of my favorites. Here, too, you are invited to add your own.)

If nothing else, this database should provide some opposition to the sort of despairing skepticism that overtakes some former graduate students when they ponder alt-ac careers. "One of the reasons we set up a public database," Rogers said, "is so that graduate students can get a glimpse of the kinds of careers in which humanities graduates are thriving."

The stories are compelling. And the forthcoming survey numbers, while less charismatic, ought to prove useful for a long time. Both are long overdue.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at