A gathering on Ohio State University's campus here last month had the familiar trappings of a traditional college lecture. Graduate students filed into an auditorium, and some cracked open their laptops or pecked the screens of smartphones as they waited for the speaker to begin.
But in one important way, this lecture was different than most they would attend as doctoral students.
The speaker, Paula Chambers, would talk openly about a subject that graduate students tend to discuss in hushed tones among close friends or trusted mentors—or anonymously in online forums. The taboo topic: preparing for nonacademic jobs.
"You're in charge of your career," Ms. Chambers said to the audience of about 200 students in the arts and humanities. "My message to you today is you need to prepare to be versatile."
Her speech was a defining moment for Ohio State, where humanities departments had pushed for an event that would give graduate students information about alternative careers. Interest eventually grew so large that the event was sponsored by the graduate school and the arts and humanities division of the College of Arts and Sciences—home to students in disciplines where a tight academic job market has made alternative careers more attractive.
The invitation to speak at Ohio State was a homecoming of sorts for Ms. Chambers, owner of the Versatile Ph.D., a Web site that supports a community of graduate students in the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences who want to pursue careers outside higher education or are contemplating such a move. She graduated from Ohio State in 2000 with a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition, and went on to a nonacademic career of her own.
Her speech was part of a first-time Alternative Career Day, which also included a panel of former graduate students in nonteaching careers, among them the founder and managing partner of a venture-capital firm and the director of admissions and student services at Ohio State's school of public affairs.
"This is like a stamp of approval on what I've been doing and talking about for so long," Ms. Chambers said of the event.
While universities like Ohio State are putting new emphasis on helping Ph.D. students explore nonacademic careers, some research universities have been focused on those efforts for several years. Among them are the University of Pennsylvania and Duke, Harvard, Michigan State, and Yale Universities, which were the founding subscribers to the Versatile Ph.D. last year. They also employ career counselors who cater specifically to graduate students. Those counselors and others meet annually at the Graduate Career Consortium, where alternative career paths for graduate students have recently been a topic of discussion.
Ohio State's graduate-school dean, Patrick Osmer, plays a key role in conversations about post-graduate-school careers at his institution and nationwide. Mr. Osmer, also vice provost for graduate studies, is chair of a new commission set up to examine what graduate students know about their career options and what graduate programs are doing to help their students make the transition into employment. The commission, formed in September by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service, expects to release a report in April.
"I've been thinking a lot about what we're doing on campus," Mr. Osmer says. "It's important that students and faculty know more about what the opportunities are."
The culture of academe often makes it hard for Ph.D. students to explore those opportunities. When they enter doctoral programs, their professors and many of their peers expect them to become professors—cut from the same cloth as their graduate advisers. Some faculty are against efforts to highlight career paths that don't lead to the professoriate, particularly because their reputations, and those of their graduate programs, hinge on students' finding teaching positions at top institutions.
But advocates for giving graduate students information about multiple career options say the realities of the job market demand it. And for some doctoral students, the work they seek after graduation is not an alternative career—a term that some say relegates nonacademic jobs to second-class status—but the only work they've ever wanted.
Although Ohio State and other colleges across the nation are increasingly working to show graduate students that their degrees can be viewed as more than entry tickets to the professoriate, some Ph.D. students aren't getting the same message from their departments. Students are also not sure of exactly how to pursue alternative careers. And even when faculty members support their students, they usually don't have the expertise to help.
During her presentation, Ms. Chambers said she knew that some of the students in attendance couldn't talk about exploring nonacademic careers with their advisers, or even with their peers. Indeed, fear that their advisers would learn of their interest in alternative careers kept a handful of graduate students approached by a reporter from talking, even anonymously.
"As a rule, faculty have not been seen as friends in this conversation," she says. "That's true nationwide."
One Ph.D. student at a West Coast research university can relate. Last winter she came to grips with something she'd been struggling with since entering graduate school: Life as an academic wasn't for her. She never really liked doing research. The teaching that she once loved, and that she had hoped to do as a professor at a liberal-arts college, lost its appeal. And the academic job market, including in her social-sciences field, was abysmal.
But telling her adviser of her plans—at least at that point—was out of the question. "When I was a first-year grad student, he said, 'We train you to go into academe,'" says the student, now in her fifth year, who didn't want to be identified, because she feared her adviser's reaction to her plans. "It was clear that there weren't supposed to be any other options."
She has a new adviser now, and she doesn't know how he will react when she tells him soon that she won't pursue a position as a professor after she earns her doctorate next year. She has been exploring career options in higher-education administration, academic advising, and student or academic affairs. She has also considered doing research for human-rights groups or the United Nations. Other students in her program have gone on to work outside academe, but "the impression I have is that it's seen as sort of a consolation prize," she says.
No More 'Plan B'
The American Historical Association wants to change negative attitudes about career paths outside higher education. The association this fall strongly urged graduate programs to stop casting tenure-track jobs as the only acceptable career choices for their students—which, by default, makes any other position students may pursue a "Plan B." In a recent essay, Anthony T. Grafton, the association's president, and Jim Grossman, its executive director, called for "No More Plan B."
"We need to ask universities and career centers to be more helpful," says Mr. Grafton, a professor at Princeton University. "I would hope that deans would help with this, too. I think professors, especially, have to mobilize everything they can to help their students."
A new follow-up essay by the two authors suggests ways in which the association, universities, and faculty members could do a better job of exposing graduate students to nonacademic careers and supporting them as they search for such positions.
Mr. Grossman says Mr. Grafton's outspoken support of the issue should make academic historians pay heed to the duo's important message.
"He's one of the top people in his field at one of the top institutions in the country, and he's making this statement that having a Plan B isn't the way to go," Mr. Grossman says. More historians, he says, "recognize that it's in the best interest of their students to think more broadly about what they can do with their degrees."
What the history association is pitching has resonated with people in other humanities disciplines. Carmen Taleghani-Nikazm, an associate professor of German at Ohio State, agrees that the culture in academe has to change.
"I'm very open to all possibilities for my students," she says. "But there are people, mostly senior faculty members, who don't even want to talk about this issue."
The Alternative Career Day events last month could be used as a way to educate students and professors about Ph.D. students' skills that appeal to employers outside higher education, says Ms. Taleghani-Nikazm, who is also graduate-studies director of her department. Among the skills highlighted by the panelists were project management, perseverance, problem solving, and the ability to work independently—all of which are honed in writing a dissertation.
The reluctance in higher education to view graduate students who don't become professors as successful often stems from the linear career paths of most professors, says Katharine S. Brooks, director of liberal-arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin. "They wanted to be professors, and now they are," she says. "It becomes hard for them to see someone else doing something else."
D.J. Hovermale, an Ohio State Ph.D. student, will soon have a career that many faculty wouldn't have steered him toward. He originally wanted to return to his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Kentucky, to teach after earning his doctoral degree in computational linguistics.
When he started his Ph.D., in 2005, he was "feeling great" about the academic job market for scholars in his field, he said during the panel session at the Ohio State event. Although Kentucky didn't have a linguistics department, it was rumored that the university would start one soon. Then the recession hit, and Kentucky cut short its plans to expand.
"There were hundreds of people applying for every job listed," Mr. Hovermale said. "It didn't look like the prospects for getting an academic job were very good."
For Mr. Hovermale, practicality won out. He told his adviser that he was shifting to what was, for him, Plan B. When he completes his Ph.D., in December, he will go to work for the Department of Defense.
Making a Choice
Unlike Mr. Hovermale, Andy Holdsworth knew before he began his doctoral degree in conservation biology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities that he wasn't going to become an academic. So he made a point to choose an adviser who would accept his future career path and whose students had gone on to nonacademic careers.
"A lot of advisers don't want to take on people who have career interests like mine," Mr. Holdsworth says. "But mine was an endowed chair, very secure, he was well funded."
Mr. Holdsworth, who completed his Ph.D. in 2006, says he began laying the groundwork for an alternative career during the first semester of his doctoral program. He interviewed conservation scientists who worked at nonprofit groups and at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, where he is now a science-policy coordinator.
Many graduate students in the hard sciences are in departments where a precedent has already been set for pursuing a career outside academe, often in industries associated with their fields or in government jobs.
But that's not always the case, says Nathan Connors, who earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Minnesota in 2004. He knew that some students went on to work in industries, such as at pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies, but that "there wasn't a whole lot of open discussion about what the alternatives were," he says.
Mr. Connors, however, began thinking about alternatives on his own, even as he applied for a postdoctoral fellowship at Penn. "I was always a pretty strong writer from grade school all the way up," he says. "I thought maybe I could integrate analytical skills from graduate school and connect them with writing."
He also realized during graduate school that it would be difficult to balance being the parent of a young child with life as an academic scientist on the tenure track.
With the support of his postdoctoral adviser, Mr. Connors began to apply for medical-writing positions. He has worked for a regulatory-writing company and a company that publishes research articles in scientific journals. Now he's a freelance science and medical writer.
Mr. Connors empathizes with people who agonize over leaving academe behind. "You've been in school so long, and it's the culture that you know," he says. "To switch out of that is difficult and stressful."
The Value of a Ph.D.
It can also be tough for graduate students to figure out what nonacademic career to pursue. But Ms. Chambers and the other panelists at the Ohio State event advised students to volunteer at nonprofit agencies or other places where the work interests them. People with doctoral degrees, she told the audience, can apply for jobs in the federal government, educational consulting, policy analysis, public history, and finance, among other things.
Chad Allen, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in English at Ohio State, is among the faculty members who want to make alternative careers more accepted for Ph.D.'s. But he says graduate students have to make a tough choice.
"This is a hard thing to talk about because the truth is, to be a successful academic, you have to be really obsessive about your work," Mr. Allen says. "You can't take the time off to pursue other things."
Some of his first-year students were at the Alternative Career Day sessions. "I think they're just curious," he says. "They're thinking, 'Keep your options open.'"
That advice worked for Ms. Chambers, who skipped going on the academic job market altogether and went to work as a grant writer for nearly five years at three nonprofit organizations. Her advisers, although supportive of her decision to pursue a nonacademic career, couldn't offer specific advice about how to land work outside higher education.
That information void pushed Ms. Chambers in 1999 to create an e-mail list called WRK4US, the precursor to the Versatile Ph.D. "It basically became my career," says Ms. Chambers, who managed the list as she wrote her dissertation. She kept it up even while writing grant applications for a living. Last year the list became the Versatile Ph.D., a full-time business venture for Ms. Chambers.
The site, which allows users to participate anonymously in discussion forums on various aspects of nonacademic careers, now has nearly 11,000 individual members, among them graduate students, new Ph.D.'s, faculty members, and people who are already in nonacademic jobs.
Twenty-seven research universities, such as Ohio State, pay subscription fees that support the Web site and give students, faculty, and staff access to premium content that includes first-person narratives from Ph.D.'s in nonacademic careers and archived panel discussions in which graduate students ask questions of those who work outside the professoriate.
"A lot of us think that the future and the health of all of our programs depends, in some sense, on redefining the value of the degree," Mr. Allen says. "The degrees are valuable beyond recreating ourselves on the faculty. And that's a good thing for all of us."