The Alt-Ac Job Search: A Case Study

How to prepare a Ph.D. for faculty and nonfaculty jobs

November 23, 2015

Patricia Gael was no typical graduate student. With two years of professional writing experience, she was qualified for and interested in careers outside of the university. Gael also knew that she and her husband would probably move to Silicon Valley after she completed her Ph.D. in British 18th-century literature at Penn State.

Gael’s adviser, Robert D. Hume, a professor of English, understood right away that her geographic limitations meant that preparing her solely for a tenure-track job would be illogical. Together they hatched a plan of instruction to meet her needs.

"We needed to think how best to do two things," said Hume in a recent conference presentation with Gael. "First, get Patricia the teaching and publication credentials that would give her a good shot at an academic job" — in the event that such an opportunity came her way. "Equally important," Hume said, "we needed to build her skills and credentials in ways that would make her a strong candidate for various sorts of jobs."

That problem — how to prepare graduate students for both professorial and nonprofessorial work — vexes a lot of advisers. "How can I teach graduate students to pursue jobs I know nothing about?" Professors ask me versions of that question a lot these days. Hume provided a model response that breaks down the task step by step.

"From the outset," Hume said, he and Gael "imagined two simultaneous educations." One was of the conventional sort: "Patricia took seminars and published. Like all our grad students, she taught freshman composition, then graduated to junior-senior level tech writing, plus a literature course."

At the same time, professor and student "built the ‘real world’ résumé" together. Their goal, said Gael, "was to demonstrate my experience with technology, and my capacity for writing in different styles."

Gael proceeded to work at a remarkable series of jobs. "We arranged a one-year assistantship in the College of Information Sciences and Technology," said Hume, where Gael investigated "the effectiveness of instructional software on various platforms." She also drew on her past work experience and found a part-time technical-writing job in a Penn State dean’s office. Then she served in the English department for a year as "composition office assistant," a job usually done by a graduate student working in composition and rhetoric. It was a management position, focused on training and supervising graduate-student teachers and adjuncts.

After that, Gael spent a year working in the library as a "publishing and curation services assistant." That job led Hume and Gael to consider a possible library career for her, so, said Hume, "we sent Patricia to a summer session in the University of Virginia Rare Book School."

Gael’s dissertation topic also had to fit the plan. "We wanted a subject and method that would make Patricia attractive to English departments," said Hume, and also to "the worlds of libraries and businesses." They designed a data-centered dissertation that scrutinized the 18,000 books that were published in London between 1737 and 1749. Gael "modified a commercial program," said Hume, "so she could sort descriptive data on all 18,000 books and manipulate it" to analyze them. It wasn’t an easy dissertation to write, but it resulted in "exactly what we wanted: both academic and nonacademic credibility."

The aim of all this planning and design was," Hume said, "to make Patricia attractive to all sorts of employers, both in academia and entirely outside it. And it worked!"

Gael graduated in 2014 and moved to California that August. She started applying for jobs, and got interviews right away. It helped, she said, to already be living where she wanted to work. It’s a "signal that you’re serious about the industry you’re moving into," and that kind of credibility is important.

In short order, she received two appealing offers. She now works as a technical writer for Addepar, a company that writes software for financial advisers. "I love what I do," she said. "I enjoy going to work every day."

That’s a happy ending, though Gael’s story is anything but a fairy tale. Hume sees a moral in it, though. "What have I learned?" he asked. First of all, that "the object of grad school is to give people an education that helps them to a happy and fulfilling life." Second, Hume understood that "writing and problem-solving skills can apply in a lot of different realms."

I asked Gael why she sought a Ph.D. in English in the first place, given that she knew she was unlikely to become a professor. She said it was because she enjoyed the subject and the course of study. She didn’t feel compelled to become a specialist.

Instead, Gael realized early on that she was drawn to the "fast-paced, challenging, collaborative environment" of high-tech. She uses her graduate-school training in her job, and even feels that she’s "making an impact as an emissary of the humanities."

In the end, Gael found a job that fits her. Isn’t that what we want for our graduate students?

Hume emphasizes that professors "must learn not to think that success means getting a tenure-line job. There are a lot of pretty lousy tenure-line jobs out there, and not everyone is really suited to academic life."

And in this case, Gael didn’t want a version of Hume’s professional life. "I would much rather see someone flourish in a different realm," he said, "instead of turning out to be a pale and perhaps not very happy replica of me. I’m proud of Patricia and thrilled to see her flourishing in a career that suits and challenges her."

We might frame this story as a teaching problem solved. Hume, a preternaturally productive scholar himself, normally puts his doctoral students through a carefully chosen battery of tasks designed to produce publishable dissertations. He recognized that his usual template didn’t fit Gael, so he advised her differently.

But Hume and Gael’s collaboration also spotlights the fraught goals of graduate teaching. Hume is clear on what those goals ought to be: "We will serve our grad students a lot better if we help them learn skills that will serve them well in all sorts of careers, both within the professoriate and totally outside it."

I heard Hume and Gael tell their story at a recent conference on graduate education in the humanities sponsored by the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a consortium made up of the Big Ten plus the University of Chicago. The participants were generally eager to change their practices, but they also knew that many of those practices are entrenched. More than a few faculty conferees compared reforming graduate school to turning a dinosaur around in a small room. There’s truth to that. Reshaping institutional priorities — particularly the deeply rooted practices of graduate school — can be a long and arduous task, especially at a big university.

But we have to start somewhere.

We can change attitudes student by student, course by course, and professor by professor. Hume and Gael made that dinosaur dance — and we can all learn from how they did it.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. His new book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, is published by Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at Twitter handle: @LCassuto.