The Graduate Student as Entrepreneur

Brian Taylor

November 29, 2011

The market for academic teaching jobs in the humanities and social sciences is entirely different than it was 30 years ago, yet most graduate advisers and students still operate as if the path to the professoriate is the same as it was: You present at conferences, network with others in your field, be active in your department, work with someone of great renown, submit papers for publication, apply for fellowships, and then secure a tenure-track position.

Unfortunately, that approach is no longer enough to ensure a career in academe. My good friend "Ben," who did all of the above during his doctoral study in the French and Italian department at Princeton University, failed to secure a full-time position. Even as he excelled in his work, opportunities within his field were diminishing.

Some of my peers, however, have succeeded in securing tenure-track jobs in higher education. Yet they have only done so because of their willingness to step outside of the traditional boundaries of graduate-student work. "Lynn" is an assistant professor on the tenure track because of her years of experience in instructional technology. "Charles" is an assistant professor because of his invention of an online tool that visualizes knowledge networks between theorists in his field. "Frank" is an assistant professor because of his administrative experience in a writing-across-the-curriculum program. The list goes on.

I would like to suggest, then, the emergence of a new paradigm for succeeding on the academic job market: the graduate student as entrepreneur.

Graduate students can no longer lay the groundwork for their careers by following a mythical path set forth long ago that is fast disappearing. Increasingly, Ph.D.'s need to step slightly outside of their fields to define themselves, produce tools, appeal to wider audiences, attain rare skill sets, and forge partnerships beyond their disciplines and even beyond academe. In that spirit of self-reliance and innovation I'd like to present five ways in which graduate students in the humanities and social sciences can succeed by drawing outside of the lines.

Propose, and participate in, unorthodox partnerships. Erez Lieberman Aiden, a Ph.D. in the areas of applied math and health sciences and technology at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, approached an executive at Google and proposed the creation of a tool that could measure cultural trends by charting word frequency over hundreds of years in Google's corpus of 15 million books.

Google agreed to provide the digitized books, and Aiden gathered a team of programmers and researchers in a variety of disciplines. As a result, Google's Ngram Viewer and the interdisciplinary concept of "culturomics" were born. In our current climate, graduate students should likewise consider doing work and forging relationships beyond our disciplinary boundaries.

Seek more technical training. Deena Engel, a clinical associate professor of computer science at New York University has been teaching a graduate course this semester in the English department on how to curate and encode online literary texts using CSS, HTML, and XML. In a similar vein, we as graduate students should seek to acquire advanced technical skills outside of our department's traditional offerings.

Even students in the humanities should consider taking classes in statistical methods, sociological research models, computer programming, information technology, and other such topics. Mastering skills in such areas will not only help you stand out in the traditional academic job search but can also give you something to fall back on should you apply for alternative academic careers.

Look beyond the semester system. True growth doesn't happen in the semester system. Too often graduate students write a paper in the final week of the semester, the professor writes a few cursory comments, and then the paper gathers dust. Substantial projects cannot be completed in a semester's time or with a single reader. Graduate students need to seek out groups of readers who will seriously interrogate their work as it develops over a year or more.

For many years, I was the victim of the "easy A." Professors, even in graduate school, would give me A's on my research papers without taking time to actually interrogate my ideas. That changed last year when I was fortunate enough to take an independent study with a professor, Matthew K. Gold, who ruthlessly engaged with me and challenged my arguments over 14 months and seven drafts. Graduate students need to seek out those mentors who will truly scrutinize and advise our projects from beginning to end; otherwise, we will never grow into scholars.

Know how to appeal to different audiences. From the rise of private for-profit universities that offer a corporate-minded, part-time, and fast-track education to the adjunctification of the work force, the days of recondite scholars releasing their findings to 20 readers via a specialized print journal are disappearing. We only have to witness the decline in foreign-language programs to realize that academic professionals in our present cultural climate have to fight to prove their own "relevancy," a word that has increasingly become code for "economic worth."

If the humanities do not reach out and perform a species of cultural missionary service, they may well be swallowed up and transformed from the outside in. Graduate students, caught in a web of idealism and economic sparsity, are poised to be the conduits of that process. However, we need to understand how to engage with the broader public and how to use new media.

Be willing to enter into or create opportunities outside of academe. For many Ph.D.'s, the end result of the aforementioned "cultural missionary service" may well be a position outside of academe. With every crisis comes unique opportunities.

Ironically, many unemployed artists, writers, and graduate students could possibly make greater contributions outside of their desired fields than within them. Graduate students represent some of the most creative and socially aware minds of our time. It might be a hidden blessing if some of us are pushed into careers in government, finance, or civic service.

Sarah Ruth Jacobs is a doctoral candidate in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a student in its interactive technology and pedagogy certificate program. She also works in instructional technology at the Schwartz Communication Institute at Baruch College.