Who Prepares Humanities Ph.D.'s for a Nonacademic Search?

Students find little help from their departments, and even less from their advisers

Linda Helton for The Chronicle

July 15, 2013

It's been a year of intense conversations about the future of graduate education in the humanities. Proposals for how to modify or reinvent the humanities Ph.D. have been flying in the news media, on Twitter, at academic conferences: Should we end the dissertation? Eliminate comprehensive exams? How can we revise the curriculum to better reflect the realities of the job market?

But what if the problem lies not merely with curriculum but with how students are—or are not—being prepared for a broad and diverse job market?

In studying career outcomes for history Ph.D.'s, we have found graduates employed in a variety of nonteaching positions at nonprofits, federal and state governments, archives and libraries, and schools. Numerous Web sites and articles document their successful career paths and make clear that Ph.D.'s are not lacking in transferable skills. What many doctoral students do lack, however, is the professional development that would afford a clear understanding of their career options beyond the professoriate and how best to pursue them. What, for example, can students do in graduate school to best position themselves for nonacademic jobs later? How can recent graduates market themselves via a résumé rather than a CV?

In the debates over graduate education, a few pieces of conventional wisdom have emerged: that humanities graduate programs train students to pursue only the academic job market; that advisers and academic departments are often not supportive of students pursuing alternate career paths and offer no guidance on how to do so; and that graduate students too often focus exclusively on securing a teaching job and feel a sense of failure if they don't get one.

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We set out to collect data to evaluate those assumptions, identify the career aspirations of history doctoral students, and assess which types of professional development were most helpful to them for the academic (teaching) and nonacademic (any employment other than professorships) job markets. We focused specifically on history Ph.D.'s and sent a survey to 90 American departments. We received responses from 497 students at 34 departments, including those at Brown, Harvard, Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale Universities, and at the Universities of California at Berkeley, Michigan at Ann Arbor, and North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Strikingly, the survey revealed widespread interest in nonacademic career paths. A majority of students surveyed (56.5 percent) identified themselves as open to both academic and nonacademic work. We did not ask students to rank their preference between the two, but several students noted that looking beyond academe was "Plan B." Students early in their graduate training were more likely to express an interest in a dual search for academic and nonacademic jobs than were more-advanced students: 72.3 percent of first-year students compared with 50.5 percent of those in their seventh year or later.

We can only speculate as to why that discrepancy exists: Are new graduate students more aware of the dire state of the tenure-track-job market? Or do students become increasingly convinced that the professoriate is the only desirable outcome the longer they stay in graduate school?

Second, the survey showed that students did not feel they had been adequately prepared for the nonacademic job market by either their departments or their universities. (You can read more about our sample group at

The adviser's role. Half of the respondents said their advisers had provided them with some sort of training for the academic job market. They pointed most frequently to help in writing cover letters and preparing for interviews or job talks. By contrast, less than 10 percent of respondents got any training from their advisers in the skills necessary for a nonacademic job search, such as networking, informational interviews, writing a résumé, and identifying transferable skills.

Some students said their advisers were actively disdainful of nonacademic careers; their responses cited "harsh stigma," a "taboo," "failure," or fear that it would be a "letdown." One respondent reported: "If we express interest in nonacademic positions, he will often try to agree with us ("Wow, that sounds like a fun idea!"), but it is clear from his face and body language that he is deeply skeptical of—and worried by—our interest outside the Ivory Tower."

Most students did, however, describe their advisers as either "supportive" or "somewhat supportive" of nonacademic career paths. Students reasoned that the lack of advice they received on that front was because advisers didn't know how to help. "It's not that my adviser is against nonacademic careers," one student wrote. "I think he sees his role as preparing us as best as he can for academic careers. I also don't think he would know how to support (other than emotionally) students pursuing nonacademic careers." (For the survey results about job-market training from advisers, see

The department's role. Students reported much more professional development coming from their departments than from their advisers. Most (83.6 percent) indicated that their departments provided training for the academic market—such as helping students create CV's, prepare for interviews, and write cover letters. By contrast, only 26.9 percent said their departments offered advice about nonfaculty careers. Still, the departments were more helpful on that count than the advisers were.

One way departments introduce students to nonacademic careers is to organize workshops or speaker series. Some of those workshops feature alumni who discuss their own paths to a nonacademic career. While respondents enjoyed listening to those talks, many noted that speakers did little to prepare them practically for their own job searches. "The department hosted a public-history workshop with three Ph.D.'s who had gone into the State Department, the Park Service, and cultural-resource management," one respondent wrote. While it was "useful to see how the skills from a history Ph.D. could transfer, I'm not sure they gave me concrete advice, per se."

In short, alumni talks can encourage students to think broadly but are no substitute for workshops in which students learn how to network, create résumés, and arrange informational interviews. Our survey showed that departments were doing an inadequate job of helping students develop those skills.

The continuing stigma attached to nonacademic careers can take an emotional and psychological toll on those facing a difficult job market. As one respondent wrote: "The state of the job market ... is forcing me to reconsider my commitment to the traditional academic teaching position. This is very depressing because I've been working toward that goal for almost a decade, and now it's more elusive than ever. I wish there was some support for students experiencing disappointment and depression because of the looming end of tenure and rise of adjuncts and online courses." (For more survey results about job-market training provided by departments, see

The role of campus career services. More than advisers and departments, it was the career-services office that students most identified as offering advice and preparation for nonacademic careers. However, when asked to specify what types of services it offered, 54 percent of respondents "did not know." Less than 40 percent of students said career services taught basic job-search preparedness skills such as networking, arranging informational interviews, writing cover letters, locating potential career fields, and finding internships.

Respondents were particularly skeptical about whether career services offered any help that was relevant to humanities Ph.D.'s. The advice was "shallow," said one respondent. Another lamented that even career services failed to discuss "how historians might find a placement anywhere else but in academia."

When asked to identify the most useful resources in pursuing nonacademic careers, most students said they went off campus for help—relying on Web sites, blogs, and word of mouth.

Creating a new departmental culture. Students in the survey recognized that their Ph.D.'s could open doors beyond the professoriate, but they were often frustrated and disheartened about how to proceed. As one respondent wrote, "I do not know how to prepare for the nonacademic job market even though I am interested." That sentiment was echoed by others and described with phrases like "a giant mystery."

Their confusion stems, in part, from the fact that Ph.D. students have traditionally looked to their departments for career guidance. But many departments do not have the resources, or the expertise, to provide training on how to find a nonfaculty job. Students looking for such advice become frustrated by a system that was not designed to offer it. Moreover, even if departments and advisers are supportive of all career paths, students may not know, because the department remains too focused on the academic job market.

Another challenge is that sources of career guidance are scattered among the graduate school, career services, the department, and even mental-health services. One respondent wrote: "Most places seem to be scrambling to put together these materials. Their efforts are decentralized and sometimes difficult to identify in such a large university setting." Centralizing career resources for graduate students within one office would go a long way toward bridging that gap.

Department chairs, faculty advisers, and graduate deans need to lead the effort to help students become job-market-ready no matter what their chosen paths. Survey your students, and you may be surprised, as we were, to see such great interest in conducting a comprehensive job search for both academic and nonacademic careers.

If your department's expertise on nonacademic career paths is slim, do something to fix that. As scholars, you already know how to do research on esoteric topics, so use those skills to improve the quality of the career advice you're offering students.

Many students reported feeling uncomfortable raising the topic with their advisers, out of fear of losing financial aid, being overlooked for opportunities in the department, or being stigmatized as an unserious scholar. Instead of waiting for students to speak up, advisers need to raise the issue of nonacademic career paths and encourage students to think broadly about their options. Remember that your legacy as an adviser can also be served by having successful former students working in nonprofits, the government, or industry.

L. Maren Wood earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the founder and lead researcher of Lilli Research Group, a small educational-consulting firm in the Washington area. Beatrice Gurwitz earned her Ph.D. in history from the University of California at Berkeley. She is a senior researcher at Lilli Research Group and works as an independent research consultant for academic institutions and government agencies in the Washington area.