Whose Job Is It, Anyway?

Brian Taylor

March 08, 2010

It is a question I have come to dread. Usually, the person asking it is a nervous graduate student who is, both figuratively and literally, looking over his shoulder as he whispers to me at the end of my talk: "But what if your adviser doesn't want you to search for a nonacademic job?"

Sometimes the question comes in an e-mail message sent to the Web site I run for historians seeking to work outside academe. There, the questioner often signs her message with just a first name, as though she worries she may be putting her career in jeopardy simply by asking. And sometimes the question comes abruptly when I am talking with a young Ph.D. who has come to see me for an informational interview.

Regardless of how it is asked, the question is impossible to answer—and yet it is central to the issue of how we think about both graduate education and the crisis that has faced the academic job market in the humanities since the 1970s.

At heart, those students are really asking me a series of fundamental questions about the nature of graduate school: Is graduate education intended solely to turn out professors? Is a student obligated to follow in her professor's footsteps, or can she shape her own career? Does being a graduate student really entail ceding control over your future career to your adviser?

As a historian who has worked outside academe for almost 10 years, I would like to say that the answer to those questions is a resounding no. But having also worked as a professor, and having been trained myself in a traditional graduate program, I know that it's not quite so simple.

Institutions under siege—and the university is under siege from a variety of forces, not the least of them deep budget cuts—often look inward rather than outward when a crisis hits. As tenure-track positions have become rarer and more difficult to obtain, their allure has grown. Students are routinely advised to expect a job search to take several years. Ph.D.'s who raise hesitant questions about the impossibility of waiting an additional three to four years before obtaining a tenure-track job, about wanting to live with their partners, or about preferring to live in a community that reflects their values are often told that they should be prepared to go anywhere—to accept any job—if they want to remain in academe.

The subtle message here is that students should want to remain in academe. Because what else is there if one has a passion for research and wants to educate others?

Yet Ph.D.'s in the humanities are well aware of the abysmal job market in higher education. In one shape or another, that has been a topic of conversation at most professional conferences for years. It is also a primary topic of discussion in publications dealing with higher education. Moreover, every graduate program boasts alumni who pursue nonacademic careers. In short, only an academic who has been completely out of touch with her profession over the last 40 years could be unaware of the state of the academic job market.

So if most professors are indeed aware that their students face daunting odds in finding a tenure-track job, that they will make impossible compromises to pursue an academic career, and that many are eager to apply their skills outside academe, why do so many graduate students believe they will be punished by their advisers for searching for a nonacademic job? Why do they believe their advisers will be grievously disappointed?

As a public historian who often confers with academics, I think the problem stems from many faculty members' fierce belief in a division between "academe" and "the real world." In addition, for the many Ph.D.'s who enter graduate school directly from an undergraduate program, the nonacademic workplace is an unknown and alien entity.

Further complicating all of this is the fact that those who hold tenured or tenure-track positions are the people who have succeeded on the academic job market. They are personally invested in believing in the market as a meritocracy and in seeing the sacrifices they have made to have an academic career as worthwhile.

Hampered by their limited and often prejudiced views, many professors are unable or unwilling to advise their students about nonacademic careers. As a result, discussions about such opportunities tend to be nonexistent in most humanities departments. And the silence sends its own chilling message.

By failing to discuss alternative careers, even as the academic market stagnates, faculty members indirectly imply that those careers are second-rate, are unrelated to the skills one acquires in graduate school, and, most damaging of all, are meant for Ph.D.'s of "lesser" programs. Indirectly, the silence also implies that the scholarly work of those of us working in the public sphere is irrelevant to the scholarly work done in academe.

Because so few academics provide graduate students with advice on nonacademic careers, the few who do are often met with fear and suspicion. "Why haven't any of the other professors talked about nonacademic careers with their advisees?" a student will wonder. "Is my adviser trying to tell me something? Does she think I won't make it in academe?"

Changing this culture is not only long overdue but critical in such hard-hit departments as English, history, art history, and the like.

In recent years, career centers at most major research universities have done a fantastic job of sponsoring talks on diverse careers and providing students with information about alumni who have followed those paths. But, unfortunately, the stigma of nonacademic careers is such that sessions often have an illicit aspect—they are held outside, and away from, the department. That illicit aspect fosters the belief among graduate students that their advisers disapprove of careers outside academe.

Doctoral programs must begin by looking honestly at the careers of their alumni. While many programs provide students with lists of their Ph.D.'s who have gone on to academic careers, those same programs routinely gloss over the fact that large numbers of their alumni have pursued nonacademic careers. (And yes, every program, regardless of its ranking, has alumni who have pursued nonacademic careers).

Recognizing that graduates from even the nation's most highly ranked doctoral programs—from all programs—routinely pursue nonacademic careers is a necessary first step. But it's not enough. Departments also need to actively promote nonacademic careers for their students.

How? There are a few easy steps that any department, even one strapped for cash, can take:

  • List all alumni and their employers on the department Web site.
  • If a department offers a workshop or seminar on the academic job market, it must offer a comparable program on nonacademic careers. Have professors attend both programs so that they can learn about the skills and experiences their students will need to be successful on the nonacademic market and so that they themselves can become more aware of the connections between their work and that of scholars outside academe. Faculty attendance at the workshops will also send a clear signal that the professors approve of nonacademic careers.
  • Invite local nonacademic scholars to speak to students about careers outside higher education. By inviting local speakers, costs will be minimal. Moreover, because many people who choose to leave academe do so because they are eager to remain in the city or town in which they have done their graduate work (and in which they have put down roots), local speakers will, by default, include many alumni. Inviting nonacademic alumni back into the department sends a clear and positive message.
  • Finally, conduct a survey among your alumni to ascertain their experiences during their job search. Ask them, point-blank, how the department could have better assisted them before and during their job search, and then use that information to assist current students.

Sounds simple? It is, and yet such steps could transform academic culture.

Alexandra M. Lord is a public historian who works for the federal government. Her Web site, Beyond Academe, educates historians about careers outside higher education.