Open-Mindedness and the Ph.D. Placement Problem

Alexandra Lord

Alexandra Lord

So far on this blog we’ve been explaining how The Chronicle is going about the challenge of collecting data to achieve the goals of the Ph.D. Placement Project. We’re now opening up the blog to outside voices, to help illustrate the situation faced by many new Ph.D.’s, and in so doing to show what we’re trying to accomplish with the project. The following guest post is by Alexandra Lord, a historian who blogs, among other things, about nonacademic jobs for Ph.D. recipients.

When I began thinking about writing about jobs for the Ph.D. Placement Project blog, I felt a sense of panic. I was uncertain not about what I would say but about the form in which I would say it. As I struggled with this over several days, I realized that I was experiencing a creeping sense of déjà vu. It all reminded me of when I began my first nonacademic job search.

Although I had not been happy in academe, it had the lure of safety and familiarity. Academe offers one of the most clearly defined and straightforward career trajectories possible: teaching assistant, lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor, full professor. While people occasionally skip a few steps, every job applicant knows the order of those steps and the actions one should take to move on to the next step. The academic job market may be horrific and impossible, but at least you know what you are supposed to do.

When I left academe, I was terrified by the lack of certainty. I hunted for possible role models and was desperate for instructions that would tell me exactly what I needed to do and what I should aspire to do. In some ways, that hunt for clear instructions was not a bad thing. Nonacademic job searches differ from academic job searches in many fundamental and even dramatic ways, and I clearly needed to learn how to apply for nonacademic jobs.

However, I discovered, and am still in the process of discovering, the need to be comfortable with uncertainty. Leaving academe means that a career path will present multiple forks in the road. While that uncertainty can be quite terrifying, it can also be incredibly liberating in the long run. Best of all, it has forced me to be incredibly open-minded—always a good thing when conducting a job search.

In the short term, however, the uncertainty can be overwhelming. With no clear end and a seeming wealth of possible jobs, where do you begin? How do you know what you are qualified to do? Does a Ph.D. in a field such as English or history actually provide you with skills nonacademic employers will value? And if so, how do you market yourself and those skills? What is the “right” job for a nonacademic Ph.D.?

And, most important, just when will you get the job that will enable you to begin paying your rent?

For most of us, academics who have excelled at following the rules, the fact that there are no absolute answers to those questions can be quite terrifying. But being an academic actually has benefits when it comes to dealing with uncertainty. As researchers, most of us have a high comfort level with asking open-ended questions and conducting research that enables us to develop the best answers to those questions.

When viewed as a research problem, a nonacademic job search can and does become both familiar and feasible.

Alexandra M. Lord is a historian with the federal government. In her spare time she runs Beyond Academe, a free Web site that helps historians find work outside the academy, and The Ultimate History Project, an online Web journal written by professional historians and aimed at a general audience.

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