I Went to Hire Ph.D.s at a Scholarly Meeting and Left Frustrated

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By Ben Dumbauld

It was a strange feeling to attend my academic association’s annual conference this year as a potential employer. Not too long ago, I was there as a candidate — one of the many anxious A.B.D.s and Ph.D.s, awkwardly initiating small talk with senior professors under the desperate assumption that they could somehow inch me closer to a tenure-track job.

Back then, I spent my time running to the communal bulletin board to sign up for every informal job interview that was posted. But now I was being paid to attend the conference. My plane ride and hotel were covered. I had a per diem. I was there to scout and potentially hire.

I work for a nonprofit organization that produces curricular materials for K-12 teachers. I started there as a writer shortly before completing my dissertation and stayed on while I applied for faculty positions. In contrast with the quickly diminishing returns from my academic search, I flourished in my nonprofit job. I became a lead editor, and we soon determined that we needed to hire additional writers. We were looking for candidates who excelled at research skills, who could self-manage, and most important, who had the ability to see the academic potential of popular music and culture.

In other words, we wanted someone with graduate-level training in the humanities. I was certain that a scholarly conference would be a good place to look.

Doubt began creeping in, however, soon after the conference schedule was posted online. Scanning panel after panel of immensely specific, jargon-filled paper presentations, it suddenly dawned on me: I had no way to gauge where to begin looking for Ph.D.s who might fit our organization. In imagining my ideal candidate, I’d omitted a crucial quality: We needed someone who could translate research for a wide range of readers — and not just their fellow academics — in understandable and engaging ways.

Scholars are quite capable of doing that; they are teachers, after all. But reading the meeting’s agenda, I realized — embarrassingly, for the first time — that the quality we most needed was not one regularly prioritized at scholarly conferences.

It was too late to back out now. I had already bought my plane tickets and registered for the conference. So I packed my bags and highlighted the relatively few panels that focused on professional development and teaching, figuring that they would be the best places to find people curious about careers outside of academe.

The first panel I attended was a round table on career diversity featuring panelists from various arts foundations and cultural institutes. During the discussion period, it quickly become apparent that most of the audience was intent on remaining within academe, one way or another. I was sympathetic: If you can’t get the job you were trained for, the logical next step is to apply for a side gig within the same universe.

At one point the discussion turned to how Ph.D.s might best present their work experience to nonacademic employers — i.e., people like me. I raised my hand and offered a thought: "You know, we all have chosen to spend a large portion of our lives studying something that millions of people find immensely enjoyable. Employers are human beings, and just talking about our passion for music would likely be interesting to them."

As it happened, that advice was based largely on how I attained my current job. At the end of my application letter, I had written about my general passion for music and listed some articles I’d written about it. As I learned later, one of those articles (unrelated to my dissertation) intrigued the organization’s director enough to bring me in for an interview.

Yet the audience’s response to my comment urging people to talk about their passion for their subject with employers was mostly blank stares — followed by a lot of consternation over what byzantine processes are needed to massage one’s "highly specialized" academic training into "transferable skills." After decades in academe, it seems all to easy to forget that the best skills we can offer employers aren’t all that "highly specialized" — the ability to bring a long-term project to fruition, to communicate effectively with diverse students, to craft lesson plans.

My next stop at the conference was a seminar on publishing. I essentially work in a publishing house — my daily routine involves writing, editing, assisting with research, and otherwise working with writers. Clearly, I wanted someone with a passion for writing.

At a point in the seminar, a jovial career coach asked the audience, "Why do you want to write and publish in the first place?"

I perked up, excited to hear why those in the audience were inspired to share their research with the world. It took a while before anyone raised their hand. Finally, someone sheepishly spoke up: "I plan to publish because I feel like I have to."

The third stop of the day was what I thought would be my saving grace: a panel I’d helped organize specifically on K-12 education. The panelists were inspiring, introducing the creative ways they were incorporating our field into the K-12 world. Of course, all of the presenters were either teachers in primary and secondary schools or worked in teacher-support careers like my own. During the Q&A portion, I soon learned that the majority of people in the sparse audience were also school teachers, rather than graduate students or Ph.D.s thinking about changing careers.

I got to talking with one of the panelists later, a primary school teacher. I asked her if she planned on checking out any other presentations. "Nothing here is really for me," she responded. She spent the rest of the sunny weekend hiking.

With a career firmly rooted outside the ivory tower, I suddenly saw the annual conference I had attended for about a decade in an entirely new light: Despite the condemnations of neoliberalism that seemed to be invoked in every third paper, the whole meeting struck me as little more than a marketplace where scholarly brokers trade on elite cultural currencies.

A scholarly conference is a place to take stock of which leading scholars, fragments of jargon, pet theories, and university presses are averaging high, which are losing status, and which have peaked. For graduate students, the name of the game is to figure out which theory to invest one’s research project into, and then pray it will still be "relevant" come graduation.

When you’re embedded in academic culture, you don’t quite realize the degree to which conferences fetishize novelty — perhaps even more than Silicon Valley — with theoretical approaches accused of being "problematic" almost as soon as they become "groundbreaking." The annual meeting is a place where clarity of language is all too readily elided with simplicity of thought, and where expressing a deep and sustained love for a particular subject is considered far, far too mundane to impress an employer.

In most disciplines, including my own, the key to getting on the tenure track continues to be the publication of unpaid articles, read by only a few colleagues, in scholarly journals locked behind paywalls that university libraries can barely afford. In such a culture, why would anyone value — as a marketable skill — being able to communicate beyond your small circle of colleagues and relevant grant-bearing agencies?

The most tragic aspect to all of this is that I know through years of experience that what is represented at academic conferences is but a minute portion of the excellent work that academics actually do.

I have known many colleagues — both on the tenure track and among the large pool of adjuncts and visiting faculty members — who have developed brilliant ways to share complex subject matter to their 100-level students, who have written enlightened syllabi and exciting lesson plans, and otherwise engage the public through blogs and podcasts. I have seen the deep love they have for the people with whom they conduct research and their commitment to making the world a more just and equitable place. But in the meritocracy of contemporary academe, none of that much matters until it can be quantified into publications and grant awards.

On my second day at the conference, I attended one of the many panels related to the "future of the field," made up entirely of tenured professors. During the Q&A after the presentations, a courageous audience member articulated what I’m certain was on the minds of many in the audience: "How," she asked, "can this panel pontificate on the future of the field when that very future is barely able to make a living?" One of the panelists replied that tenured professors have limited power to change the dynamics of academic culture.

I disagree. It is well within the power of senior professors to be honest about the state of the tenure-track market. It is within their power to admit that the status quo of training experts to expertly navigate the world of experts isn’t working (even if that sort of work is precisely what some of their advisees dream of doing).

Here are some things academics and associations could do differently to give a nonacademic employer a reason to check out their annual meetings:

  • They could allocate a certain amount of conference panels to showcase forms of public service, innovative teaching methods, and community-service programs.
  • Conference selection committees could privilege proposals featuring panelists from a greater variety of professions.
  • Association boards could better assert the idea that original ways of disseminating research to new audiences "furthers the field" as much as innovative theoretical outlooks and approaches.

Such steps would help propel the long and necessary process of culture change within academe. When I was on the tenure-track market, I understood well that my lesson plans, syllabi, public-service projects, and essays in mainstream outlets mattered far less to an academic employer than my grants, awards, and research-journal publications. Now, as an employer outside of academe, I realize that I prioritize just the opposite: My ideal candidates should be able to write clearly and passionately to a wide audience, be able to teach, and provide service for the organization in which they are employed.

I understand that a passion for research is why many go to graduate school. But given the state of the academic labor system, isn’t it time for professors to start developing a department that cultivates a more wholistic student scholar? One who is encouraged to value teaching and public engagement as much as research? One capable of operating both inside and outside the incredibly specialized world of higher education?

If academics and their annual meetings embraced such changes, they would become a much more welcoming destination for employers in need of scholars, writers, and researchers.

I arrived home after a long flight, and immediately related my frustrations to my wife, who has worked for the university for as long as I’ve studied within it. She responded with a shrug: "It’s an academic conference, what were you expecting?"

She was right. But for the sake of the future of postsecondary education, I hope she won’t be right about that much longer.

Ben Dumbauld is director of content at the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, a nonprofit organization that creates curricular materials for the K-12 classroom. He also is an adjunct instructor at Hunter College

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