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The academic job market was still reeling from the Great Recession when Michael Ursell earned his Ph.D. in literature, in 2011. It was, he said, “a terrible time” to be searching for a faculty position. This fall, the financial fallout from Covid-19 means that plenty of graduate students and new Ph.D.s will be in that same predicament.
Fresh out of graduate school at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Ursell said he did “what many of us do,” and entered academe’s contingent-labor pool. He spent a year as a visiting assistant professor, and another year “piecing together teaching gigs in rhetoric and composition” at Santa Cruz and at a local community college. Then he got a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University that he “imagined would catapult me with full force back into the hunt for a tenure-track job.”
Things didn’t turn out that way. The faculty-job market remained unforgiving. (We know now that it never really recovered from the 2008 financial collapse.) In an interview via email, Ursell said that he knew he “needed more options.” After five years of temporary academic gigs, he was “tired of precarity,” and of the “cycles of intense expectation and narrow measures of success” that define the academic job market. So he turned his CV into a résumé and broadened his job search beyond the professoriate.
The result was a position at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Working there, Ursell “got to be part of a team,” he said. He loved the feeling of being “connected to a network of writers.” He later parlayed that position into his current job, as director of external relations at the Black Mountain Institute, a literary center housed at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. The organization, Ursell said, “publishes a magazine, hosts live events, and brings the best writers of our moment to Las Vegas for residencies and community engagement.” He works as a fund raiser and communications strategist, and he values his position at “a place where an earnest, sincere arts culture is in the process of being built.”
Last month, in the Graduate Adviser column, I wrote about how doctoral students need employment bridges to carry them through times of economic crisis — and, specifically, how postdoctoral positions serve as a bridge to the professoriate in such times. We learned of the importance of such bridges after the 2008 recession. But the economic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis may well be worse, and we urgently need to apply the lessons of 2008 to today’s crisis.
One lesson that both graduate programs and job candidates took far too long to learn? In a weak tenure-track market, Ph.D.s need career paths outside of academe. As Maren Wood wrote in an April essay in The Chronicle, Ph.D.s need as many options as they can get, and one option does not cancel another. “You can … prepare for a Plan B and still apply for academic jobs,” she wrote. “This is not an either/or. This is about minimizing your losses while maximizing your opportunities for career success.”
Here, too, postdoctoral fellowship programs can play a crucial role in helping graduate students and Ph.D.s make the transition to nonfaculty career paths.
In fact, one such program helped Ursell find his way. He landed his first postacademic job — at the Los Angeles Review of Books — through the Public Fellows Program, a powerful initiative devised by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Funded by the Andew W. Mellon Foundation, the fellows program places an annual cohort of humanities Ph.D.s in two-year positions in government and nonprofit organizations.
John Paul Christy, senior director of U.S. programs at the ACLS and administrator of the fellows program, said in an email that the program started as “a demonstration project.” In many ways it remains one since the fellows become “ambassadors for the humanities” and show employers that a doctorate in the humanities has “significant practical value beyond the academy," said Christy.
The program conveys that crucial message to graduate students and new Ph.D.s, too. In my email exchanges with Ursell and other public fellows, they made clear that the program highlights the value of career diversity in myriad ways.
Anh Thang Dao-Shah received her Ph.D. in American studies at the University of Southern California in 2012. Like Ursell, Dao-Shah started her professional life as an adjunct and found the life “unsustainable.” As a public fellow, she worked for the San Francisco Arts Commission as a policy-and-evaluation manager — a job that allowed her to “envision myself working outside of the academy” while still using her research skills. Once the fellowship ended, she continued at the arts commission as its first “senior racial-equity and policy analyst.” Today she is director of equity strategies and wellness at a San Francisco hospital, where she works for equity in health care.
Another public fellow, Nana Kaneko, “knew early on in graduate school that I didn’t want to pursue a traditional post-Ph.D. career of becoming a tenure-track professor,” she said. Her fieldwork in Japan for a Ph.D. in musicology (earned at the University of California at Riverside in 2017) confirmed her interest in “community oriented” work, she said. Now in her second year as a fellow, Kaneko works as a program manager for cultural-disaster analysis at the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative. The job is giving her the skills, she said, to embark on her chosen career in disaster-related cultural preservation.
All of those personal stories are studies in adaptation: Young Ph.D.s turned away from low-paying adjunct work discovered the value of skills they had all along, and learned how to use them to create fulfilling professional lives for themselves.
I first wrote about the Public Fellows Program in 2011, when it was just beginning. Over the past 10 years, it has had an impact far beyond the number of postdocs it has helped. As Christy pointed out, the program serves as a model and “a driver of change” at other institutions and disciplinary organizations as they “develop their own initiatives for public-engagement fellowships for doctoral students.”
Joy Connolly, president of the ACLS, sees an “urgent need for scholars who treat the borders between the academy and the world beyond as permeable.” It’s been clear for some time that scholarship cannot be treated as the special preserve of colleges and universities. “Scholarly work," she wrote in an email, “will appear in proliferating forms and styles” in the years ahead. “It will be collaborative and accessible,” and “will be produced in an ever-growing number of spaces” — including online — “as the academy defines itself more broadly and inclusively.” That was true before the Covid-19 pandemic, and it's even more so now.
The Public Fellows Program takes Ph.D.s and their work into the world together. It conveys humanistic values to a society that can’t afford to lose track of them. The program was developed to meet the needs of hard times after the last economic crash, and it remains vital to meet the hard times of today. For the career-diversity movement, the Public Fellows Program is the proverbial city on a hill, out there for all of us to see and learn from.
More than a bridge to economic survival for unemployed and underemployed postdocs — though it is surely that — the program is also a model for other bridge builders. And we will need a lot more of them in the months ahead.
Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes The Graduate Adviser column on graduate education. His latest book is The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, published by Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is on Twitter @LCassuto.
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