By Zeb Larson
Every essay about the academic job market for the past eight or nine years has made the same point: It’s bad and getting worse. This year’s market, however, is likely to make faculty-job candidates pine for how good it was in 2013.
Thanks to the pandemic, public and private colleges are forecasting millions of dollars in lost revenue, and many states are planning to cut appropriations for higher education. It might take a year or two for the damage to be fully felt, but broadly, everyone seems to agree on two things: Some institutions are going to close their doors, and some of those that survive will gut programs to stay solvent.
All the usual solutions for a stalled tenure-track market will be touted: a moratorium on graduate admissions, permanent cuts in the number of doctoral cohorts, and job-market tips to help candidates get the attention of search committees. Optimists will suggest the market will bounce back from this new worst-case scenario. And of course, lots and lots of people will urge graduate students to develop their “Plan B” and start looking into alt-ac careers. In the humanities, they’ll point to historical societies, university presses, museums, and private schools, and for STEM-degree holders, they’ll talk about industry.
It’s that last advice I want to discuss here, as someone who earned a doctorate in history in 2019 and had been pursuing my Plan B. In a literal sense, there is no alt-ac job market. Rather, there’s an array of nonacademic career tracks that graduate students and recent Ph.D.s are encouraged to consider by their departments, advisers, career coaches, and even scholarly societies.
Whether you see the heightened focus on career diversity for Ph.D.s as good or bad is a whole other discussion. Some think it represents a surrender to adjunctification, while others see it as a realistic attempt to help a generation of academics who are not going to find tenure-track jobs. The idealist in me even likes the image of Ph.D.s going out into the world and reminding everybody just how much we’re worth.
Unfortunately, the alt-ac ecosystem is broken, too. Assumptions that surround it are rooted in bad ideas — misconceptions about the qualifications that a doctoral degree confers and the relative health of other industries, many of which are as dysfunctional (and in many of the same ways) as the tenure-track market.
In short, Ph.D.s who leave the faculty career path hoping for an easy Plan B are likely to be very disappointed.
For humanities Ph.D.s like me, the usual alt-ac career tracks are already overcrowded — not just with other Ph.D.s but with lots more candidates who have work experience and B.A./M.A. degrees that are more directly related to nonacademic jobs. I have a doctorate in history, but I don’t think of myself as a public historian: The skills I learned in graduate school are not necessarily applicable to public history, and there are plenty of people who were trained specifically to be public historians.
No amount of shine can make this plight look better than it is. Consider: The American Historical Association’s Where Historians Work database shows that 73 percent of the people who earned doctorates between 2004 and 2013 are still working in higher education at some level, despite the paucity of tenure-track jobs. No doubt some remain in academe because they still hope to find a full-time teaching job, but others stay put because of how difficult it is to make the jump to job sectors outside of academe.
Those sectors — in addition to being competitive (a familiar problem) — also demand many of the same sacrifices as the academic market. You might have to move, more than once in some cases. Many alt-ac jobs are on a contract-basis, so landing one is no guarantee of long-term employment.
Moreover, much like academe, these sectors are undergoing profound contraction at the moment. Historical societies have been declining or collapsing since 2008, and museum attendance was falling even before Covid-19 hit. The same impulse that led states to cut their higher-ed budgets year after year also eroded their support for public arts and humanities organizations — and thus weakened their ability to hire.
Other suggested labor sectors — such as instructional design and K-12 teaching — are economically healthier than nonprofits in the arts and humanities but not easy for a Ph.D. to break into. The issues are qualifications, training, and experience. Instructional design, for example, is a career that actually rests on credentialing and specific training, as Joshua Kim has written. Most Ph.D.’s receive very little training in pedagogy and theories of learning; fewer still learn how to use instructional-design software (although maybe academe’s emergency pivot to virtual classrooms may change that in the years ahead). Writing for the private sector can be lucrative, but there’s virtually no case where you need a Ph.D. in English to work for a marketing department. Moreover, most Ph.D. holders lack the experience needed to perform those jobs, making them less attractive in many ways. Government is attractive for lots of reasons, but it’s still competitive.
A doctorate demonstrates focus, discipline, and a commitment to learning, but it’s not an all-access pass. Ph.D.s headed into nonfaculty careers will be told over and over again to focus on their soft skills, such as communicating clearly in writing or distilling a complicated idea into something easily understood. There’s nothing wrong with that; soft skills are important and valuable. But Ph.D.s do not have a monopoly on clear communication and writing skills. And soft skills are not a one-to-one substitute for the on-the-job experience of knowing how to perform a specific job duty.
In all of my reading about successful Ph.D.s in nonacademic careers, if there’s a common theme, it’s that it takes a combination of luck and persistence. They stuck with it — often for several years and through rejection after rejection. Frequently, they started at the bottom of their employer’s pay scale and had to work their way up. In many cases, it’s not entirely clear that a doctorate helped them either to land the job, or do it, as L. Maren Wood noted in her 2019 essay in The Chronicle, “Odds Are, Your Doctorate Will Not Prepare You for a Profession Outside of Academe.”
So why haven’t various disciplines, academic departments, and professional societies done more to rectify that? Why keep pretending that a doctorate opens doors to a variety of professions when it clearly doesn’t? Why create the impression that, for example, Ph.D.s in English are automatically qualified to become acquisition editors?
Maybe because most faculty members don’t really want to make major changes in the graduate curriculum or in the way doctoral students are trained. Adding skills training — like programming in Python or R — would mean cutting something else out of the graduate curriculum and signifying that a doctorate is no longer solely for academic work. Too many faculty members remain unwilling to make that shift and still seem divided on whether outside careers are even a good idea.
That explains, in part, the rise in the number of one- or two-day career workshops being offered to graduate students on topics like informational interviewing or public writing. Workshops don’t require substantive change in the graduate curriculum. Again and again, I’ve heard faculty members suggest that graduate students go to a weekend workshop on writing for the media, as if that’s all it takes to transform a humanities Ph.D. into a journalist. Those workshops are a good place to start conversations on career changes, but that’s about it.
More radical changes in graduate education — such as ending restrictions on where students can work, requiring actual training in teaching or quantitative methods (inevitably dismissed as a craze or a fad), or revising dissertation requirements — will likely encounter incredible pushback.
And so, universities have pushed Plan B careers on doctoral students who have virtually no preparation for those kinds of jobs.
My own personal solution probably isn’t what people want to hear: I cut short a fruitless search for a tenure-track job and went to a coding boot camp. To my surprise, I found programming to be both creative and stimulating. I love my new career, even though it’s very different from what I studied in graduate school. Still, I was privileged enough to have a supportive wife with a stable career who could support both of us while I learned programming skills and then hunted for a job.
Academe now faces a tough reality: If a doctorate is designed to prepare you for tenure-track jobs, and there are none, then the training has to change and the tenure-track market has to be rescued, or doctoral programs will be history. Reform is not inherently a bad thing. More focus on pedagogy in doctoral programs would produce better teachers. Training in quantitative-research methods and/or programming would create better and more-versatile researchers. And such training would better position Ph.D.s for nonacademic careers, too.
One thing is clear: Superficial steps are not the answer. They brought us to this moment, as a horde of Ph.D.s look for new careers in an economic crisis. Keep fighting adjunctification and win back tenure-track jobs. But don’t just sit back and watch as this new crisis builds on older structural weaknesses and systematically guts graduate education.
Zeb Larson is a software-development engineer in testing at Hagerty Insurance. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Ohio State University in 2019. You can find him on Twitter @Robert_Z_Larson.