What Can You Do With a Humanities Ph.D., Anyway?

The choice to leave academia does not have to mean life as a barista.
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J.J. Gould, Atlantic editor and politics Ph.D., at his desk in the Watergate (The Atlantic)

There is a widespread belief that humanities Ph.D.s have limited job prospects. The story goes that since tenure-track professorships are increasingly being replaced by contingent faculty, the vast majority of English and history Ph.D.s now roam the earth as poorly-paid adjuncts or, if they leave academia, as baristas and bookstore cashiers. As English professor William Pannapacker put it in Slate a few years back, “a humanities Ph.D. will place you at a disadvantage competing against 22-year-olds for entry-level jobs that barely require a high-school diploma.” His advice to would-be graduate students was simple: Recognize that a humanities Ph.D is now a worthless degree and avoid getting one at all cost.

Since most doctoral programs have never systematically tracked the employment outcomes of their Ph.D.s, it was hard to argue with Pannapacker when his article came out. Indeed, all anecdotal evidence bade ill for humanities doctorates. In 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education profiled several humanities Ph.D.s who were subsisting on food stamps. Last year, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette eulogized Margaret Mary Vojtko, an 83-year-old French adjunct who died in abject poverty after teaching for more than two decades at Dusquesne University, scraping by on $25,000 a year before being unceremoniously fired without severance or retirement pay.

Recent studies suggest that these tragedies do not tell the whole story about humanities Ph.D.s. It is true that the plate tectonics of academia have been shifting since the 1970s, reducing the number of good jobs available in the field: “The profession has been significantly hollowed out by the twin phenomena of delayed retirements of tenure-track faculty and the continued ‘adjunctification’ of the academy,” Andrew Green, associate director at the Career Center at the University of California, Berkeley, told me. In the wake of these changes, there is no question that humanities doctorates have struggled with their employment prospects, but what is less widely known is between a fifth and a quarter of them go on to work in well-paying jobs in media, corporate America, non-profits, and government. Humanities Ph.D.s are all around us— and they are not serving coffee.

The American Historical Association (AHA) and the Modern Language Association (MLA) have staked out the position that the lack of reliable data about employment outcomes is hindering any productive discussion about the future of academia. Both organizations are currently undertaking major studies that will comprehensively document the career trajectories of generations of humanities Ph.D.s. Preliminary reports released in the past few months show that 24.1 percent of history Ph.D.s and 21 percent of English and foreign language Ph.D.s over the last decade took jobs in business, museums, and publishing houses, among other industries.

Until recently, the best available employment data came from the U.S. Survey for Doctorate Recipients, completed by doctoral candidates when they file their dissertations. Experts told me that this is not an ideal time to conduct a census, since many Ph.D.s only begin looking for non-academic work after graduation or take an adjunct position before getting a corporate job. But even when you take into account the limitations in the data, it is clear that Ph.D.s have been successfully finding alternative careers for a long time: the 1995 survey found 16.6 percent of humanities Ph.D.s were going into management-level positions outside the academy, while 4.9 percent would work in media and the arts.

Part of the reason we don’t see this story as clearly is that Ph.D.s who leave tend to be less vocal about the horrors of academia. “The people who end up in adjunct jobs are the most embittered about the profession,” Robert Townsend, director of the Washington Office of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and co-author of the AHA report, told me. “They are most likely to talk about how they feel about the job market and this creates a certain misimpression about the overall outcomes of humanities Ph.D.s.” Adjuncts have every reason to be angry: Apart from their abysmal pay, they are often treated as second-class citizens by their departments and colleagues. But their fate is not the only option for those who do not land tenure-track positions.

The latest data goes against the conventional wisdom that humanities Ph.D.s are not qualified to work outside the ivory tower. On the contrary, Paula Chambers, founder of Versatile Ph.D., a service that prepares graduate students for the non-academic job market, says she has seen humanities Ph.D.s find work in virtually every industry: a Ph.D. in Greek and Roman history landed a marketing job at a wine estate; a Ph.D. in English serves as a VP at an educational technology company; a Ph.D. in British history is a branch chief at the National Parks Service; a Ph.D. in Classics is a director at a hedge fund; the list goes on. Victoria Blodgett, director of Graduate Career Services at Yale University, told me, “People who take their Ph.D.s into other realms are not necessarily being hired for their content expertise, but for their process skills: the ability to do excellent research, to write, to make cogent arguments.” These skills, it turns out, are in high demand.

So why are humanities Ph.D.s outside academia so invisible? One reason is that within academic departments there is a culture of stigmatizing doctoral candidates who take non-academic posts, making them less inclined to stick around and contribute to debates about the future of the field. When I spoke to Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, she said, “There is a discourse of failure and shame that intimidates Ph.D.s and makes them feel not good enough if they don’t get an academic job.” This dynamic is a byproduct of a value system that prizes intellectual pursuits over business and industry. “Some dissertation advisors are prejudiced against many jobs outside academia that Ph.D.s pursue and find highly satisfying: They cannot imagine a ‘life of the mind’ unless you become a scholar,” Feal explained.

These values are reinforced at an institutional level when departments and advisors are rewarded with grants and better rankings when their graduate students get academic appointments. “For the longest time graduate schools were in a state of denial about non-academic placements because it was in their interest to maintain the fiction that a majority of their Ph.D. students were getting good tenure-track jobs,” Chambers says. The prejudice against non-academic careers crippled efforts to collect data about the employability of humanities doctorates.

“There is a lot of bias in the sample of what departments are tracking,” Green says. “Ph.D.s who slink away from their programs and take jobs that they find very rewarding in business, government, or a non-profit—but are not faculty positions—typically become non-entities within their graduate programs.”

Since most departments did not keep accurate accounts of where their Ph.D.s were ending up, they could not realistically inform prospective students about their chances of getting an academic job upon graduation, which is perhaps why so many felt betrayed when there were no tenure-track jobs waiting for them after years of graduate study. “The question is, do you owe these incoming students faithful information?” Green asks. “I think the answer is yes, because otherwise how do you expect them to make an informed, responsible decision?”

Humanities Ph.D.s typically secure non-academic jobs through their own networks, without the support of their departments. For those Ph.D.s who ultimately find work outside academia, the job-hunting process is often longer and harder than it needs to be. Few universities offer humanities doctoral candidates career counseling for non-academic jobs, which would help them market themselves and leverage alumni networks. Services like Versatile Ph.D. have stepped in to offer a supportive environment for Ph.D.s to explore alternative careers, but there is now a growing consensus that universities need to be doing more to change the culture of graduate programs.

The MLA and the AHA have begun to put pressure on universities to better educate graduate students about their non-academic career options. With a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, they have jointly embarked on a project that will comprehensively document employment outcomes of humanities Ph.D.s and recommend policy changes. “We ought to be doing more as a profession to make it clear what the likelihood is of getting an academic job and to prepare graduate students for more expanded career horizons,” Feal says.

As a solution to the shrinking academic job market, several top Ph.D. programs have opted to reduce the number of incoming doctoral candidates to limit their oversupply. However, some argue that this approach does not recognize that many humanities Ph.D.s will go on to positively impact other industries, as many already have. “Academic institutions hold a responsibility to advance knowledge,” Blodgett argues. “We should be in the business of putting Ph.D.s in government, non-profits, the media and lots of industries where we will be better off if we have people who are trained to think as deeply as they are.” 

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Elizabeth Segran

is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

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