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

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.” 

Presented by

Elizabeth Segran

is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

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