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?”