Expanding Beyond the Narrow Contours of ‘Alt-Ac’

Departments and professional societies have begun to consider what it means to find jobs for Ph.D.s outside academe, writes Zeb Larson, but the options frequently presented are unnecessarily limited.

December 3, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/serhi brovko

Several months ago, I was in the middle of one of my many job searches when I stumbled across a posting that caught my eye. A U.S. division of Toyota was hiring a historian to consult on a project about planning for the future -- specifically, anticipating technological trends and the ways that cities may change as the 21st century unfolds. Corporate historian jobs aren’t necessarily unusual, but this was different. It wasn’t working on Toyota’s history as a historian: it was an opportunity to consult on a business topic, in which my expertise as a historian was explicitly being solicited

Naturally, I applied for it, and I even managed to interview for it. Ultimately, I didn’t get it, which didn’t bother me too much -- the job market and academic publishing have given me a pretty thick skin when it comes to rejection. It was honestly invigorating to even get as far as an interview.

But one thing stuck with me from the experience: Why aren’t disciplinary groups and professional societies deliberately trying to cultivate jobs and connections like this one? Why is the range for potential alt-ac jobs so extraordinarily narrow?

Departments and professional societies have begun to consider what it means to find jobs for their graduates outside academe. But the options frequently presented are, to use a popular phrase in higher education, problematic. If you’re in history, as I am, only a few avenues are consistently brought up: museums, public history, publishing and some cultural nonprofits. (And here I can only ultimately speak to my own experiences -- things may be very different in the hard sciences.) Those fields may offer good career opportunities, and I would never presume to disparage them. As I’ve wondered where my professional path might take me, I’ve considered, and continue to remain open to, all of them.

There’s just one problem: such career tracks are also very competitive. If the purpose of a plan B is that it be achievable, going from academe to the museum world is a bad plan B. Talk to anybody in academic publishing or museum studies, and you’ll hear all about the glut of people looking for work and the desperate shortage of actual positions. It’s true that a Ph.D. in history may qualify me to do those kinds of jobs, but I am just one person in a whole crowd of qualified individuals. It is the height of arrogance to presume that my degree causes me to automatically stand out, especially when my degree is less specialized. And yet you can still find faculty members who act as though a Ph.D. in English automatically makes you eligible to be an editor at a publishing house.

Moreover, many of those industries are fundamentally experience based. Publishing is the kind of profession where, more often than not, you start at an entry-level position and work your way up. Work history counts for a great deal. And yet people who come from an academic background in the humanities are less likely to have the kinds of relevant experiences that make them qualified candidates. I’ve talked about the need to give grad students more practical work experience in another article, so I won’t go into detail about it now. Suffice it to say that pushing people from one overcrowded labor market into another one is not a winning strategy.

With all of this in mind, many departments think that hosting workshops or inviting alumni who found work outside the professoriate to come and speak is an adequate solution. As other people have written elsewhere, nonacademic job searches tend to be a long campaign, in no small part because many people have to struggle against some of the factors I’ve just described. Accepting that some amount of expanded career prep is necessary for many grad students is an important first step, but a great deal more remains to be done.

Cultivating New Opportunities

One important thing that professional societies and many departments can do is network with different groups to create more -- and broader -- opportunities. Groups like the American Historical Association are well positioned to reach out to a wide variety of groups and emphasize the value of working with humanities scholars in different capacities. The job that I stumbled across with Toyota demonstrates that people out there in industry are interested in working with historians. I've found other proposals from places like the Open Society Foundations that in many cases would not be a major stretch for a historian.

Given some encouragement, it’s entirely possible that organizations will create more of these opportunities. Professional societies should work to cultivate those opportunities and provide them to their members. And that approach also needn’t be confined to industry: plenty of civil society groups and nonprofits could work with humanities scholars in a wide variety of ways.

Workshops also don’t need to go away, but they should become more sophisticated. They can’t just be presentations about how some alumni parlayed their experiences into a job outside academe. While those stories are interesting, they ultimately don’t provide meaningful pathways for people because they’re fundamentally anecdotal experiences that depended heavily on the specific context facing that person. I served on a committee at Ohio State University that examined a number of grad students from across the institutions who’d gone to careers outside the academy, and one of the most consistent takeaways was that they improvised a career path as they went along.

We need to break free of the idea that hearing an alum talk or opening up one or two informational interviews is going to magically solve the jobs crisis. That being said, some workshops can actually be useful. I’ve always wanted to see workshops dedicated to teaching people how to find and respond to requests for proposals, for example. Most humanities scholars have the necessary skills to write them. They just need to be shown how to look for such opportunities and how to format their writing in an appropriate way. While I’m hesitant to say that people should try and become freelance writers, workshops on how to write specifically for a nonacademic audience could, in fact, be helpful -- both as another source of income and a way to market our writing to an employer without cocooning them in our dissertation.

I recognize this is uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory. Humanities scholars probably haven’t had to think in such terms before, nor have they had to consider themselves lobbyists for different kinds of jobs. As somebody who never particularly enjoyed networking and always finds it to be a bit of a stretch, I share the same sorts of apprehensions about diving into this. It also should not take away from the fight to make the academic work environment more equitable. It is, at times, a little staggering to think about the amount that needs to be done to remove many of the inequities facing academe and academics at this moment: labor organizing, demanding funding for public institutions and making these kinds of connections is no small task.

But for those of us who are concerned about the relevance of the humanities, the jobs crisis is in some ways a chance to demonstrate that we can contribute a great deal to society. If the preliminary data we’ve seen about tenure-track jobs in the humanities is correct (and I suspect it is), it should be a wake-up call that this is not going to get better. We need to begin seriously and systematically thinking about how to lobby for ourselves and our peers.

Bio

Zeb Larson is a recent graduate of Ohio State University with a Ph.D. in history. His research deals with the antiapartheid movement in the United States.

 

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