I sometimes get mail from readers who are at the very beginning of their academic careers. They’re looking for advice about how they can situate their research to make themselves as employable as possible when they’re finished. This is, of course, a very smart and practical question — but makes the liberal arts lovers among us sigh a little bit. The thing is, these days, it’s the students with the greatest passion for the liberal arts who find themselves having to ask the question.
I recently heard from someone who is currently in a master’s program and is being groomed for a spot in the Ph.D. program. “I enjoy my classes,” he wrote, “and I'm thrilled by thinking about what I might do for a thesis project, but at the same time I feel a bit torn between pursuing my intellectual interests, and focusing on developing the skills I need for the ideal job I want.”
Testify! Now, this person did recognize that a thesis project and developing job skills don’t have to be mutually exclusive. However, the problem is that once you are immersed in a doctoral program of research, your focus has absolutely nothing to do with your transferable skills; in fact, the higher up you climb on the academic ladder, the more you feel you don’t have any skills at all. The work, then, of convincing yourself that you’re not totally useless once you exit a Ph.D. program is exhausting and emotional. And re-packaging yourself and putting yourself onto the non-academic job market is just plain hard.
I see two solutions for the young academics who think they might want to pursue a Ph.D. program but also want to be realistic about their academic job prospects.
The first has to do with making the process of skills-building during graduate school a transparent one. This involves the kind of regular maintenance and upkeep that most scholars do with their academic CVs. As you move through the different steps of your graduate program — coursework, writing the dissertation proposal, serving on committees, teaching, and so on — keep track of the skills you used to get each of those things done. These are skills that may be invisible to you before doing this exercise, but are quite essential on the non-academic job market. Won a $5,000 scholarship? Mark that down under fund-raising and grant writing skills. Served for a year on the tenure and promotions committee? Tick the make-believe box next to administrative and teamwork skills. Taught an introductory course? Check, check and check for project planning skills, doing oral presentations/public speaking and conducting evaluations.
By keeping track not just of the outcomes of your academic success but the actual skills you used to produce those outcomes, you’re well on your way to combating the all-too-common feelings of simultaneous overqualification and underqualification that plague newly minted Ph.D.'s. Moreover, when you go to write your two-page employment résumé, your skills won’t be invisible to you. You’ll be just that much more prepared to speak fluently about what you did in school and what you can offer to prospective employers.
Anyone who wants to pursue a life of the mind and yet also feel confident about their employability at the end of the Ph.D. experience should make the job of tracking their skills a crucial and vital component of their time in graduate school. Any time you update your CV, update your skills inventory. Update it, too, whenever you jump over a fresh academic hurdle.
The second way to broach the quandary of wanting to conduct academic research and not be stuck jobless at the end of the academic road is by taking a more mercenary approach with your work. So far, I have not met a single former academic who was able to apply their research directly into a non-academic job. However, I have met lots of former academics who realized in retrospect how their research happened to intersect with their post-academic work.
But if I were going to go back and be really strategic about my research, this is what I would do. I would take time to think about an organization that I’d really love to work for. It could be an organization that uses research (like a non-profit or health care agency, for example), conducts research (like a corporation or think tank) or commissions research (like the federal government). I would try to develop contacts inside of that organization and do some information interviews. I would let them know what I loved about the organization and how I could see myself working there in a research capacity. And then I would ask them about what their needs were. I would find out about their problems, their stumbling blocks, the issues that they face. And then I would dedicate my research to solving their problem.
I would keep in touch with them over the years, through staff turnovers, office politics and, perhaps, through their own internal solving of their problems. I would accept the risk that my research itself may be outdated by the time I finish, or that the solution I had developed was not workable or consistent with their organizational culture.
But the point of the exercise — other than getting a Ph.D. — would be to demonstrate my deep knowledge of the organization, my commitment to the organization’s cause/mission, my strategic thinking skills, and my savvy at attempting to keep one foot in the academic camp and the other foot in the “real world.” At the end, even if the organization didn’t hire me, I’d still be able to display those attributes (knowledge, commitment, strategic thinking, savvy) to another employer who would value that kind of worker.
Those are two totally different approaches that young researchers could take if they’re concerned about life after the Ph.D. Are you a young researcher working some kind of post-academic angle? Do you know anyone who chose their research with a job in mind? Or someone who turned their research project into a career? I’d love to hear about it.