Vanishing Worlds

We Ph.D.s have more in common with industrial workers in the Rust Belt than we often realize, writes Michael Zimm.

September 26, 2017
 
iStock/Shih-Wei
 

Anyone who walks into a casino is quickly greeted by a parade of rejoicing slot machines. Every minute their flashing lights seem to signal a winner. You get that inescapable flood of dopamine. Your rational thought processes stop the moment you enter.

But deep in your mind, you know that the adage is true: the house always wins. The casino’s trick is convincing you that since a lucky few will win, you might be one of them.

Casino-like elixirs are all around us. Sometimes these too-good-to-be-true deals are overt, as in the case of the slot machines. But at other times, it can be harder to detect the shaky proposition you’ve been sold.

When I began my Ph.D. studies, I was the academic equivalent of a casino visitor. I embarked on my graduate education convinced that I was in control of my destiny. Sure, I was aware of Ph.D. students failing to land tenure-track jobs, but I consciously blocked out the depressingly high number of graduates who became either adjuncts, visiting assistant professors or postdoctoral fellows.

A tenure-track promised land was my own interpretation of the American dream. If I worked hard, put in my hours and did a stellar job, it would pay off. But six years later, at the tail end of my Ph.D., I came to see that my vision was a delusion. It was based on a model of an academic system that thrived in the 1950s and ’60s. The world that I had imagined had vanished.

The National Science Foundation reported that 54,070 doctoral candidates, across all disciplines, from STEM to the humanities, were awarded their Ph.D.s in 2014. That number has been steadily increasing since 2003, when 40,766 were awarded. Yet well under half of those graduates will ever obtain a tenure-track position.

The tenure-track job market in my own field, classics, reflects the abysmal numbers. Jason Pedicone reports that 546 candidates applied for a grand total of 38 tenured or tenure-track openings in 2015-16 (a ratio of 14.37 applicants for one job). This past year has not been any more encouraging. In 2016-17, 639 candidates applied for a total of 41 tenured or tenure-track openings (15.59 applicants for one job).

Numerous Ph.D.s have invested the peak years of their earning power in a career path that is heading toward extinction. Doctoral programs have managed to produce an employment crisis in this sector of our knowledge economy.

When I came to grips with the continuing collapse of the tenure-track job market, I realized how much I have in common with industrial workers in places like Detroit, Youngstown, Ohio, or Erie, Pa. For years, we pursued our interpretation of the American dream. We worked hard; we paid our dues. But then we heard the foreman tell us that the shop is closing. When I saw the rage and anger at Trump rallies in formerly busy industrial towns, I empathized with their frustration.

Where I differ from Trump’s disillusioned working-class cadre is that I know the golden age of tenure-track jobs is gone for good. No one will sell me on the notion that they can bring back a world that no longer exists.

As I have watched the continuing collapse of the tenure-track job market, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has strongly resonated with me. I’ve witnessed the depression and despair of so many idealistic souls who started their Ph.D.s with high-minded goals but now feel trapped. But I also share Vance’s tough-love mentality. I refuse to let anyone victimize me. As Elizabeth Segran, a South and Southeast Asian studies Ph.D. turned freelance journalist, wrote, “No one but you is forcing you to accept low-paid adjunct work.”

Adjuncts, visiting assistant professors and postdoctoral fellows are disruptive innovations. Why wouldn’t colleges and universities want to hire them? Why pay a professor $100,000 per year, along with benefits and research funds, when a university can hire a contingent faculty member for a fraction of the cost? Higher education institutions are fully justified in looking for ways to hire professors at the most economical cost.

But institutions and their offices of career services can help Ph.D.s by connecting them with their alumni network and providing workshops on how to market their skill sets to organizations. I am proud to say that my alma mater has taken a proactive role in helping Ph.D.s prepare for nonacademic employment through its office of career strategy and workshops hosted by the graduate school.

When I joined the tech and marketing world, I became part of a movement known as alt-academics and postacademics (Ph.D.s and other academics who left academe for the private sector). I have come to realize that there are a lot of us out here, and many more will be joining over the coming years.

We Ph.D.s who venture into the nonacademic world haven’t shed our identities. We’ve reimagined them. We are deinstitutionalized academics, but academics no less. We bring our knowledge and understanding of the world to bear on real-world problems and daily challenges. A vanishing world means that on the horizon is a fresh emerging one.

I now apply my understanding of history, linguistics and human behavior to helping companies solve their challenges. As the American economy continues to transform into a knowledge-based one, Ph.D.s will inject a new set of tools, techniques and modes of thinking into companies that have the foresight to think beyond traditional hiring practices.

The Ph.D. itself needs to be reimagined. I love the knowledge I gained during my studies. I don’t want Ph.D. programs in disciplines like classics, philosophy or geophysics to disappear. Our society will be more impoverished without this segment of deep-thinking, dedicated knowledge workers. But Ph.D. programs must adapt and find ways to help these passionate minds apply their knowledge in society.

Ph.D. programs must realize that their focus on tenure-track employment is a thing of the past for the vast majority of their students. It is as realistic as the mass return of overseas factories to America. I am optimistic when I read about how national organizations, like the one representing my field, the Society for Classical Studies, are trying to help Ph.D.s find career paths beyond academe. Professors like Leonard Cassuto, author of The Graduate School Mess (Harvard University Press, 2016) are drawing attention to the employment travails that Ph.D.s face. I am equally encouraged to see that other alt-academics are taking initiatives. To cite one example, the Paideia Institute, a classics-focused nonprofit educational organization, is creating a network of classics Ph.D.s who have transitioned into the tech, education and business sectors.

We Ph.D.s need more companies and founders like my own that appreciate the power of laser-edge thinking and understand that innovation comes from diversity of thought, not a group of workers who all have the same background and training.

Businesses should be open to thinking about how this rich pipeline of brainpower, whether it be the mathematical abilities of an astrophysics Ph.D. or the writing talents of a history Ph.D., can drive incredible value for their company. We Ph.D.s possess a slew of traits that our academic training has honed. But one in particular promises a high return on investment to every company: our ability to write and do research. I call this the “deep learning instinct.” Ph.D.s have the patience and aptitude to research a topic and synthesize it into a concise story in a way that few others possess. After all, if we are willing to spend several years diving into data and thousands of pages of secondary research to answer a rather niche question (in my case, limitations on free speech in Athens), then it goes without saying we can apply that deep learning instinct to a business looking for insights.

When my CEO, Pete Sena, and I first met, he asked me to write up a “website analysis” of an e-commerce brand. Though I knew nothing about the organization (or what a website analysis was, for that matter), I approached the problem the same way I would approach any research topic. I applied the deep learning instinct by reading a lot of articles and industry data and extracting insights, and then I transformed those insights into a meaningful narrative. Two days after I sent Pete my analysis, he called me on the phone and immediately said, “Come here. Come join our team.” Today, I’m honored to be an “innovative Luddite” (Pete’s affectionate title for me) at a tech start-up.

I had no idea how rare the deep learning instinct was until I joined the tech world. Ph.D.s’ patience, precision and passion are qualities that any smart organization understands are rare.

Vance understands that the Rust Belt’s economic challenges are complex. But since “not every town could nor should be saved,” people will have to search for professional opportunities in other regions. Ph.D.s, at least those looking for career opportunities outside academe, should receive the full support of their departments. That may mean supporting them when they want to get a summer internship at a nonprofit or private business as opposed to producing academic research that may have no long-term career payoff.

As more Ph.D.s join the nonacademic work force, it is important that we share our stories and let other Ph.D.s who are unsure about whether to continue on the academic job market know that many Ph.D.s have found meaningful and financially rewarding employment outside academe. Instead of wasting our earning power on the academic job market, we migrated to other industries where we’ve applied our skill sets.

I will always value the immeasurable training and knowledge that I received during my Ph.D. studies. However, this same training should enable one to move on from a slot machine that doesn’t pay off to a more promising opportunity to cash in on a fulfilling career.

Bio

Michael Zimm (@classiczimm) received his Ph.D. in classics from Yale University. He is a creative strategist at Digital Surgeons, a digital marketing agency.

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