Mass Exodus

The COVID-19 crisis stands to drive more Ph.D.s from academia than any event in living memory, and they will require strong career guidance and support, writes Christopher L. Caterine.

April 30, 2020
 
 
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Working in higher education over the last decade, you would hardly have known we were in the longest bull market in U.S. history. Funding per student to state institutions never recovered after the cuts imposed during the Great Recession, and a cyclic decline in the number of “college-age” students drove lower aggregate enrollment. Larger, top-tier institutions remained stable, but even there tenure-track jobs were scarcer than they had been in previous periods. Salaries barely kept pace with inflation. Morale was low.

Institutional closures made the news well before COVID-19 emerged as a global pandemic. But given the state of the broader economy, the assets these colleges held -- and the students they served -- could be absorbed by their larger and better endowed neighbors. We have already seen reports of colleges shuttering forever in response to mandatory campus shutdowns. Given the unclear duration of the current threat and the resultant imperative that institutions preserve cash, there will be fewer institutions today that can pick up the slack.

At the same time, the rapid transition to online learning may drive further cuts. Even if this change is successful by objective measures, students may refuse to pay residential tuition rates for virtual instruction -- especially when early adopters of online education are better positioned to offer high-quality services at a lower price.

Thousands of academics stand to be caught flat-footed. Every college that fails, or decides to reduce its faculty head count, could cast hundreds into a competitive market. Graduate students finishing their Ph.D.s may face a virtual freeze in hiring, and news is trickling out via Twitter and other sources that searches are already being canceled. Meanwhile, those faculty members who retain their jobs may end up working in a radically different environment than most signed up for. Should remote instruction become a new normal -- and should the recovery in higher education lag behind other industries -- those who find this medium unsatisfying may try to leave their positions as soon as it is feasible to do so.

In short, the COVID-19 crisis stands to drive more Ph.D.s from academia than any event in living memory. These graduate students and Ph.D.s require a diverse array of strong and economical resources to identify their strengths, build new knowledge sets and prepare for whatever the economy will look like on the other side of this pandemic. Professional societies, financially secure institutions and individual actors must all do their part to provide them.

Professional organizations and learned societies should play a vital role at this juncture. Many have already begun to create support systems for members to seek nonacademic careers and should rapidly scale up whatever pilots they have run to date. Currently, offerings range from the American Historical Association’s expansive Career Diversity initiative to the small but impactful Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows Program to the Society for Classical Studies’ pragmatic (and economical) LinkedIn group for members to network beyond the academy. Committees of graduate program directors may also wish to host workshops on how to coach those leaving academia or even teach transferable skills within traditional seminars. (I hosted one such meeting with Ariane Schwartz last year.)

Colleges and universities that can weather this storm should likewise build programs to support their graduate students and alumni. Whether through career centers or graduate schools, they can run virtual workshops on topics like translating academic skills for new audiences, writing a résumé and networking effectively when you don’t have the benefit of face-to-face contact. At the same time, institutions should require faculty to receive training in available resources so they can be more effective advocates for the grad students whose careers it is (at least partly) their job to get off the ground. To support those efforts, the Association of American Universities should work with member institutions to expand its Ph.D. Education Initiative immediately.

Recommendations for Ph.D.s

Until such measures are put into place, individuals will find assistance through books and articles, online communities and career coaches. The current crisis does not change the advice offered by these resources -- rather, it heightens its importance. In a contracting economy, academics have even less room for error as they seek work in a field where they are untested.

Books such as Susan Basalla and Maggy Debelius’s So What Are You Going to Do With That and Joseph Fruscione and Kelly J. Baker’s Succeeding Outside the Academy blend tactical advice and personal anecdotes from a plethora of former academics to help readers leave higher education for new endeavors. My own contribution to this genre, Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide, will come out later this year with Princeton University Press. The internet, meanwhile, provides a wealth of articles for academics looking to change careers. These resources are a sure place to find examples of how professionals from your discipline found their way to a new field. When they’re not behind a paywall, they also have the benefit of being free.

Online communities and learning platforms will also play a role. Companies like Beyond the Professoriate, Exit, Pursuing Career and Free the Ph.D. have videos, worksheets and recorded interviews that can help academics find a new path. They also provide a built-in network that can offer encouragement and support -- as well as connections to people who are already placed in nonacademic roles.

Career coaches furnish another type of help. Their work mirrors that of online communities, but they provide an added level of accountability. The “Out-Ac” team at The Professor Is In and Kristi Lodge of IncipitCareer, for example, have strong records of keeping people moving even through tough times. To address swelling numbers and dwindling resources, many coaches are now running group workshops. These events have the added benefit of displaying the extent to which individuals are not alone in facing the challenge of changing careers amid a crisis.

Again, none of these resources will be sufficient on its own to help the rising wave of academics who need to seek new roles. Those who are facing this situation themselves -- and those who wish to be better allies to friends, students and colleagues who are at risk -- should know that the array of available options is vast.

Whatever mode of assistance you require, help is available. Many former academics have found satisfying work in new careers, and most of us remain eager to help others who are facing that combined crisis of identity and employment. I hope we can do our part to address the coming exodus of academics looking to join our ranks, but I am certain that we cannot do it alone.

Bio

Christopher L. Caterine is the author of Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide (forthcoming, Princeton University Press). Before becoming a communications strategist and proposal writer, he was an advocate for contingent faculty and a visiting assistant professor of Roman history and Latin literature.

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