Our industry, like many others, is now experiencing the second of two catastrophic economic events in the course of less than 15 years. The professoriate has been quick to respond to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic by pointing out the ways it has impacted pedagogy and research, how that will affect performance evaluations, and why appropriate adjustments to review timelines and procedures should be made. Yet faculty members also have an ethical responsibility to help graduate students find work that can sustain them during this tumultuous period, whether in the academy or beyond it, and I encourage academics with institutional influence to support that effort.
I don’t know how many times in the past few weeks I’ve been thankful that I made the choice to leave the academic track at the end of my Ph.D. program. After not finding a decent job in academe -- temporary or more stable -- after two years on the job market from fall 2014 to spring 2016, I went into nonprofit and higher education fundraising. We’ll see more Ph.D.s making similar moves in the future, given how vast the effects of the pandemic have already been on the global economy. I’m glad that my work in development provides an opportunity to articulate the importance of higher education for society -- and that this kind of work is especially needed as the pandemic tests the stability of higher education institutions large and small.
I’m hopeful about many things that have the potential to come from this time, including new approaches to online learning and pedagogy, greater support for universal or significantly subsidized health care, and an enlarged understanding of how to care for oneself and others during times of great stress and anxiety. Perhaps naïvely, I also believe that this pandemic can help our fractured society learn ways to work together for the greater good.
I am not optimistic, however, about job prospects for Ph.D. candidates who are approaching the end of their academic programs. When all types of institutions -- from small state colleges to the University of Pennsylvania -- place a freeze on hiring, it sets expectations for the academic job market that are still all too familiar from the last economic downturn in 2008-09. Candidates whose programs have the capacity to continue to support them will be in a better position, but they will still face a pool of too many applicants competing for too few jobs. And many applicants will have years of experience as postdocs and visiting professors that will give them a leg up in hiring decisions. Ph.D.s who have been out for a few years but have yet to secure a ladder-rank faculty job will only be in a marginally better position -- those positions are only bound to become even more competitive as full-time lines contract or become frozen and limited-term positions expire.
Academics who begin to pursue adjunct work will be in a more precarious position as adequate work to secure a livable paycheck and employer-sponsored health care becomes harder to find. Further, such work will probably do little to help them advance in the future when jobs open up again, given the heavy burden of such a teaching load and the negative effect it has on research and the creation of new knowledge.
This may read as an overly pessimistic forecast, but it seems quite likely to me as someone who followed the professional paths of many others from my program and throughout the university after the last economic downturn. Based on recent conversations, I also know that this matter-of-fact prediction doesn’t come close to approximating the profound anxiety and dread many grad students and recent graduates are feeling at this moment as possible paths to secure health care and employment become even more conditional -- or simply disappear.
But all this said, I do remain sanguine about the opportunity we have to reconsider the ways that Ph.D.s -- especially those in the humanities and social sciences -- can be valuable in industries beyond academe. I’m also hopeful that senior academics can find new ways to help their advisees pursue a variety of professions. Here are some suggestions.
Collaborate with career service professionals. Advisers, I’m sure many of you don’t know where to start, but significant resources are available. You should be able to find willing partners in your career services offices, as well as consultants outside your institution, who can help you help your mentees transition to other fields. I can’t overstate the importance of collaborating with these professionals -- it can fill a pressing need for students as well as relieve pressure on professors to counsel their advisees on careers beyond their areas of expertise.
You should also familiarize yourself with career tools that could help your advisees. If you only become acquainted with one such tool, I would suggest ImaginePhD. It includes many assessments and resources for exploring fields germane to humanists and social scientists in addition to guides for planning an entry into another field. I wish it had existed when I was making the transition away from academe.
Help set realistic time frames. You should also be aware that it isn’t easy for your mentees to transition to another field without substantive preparation. Put simply, it takes time. When I graduated knowing that I wouldn’t continue to pursue academic work, I didn’t understand that I really should have started preparing and exploring other options over the previous year. It required about nine months of networking, revising job materials and simple career exploration before I was able to find decent employment after graduating. And that was from summer 2016 to spring 2017, a time of economic plenty compared to what graduates are likely to face over the next few years.
I was fortunate to have the support of a partner with gainful employment during this time, but that is far from what is reasonable to expect from every grad student who pursues nonacademic work. Without careful planning and preparation -- and support for these time-consuming activities -- graduates today will probably have a far more difficult time than I did transitioning to a rewarding field with adequate pay and health care.
Support broader professional opportunities. Mentors and mentees alike tend to regard doctoral completion fellowships as a necessary evil to expedite timelines on the path to degree. However, neither advisers nor advisees should expect that completion will come with livable academic employment in the coming year. At the same time, such funds represent a valuable means to support graduate students at this moment -- especially as they also explore other rewarding careers.
I encourage senior academics and mentors over the next year to explore and test ways to expand professional opportunities for students who receive these fellowships as well as other Ph.D. students who are nearing the end of their programs. There’s no single way to do this, but one approach is to encourage your students to pursue internships or volunteer opportunities in fields they find interesting or that might inform their studies. I’m not suggesting an internship should come at the expense of a rigorous or fully developed dissertation. But practical experience gained from such work -- especially if it is related to one’s study -- can lead to insights that provide a new angle for research and an enlarged understanding of one’s project.
I’ve regretted not taking the opportunity to pursue internships as an advanced doctoral candidate. I had the impression that it was something meant for undergrad students and that it was somehow demeaning for someone pursuing an advanced degree, which it isn’t. I’ve since learned that there are many reasons to pursue an internship as a doctoral student, and that an internship can demonstrate to employers that you, as a Ph.D., can work with others in a more structured environment, take direction and be productive. Ph.D.s tend to be viewed skeptically by hiring managers and bear the burden of being simultaneously too senior and too junior for most jobs beyond the academic track. An internship could help one of your mentees start at a midlevel role rather than an entry-level position.
Prepare your mentees to be Ph.D. ambassadors. Your students will always be your students, and they will use the skills you helped them develop in whatever field they pursue. Yes, it is possible that an especially promising student of yours may have the privilege of choosing between an academic job and a job in industry, and they ultimately favor the latter option. I can understand that this might arouse feelings of anger, sadness and grief related to the time you’ve invested in them and the potential they have to create important scholarship that could yield new directions for your field. Such responses are entirely understandable considering the unseen and underappreciated work that many advisers do in advocating for their students behind closed doors and setting aside time for mentorship and review they could use in other ways.
But it’s also important -- especially now -- to try to understand the position faced by many doctoral candidates who will soon graduate and to support them in their efforts to find rewarding employment whether in the academy or beyond it. In America now, we are in the early days of what is, one hopes, a once-in-a-century health crisis, and many of us are looking for ways to help in some way. Being on the academic job market is an ordeal that very seldom makes candidates feel positive about the importance of their scholarly work or their value as employees, and the typically glacial pace of hiring will seem even more out of context in the coming year. This is a time when we need to encourage graduate students to demonstrate the value of a Ph.D. throughout our local, national and global communities. I say this not only for the welfare of your mentees, but also because we all need to be engaged in an effort to broaden public knowledge of a doctoral education’s worth as we enter what is sure to be a very challenging period for our industry.