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Not long ago, heading out to an academic conference where I was scheduled to take part in a panel examining “alternative” careers for humanities degree holders and looking for airplane reading, I grabbed from my bookshelf three aging publications: Outside Academe: New Ways of Working in the Humanities: A Report on the Conference ‘Independent Research Institutions and Scholarly Life in the 1980s’ (1981), Getting a Job Outside the Academy: A Special Publication of the American Anthropological Association (1982), and Humanities Ph.D.s and Nonacademic Careers: A Guide for Faculty Advisers (1983). After I got home, I retrieved an even earlier publication, Rita Jacobs’s The Useful Humanists: Alternative Careers for Ph.D.’s [sic] in the Humanities (1977). Each of these publications could benefit from some minor updating to make them fully relevant today, but the overall impression is that after roughly four decades, they have weathered surprising well.
Or perhaps it would be better phrased as “after roughly four decades, they have weathered depressingly well.” The academic job market collapse in the humanities and social sciences, which is often characterized as a feature of the academy in the 2000s, is clearly the result of a transformation that has been going on for more than a generation. Acknowledging that and treating the situation as an existing reality instead of an immediate crisis will go a long way toward allowing the academy to adjust to the current situation.
There are some critical differences between what these publications described and current perceptions. First, no one today needs to argue that noncampus careers are a viable option for humanities Ph.D. holders. Indeed, now these careers are often described as the only realistic options. The second difference is suggested by the subtitle of the 1983 publication, A Guide for Faculty Advisers. We now recognize that this is an unrealistic expectation. Faculty in the humanities have been trained, experientially if not formally, to replicate themselves. They are masters of their disciplines, not experts in pedagogy or career counseling, and they aren’t viewed as a source of employment advice, especially for jobs that go beyond the tenure track.
Indeed, current faculty are often viewed as hostile to students who consider nonfaculty careers, while higher education blogs, newspapers and newsletters abound with articles on when to tell your faculty adviser that you are considering noncampus jobs so that your announcement will not hamper success in the graduate programs that the current faculty members control. In place of the faculty advisers envisioned in 1983, a whole new mini-industry of career counselors has arisen to fill the noncampus employment niche.
Today’s academic job market suffers from the two key contributors to a market collapse. On the one hand, there is an overabundance of supply: universities continue to produce new Ph.D.s in numbers that far exceed the demand for new, tenured full-time faculty members. And on the other, we’ve seen a collapse in demand. As Frank Donoghue pointed out in his important analysis of academic finances, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, the economics of higher education preclude universities from ever returning to the model of full-time tenure-track/tenured faculty that dominated campuses during the mid- to late 20th century. In today’s campus economy, and into the foreseeable future, contingent faculty positions in the humanities -- adjunct appointments and short-term contractual jobs -- will be the norm. While such positions might satisfy a degree holder’s desire to teach and provide welcome access to a research library, they will almost never provide the compensation and benefits package that offer hope for a reasonable life in contemporary society.
To address the possible careers that follow from the completion of a doctoral degree, the academy and its fellow travelers must get away from the current view that noncampus jobs are fully desirable. To be sure, the recipients of advanced degrees in the humanities generally enjoy rewarding careers, whether on campus or off. But that’s just a reflection of the fact that they are smart, adaptable and productive. To argue, as some higher education leaders have, that Ph.D. recipients in the humanities have always followed various career paths and therefore the noncampus jobs are OK, ignores the obvious reality: no one in the humanities pursues a doctoral degree, with years of coursework and more years of dissertation writing, in hopes of finding an off-campus career that doesn’t involve advanced work in their chosen field.
The model may be different in the sciences, where employment in industry, and in some of the social sciences such as psychology, where careers as independent practitioners are common. But in the humanities, no! Did you really think you completed your Ph.D. in classical archaeology with a specialization in Hellenistic ceramics (that was me, by the way) with anything in mind except a traditional faculty appointment? It’s time to put away the notion that a humanities Ph.D. is malleable and therefore serviceable regardless of the employment outcomes, in the sense that the degree serves as desirable preparation for a career outside the academy. Fostering this perspective is clearly in the interest of graduate departments, which need to keep enrollments up in order to justify their existence. But it is not helpful for the students enrolled in their programs. Get a humanities degree because you love your field: absolutely. Get a humanities degree because it prepares you for jobs other than higher education teaching: no way!
When looking at the sorts of jobs, or more precisely job trajectories, available to humanities Ph.D. holders, it is best to move beyond a simple dichotomy between academic and nonacademic positions. In recent career talks, I’ve been focusing on four major career tracks, with subcategories in two of them:
Traditional academic positions. This category includes the familiar tenured and tenure-track jobs, as well as two less desirable subcategories:
- The precariate: precariously employed contingent faculty, term-contract instructors and adjuncts, whose jobs involve the teaching duties of regular faculty members but who do not have any promise of continuing employment or, in most cases, the health and retirement benefits that are usually associated with full-time faculty positions.
- Permadocs: The sorts of nonfaculty postdoctoral research appointments that are most commonly seen in the sciences. These positions may include benefits, but they are often grant- or project-funded and without the possibility or promise of long-term employment that tenured and tenure-track jobs provide.
Alt-ac positions. Jason Rhody, a former colleague of mine at the National Endowment for the Humanities who now works for the Social Science Research Council, coined this term. In recent years, people have used it to characterize any nonfaculty or noncampus job. But in the strict sense that Rhody defined it, alt-ac refers to campus but nonteaching positions: directors of campus service offices and learning centers, grants and development offices, and various campus liaison offices. The restriction of these jobs to advanced degree holders generally reflects the conceit of the academy, which insists that only holders of Ph.D.s can understand the functionings of a college or university.
Sometimes characterized as living next door to your former fiancé, these alt-ac positions still provide advantages that are appealing to Ph.D. holders, such as access to research libraries and interlibrary loan services, the possibility of long-term employment, and health and related benefits. Among the downsides: the lack of promotional ladders for alt-ac employees and the concomitant salary compression that marks these positions. Faculty have clearly defined promotional steps -- from assistant professor to, eventually, professor. But an alt-ac director of student services has nowhere to go when looking to move up because all the usual campus administrative jobs, from department chairs to deans to provosts, are drawn from the faculty ranks.
Moreover, salary steps are aligned with those increases in title, so the alt-ac “director” often has no possibility of increased compensation. Indeed, the longer one is locked in one of the alt-ac positions, the more likely it becomes that a newer hire will jump the salary queue because the university recognizes that enticing a new employee to come on board requires more reward than having a more experienced, locked-in employee stay.
Peri-ac positions. These positions relate to the academy but are not directly part of it. In this category I would place program officerships at federal funding agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education as well as the similar program officerships in the various grant-making nonprofits that support the academy. It also includes positions in higher education associations -- whether discipline-focused like the Modern Language Association or institutionally defined, such as the alphabet soup of national and regional higher education associations -- along with jobs with other organizations that flitter about the periphery of the academy.
Again, for many of the positions in this category, a Ph.D. is not a functional necessity. But it is welcomed by hiring organizations that recognize that the status conceits of the academy with which they interact make advanced degree holding a desideratum.
Nonacademic positions. In this category, I cluster all of the jobs fully outside the academy. The term I have used to describe this category is inelegant, but I haven’t yet come up with an appealing alternative. I see two subcategories here:
- Discipline-related positions, such as, for a historian, working in the history program at a company like Wells Fargo, which maintains a history office to support its corporate agenda.
- Nondiscipline-related positions, such as working as a banker at Wells Fargo.
Each of these alternatives offers possibilities for potentially rewarding careers, but campus career services and students should approach each with different strategies in mind. We are well past the time when campus career offices and association placement services should be thinking in terms of faculty positions and a combined cluster of everything else. Multiple alternatives require multiple tracks.
The academy also needs to rethink graduate school enrollment strategies. Today’s hiring patterns suggest that the top-tier universities hire candidates from their fellow, top-tier institutions only. Second-tier institutions also hire from the top tier or, when there aren’t enough top-tier graduates available, from their own cluster. Third-tier institutions still hope for top-tier graduates, and so on down the line. At the least, graduate programs need to offer recruits an honest assessment of outcomes of their advanced education.
But that’s the minimum. With the reality of the employment situation in mind, back in 2013, when speaking in a careers panel at the meetings of the Society for Classical Studies, I suggested that it should be deemed unethical for an academic department, especially one that is not in the absolute topmost tier of the academy, to enroll more graduate students than it has faculty members who are at least in their 50s -- in other words who are likely to retire and open job slots by the time the students they have enrolled will have completed their coursework and dissertations.
Finally, with a mind toward those publications from the early 1980s that filled my in-air time en route to my recent conference, we need to stop thinking of the academic job crisis as a phenomenon of the moment or even of recent decades. We are not participating in a crisis -- something that has an element of immediacy even if it is potentially transformative. Instead, we are living in a different reality from what the academy experienced in the mid-20th century.
And we should recognize that fact, even if it leads to uncomfortable changes in the structure of graduate education in the humanities and related fields.