Let's End Career Advice by Anecdote

Academe must stop thinking that the past is going to resemble the future when it comes to jobs for graduate students, argues Zeb Larson.

February 12, 2021
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Anecdotal career advice is something you find in just about every industry. Everybody I know can recount some advice -- often unsolicited -- that was, at best, idiosyncratic and, in all likelihood, strikingly ill-informed.

But if it’s relatively normal in other careers, it is almost the default insight offered to graduate students and those in academe. Actual analyses of hiring, outside career tracks, and the future of the industry are strikingly rare. One of the reasons I used to love the AHA Jobs Report, even though it’s never brought me any good news, is that it’s actual data and comes year after year so you can chart trends and changes over time. I’m no longer in academe, but I still keep up with it to sate my curiosity about the future of higher education.

And yet even when that data exists, bad ideas survive and continue to be passed on. Here’s one I’ve had to hear from graduate placement officers, conference goers and people on #academictwitter: “Patience pays off.” Yes, in STEM fields, the time it takes to find a job can be substantial, and spending multiple years to get a tenure-track job is the norm. In the humanities, however, that’s not the case. The studies we have tell us that hiring favors recent graduates, and anecdotes about a friend or colleague who was on the market for eight years before getting hired are irrelevant. Graduates can, of course, choose to spend as much time on the job market as they want, but they should not suffer under some mistaken belief that their odds of getting a job will improve or even remain constant.

Other advice tends to veer toward the anecdotal. Any of my peers who have ever been on the job market have received the offers, all of which are rooted in a kind and generous spirit, to read cover letters and offer suggestions. Unfortunately, people telling you what worked for them simply isn’t very effective because, in all likelihood, they’ve confronted a very different academic job market, and you’re not going to get the search committee that hired them. Search committees are idiosyncratic.

Moreover, it runs up against the fact that academic search jobs themselves are individualistic, and you will never find a clear roadmap to getting a job. There are wrong ways to write a cover letter, certainly, but no magic-bullet cover letter.

It’s not any better on the so-called “alt-ac” career track, either. I’ve seen maddeningly naïve examples of this, like the seemingly common belief that humanities graduates can easily find jobs in museums or historical societies, or that STEM graduates automatically find jobs in industry. The opposite is, of course, true: those fields are highly competitive, overcrowded and, in many cases, contracting as well.

Even much of the programming that departments are developing is rooted in trying to extrapolate isolated experiences. Departments love the token alt-ac career speaker -- usually an alum who went off and got a job in another field. But their experience isn’t one that today’s students can replicate for a whole host of reasons: industries shift and demand more professionalization, expectations change, and fields become more competitive.

People often even ignore trends that could affect careers in higher education. Enrollments are declining in higher education in the United States, and they are projected to continue falling for the foreseeable future. Yet I continue to encounter a striking number of individuals who are unaware of that, and when pressed, they will argue with me that I must be mistaken, despite reporting in Inside Higher Ed and other news outlets. Today, COVID is likely to wreak havoc on higher education budgets and enrollments, a double blow to an industry already in wobbly shape. Trends like this will probably affect academic hiring, but any reference of them seems to be absent from many discussions about professional futures for grad students.

Some of this ignorance is probably due to an attitude of “ignorance is bliss”: acknowledging the structural problems facing academe means admitting that hiring won’t suddenly shoot up in a few years and, in turn, that current models of instruction simply aren’t a good fit anymore.

Part of it also seems rooted in a generational attitude stemming from the postwar expansion of higher ed. Because higher ed grew so much during that time period, that expansion has been accepted as the norm, despite being highly anomalous, and we’re only slowly shaking that attitude off now.

Needed: A Cultural Shift

What does all of this mean? It’s time for academics, departments and professional societies to fully embrace a change in how they model career services. Some of this is already in the offing. Late last year, the American Historical Association announced it was abandoning the term “placement officer” for the simple reason that nobody in the academic job market is “placed” anymore.

But this all has to go beyond language and into more substantive changes. Academe needs to undergo a cultural shift: it must stop thinking that the past is going to going to resemble the future.

One needed change is that departments and professional societies must be fully honest about data and long-term trends. Many departments don’t openly publish their placement data, or it’s selective and cherry-picked to reflect only the most successful outcomes. Moreover, faculty members should know the trends in their own fields. Graduate career officers can’t be the only ones who understand exactly how difficult the academic job market is, especially given that most interactions of a typical Ph.D. candidate will be with their adviser. Students should be clearly informed about what the industry’s future will look like from the get-go.

Departments also need to embrace the idea of working closely with university career centers. Career centers aren’t necessarily used to working with graduate students precisely because of the monomaniacal focus on the academic job market and the ad-hoc nature of the alt-ac career track. That needs to change, either with by creating more specialized on-campus offices that specifically work with graduate students or by revising existing career centers to work with graduate students more effectively.

Professional societies are working to understand how their graduate students can obtain jobs outside of academe, but they are frequently overstating the ease with which it can happen and overselling how useful a Ph.D. can be in the process. The AHA’s Career Diversity Skills sound great on paper, but soft skills aren’t as desirable to the average employer. Most people want to hire somebody with linear experience and demonstrable skills immediately relevant to the job. Ph.D.s are not automatically employable, and however unfair that might be, it is nevertheless the reality we currently face. And this isn’t a problem that can be solved solely through daylong workshops.

That means that instead of focusing on soft skills, professional societies need to consider what hard skills and experience they can give their graduates. Some of that should be internships -- and, yes, those internships should be paid if at all possible. But it also means opening up more certification and education outside of the subject matter that we study. If we want to stress what great teachers Ph.D.s are, then we should require graduate students to study educational pedagogy or instructional design the same way that high school teachers do. If you want to stress our analytical skills, programming languages, database management (no, spreadsheets don’t count), and a working knowledge of statistics would be useful.

Moreover, we can’t rely on informational interviews with people who entered an industry a generation ago; we need to understand what works today.

As I write this, the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on every sector of the economy. Anybody in higher education who believes they won’t be affected needs to be given some strong coffee, and if they think the usual suspect alt-ac career tracks will be fine, they’re probably going to be wrong. The pandemic shouldn’t have been the wake-up call to the reality of the career meltdown Ph.D.s face, but if it is, so be it. It is time to take the problem seriously and study it systematically.

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Zeb Larson graduated from Ohio State University with a Ph.D. in history. His research deals with the antiapartheid movement in the United States. He works for Hagerty Insurance as a software development engineer in testing.

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