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In a recent piece for Inside Higher Ed, I described some of the continuing concerns and questions I hear from doctoral students about pursuing jobs outside academe. One of them was “Faculty at my university don’t usually understand my quandary. When they do understand, they don’t know how to help.”

The fact is, however, that before Ph.D. students decide what they might like to do after their dissertation defense, faculty members in their departments can actively help students explore nonacademic career possibilities. Many students will be hard-pressed to pinpoint a career trajectory unless they actively survey their prospects. Faculty members can demonstrate they understand by moving away from the age-old adage “just focus on your dissertation.”

Setting the Scene

I will begin by stating the obvious: increasingly, most humanities and social sciences Ph.D. students who want tenure-track jobs in the professoriate will not get them. The vast majority of faculty members and dissertation advisers are at least vaguely aware of this reality. Many perpetuate the lie that most talented candidates will get a tenure-track job by prescribing a simple remedy to their students: be the best. It is tempting for faculty members to cite well-worn explanations like “their publication records aren’t strong enough,” “they don’t have enough teaching experience” or “their adviser’s letter of recommendation didn’t glow” when a Ph.D. student doesn’t obtain a tenure-track job. The truth, however, is that most students won’t secure those jobs simply because the odds are not in their favor.

What might be less obvious is that a growing number of Ph.D. students don’t want a tenure-track job, regardless of their odds of getting one. For them, the deficit model of “We’ll come up with plan B if you aren’t successful on the academic job market” is hard to stomach. The implication is that other pursuits are secondary and that faculty members do not understand.

If Jacques Berlinerblau’s grim predictions hold out, there won’t be any tenure-track jobs left to apply to by 2035, and tenure within the American social landscape will be extinct by 2050. Meanwhile, many observers suggest that institutional reform is the way forward. Two years ago, Yale University announced plans to alter its programs. Others have argued, in contrast, that the employment prospects for a Ph.D. in the humanities or social sciences outside the academy are not strong enough to make the Ph.D. itself a worthwhile endeavor.

In response to the advocates of reform, I absolutely agree with the need to prepare students to satisfy their material needs. In response to those who advise against a Ph.D. because of a lack of employability, I say that I am deeply saddened by the idea that we live in a social milieu that doesn’t recognize Ph.D. training for what it is—and that would fade out programs that don’t focus on job training over research and critical thinking.

What Seems Clear

Regardless of how the American university does or doesn’t evolve to preserve itself between now and Berlinerblau’s 2050 extinction date, we can and should measure the success of Ph.D. training more inclusively than simply counting placements in tenure-track jobs. We also can and should find innovative ways to communicate what a Ph.D. is to people who do not already know. (A large contingent of prospective Ph.D. employers do not grasp that doctoral training involves a job in addition to studies. These people are likely to collapse Ph.D. training with their associations of a bachelor’s, law or business degree.)

What’s more, administrators on university campuses are often more than willing to hire Ph.D.s for alternative-academic jobs and create a staff scholar cohort of employees. If and when a staff scholar opts to leave the university campus for a corporate or nonprofit job, they will likely have avoided the need to develop the language to explain to that corporate employer what a Ph.D. is and does. Instead, they will have amassed a significant enough body of work experience, post-Ph.D., that they will have created an off-ramp for themselves and no longer need to connect the dots between their degree and an employment opportunity.

A collective reframing—wherein we agree that a Ph.D. student looking to work in nonprofit or at a corporate job is making a career change—would help us cultivate the necessary conversations about how to prepare those students. People make career changes across sectors all the time, and a part of that process is finding continuities across careers. Framing the decision of a Ph.D. student to not pursue work in the professoriate as a career change accomplishes two things: 1) it elevates the work of obtaining a Ph.D. to that of a job and 2) it makes next steps clear—the applicant needs to sensitize the hypothetical hiring manager to the nuances of that former job.

An article by Joshua Kim makes similar arguments to this one. According to his assessment, I am not working in an alt-ac job today but rather am a “professional in [the nonprofit] industry with an educational background of a Ph.D.” who has made a career switch. My qualifications for my job thanks to my previous experiences aside, it is my responsibility to communicate how my 10-plus years of work resonate with the role I am in—just as that responsibility would fall on the shoulders of anyone switching careers.

Concrete Steps for Faculty Advisers

If you are a faculty member who advises Ph.D.s, I recommend you consider the following steps.

  • Remind yourself that your students are workers in addition to being students. This simple reframe can help faculty members see Ph.D. training as on-the-job skill building and facilitate dialogue on how we collectively describe the professional development of Ph.D. students. If your students don’t want a career in the professoriate, remembering that they have been workers all along will assist with career-change mind-set required to get them set up for success.
  • Set the table for exploration. Don’t assume students want to pursue a career in academe. Get acquainted with the people and resources on your campus that already facilitate Ph.D. student career exploration. Organize a departmental session with the career center. Connect students with your contacts or department alumni for informational interviews. Attend panels about career diversification for graduate students at your national or regional conferences. Suggest your students take an aptitude test or complete a survey that inventories their skills and affinities.
  • Help develop the language. If you were to make a career switch, how would you describe your own career to a hiring manager in another sector? I’ve found it helpful to review job ads and to adopt some of the phrases that are commonplace in other industries. If you want to dedicate meaningful time to supporting Ph.D. students in their career search, is there a résumé workshop that you can attend? Wrestling your 20-plus-page CV into a two-page document may be just the ticket to deciding how you can help your students succinctly articulate their work in your field.
  • Push your institution to build Ph.D. programs that demonstrate that you understand. This idea is the hardest to operationalize. Rebuilding a Ph.D. program requires resources. It requires a survey of what other institutions are doing as well as administrators who are open-minded to the project of career diversification. Examples of departments that have successfully rebuilt their programs remain scarce, but they continue emerging. I have a lot of faith that many other institutions can build compelling degree plans that prepare students while retaining the critical thinking and intellectual development that are signature elements of a Ph.D.

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