The Ph.D. Skill Mismatch

Analysis of a year’s worth of MLA job postings -- most of them for teaching positions -- finds strong emphasis on alt-ac skills. Are doctoral programs providing the right training?

January 5, 2018
(Getty Images)

Senior faculty members frequently tell doctoral students in English and foreign languages to "just do research all the time" and to "view everything else as a distraction," said the author of a study being presented today at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association.

That's a big problem for Ph.D. students and the institutions that may hire them, according to the author. The study analyzes the 1,658 job postings that the MLA listed in 2015-16 to look at the skills being sought by hiring departments. About three-quarters of the job listings listed at least one skill associated with what are called alternative-academic jobs -- skills like public outreach, assessment, administration and curriculum development. In fact, some of these skills were significantly more likely to be listed than were traditional skills such as advanced knowledge of British or American literature.

Because the overwhelming majority of the jobs listed were for positions for which teaching and research are the stated priorities, the data challenge the idea that those coming on the market today are going to find traditional academic jobs and can best prepare with more and more research, says Beth Seltzer, the study's author.

Seltzer should know. She earned her Ph.D. in Victorian literature. But her job at Bryn Mawr College (in which she's very happy) is as an educational technology specialist.

Seltzer said that she did the analysis because she hopes it will prompt discussion about the nature of doctoral training. Many new Ph.D.s in the humanities and other disciplines are exploring alt-ac careers in parts of academe beyond the faculty. But what her findings show, Seltzer said, is that those seeking teaching positions also need alt-act skills. And Seltzer said she doubted many were picking them up from those faculty advisers who are focused on traditional faculty jobs at research universities.

Here are Seltzer's findings.

Percentage of MLA Job Listings Seeking Alt-Ac Skills, 2015-16

  English Jobs Foreign Language Jobs
Advising 24% 22%
Administration 23% 25%
Curriculum development 23% 22%
Working with diverse populations 20% 16%
Public engagement 17% 12%
Digital writing/media 15% 5%
Digital scholarship 14% 6%
Professional/technical writing 14% 6%
Technology/online teaching 12% 16%
Assessment 8% 7%
English as foreign language 8% 5%
Grant writing/fund-raising 7% 7%
K-12 connections 5% 3%
Editing/directing journal 5% 1%
Writing center work 5% 0%
Event organizing 2% 2%

By way of comparison, Seltzer found that only 2 percent of jobs (in English and foreign languages) listed comparative literature as a key skill, only 13 percent of English jobs listed American literature as a key skill, and only 12 percent listed British literature.

The research comes at a time of an ever-tightening job market for new English and foreign language Ph.D.s.

MLA leaders have strongly encouraged Ph.D.s to consider nontraditional careers and have spoken of the importance of reforming doctoral education. Paula Krebs, the new executive director of the MLA, has been involved in efforts to get research university leaders in the same room with those (generally not those at research universities) who are hiring new Ph.D.s. And other scholarly organizations have moved in the same direction, saying that graduate programs and graduate students need to think broadly about career possibilities and training for those options.

But Seltzer, like many graduate students, reports that the substance of most doctoral education is still focused on the traditional careers -- even as the job market has indicated interest in skills beyond traditional research.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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