Doomsayers about the job market for humanities Ph.D.s are everywhere. In response to a growing number of graduates unable to find a job in academe, seven universities are starting a new project to prepare students for a career that may lead them out of the classroom or into new kinds of classrooms.
The initiative, known as the Praxis Network , will showcase how different institutions are using innovative approaches to expand humanities education to help other colleges and universities do the same.
Of the seven institutions participating, Duke University, for example, offers a one-year program for Ph.D. students to help them develop digital skills. University College London is combining humanities and computer science in a master's degree program that involves both thesis writing and work placement. The City University of New York Graduate Center has doctoral fellows working with the provost to design a new website and serving as technical consultants for faculty members.
As different as the programs appear, common themes uniting them include not just interdisciplinary cooperation and a desire to explore how new technologies affect research, but also the mentality that their students should broaden their understanding of the sort of career options an advanced degree in the humanities can lead to. “[T]his is about sharing a model,” said Bethany Nowviskie, who founded the network in response to a surge of interest in a fellowship program that brings students from different academic fields together to learn software development and design.
“We see what’s often called the crisis in the humanities as a great moment of opportunity,” said Nowviskie, who is director of digital research and scholarship at the University of Virginia Library. “Humanities scholars need to be involved in the massive digital transformation of our inherited cultural archives in the sweeping changes to our systems of scholarly communication. They need to be in positions to influence the reshaping of American universities.”
Beyond Wednesday’s website launch, Nowviskie said directors of the participating programs will meet this summer to discuss how to further develop the network, for example by featuring new programs that offer an approach apart from the original seven.
"Essentially, how do we more efficiently present these models to other potential programs, and how do we network the students within the programs and bring them together?" Nowviskie said.
The Praxis Network is part of a larger effort undertaken by the U.Va.-based Scholarly Communication Institute  this year to evaluate how graduate programs in the humanities prepare students for life after graduation -- much of which includes changing perceptions and educating them on ways to contribute to the humanities through careers off the tenure track.
A preliminary report on the job expectations among humanities scholars in alternative academic, or “alt-ac,” careers shows  about three in four expected to pursue tenure-track careers. At the same time, only about one in every five scholars surveyed said they were satisfied with the guidance they received about alt-ac careers.
In reality, the National Science Foundation in 2011 estimated  only about half of recent doctoral recipients in the humanities had firm job or postdoc commitments, down from about two-thirds in 2006.
Katina Rogers, a senior research specialist with the institute, called the numbers in preliminary findings “an enormous disconnect.”
“By and large, the only people [graduate students] are surrounded by are faculty members and other graduate students,” Rogers said, adding that inadequate career advice could be fueling the misconceptions. “The people they’re turning to aren’t really well-positioned to open up possibilities for them.”
In the absence of sage advice from their mentors, students who have embraced the alt-ac track are telling their peers to approach it with an open mind. On Friday, past and current doctoral students at the University of California at Berkeley will host a job fair strictly for careers outside the world of academics.
Els van der Helm, who realized she no longer wanted to pursue an academic career four years into her Ph.D. program in psychology, said the event is not meant to lure students away from academe, but to educate them on the importance of a Plan B.
“We’re so focused on our research that we’re not thinking about life after our Ph.D.s,” van der Helm said.
Despite her change of heart, van der Helm still said the skills she have learned in graduate school have been “essential” to prepare her for a career off the tenure track. She therefore said she opposed any radical changes to doctoral programs that would cause them to accept and graduate fewer students.
And while they are experimenting with models that could affect how institutions approach teaching the humanities, directors involved with the Praxis Network said they too disagreed with critics calling for institutions to scale back their Ph.D. programs.
“There is definitely a strong part of the conversation about graduate education reform that talks about the numbers of students who are admitted to Ph.D. program and whether that’s something that ought to change,” Rogers said, suggesting a natural cap for doctoral programs may be to only accept students whose research they can fund. “I think it’s hard to say we only need fewer Ph.D.s, and I also think that ... the way that humanists approach problems can help in a wide range of careers.”
Although some directors expressed a need for institutions to rethink the structure and scope of their humanities programs, others said they relish the opportunity to experiment and innovate outside the confines of traditional academic fields.
“Departments are notoriously slow moving entities in terms of the kinds of curricular shifts that are often desired by undergraduates and graduate students,” said Ethan Watrall, an assistant professor of anthropology who directs a Praxis Network-affiliated fellowship program in cultural heritage at Michigan State University. “I think that things do have to change. One of those things might have to be ... recognizing that a very few percentage of students actually go on to be professors. Many of them go to alt-ac jobs or outside the academy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”