Many humanities Ph.D.s have put their training to work in careers that aren't on the faculty track, but a new survey shows their success is largely disconnected from the expectations and, in some cases, the skills fostered in graduate schools.
The Scholarly Communication Institute at the University of Virginia has recently explored how these graduates came to pursue alternative academic, or “alt-ac,” careers -- or careers not even related to higher education -- surveying over 700 graduates off the traditional faculty career path to see how their academic careers prepared them for employment outside academe.
“One thing seems clear: The persistent myth that there’s nothing but a single academic job market available to graduates is damaging, and extricating graduate education from the expectation of tenure-track employment has the potential to benefit students, institutions, and the health of the humanities more broadly,” Katina Rogers, a senior research specialist with the institute, writes in a preliminary report on the study’s findings . “However, as long as norms are reinforced within departments -- by faculty and students both -- it will be difficult for any change to be effective.”
The study represents an ongoing effort to reform graduate school education  to close the yawning gap between students’ career expectations and the realities of the job market -- a gap that appears to be growing. A 2011 report by the National Science Foundation  found that less than half, or 43 percent, of humanities Ph.D. recipients did not have any job commitments after completing their academic programs.
“What this signals to me is that we are failing at bringing informed students into the graduate education system,” Rogers wrote.
Part of that disconnect may be related to the career advice students receive while enrolled. Of the 779 graduates surveyed, 74 percent said at the beginning of their programs that they intended to become tenured professors -- 80 percent of them saying they were fairly or completely certain.
Perhaps because none of those surveyed ended up becoming tenured professors, only 18 percent said they were to some degree satisfied with their career counseling while in graduate school. Fifty-six percent responded negatively, while 26 percent held a neutral opinion.
Ideally, the report reads, humanities departments should temper their students’ expectations about finding a career in academe before even admitting them, and continue to highlight alt-ac opportunities through career counseling.
“To be honest, I see this as an ethical issue: It is deeply problematic to admit students to a program if their expectations for the program’s outcome are not accurate,” Rogers wrote.
The expectation gap extends to the alt-ac job hunt. The institute also surveyed 73 employers who have hired graduates with advanced humanities degrees, and results show the graduates and their employers differ on the skills they value in the workplace.
Although both groups agree on the importance of written and oral communication skills, as well as the ability to work in group settings, employers were much more likely than employees to value research skills, 67 to 49 percent. An even larger proportion of employees, 61 percent, brought up project management skills as one of the most important alt-ac competencies compared to 37 percent of employers.
The discrepancies appear to be a result of the skills taught in humanities departments. Only 9 percent of graduates said they were taught project management skills in graduate school, which may have led them to overvalue that skill in the survey. Conversely, graduates may have undervalued the importance of research simply because it is second nature to them, the report reads.
In order to eliminate the stigma that an alt-ac career somehow amounts to “selling out,” the report suggests departments need to expand how they track job placements and invite successful graduates back as mentors.
Based on the survey’s findings, such an initiative could yield a broad lineup of mentors, as no specific sector dominated the results. Jobs in libraries and cultural heritage organizations and administrative positions in higher education drew 27 percent each, while a number of different fields, from non-profit work to journalism, registered in the teens. Moreover, only 5 percent of respondents said their jobs have specified end dates and 18 percent said they relied on grants, suggesting many graduates have been able to find job security off the tenure track.
“Programs simply must do a better job of knowing what kinds of work their graduates are doing,” Rogers wrote.
Rogers will this summer publish a longer report and the full dataset under Creative Commons licenses for other researchers to build on, as the institute’s grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation concludes in August.
“We hope that other researchers will continue to engage with the data after [our] work is complete,” Rogers said.