Why are academic jobs seen as the holy grail or only grail in fields with the worst job markets?

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re going to be doing a series of posts on academic job market dysfunction and the market for PhDs outside of academia.

In this comment, Miriam writes:

I think it is shameful that many Anthropology programs (including mine) don’t encourage and support non-academic careers. There are both public sector applications and, for those of us who got burned out on low wages in grad school, highly paid corporate anthropology work. User experience research is cultural anthropology. When I compare my experience to my Computer Science husband’s, it’s ridiculous. In my department, I almost had a professor withdraw from my committee when I let slip that I was considering a public-sector Anthropology career instead of an academic one. In my husband’s, the department used the amount of graduates placed with companies like Google as a selling point. More than that, the department actively built corporate links to help with placement.

Given the job market in Anthropology, it is cruel to pressure candidates to value and look for academic careers. Yes, one person from a grad cohort occasionally ended up in a tenure-track job. The overwhelming majority ended up with post-docs or one-year lectureships leading to more lectureships or adjunct positions. I will never understand why professors would expect intelligent people to look at the amount of tenure-track jobs available and not figure out that the odds are heavily against us. I also don’t really understand the bias against public-sector or corporate research. Yes, the research is more constrained, but it’s also more practical. Perhaps one sign that I was always a bad fit for my particular program is that I valued the idea of doing ethnographic research in service of a specific application more than doing it to publish an article or book that would probably only be read by other academic anthropologists.

I’ve noticed this as well.  Humanities PhDs seem to be less encouraging of outside careers than are STEM PhDs.

I do wonder if it’s that there are more obvious career options outside of academia for engineers (for example, my DH is working on something very similar to his PhD work for a start-up, large scale work he couldn’t do as a TT professor because he didn’t have the funding) and economists (government, consulting etc.) and all those other disciplines that have pretty decent academic markets.  It’s true that in my grad program, our advisers were disappointed when top students chose government positions over great R1s, but for the rest of us they were happy to write non-academic job letters for government and consulting work and they provided panels of graduates to talk about what life is like in those kinds of careers.  At my current university, academic jobs (in the US) for our graduates are rare and we funnel most of our students into private-sector jobs.

But Miriam notes that there really are positions for anthropologists outside of the academic sector.  Her professors just wouldn’t hear of them.

This musing is coming on the tail end of checking out the tweets that sent people to our deliberately controversial post on the topic.  Apparently we’re neo-cons because neo-cons are the only people who ever use the word, “entitled.”  (Note:  that means a good portion of professors who teach undergrads must be neo-cons!) We’re fairly sure those folks just looked at the title of the post and didn’t actually read the post itself, since the post itself doesn’t actually say much or take a position of any kind, and the comments decry the defunding of academia.  (Duh!)

But the truth is, even if we fully funded academia, there still wouldn’t be enough jobs for a lot of humanities folks because the more attractive we make those jobs, the more people will want humanities PhDs, because the humanities PhD is essentially a fun thing to do.  We know this because even now there are people willing to starve themselves for the chance of someday becoming humanities professors.  If you make it more attractive to be a humanities prof, all that you’re going to do is drive up supply.

Underlying these complaints, we think, is that many of these people who complain about the fact that we don’t just make tenure-track jobs for everyone with a PhD is that these folks think that PhDs can’t possibly work outside academia like the rest of the hoi poloi.  They shouldn’t have to, what with their lily white hands and all.  That’s where the entitlement actually comes in.  There’s this belief that there’s something wrong, something dreadfully wrong, with leaving the ivory tower.  That’s what Miriam, above, is tapping into.

And yes, that’s easy for us to say, being tenured at all… but…

But… maybe tenure isn’t all that.

Maybe, sometimes, it’s worth grabbing that golden ring and throwing it away.

One of us lives with someone who made the jump (though before tenure), and he’s so much happier.

Academia is still just a job, and a lot of time there are better ones out there.  Nobody should have to put up with crap because of a job, especially people with enough education to escape.

So yeah, it would be lovely if, as a society, we took money from Exxon (and you know they’d take it from children’s mouths before they cut corporate welfare) and funded education again, but that won’t solve the problem of the humanities labor market, because the more attractive you make those positions, the more people will want to have them.  There will be more jobs, but there will be even more applicants for those same jobs.  Heck, even if we cut off all production of new PhDs, folks with humanities PhDs who had given up would return to academia if there were a demand for their services.

Cloud and Miriam were right when they said that learning how to do independent research is a valuable skill, even outside of academia.  Maybe we should stop pretending that there’s something dirty about using these skills outside of the ivory tower.  Maybe we should try to find value in producing things, like Miriam said, that are read by more than just other academic anthropologists.

And who cares what your out-of-touch adviser thinks.

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59 Responses to “Why are academic jobs seen as the holy grail or only grail in fields with the worst job markets?”

  1. Liz Says:

    I did my BA and my MA at the same elite SLAC, in the field for which it is best known (history). However, I did my history well outside the time and geography that give the institution its recognition. From this vantage, I saw a HUGE difference in the way I was treated as an undergraduate (really awesome! they loved my creativity!) and as a terminal master’s student outside the field of expertise (really not awesome! they didn’t even give me the time of day, usually!). It gave me the impression that the PhD/academia-track students and faculty governing them formed a sort of fraternity/sorority/cult around their expertise.

    Example: As a terminal MA, once, I was told to get in touch with an upper-level PhD student to compare notes on something common between our fields of interest. In fact, when we met, I was basically giving her MY notes, and got nothing in the exchange – not even a coffee. She’s gone on to get some prestigious awards/fellowships and honors for her dissertation work.

    I’m not willing to play that game, so it seems a PhD in history is not for me. Instead, I make a pretty impressive (to me) salary doing research for the private/consulting sector, and even in a company full of awesome, intelligent nerds, my strong historical-research background and team-orientation (vs. the PhD cattiness) help me stand out.

    Anyway, to summarize: I agree with Miriam. PhD/grad programs can be really cruel to people who don’t drink the Kool-Aid, but there are definitely other options out there where you can apply all your skills in interesting and meaningful ways.

    • chacha1 Says:

      My research skills (also acquired via a terminal history M.A.) have been very useful in my 20+ year employment as a patent legal assistant. I’m well-paid, surrounded by smart people, have easy working conditions and almost zero red tape/politics to cope with. And for fun, I also use my research skills to write historical romance novels. :-)

      I had two key advisors in grad school. One was nice, well-meaning, supportive, but totally distracted (as he should have been) by his wife’s cancer. The other was nice, well-meaning, supportive, and utterly blunt about the shitty job market. By the time I finished that master’s, I was already working in legal support and saw no good reason to change my trajectory.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Liz, above: I’m curious how you got your current job, how you broke in. Are you willing to give any more details?

      • Liz Says:

        It’s a research position with a sort-of consulting firm. Really, I just applied. My sister found the advertisement on her uni’s job board. I only had my BA at the time.

        There’s a process to it: application, a “homework assignment” (practice report – same question for everyone, for at least 4+ years!), and in-person interview with multiple people. I remember saying during the interview, “I’m addicted to learning.” The job suits me because I like to learn, I’m not super-picky about the topic and I’m willing to figure things out – apply new methodologies, use the limited resources in a way that adds value. The creativity is really valuable. A lot of my MA training was learning historical-research methodologies – working with archival sources, figuring out how to ask the right questions, how to find where good/better sources might be, etc, with limited options for gaining context/insight except through what your brain can piece together.

        I had prior experience from jobs held during undergrad and some high school/summer positions. So it wasn’t my very first rodeo, but definitely took me out of the amateur league.

        Not sure if that’s what you were looking for. Ask questions; I’m happy to answer. I’m also curious about chacha’s legal assisting. How’d YOU do it? :)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That’s interesting, Liz. I guess I just have to find the job postings to apply for!

      • Liz Says:

        ICYMI (ha! I just wanted to use that abbreviation, now that I figured out what it means…):

        http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2014/a-historian-in-the-world-of-investments

      • chacha1 Says:

        Liz, I fell into it. I was working as a retail manager (chain bookstore, strip mall, on the opposite side of town from school) for really lousy money, and then stuff started happening that led me to believe that my store was going to be closed. Since I was making really lousy money anyway, I started looking for an office-type job near the university (Georgia State). I got a job as a file clerk (higher wage than the bookstore, sigh) in what happened to be a patent law firm. Worked my way up from there. :-)

    • Rented life Says:

      Grad programs here treat termina MAs the exact same way. It was led by the professors ( not all the students were that rude). But all the terminal MAs finished and found jobs.

  2. Leah Says:

    I sort of got the opposite end in science. My advisor just didn’t understand why I would want to waste my skills and knowledge just being a teacher. When we discussed whether or not I’d progress on to a PhD (he didn’t like my quals), he said “well, you know, all the people you teach for support you. So I guess that counts for something.” That conversation made it really clear to me why he didn’t teach any lower division classes.

    We all have a variety of skills, and I think it’s important we use those skills to find good matches for us, regardless of where that job/match happens to be.

  3. gwinne Says:

    We’ve had versions of this discussion in my department (English, R1) as we’ve thought about ways to restructure our grad program, given the problems of the academic job market. There are purists who say you don’t need a *PhD* to do most of those non-academic jobs (an MA is a different story); I mostly agree. So while I agree we need to prepare students for the reality of likely not having a t-t job at the other side, I really do feel that’s something to discuss before application/admission primarily…

  4. Cloud Says:

    Even in STEM, I have noticed a thread of disdain for non-academic positions. Some of it is the fact that having it be so unlikely that you’ll land a tenure track position makes landing one feel like being anointed as one of the best of the best (whether or not that’s true). But I think there is a lot of misinformation/misconception about what industry is like, too. Some people just think all industry is evil, and that doing something for profit necessarily sullies it. Or they think that we only work on boring problems in industry. It is sort of sad.

    @gwinne- FWIW, I’ve held many jobs that I don’t “need” a PhD to do, but have still never once regretted getting my PhD. I consider the PhD experience to be more than just job training. Of course, I was in STEM, so I was paid to do the PhD. I suspect my opinion would be different if I’d paid to do a PhD. I’m all for making sure people have a clear view of the job market, but then I say: let them decide for themselves if the PhD is worth doing.

    • gwinne Says:

      Well, yes, that’s a major distinction… and major part of our conversation about the possibility of admitting students to the PhD program without funding.

  5. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Cross-commented at historiann, based on the comments there:

    http://www.historiann.com/2014/03/21/back-to-the-future-1-6-million-mellon-grant-for-broader-career-paths/comment-page-1/#comment-1960897

    Are PhDs really useless except for teaching in tt jobs? I would have thought there was a value to learning to do research and to think like a historian. Or is that only imparted at the masters level and the remaining 5+ years completely useless unless you’re going to teach undergrads or work at a museum? That’s a pretty depressing waste if true (maybe arguing we should get rid of the field of history entirely if taken to an extreme!). I sure hope it isn’t.

    • chacha1 Says:

      I had multiple PhDs tell me that in history, the process was simply one of learning more and more about less and less.

      And ultimately, it’s just reading, and nobody gets paid to do a history PhD. If you don’t have a strong vocation to work in academia, you can do that reading on your own time for free.

      • Mike Says:

        What do you mean nobody gets paid to do a history PhD?

        On another note, I had a supervisor who made me read more and more about more and more, so that my dissertation would be well contextualized in the field, BROADLY understood.

    • becca Says:

      From what I’ve seen (albeit not in history), most of the time difference between a Master’s degree and a PhD amounts to socialization in the academic culture. Mechanistically, you get better at lab work the longer you do it, but a Masters + work experience is at least as good as a PhD (controlling for total time spent practicing). So, other than perhaps a signal of perseverance, the PhD IS a waste except for positions in which that academic socialization process is important.
      Granted, the financial incentives of biomed grad education are such that there is a huge disincentive to actually do anything other than train bench monkeys.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That’s totally not the case in my DH’s field– he’s doing exactly the work he was trained to do as an expert. Including SBIRs.

      • Cloud Says:

        In the industry I know best (biotech and pharma), there is a big difference between the PhD and MA/MS career track for people who stay in the more research-y fields. In many companies, MA/MS people will hit a ceiling in their career advancement. Not all companies do this, but a lot do. I disagree with this, by the way, but that is the reality out there right now.

        On the flip side, there is often a reticence to hire a PhD to do what is considered a BS/MA/MS level job. I disagree with this, too, but it is also the reality.

        In the fields like mine, which use a mix of science and technology knowledge, there is less of a ceiling for the non-PhDs.

        I’ve never done a terminal MA/MS, so I can’t really compare it to what I experienced as a PhD student, but in the case where it is essentially the same as the first two years of a PhD, then there is a HUGE difference in experiences, IMO. My first two years were classes and lab rotations, in which the projects were largely designed for me. Only in the later three years did I get a true project of my own. I certainly learned and grew in those first two years, but for me, the big growth came later.

        Again, I’m a STEM PhD, and I am not at all certain how this translates to non-STEM fields. I still strongly believe that anyone doing a good job in a PhD program is likely to have picked up some valuable transferable skills. I think the hard part is analyzing your experience and identifying those skills and then do the (hard!) work of mapping those onto the various career options out there. For the former, a solid mentor or sympathetic but honest friend would probably help the most. For the latter, I think nothing will beat doing a lot of informational interviews.

        I’m actually considering converting my series of posts on the nuts and bolts of running a non-academic job search into a short ebook. I am trying to decide if what I have to say on this is generally applicable enough to make that worthwhile. I’d have to write one more post- on cover letters- but I’m going to do that anyway. However, I would also need to write new content to fill in some gaps (such as advice on how to ID transferable skills) plus learn how to self-publish… so this is not zero effort. I’m on the fence on it.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Cloud, I started self-publishing via Amazon. The Kindle e-publishing interface is really easy to use. Basically all you need to get started is your text in one of several acceptable formats (I use Word), and a cover image in jpeg. My first couple of projects were definitely on the uphill side of the learning curve and I was a little lazy (bio? I don’t need no stinking bio) and am still refining how I do book descriptions. :-) But one great thing is you can edit the package at any time. :-) Go for it!

    • sophylou Says:

      I wonder if it’s about differences in how history doctoral programs are constructed – I started off in one doctoral program which was very strong for some skills but a complete mess in others, and the program I transferred into was much better organized– just about all the hoops made sense. I don’t think a history PhD is, or should be, “just reading”; it’s also project management, writing and communication skills (especially if you’re teaching, and my program required us to take a hands-on pedagogy course), the ability to synthesize information within a particular time frame, how to marshall evidence to support a claim, etc. I suspect that I lucked out because my doctoral program did emphasize these things. I’m not crazy about my current location, but I would say that most of what I know how to do at my current (nonacademic) job has direct links to what I learned as a history PhD student/instructor.

      I did have a brother-in-law who got a PhD at a pricey institution, with some funding; he didn’t really want to teach and just wanted to learn a lot of stuff. That to me is an example of someone who could just have done reading for himself. If nothing else, the AHA’s calls for thinking in terms of Plan B (as problematic as I think those are) might have the effect of making both faculty and students think more reflectively/consciously about what kinds of skills are being taught in a doctoral program.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        @sophylou Definitely. I have to wonder what phd programs were like for people who think it’s just “learning more and more about less and less.” The most valuable parts of my PhD came after the masters degree part was over. I definitely picked up a ton of (analytical, organizational, etc.) skills that can easily be transferred outside of my tiny area of economics. And these are skills that aren’t taught in undergrad programs.

        Maybe history undergrad programs teach more upper-level stuff than econ undergrad programs teach… though it’s hard to believe that at least at my school where most of the history courses didn’t have prereqs (I took two), and many of their electives filled gen ed requirements.

      • Miriam Says:

        I wonder if there’s also a perception issue at play. Dissertations are focused and specialized, so in that sense, the work really is learning more and more about less and less. But the skills we develop conducting the research to learn more and more about our less apply generally. So I can see there being a bit of a half-empty/half-full aspect of what you focus on.

      • sophylou Says:

        I would also say that my exams played a BIG role in my skills development — I think my program did a good job of structuring those exams, because I came out of them with a good sense that I needed what I needed to know about my major field in order to teach a range of classes, including survey-level classes. To me, coursework and exams was about setting me up for teaching (especially since we had to take a pedagogy class), and the dissertation was setting me up to learn about how to do research, and to pay attention to how I was doing it so that I could teach others to do research (how to pick a manageable topic, how to know when you’re “done” with secondary reading, research, writing, etc. That last part, the “paying attention” part, may just have been me, and I wasn’t always able to maintain it (that one agonizing chapter……), but overall I think I learned a lot. Now, I do think that it was training on how to be a professor, but I’ve done enough thinking about transferable skills to be able to see some larger value in the program.

        For what it’s worth, I found my professional-MS program to be quite a bit less coherent and not terribly clear about what its objectives were. Again, I have to wonder about variations among programs.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I know we’re constantly retooling our masters program. I did a lot of work with the methods curriculum making sure that it met the needs of our masters students. It’s a little easier with the PhD program because everybody “knows” what the PhD sequence needs to emphasize. But the masters program required surveys of alumni and employers etc. The masters-level curriculum is still a work in progress, but it’s something we’re working on– I can easily see how we could not work on it and just let faculty decide what to teach in each class given the title and brief course description. I suppose that’s also something where accreditation can help.

        Does history have any sort of accreditation for their degree programs, or would that destroy academic freedom?

      • chacha1 Says:

        I really don’t know what, if any, program design there was in the PhD program at GSU in the 90s. My impression from advisors and fellow students was certainly that the whole point of doing a PhD there would be to go get a teaching job, and that the dissertation was just a glorified master’s thesis. The resources on site were poor; I had to change my master’s thesis topic because they simply didn’t have any of the material I would have needed for the first topic. I did not see the point in more years of seminars (i.e. reading and discussing and writing) and another research paper that no-one would ever see (until I published it myself 20 years later, heh).

      • sophylou Says:

        I know that program, and I’m not surprised to hear this.

      • sophylou Says:

        @nicoleandmaggie: I don’t believe there is accreditation for history programs, which means there can be a pretty broad range qualitywise. I’d guess that that also means that it’s easy for people to generalize about the degree based on their particular experiences — graduate programs seem to be built to be totalizing. Even though it slowed me down, I’ve always thought it was useful to have started in one doctoral program and finished in another one, because I had a VERY clear understanding of how significant program differences could be, and how very much difference they can make in a student’s experience. I’ve really come to appreciate how well-organized the second program was, and even to appreciate the skills I got in the first program (good methods class, required to do a “mock conference” at the end of the first semester so that we could practice turning a research paper into a conference presentation and practice presenting in a safe environment).

    • Sarabeth Says:

      Are they useless? No, I do think that at least some programs really do develop important and transferrable skills. In my field of history, dissertation research involves not just archival research but also fieldwork; almost everyone does extensive interviews. Although I am in the academy, I like to think that those research skills would serve me well in other fields. FWIW, it’s rare for masters students in my field to get equivalent research experience, just because it takes significant time and money, so there is a real difference between the kind of training you get in an MA and a PhD. My experience was not at all one of ‘learning more and more about less and less.’ This does not mean that MAs aren’t useful as well, and certainly treating MA students as second-class citizens within a program is wrong for many reasons, just that there is a meaningful difference in what you can get out of each type of degree.

      That said, I think that there are two things that are different about history (and many other humanities). First, it seems to be much more of an uphill battle to sell non-academic employers on the value of the skills we have. Second, non-academic jobs usually involve researching questions quite different from those that most historians are interested in. The skills transfer, but the intellectual interests may not.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        “The skills transfer, but the intellectual interests may not.”

        Which is one reason why the non-academic jobs tend to pay so much more!

      • sophylou Says:

        Yep, I will definitely admit while the skills transfer, the relationship to content can really change. That’s one of the reasons I still want very much to do my own research (and maintain a blog on the research to keep me feeling like I have an outlet and possibly even an audience!), so that I can keep a connection to content that is mine. (Scholarly article coming out in early summer! Yaaay!)

        Alas, however, my current job probably pays less than an entry-level TT professor would make, and we’ve been on a salary freeze since before I started (and yes, I am looking around). Which is another reason I’m not that into promoting this field as an alternative career for PhDs.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I bet CEO of Fidelity (or wherever it was) is more lucrative. Obviously all history PhDs should run finance companies. ;)

      • sophylou Says:

        Suffice it to say, such a job would involve a prohibitive learning curve for me. ;)

      • Sarabeth Says:

        I do wonder about the pay difference. I imagine that most jobs I could get outside the academy would pay less, at least initially, than I started at for my TT job. But I could be wrong, and I also imagine that there is more room for actual promotions that would come with pay bumps.

  6. Historiann Says:

    Thanks for this, N&M. I will direct the conversation over here from my blog.

    The U.S. Government is the single largest employer of historians in the U.S., and I’m sure it’s probably the same for economists. A lot of those historians have Ph.D., but a lot have just M.A. degrees. I think History programs need to give a lot of thought & ethical consideration to the numbers of Ph.D. students they’re accepting while also reconsidering their attitudes & training for alt-ac. careers.

    A Canadian commenter on Tenured Radical yesterday said that the Mounties (the R.C.M.P., national police force) prefer to hire history majors rather than criminologists or psychology majors because (so she said) the historians understand evidence & what it can & can’t do for us.

  7. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    p.s. Are we neo-cons?

    • Dr. Koshary Says:

      I’m pretty sure you’re not, unless you’re also agitating for wars of imperialist conquest. Also, thanks for the link, and *many* thanks for the wise counsel.

    • Historiann Says:

      No. I think you offer a great deal of practical advice for the real world. There are some of our peers who think this = capitulation to the neoliberal university and neoliberal values, but I think living in the world as we find it as well as we can matters a great deal.

      • undinenotofgeneralinterest Says:

        No, not neocons. As you maybe, just maybe, have noticed, there’s a large contingent of extreme fools on the internet, and it sounds as though the Twitterverse sent some of them your way, unfortunately.

        Thisis a great discussion, as is the one over at Historiann’s. I’ve encountered versions of this bias against nonacademic employment over the years. It used to make me think that those people knew something about the world and the job market that the rest of us didn’t. Now it just makes me angry, especially if it’s coming from people who ought to know better (tenured faculty).

        As someone commented up-thread, there are not enough academic jobs, but then again there are not enough middle-class jobs, period.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        YES. Income inequality is arguably the # 1 problem in the US today.

  8. Miriam Says:

    I’m really happy to see this thread of discussion continuing in no small part because it’s nice to see other people in the Humanities discussing the practical value of the training. In the US right now, it seems like there’s a common notion of STEM training as practical and Humanities/Social Science training as for dilettantes (with Economics being an exception to the general Social Science rule).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      And the weird thing being that so many of the holders of these doctoral degrees believing that it’s just training for dilettantes. Do they really believe their degrees are so valueless? And if they do, were their degrees valueless?

      It is possible that the quality does vary across programs– with no quality control maybe some of these PhDs are just worthless money-makers for the college. But that can’t be true for the majority of cases, can it? It’s a disturbing thought. But it matches with the undergraduate advice that I got to just not get a PhD unless I got into one of the top X programs and with funding.

    • chacha1 Says:

      Honestly? my takeaway from grad school was that unless you were proceeding to an MBA or a JD, a humanities PhD was kind of a joke. It was for people who were afraid to leave school. You would never be anything more than a teacher (and as we know, our culture does not precisely value teachers). Of course, given that subliminal message, it’s no wonder I didn’t pursue it.

      I think if our culture DID revere pure learning the way we are told the Greeks did (being a historian, I have my doubts) the academic life would be awesome. But the way things are now, having “too much” education can really put off some employers. Do you think Walmart wants PhDs on its staff? People with critical thinking and research skills?

      It’s kind of like having “too much” experience. With 20+ years in patents, I am not considered for any other field in legal support, even if I say I am willing to start at entry level *and* entry-level pay grade.

      • sophylou Says:

        Again, I know your program, and to me this gets into, maybe we don’t need quite so many PhD programs? Some programs do better by their students than others, and ones that make students feel like they’re wasting their time– that’s just not productive, in too many ways. I’m quite familiar with the “lack of materials” problem, and that isn’t necessarily something that prospective students know to ask about (or may end up being misled about).

      • chacha1 Says:

        Lack of materials is probably less of a problem now that we have The Interwebs. :-) I would have had to go to England to research my first thesis topic. The 90s, ah the 90s.

        I do think that we don’t need so many PhD programs in the humanities. As lovely as all that stuff is, it’s just not a good bet for a lifelong career, and the fields of research are getting pretty darn picked-over. Or at least, fewer PhD programs that are not interdisciplinary. A history/archeology PhD would have been fun.

        What we do need is a helluva lot better salesmanship through K-12 of professions like pharmacy and nursing and computer science and engineering.

        No-one in my schooling right up to age 24 ever suggested I might be good at something like that and here’s how to get ready for it. By the time I thought “I could have been a great architect”, the cost of returning to school for all of the science & math work required made it out of the question.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        It’s a good thing too, because the labor market for architects may even be worse than the one for PhD historians and you’re expected to spend a lot of time working for free before you can even think about getting paid. BLS does say there’s growing demand, but it’s still the case that, “the number of applicants continues to outnumber available positions.” (BLS isn’t as down on the field as it was the last time I looked though. I wonder if that’s reality or politics at play.) http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/architects.htm

      • chacha1 Says:

        Yeah. :-) I don’t regret it, because I have a great life. It just annoys me that nobody ever thought to point me toward something that involved doing more than reading. (‘Cause I was a girl. Why would I need a profession? Grrrr.)

  9. L Says:

    Not an academic, merely a BFA — in Theater. But I remember a wonderful article in a theater-specific academic journal, about how the particular set of skills required of a theater major translate to so many jobs that are NOT in entertainment. And it’s true. If we look at our skills, and our interests — whatever the degree — there are myriad ways to employ them in jobs that have nothing to do with teaching, antediluvian advisors or not.

  10. First Gen American Says:

    I’ll just mirror what Cloud said regarding the chemical industry (which it sounds like is similar to bio-pharma). It’s virtually impossible to get a PhD job without an actual PhD no matter how smart you are (which for us is generally in the field of product development), but it’s also VERY difficult to leave the product development world once you are in it. Eventually you can become a manager of product developers but that’s where most people top out. It’s much more difficult for those guys and gals to even make a lateral move out of technology, say to product management. There is also a bias that PhD’s don’t make good managers or commercial people. There are a few who made it out, but it’s not widely known that certain managers were actually once chemists. The majority get stereotyped as over-intelligent egg heads and are stuck bending molecules for the rest of their lives whether they want it or not.

    At my UNI, I’d say over 90% of the professors I had didn’t spent a single day in the private sector. boo hoo for me because my best professors were the ones who did have a life before academia. I’d say there was a bias that the “real world” was for suckers or sell outs who couldn’t weave their way into one of the highly coveted professor jobs. Engineering generally has a high job placement rate in industry, so it’s almost seen like you’re superior if you don’t ever have to leave the university setting. This leads to a TON of abuse of the post-docs out there that are doing high value work at very low pay and long hours. Some of my friends did the post doc thing for a decade or more before finally realizing they were just being strung along and would be slaves indefinitely if they allowed it. They all eventually jumped ship to the private sector. There is so much BS in academia. Sometimes I wonder why it’s as coveted as it is.

  11. Katherine Says:

    I see this phenomenon in my program (I’m a math grad student at a private R1), and it’s not limited to disdain for industry careers – there’s also an element of strong preference for research jobs over teaching jobs within academia. I think a big part of this has to do with the faculty’s desire for prestige – my adviser has not yet had a student go into a research track (although all of her students so far have landed very good tenure-track teaching jobs directly out of the phd), and she would really like to have a student go into a postdoc followed by a tenure-track research job.

    It enhances the reputation (in the research world) of the adviser and the phd-granting department to have alumni actively doing research and participating in the research community. For that reason I don’t think the preference for academic jobs is going away any time soon.

  12. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    This is a really fascinating discussion, guys. Thanks so much!

  13. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    I don’t think there’s any question that a Ph.D. in a number of humanities fields can be useful training for a variety of careers. However, Ph.D. candidates for the most part already have some of the relevant skills, and could develop them in other ways (including but not limited to terminal M.A.s; as I note below, on-the-job training may make even more sense). My main concern at this point is with the fact that universities, and tenure-track university faculty, have strong vested interests in continuing to produce Ph.D.s,, not so much for the benefit of the potential Ph.D.s, as for their own benefit (faculty get to teach interesting grad courses, and get some help with the labor of teaching undergrad ones; universities get cheap labor). It’s not at all clear that the Ph.D. candidates are benefiting as much as the existing faculty, and the institutions which house the Ph.D. programs. I can think of some things that might shift the balance back in a more favorable direction. One is taking grad teaching as pedagogical training more seriously, up to and including requiring that T.A.s take parallel teaching courses not just for a semester, but for the first several years of teaching (this is a good idea in any case, would lessen the chance of new Ph.D.s becoming overwhelmed by teaching duties early on the tenure track, *and* would make using TAs more expensive for the university, since they’d have to invest more tenure-track faculty FTEs in pedagogical training. That, in turn, might provoke some more honest conversation about why grad students serve as T.A.s, and whether stated purposes and actual practice match up. In many cases, even in universities, including my own, which do provide good pedagogical training, I fear they don’t. Many of our grad students would probably be better off financially working jobs outside the university rather than teaching, *if* you took the value of the inflated-then-waived tuition out of the equation. And they’re often so busy teaching that they don’t get as much as they could out of the grad classes they’re paying for with that teaching.)

    Another possibility would be to offer Ph.D. funding that did not include T.A. work, or significantly decreased the amount of TA work in favor of internship-type experiences that could serve as try-outs for alt-ac type careers. Many of these could be within the university — in libraries, administration, development, public relations, etc. — and universities might also be able to set up consulting services that could serve the larger community, provide real “real world” work for grad students, and bring in some revenue that could be used to support the grad workers. Grad students might find the combination useful, or they might decide they’d be better off with the learning-on-the-job component alone. If so, the Ph.D.-as-training-for-other-careers argument is weakened.

    My perspective is no doubt informed by holding a Ph.D. in English, which, while it’s hardly useless as training for non-academic work, and may serve as a useful sorting system for potential employers (people who finish their Ph.D.s do tend to have certain personal traits, such as the ability to work independently, persistence, and a tolerance for frustration), is really not necessary for such jobs. People who’re capable of getting an English Ph.D. are also capable of developing their research, writing, and critical thinking skills in many other ways. If anything, Ph.D. training tends to narrow our horizons (or at least our perception of our horizons, thanks to the sort of faculty advice bias others have noted above). At the same time, there’s tremendous need for our skills inside the academy — everybody wants students to be able to read, write, research, and cite, and, though those skills should really form part of the curriculum in all departments, many university faculty members would prefer that someone else teach those skills — but great unwillingness to pay for those skills, at least at the tenure-track level. Unless and until that changes, I will discourage my students from pursuing an English Ph.D., and will advocate (to the extent I’m able, which isn’t very great) for a drastic cut in the number of new English Ph.D.s produced. You could probably suspend all English (and comp & rhetoric) Ph.D. programs in the U.S. for 5-10 years, and still have no problem filling the tenure-track jobs that open up (as long as departments are wiling to hire their own and each others’ longtime adjuncts, “stale” Ph.D.s, etc, etc.). Non-tenure track jobs might be another question, but that’s sort of the point; the only way to defeat the adjunct beast, I’m afraid, is to starve it (and even then, it’s entirely possible that universities will try to leverage a Ph.D.’s qualifications for accreditation purposes by having hir supervise a large number of non-grad “assistants” with less training. As far as I know, the main people with leverage to keep that from happening are the accrediting agencies).

  14. good enough professor Says:

    Once again, your thoughts about post-Ph.D employment have prompted a blog post. FWIW: http://goodenoughprofessor.blogspot.com/2014/03/will-nobody-think-of-college-students.html. tl;dr: yes, graduate advisors need to stop being snobs, but sustaining a system of exploitative college teaching jobs is a lousy way to rectify the supply-and-demand situation.


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