The Repurposed Ph.D.
Finding Life After Academia — and Not Feeling Bad About It
By REBECCA TUHUS-DUBROW
Published: November 1, 2013
ON a recent Sunday afternoon, a monthly meeting convened around a long table in a Whole Foods cafeteria on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As people settled in, the organizer plopped down a bag of potato chips and tackled housekeeping matters, like soliciting contributions. But she did not insist. “I know that some of you are in fragile situations,” she said.
Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
Matthew Staver for The New York Times
One attendee recalled scraping by on $9,000 a year. “I was exhausted by years of living in poverty,” she said. Her neighbor chimed in: “Amen, sister.”
An eavesdropper might have been surprised to learn what the group had in common: formidable academic credentials. Sitting at the table were a historian, a sociologist, a linguist and a dozen other scholars. Most held doctorates; a few were either close to completion or had left before finishing. All had toiled for years in graduate school but, by choice or circumstance, almost none had arrived at the promised destination of tenure-track professorships (the one who had was thinking of leaving). Now they found themselves at a gathering of a group called Versatile Ph.D. to support their pursuit of nontraditional careers.
After a round of introductions, the participants broke into clusters to swap stories and tips. A 32-year-old man who had studied ancient religion at Princeton wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of his employer, a finance website; he talked up his job to a physicist who was finalizing her thesis. The historian, a teacher at an elite private school, advised a recent American studies Ph.D. on where to find job postings and how to package himself. That young Ph.D., Adam Capitanio, who completed his degree in 2012, had looked for an academic position for three years, focusing his search on the Northeast and applying for at least 60 jobs. He hadn’t received a single interview. Now he was working as an editorial associate at an academic publisher, trying to devise a long-term plan. “Things were kind of desperate before I had that job,” he said. “This gives me some flexibility to figure out what I actually want to do.”
Dr. Capitanio’s experience is far from unusual. According to a 2011 National Science Foundation survey, 35 percent of doctorate recipients — and 43 percent of those in the humanities — had no commitment for employment at the time of completion. Fewer than half of Ph.D.’s are expected to land tenure-track jobs. And many voluntarily choose another path because they want higher pay or more direct engagement with the world than monographs and tenure committees seem to allow.
Though graduates have faced similar conditions for decades, the past few years have seen a surge in efforts to connect Ph.D.’s with gratifying employment outside academia and even to rethink the purpose of doctoral education. “The issue itself is not a new issue,” said Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. “The response, I would say, is definitely new.”
In addition to New York, Versatile Ph.D. groups have formed in at least seven other cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. Abundant online resources help Ph.D.’s turn curricula vitae into résumés and market their skills to nonacademic employers. And former academics can find kindred souls at blogs like “Chronicles of a Recovering Academic” and “Dr. Outta Here” (obscenity alert).
The spirit of change has even begun to take root inside the ivory tower. The University of California, Berkeley, held a “Beyond Academia” conference last spring, hosting Ph.D. speakers who have succeeded in other domains, from consulting to biotech. Similar events are planned at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which established its new Office of Career Planning and Professional Development in February.
The problem is especially urgent in the humanities. For Ph.D.’s in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), industry has long been a viable option. But students who study, say, Russian literature or medieval history have few obvious alternative careers in their fields. They confront questions about their relevance even inside the academy, let alone outside it.
In August, the Scholarly Communication Institute released a report titled “Humanities Unbound: Supporting Careers and Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track.” In it, Katina Rogers, the lead researcher, discusses the nascent concept of alternative academic, or alt-ac, professions. The term has gained widespread currency (and its own Twitter hashtag) and can refer to jobs within universities but outside the professoriate, like administrator or librarian, as well as nonacademic roles like government-employed historian and museum curator.
Dr. Rogers suggests that alt-ac is less a matter of where you work than how — “with the same intellectual curiosity that fueled the desire to go to graduate school in the first place, and applying the same kinds of skills, such as close reading, historical inquiry or written argumentation, to the tasks at hand.” In an interview, she credited the neologism with infusing “positive energy” into the often gloomy conversations about alternative careers. The alt-ac ethos holds that nonacademic work is not a fallback plan for failures but a win-win: Ph.D.’s can bring their deep expertise and advanced skills to a whole gamut of challenges, rather than remaining cocooned in the ivory tower.
Karen Shanton explored unconscious cognitive processes for her philosophy Ph.D. from Rutgers but works at the National Conference of State Legislatures, which provides legislators with nonpartisan analysis. She won the two-year fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. Its Public Fellows program, created in 2011, places Ph.D.’s from the humanities and social sciences in nonprofit and government organizations.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 3, 2013
Because of an editing error, an article on Page 32 this weekend about Ph.D.’s who seek jobs outside of academia misstates part of the name of a report produced by a historian through the Digital Fellows Program at City University of New York. It is “Data Mining Diplomacy,” not “Data Mining Diploma.”