March 01, 2003

Ph.D. as Preparation for Nonacademic Careers?

Call me bitter and disillusioned and downright cranky (no, really; go ahead: you won't be telling me anything that I don't already tell myself), but I am really tired of hearing the following platitude:

"A Ph.D. in the humanities can serve as preparation for a wide variety of careers outside the academy."

To which I always want to reply: Uh, no, you've got the whole thing ass-backwards.

Perhaps you meant to say something like, "If you are capable of completing a Ph.D. in the humanities, then you are also capable of preparing for a wide variety of fields outside the academy." True enough. I won't argue with you there.

If you have the brains/talent/stubbornness or whatever to read a hundred books or so in a few specialized fields, take and pass comprehensive exams in those fields, pursue intensive research on a topic of your choosing, write a three to four hundred-page narrative/account based on that research, all the while perhaps preparing classes on topics about which you know little to nothing, advising students, grading papers and exams, writing conference papers and grant proposals and so on ... well, yes, if you have the brains/talents/stubbornness or whatever to do all of the above, then you surely have the brains/talents/stubbornness or whatever to pursue any number of other careers in the big, wide world beyond the academy.

But to say this is not at all to say that whatever it is you are doing in the academy can be seen as a useful "preparation" for the myriad of other things you could be doing instead. I doubt very much that it is a useful form of preparation. I rather suspect that a more useful (and infinitely less painful) mode of preparation would involve skipping the academy altogether (do not pass go, do not collect $200) and moving directly into the relevant nonacademic field.

As a kind of pep talk for people like me (i.e., underemployed Ph.D.'s working as adjuncts, finally facing the brutal reality of the job "market" in their field and realizing that they need to get the h-ll out of the academy), I suppose I can meet the above statement halfway. But as a justification for business as usual (i.e., 'let's continue to recruit people into our graduate programs even though we know they'll never find full-time work in the academy; after all, they can always find work afterwards as ... well, as something or other, Hollywood screenwriters or something...; can't think of anything too specific, but the Ph.D. must surely serve as preparation for a wide variety of nonacademic careers'), I find it intellectually specious and morally bankrupt.

End of rant. Now where is my toddler? I need to remind myself that life is pretty darn good in spite of the academy.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 1, 2003 05:45 PM

Yes... and no. Certainly there are better ways of developing the skills necessary to succeed in the nonacademic world-- "better" defined as simpler, cheaper, more direct, etc.

But I think the important point to make is this: Humanities and social science graduate training is one of the few kinds of education that produce a sense among the successful that they are LESS qualified to do a variety of things, not MORE so. The assumption is that the things we learn as graduate students, and the professional identities we craft, aren't useful off-campus. That assumption isn't entirely correct: the specialized knowledge that we acquire (and which is most highly valued within academia) is hard to translate, but other skills you pick up (and which are essentially invisible to hiring committees) do translate.

This is not to say that any graduate humanities or social science program should tout its real-world preparation opportunities, that's for sure. Nor should the claim of relevance be used as an excuse to keep overproducing, particularly when academic culture divides the working world into Tenure Track Jobs and The Big Black Hole of Everything Else. Likewise, no one should get a Ph.D. thinking that they'll have the same outward focus as an MBAs or JDs. But it's unfortunate that many Ph.D.s believe that they have a restricted, rather than expanded, range of skills and career possibilities.

Posted by: Alex Soojung-Kim Pang at April 9, 2003 07:23 PM

Thanks for your comment.

That's a good point about how PhDs come out feeling less rather than more qualified. An academic friend of mine took a short-term part-time job working for a corporation, and was slightly astonished when they offered him a full-time job a month or so later. He had no idea how valuable were his skills! he was thinking, Sure, I'll earn a bit of extra money doing this research for them and then go on my way. They were thinking, Wow this guy is a keeper: he not only finds the data for us but then synthesizes it into well-organized and highly readable reports.

Still, I think the Ph.D. demands too much for too many years to be seen as a useful preparation. I like what Jack Miles says in "Three Differences between An Academic and An Intellectual:"

"While it is difficult ever to say what portion of a man or woman's knowledge will not someday be useful, the full-blown humanities doctorate -- particularly if it is followed by long years of probationary appointments and then a negative tenure decision -- grievously delays a young person's entry into the general marketplace, burdens him or her with enormous debt, and inculcates over the years the self-destructive habit of constant subtle deference. Humane learning has many uses in the general marketplace, but the baroque peculiarity of American doctoral education produces an animal hyper-adapted to the baroque peculiarity of the American academic habitat."

And I think the "grievous delay" applies not only to employment but also to many other areas of life: marriage, children, achievement of at least a modestly middle-class income level, and so on.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 9, 2003 08:01 PM

I completed my doctoral studies at the University of Michigan in 1998 and by then, I had already decided not to pursue any academic jobs. Instead, I moved to the west coast to pursue violence prevention and community development projects with passion. I wanted to live the "active" life and to "make a difference." After 5 years, I have grown and matured and learned a new level of thankfulness and humility (which lessons I need to relearn each morning and then commit to practice through each day). Working with families traumatized by violence who struggle to deal with "real" life challenges, spending time with prisoners, comforting a mentally woman crying over the despair of abandonment, trying to stem the tide of youth violence--all these experiences and so many more--have led me to reassess my life, my role in the community, and my goals. After five years, I have ultimately realized that my gift and my vocation is teaching, which has been a common thread throughout all of my efforts. I left academia for five years only to realize that, in the end, I truly wish to be a part. I realized too that I want (and am ready) for a family, children, a stable environment which has grown to fruition.
Now that I have decided this, I face the challenge of finding a position in my field, five years after leaving graduate school, during the most dire economic times. Yet, I pursue this with delight and excitement. I am grateful to have the chance to pursue my dream even if I must piece together this job and that. I lack the luxury of not recognizing and being grateful for my opportunities, because I have held the hand of the frightened child whose world has been irreparably torn down by violence. In contrast, tenure-track or adjunct seem to be trival. Indeed, things are not ideal--would that we could all have tenure-track positions in perfect universities, but in lieu of this, let us be thankful for the opportunities to share our knowledge, to encourage and develop others to their potential, and along the way, to be transformed by the educational process of learning and of serving the community. Just my thoughts...peace, Matt Herbst

but I do not think that I am owed anything, nor will I whine at the challenges before me

Posted by: Matt Herbst at April 16, 2003 10:04 PM

Why yes, thank you, I would like a little bit of cheese to go with my whine.

Matt, I appreciate your comments. And if it works for you, then I guess it's good that you've found a way to piece together a living with "delight and excitement." But college teaching is becoming deprofessionalized and proletarianized, and I don't think it's a very good idea for the proles to sing hymns of praise and thanks to the masters.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 18, 2003 12:29 AM

I, too, am a recent Ph.D. (philosophy) slaving on the adjunct treadmill. It's not fun, and I want off.

That said, I think it is very important to remember that working in the humanities is a wonderful and, historically, extremely rare privilege. How many people get to love what they do every day? No, I'm not a pollyanna -- as I've said, I am doing everything I can to move up into a position that carries more respect and remuneration. But I try to keep the perspective that a scant century ago, nearly everyone had to be employed in manual labor, farm or factory, and only the sons of the very rich were able to spend their days as full-time thinkers.

Posted by: Robert Garmong at July 3, 2003 02:17 PM

Matt- you make a lot of sense. But why would you pursue Julie Adamson- she is very immature and definitely not in touch with her emotional development. She is the type of academician that you would otherwise piss on. This is outrageous!

Just my thoughts- peace, Jimmy Steez

Posted by: Jimmy Steez at November 15, 2003 07:07 PM

A PhD in economics is also useful if you want to work at the US Department of Agriculture or Treasury or in State Government etc World Bank etc. in research related roles. Also some consultancy etc firms might be interested. But clearly it is a preparation to be an independent researcher or a manager of research. It doesn't make a lot of sense to do it if you don't want to be in one of these two roles. So PhDs in humanities I suspect aren't a lot of use outside academia except at places like National Endowment for the Humanities etc. museums etc. It is much better to get that law or business degree or whatever if that si what you want to do.

Posted by: David at December 6, 2003 01:39 PM