July 16, 2003

PhDs and Nonacademic Careers: Information Underload

I read the advice columns, I visit the websites, I lurk at the WRK4US listserve: in short, I keep up with the "nonacademic careers for PhDs" literature. But what information I can find is extremely vague and highly anecdotal. Indeed, the literature on this topic is not so much informational as inspirational. Frankly, I've yet to be inspired. Or, to be brutally frank, for me the Horatio Alger for Adjuncts story inspires nothing more than a sense of utter waste and futility. There's no need to tell me that this is the wrong attitude, by the way; I already know that.

But what I'd like to know is, what happens to history PhDs who leave the academy? Where do they go? What do they do? How much money do they make? I don't mean, what happened to Dr. X, who parlayed an interest in Y into a career in Z field. I mean, what happens to history PhDs as a group or cohort? At the very least, in what industries or sectors are they most likely to be found? I'm haunted by the thought that they're most likely to be found behind the counter at the local Starbucks, or perhaps at the Barnes & Noble. I wish I could find some information to counter this pessimism. But I doubt very much such information even exists. After all, who would compile the data? -- certainly not the AHA. And if someone did manage to come up with some real information, would this data serve to refute or to confirm my pessimism?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at July 16, 2003 03:42 PM

Nobody knows. Nobody tracks academic attriters at any level, from grad school on up.

I wish I had a better answer, but I don't.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 16, 2003 06:04 PM

I don't have specific information on history Ph.D.'s, but I can give general advice on transitioning from academia to business. I was a physics Ph.D. and transitioned first into a technical (software) job and then into business-side marketing/strategy/partnering positions.

The first thing to realize about business is that there are only two basic functions -- innovation and marketing. Either you're improving a product, or you're building relationships. Most history Ph.D.'s will probably find that they're better on the marketing/relationship-building side. An ability to persuade, and to write persuasively, is very important and very valuable in business. This is likely to be a history Ph.D.'s greatest strength.

A common weakness among academics is their individualistic, competitive approach to work. (Yes, despite the leftish orientation of academics and rightish orientation of businesspeople, it is the businesspeople who are more sociable.) Most academics are not good at working in teams, at recognizing their own weaknesses and finding other people who are strong to cover their weaknesses, and have little experience in putting together a large group of people to get something accomplished. Too many have ego-needs and want to be proven right as individuals rather than help the group succeed.

As for specific jobs, it doesn't matter. You get in somewhere, perhaps entry-level, you learn, and you move to a new position. I moved through 7 positions in my first 5 years in the private sector, all in the same company.

To do well in a responsible and high-paying position, you will have to develop a lot of knowledge and some social skills you've never had to have before. That won't happen right away. So acknowledge that you have to start low, pay some dues, and that whoever hires you is making an investment that has a long-term payoff. The consolation: it pays more than grad school, takes a lot less time before you move up, and has more long-term rewards.

Personally, I think the private sector is a lot more fun than academia. One difference is that things move faster, the deliverables are smaller and quicker, you finish them, get a reward and move on to something new. In academia, it's harder to stay interested because projects last so long and a specialty gets boring after a while. The other difference is that the private sector is more sociable and cooperative, whereas academia is more individualistic and dog-eat-dog.

Finally, I strongly recommend looking for work in a fast-growing company in an entrepreneurial industry. Such industries are more interesting, and growing companies create opportunities to move between jobs and learn. Stale, slow-growth companies are no place for a history Ph.D. new to the private sector.

Posted by: Paul Jaminet at July 16, 2003 06:07 PM

The data may not be so hard to find. Grad schools keep the graduates and almost graduates on the list of people to ask for money every year. Yale awhile back contacted me to ask what I was doing, and if I would counsel those leaving the English program. So, if one had official standing of some sort, say, had gotten a grant, or a book proposal accepted, or whatever, perhaps the grad schools would give you the contact info. It would be a big service all around, to have the data, the contacts, and the case histories.

Posted by: The Happy Tutot at July 16, 2003 07:30 PM

After finishing my Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization I worked for a company near D.C. called "History Associates." I did archival research in Boston and Salem on the manufactured gas industry (for a pending lawsuit). The pay was about equal to a tenure-track assistant professorship. I actually left to become an assistant professor of English (what I really wanted), but I thought History Associates was not a bad alternative. Check out their Web site; they have openings once in a while:


Posted by: William Pannapacker at July 16, 2003 07:53 PM

Resources from the Workshop on Graduate Student Attrition. (Wandering around the NSF site pulls up a number of studies relating to employment as well, but, obviously, these are primarily devoted to scientists)

NORC has been compiling a long-term study on "Education and Career Outcomes of Doctorate Recipients." Several pdf. files available.

A list of nonacademic career placements of University of Michigan graduate students (incl. a lot of historians).

Posted by: Miriam at July 16, 2003 11:57 PM

I think Paul's comments are the best I have read about transitioning from academe to a business career. Much better than I have ever put it myself. He really hits the nail on the head with the differences in the two cultures, the ways most academics would need to adapt, and the challenges facing them. I'm also glad that he emphasizes that IT CAN BE DONE. Paul, bravo!

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at July 17, 2003 12:04 AM

I think a lot of PhD's from the humanities end up in the non-profits. There, the job security is second only to adjunct work.

Posted by: Cat at July 17, 2003 08:54 AM

I'm getting out of the humanities track and looking at jobs in development (fundraising) at universities and non-profits. A friend from my department did the same a few years ago, so I'm following her example. After 85 applications in two months I don't have a job, but I have landed a few interviews. This side of non-profits probably has greater job stability since smart organizations don't cut their fundraising efforts even in bad times.

Posted by: A Frolic of My Own at July 17, 2003 09:19 AM

A Frolic: do you know what you're getting into? The "development" officers from non-profits I know or know of are often insane and they get fired frequently.

Posted by: JT at July 17, 2003 09:48 AM

IA -- A-MEN!

William -- I think that H.Assoc.s is advertising a position now. FWIW, though, I tried applying for one of their positions this last spring and I never heard from them after sending in my materials -- not even a "We got your stuff" email. (And, yes, I did email a query about this.)

But then, I've had bad luck with the non-academic research positions I've applied for in general -- I look simultaneously too "experienced" to do entry-level work and too "inexperienced" to be hired for higher-level positions -- the classic PhD dilemma.

How DOES one get one's foot in the door?

What might be nice is a sort of "alumni" board for career transitioners, where new post-academics can contact old hands and get practical advice.

Posted by: Rana at July 17, 2003 10:37 AM

Well, I haven't met anyone who is insane. I'm also living in D.C., where there are more large national non-profits. I don't know if this is what I want to do long term, but I think it would be good experience for any kind of non-profit position.

I need to get experience. Also, I need to get in the loop, since most jobs appear to get filled by word of mouth. More than anything at the moment, I need to pay rent.

Posted by: A Frolic of My Own at July 17, 2003 10:37 AM

The research / hospital / med school I worked for for years seemed to be hiring PhD's for middle-management (three that I know of). I frankly wouldn't recommend this; they didn't seem to be especially good managers and their jobs weren't at all wonderful.

My guess is that the hospital decided that their earlier policy of hiring retired military lifers wasn't working. Lots of evidence for that.

Posted by: zizka at July 17, 2003 11:48 AM

I need to get experience. Also, I need to get in the loop, since most jobs appear to get filled by word of mouth. More than anything at the moment, I need to pay rent


Posted by: Rana at July 17, 2003 01:16 PM

I work in fund-raising at a Research I university, and have yet to meet many insane people. There are a couple of PhDs on staff right now (including at least one history), both working with foundations. Our former VP was abd (history again, I think, after also starting working with fdns & corporations.)

It's a good line of work, and can be fairly lucrative on the upper end. The stability issues aren't normally such a big factor in academic development. The thing, as probably always, is that you're going to run into lack of experience issues when applying--after a decade in college, you're probably not going to want to start on the ground floor. But a targeted search could be fruitful, especially if you're willing to relocate.

Posted by: zooey at July 17, 2003 01:51 PM

First off, the useful books are concerned with figuring out what sort of career would suit you, and are in the job-hunting section of the library. Everyone seems to recommend "What Color Is Your Parachute". There are other and better ones out there, though I'm drawing a blank on their titles. But that's the type of book I found most useful when I was at the "*Now* what do I do?" stage. I found the books for PhD's departing academe utterly useless.

Second: I realize I have only my sense of this; I have no more specific empirical information to offer than anybody. But my field was history, and so I know quite a number of individuals who have been in the position of leaving that field in particular, both past and present.

I will say first that of the group that worked and hung out together, only one of us is actually a professor. She is at Ohio State University in Columbus, and has achieved tenure. She has also hidden all her less mundane interests - SCA, gaming, living history, even science fiction - far back in a dark closet to maintain her respectability in her department. I find it sad that she had to, but it is her choice.

The others? Not one of us is working retail now, although most of us - myself included - did for a time after we walked away from history. The longest any of us stayed in that place was 2 years, and that was me. Four of us are in library science in some capacity, mostly at universities. (Sandy is chief archivist in the rare books collection at University of Chicago, Ian occupies the same position at Ohio State, and Sally is chief archivist at Butler University. Jennifer is head librarian at McGill, up in Canada.) One went back to grad school after several years, and is now a clinical psychologist. Michael does data base analysis for the State Department. He actually taught for a few years, then decided that the horrors of academic politics were not sufficiently offset by the joy of teaching. Carol went and got a bachelor's in occupational therapy, and is doing that. Barry is an editor for one of the big publishing companies, and Tim got his law degree and now works as an editor for one of the big legal publishing companies. Aaron worked as an employment counselor for the state he lived in, and just recently decided that he would go to law school. He just finished his first year.

This is still anecdotal, of course. But it is a larger sample than one, and it is definitely the long view; we left grad school anywhere from 1979 to 1985. So what it lacks in rigour, I think it makes up for in perspective.

Summary? We are, all eleven of us, professionals. Some of us still have academic connections, and all of us still pursue intellectual professions. We did not get stuck in Starbucks or Barnes and Noble.

I hope that helps.

Posted by: Alisa at July 17, 2003 02:31 PM

Based on friends' stories, I would highly recommend library and information technology. It involves going back to school, but it's a dynamic field and there's all kinds of interesting stuff happening.

Posted by: zizka at July 17, 2003 02:37 PM

More school. Sounds nice. I wish I could afford it. :(

Posted by: Rana at July 17, 2003 03:19 PM

Gosh golly, Alisa, happy endings all around -- no keeping that Sally down, eh? When's the movie coming out? And what's it going to be called, "Return of the Columbus 11"?

Posted by: Chris at July 17, 2003 04:00 PM

Alisa, thanks very much for this. Eleven is certainly the largest sample I've come across.

Thanks also to William Pannapacker for the history associates suggestion.

This line is great:
"A common weakness among academics is their individualistic, competitive approach to work. (Yes, despite the leftish orientation of academics and rightish orientation of businesspeople, it is the businesspeople who are more sociable.)"

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 17, 2003 04:07 PM

I actually took most issue with that statement, as it happens. I've found plenty of unsociable jerks outside the academy, starting with myself.

Chris, cut it out, please. You're not being fair. You're quite right to be skeptical of anecdotal evidence, but that doesn't license you to sneer at people's real-life stories.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 17, 2003 04:23 PM

Dorothea: You misunderstood me. I was truly lauding Alisa's story. I, for one, am so tired hearing of burnt-out, abused, self-pittying ex-academics who end up in less-than-fulfilling careers at Borders. You know the one's? Those 40-something, slightly greying men wearing those button-down check shirts and baggy Levi's Dockers, or the women with longish white/grey hair, dour expressions, wire glasses perched at the end of their noses going out for after-work drinks with their 20-something "chick" friends. I hate those stories, and I hear them so, so often that it's become tiresome. I am tickled pink to hear about Sally's, Sandy's, and Ian's success stories. They give me hope! They defy Kafka's maxim: 'There is hope, but it's not for us."

Posted by: Chris at July 17, 2003 05:16 PM

Dorothea - Some have called me an unsociable jerk too, even after I joined the private sector. But I didn't mean to imply that ex-academics are jerks; I was talking about a subtler issue of culture. Academia provides little training in team collaboration where team size is much greater than ~3, team players are fluid, and the purpose of the game as well as the players can change. In fact academia acculturates people in a way that makes them struggle when placed in such an environment.

In addition to my own experience I've witnessed half a dozen other academics make similar career switches, and in most cases the biggest cause of failure was the struggle to fit in to a social enterprise with an often-fluid social structure.

Looking over comments on this thread, it's interesting how many career-changers are looking for near-academic jobs -- e.g. university administration, non-profits, private research organizations. I can understand why this may seem easy but it leaves a great many opportunities overlooked. There may be less competition elsewhere. A piece of business advice -- if you've put out 85 applications and gotten 2-3 meetings and no sales, I'd seriously consider changing something.

If there's demand for specific advice on how to get a business job, I could write some up. I've written long emails to more than one academic job-changer in the past.

Posted by: Paul Jaminet at July 17, 2003 06:08 PM

Chris: sorry, I did misread. Mea maxima culpa. I have to say I've never met the people you mention, though. Maybe I've lived a sheltered life. Or possibly these folks have other things going that aren't immediately apparent.

Paul: I know what you mean. Speaking for myself only, though I am indeed starting a course of study that fits me for near-academia (good term, that), I am open to whatever job opportunity gives me what I want in terms of challenge, interest, and autonomy. I've had bad luck in the for-profit sector so far, but I'm not assuming it's permanent.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 17, 2003 08:57 PM

Paul, I would love to hear any advice you have for entering the business world. I'm open to any possibilities these days.

I would add, in a "I must convince myself I'm really not a loser" defense, that I've only been searching for a job for about 3 months. My return rate is not that great, I know. Many friends who have either professional training or relevant experience (or both), however, have had to search for six months to land a job. It's just a really bad economy out there.

Posted by: A Frolic of My Own at July 18, 2003 09:11 AM

One of the first things I noticed when I switched out of my academic career is that most (empashis: most) people I met treated me with far more respect than my PhD program profs did, despite my lesser qualifications. It's not a question of their basic qualities; after all, people are mostly the same across different communities (yes, that comment applies to intelligence, too). It's a question of culture and the marketplace: there's no greater way of promoting excessive egotism than to give a successful person a job that 1) they can't lose; 2) is very difficult to obtain; 3) contains no meaningful performance evaluations. That describes a tenured prof perfectly. They don't need grad students; they are more successful than the grad students; if they abuse them, there are no checks. Businesspeople only reach that stage when they are worth $10mm+ :)

As a general rule, immunity to job loss is one of the best ways to promote generally uinpleasant workplace behavior.

Posted by: JT at July 18, 2003 09:51 AM

JT --

I agree completely. I am in a science field, which has a much rosier employment outlook than the humanities, but a different set of issues when it comes to professor-grad student relations. Many very successful science professors are egomaniacal slave drivers who suck as much as they can out of their (relatively) underpaid grad students and treat them like garbage. Decent management skills are very rare, and even the really good guys, like my advisor, tend to be poor managers. I work in industry now and while I miss the intellectual stimulation of a lot of what goes on in academia, one of the things I really like about it is that the managers, while not nearly as smart as some of the professors I knew, are for the most part very decent people who treat everybody respectfully, fairly and like equals. I attribute this in part to the culture at my company, but also to the fact that all of them, right on up to and including the CEO, have bosses themselves. I think this helps to keep them much humbler than the average professor (tenured or otherwise). Plus, thereís the fact that circumstances change and itís possible for roles to be reversed and for managers to find themselves reporting to people who once reported to them. And the general corporate emphasis on teamwork probably doesnít hurt either. Regardless, itís very refreshing.

And, of course, itís not just science. Some science professors are slave drivers and/or abusive, but when I was in grad school, I had a number of friends in a humanities department that was full of people who behaved very inappropriately on a more personal level. That sort of garbage would be much, much less likely to be tolerated at my company (and we are comparing a very prestigious university with a major corporation).

Posted by: maguzza at July 18, 2003 03:37 PM

I have found this thread very interesting and perhaps someone here might be able to comment on academics heading into government jobs. Is it safe to equate the experiences of transitioning from academia to business with transitioning from academia to government? Or is it a different beast all together?

If government and business are not that different, are there any subtle differences of which a new job seeker should be aware?


Posted by: at July 19, 2003 12:34 PM

Great question, Invisible Adjunct, and fabulous feedback, everyone!

Barbara Lovitts, Ph.D. conducted a study -- with $$$ from the NSF and the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation -- about the numbers, fate, and motivations of attriters. This study, which originally comprised Lovitts' University of Maryland Ph.D. dissertation in Sociology, was published as a 2001 book called _Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study_. Lovitts includes national stats on those who leave doctoral programs, where they end up, and what made them leave in the first place. She does the same -- although to a much lesser degree -- for folks who leave Academe *after* earning the doctorate.

(Interestingly, Lovitts herself is a triple attriter, and thus a woman after my own heart. She dropped out of not one but *two* doctoral programs before getting the doctorate at long last -- via a dissertation about doctoral program dropouts! The Ph.D. behind her, Lovitts did some postdocs that supported her while she converted dissertation to book -- and then promptly took a nice job in non-profit research. You go, girl.)

At any rate, Amazon.com sells the book (at an astronomical softcover price) here: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0742509427/ref=lpr_g_1/104-9848408-2482319?v=glance&s=books), but Powell's once had copies as well. Check out this URL as well -- *not* for the link to Dealtime (yick), but instead for the links to reviews and related articles by or about Lovitts: http://xaosearch.com/1154131/Leaving_the_Ivory_Tower:_The_Causes_and_Consequences_of_Departure_From_Doctoral_Study.html

As for studies dedicated *chiefly* to folks who leave the Academy after they've actually gotten the Ph.D., I don't know of any dedicated studies off the top of my head -- especially not ones that deal specifically with history programs [1] -- but I know that something akin to this must be out there somewhere. Or so I hope.

[1] BTW, as a fellow historian, I agree with you, when you say that rates of non-academic destinations is the sort of thing that the OAH and the AHA *should* be sharing with people, Invisible Adjunct. And a person shouldn't have to twist anyone's arm to get this kind of information from a prospective department, either. Yet, it seems clear that departments either: a) aren't forthcoming with the informarion or b) make the information public, but 'tweak' it.

Posted by: "Carine Bichet" at July 24, 2003 10:58 AM

I am an academic (on tenure track) at a rather large state school. I have a very prestigious Ph.D., but spend nights and days depressed, thinking that I took a wonderful intellectual journey, but made a terrible mistake and became all too entrenched in this business of academics. I want out! I am very impressed by Paul's comments. Would it be wise for me to get my MBA?

Posted by: Reggie at January 4, 2004 09:54 PM