The problem with preparing grad students for alternative, non-academic careers

October 22, 2011 - 7:46pm

Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman recently published an editorial in the AHA magazine, Perspectives on History, that argues that graduate schools must do a better job preparing students for work outside of academe.

As Grafton and Grossman note, many - perhaps most - graduates will not find tenure-track jobs. “ Why not tell our students, from the beginning, that a PhD in history opens a broad range of doors? As historians, let's begin with some facts. Holders of doctorates in history occupy, or have recently occupied, a dizzying array of positions outside the academy: historical adviser to the Chief of Staff of the Army, Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Chief of Staff to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, museum curators, archivists, historians in national parks, investment bankers, international business consultants, high school teachers, community college teachers, foundation officers, editors, journalists, policy analysts at think tanks (yes, an entry-level position). The skills that these historians mastered as graduate students—doing research; conceptualizing relationships between structure, agency, and culture; combining research and analysis to present arguments with clarity and economy; knowing how to plan and carry out long-term projects—remain vital in their daily work. In many organizations outside the academy, a doctorate is a vital asset for those who want to rise above the entry level.”

While acknowledging the already severe time-limitations on students, they recommend broadening the curriculum to include courses in statistics, economics, public policy, and perhaps other disciplines (including acting!). 

Their article misses some key features of the economy that make their analysis, worrisome as it already is, too optimistic. What’s worse, students of premodern Europe are in an especially unfortunate position.

Last spring, Stanford hosted the Bibliotech conference. The aim of the congress was to bring Silicon Valley bigwigs and Stanford professors together to discuss the role of advanced humanities in the tech industry. While almost every discussion was illuminating, what emerged was not encouraging. We learned that many tech moguls identified the humanities with the “creative right brain,” as though all of us were artists, and that others did not even know what the humanities were (one eminent Googler consistently spoke of social psychology and political science as humanistic disciplines). 

Those speakers who did know what graduate programs entailed were unanimous: advanced study in the humanities was nice, but did not confer a distinct advantage over people who had merely majored in the humanities in college. In other words, 30-year-old PhDs would be competing with 22-year-old bachelors for the same positions. If anything, the decision to get a PhD aroused suspicion (as one venture capitalist put it) that we had merely been trying to escape the real world by getting a doctorate.

I am amazed that scholars continue to believe that advanced skills in the humanities are an asset in the working world. Policymakers and business leaders have declared, time and again, that they want brief, clear, and actionable analysis from their employees. Professional scholars are trained to write long, complicated, and nuanced analysis: almost precisely the opposite of a memo. I do not doubt that some of us could learn to produce what the working world demands, but our training in no wise prepares us for that activity. 

Then there is the problem of passion. The phrase “corporate slavery” suggests total servitude in a stultifying job in exchange for being very well paid. In reality, people compete as aggressively for jobs in the corporate world as we do for academic positions, and for the same reason: passion. Employers expect job applicants to have a demonstrated interest in their sector or field. While in some cases doctoral work may prove passionate interest in a field, more often than not, our specialities have no clear analog in the outside world (by “clear” I mean clear to employers).

The situation for memsians* is particularly dire. As scholars of the premodern world, we do not have an obvious interest in the urgent political or economic issues of our time. On the contrary, methodologically historians at least are concerned with evacuating all trace of presentism from their work. Even if my work on seventeenth-century bureaucracy sheds some light on the modern world, I could not pass myself off as an expert on contemporary bureaucracy. 

Then there is the foreign language problem. These are the languages memsians probably know: Latin, French, Italian, German, and Spanish. None of these tongues are considered rare and therefore do not command much value in the marketplace. By contrast, scholars of the Ottoman Empire in the age of Suleiman the Magnificent know Persian, Turkish, and Arabic. There are plenty of jobs outside of academe for Ottoman scholars, even if their dissertations dealt with love poetry or mystical philosophy.

If memsians face an especially difficult time of things, however, a separate set of calculations affects all of us equally. That is opportunity cost.

Most graduate students who have passed their oral exams, conducted their research, and started writing their thesis face an insistent question: are they good enough to make it? Like Weber’s Protestant artisans, the best way to answer that question is to work hard (VERY hard) and lead a virtuous life. Preparing oneself for a job outside of academe is incompatible with that goal.

Changing careers is always difficult and time consuming. The weekly marginal benefit of doing more academic work seems high over time. Let’s say that grad students have six hours of “free” time per week. They could either spend that time preparing for a non-academic job, or they could read another book related to their field. That’s fifty-two books a year: it might make a substantial difference to the quality of their dissertations and give them the edge that helps them get tenure-track jobs.

Spending substantial time preparing for a non-academic job makes it that much more likely that one will not land an academic job. 


~Corey Tazzara

 Editor's Note:

memsians*: specialists in the field of MEMS (Medieval and Early Modern Studies)