Mentor the Whole Person Blog Post: Every Ph.D. Needs an Exit Strategy

A soon-to-be English Ph.D. comes across a recent graduate studying in the library stacks. One is finishing her dissertation and excited to be nearing the end of the process. The other? Well, the euphoria from the defense is dissipating. When you’re adjuncting at the same university for less money than you made as a graduate student and you’re diligently trying for job after job (in academia, in publishing, in writing…) with little to show for it, you can start to wonder: what can I do with a Ph.D.?

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This little graduate school morality play may seem a little bleak, but the thing is, you can actually do a lot with a Ph.D. In “Humanities Unbound,” a survey of humanities Ph.D. graduates working in “alternative academic” positions, Katina Rogers found that respondents had gone on to find careers in the fields of academic administration, government, and journalism, or worked at institutions like cultural heritage organizations, libraries, or non-profits. And while we’ve all heard horror stories about needing to take the Ph.D. off a resume to be more hirable, in fact many employers value a Ph.D. in a job candidate. Several employers interviewed as part of the Pathways Through Graduate School study by the Educational Testing Service and the Council of Graduate Schools saw candidates with graduate degrees as having not only advanced knowledge, but also the ability to lead, design projects, and problem-solve in innovative ways.

So why do so many Ph.D.s struggle to find stable work upon graduation? Some certainly take positions as adjuncts to persevere with the dream of a tenure-track academic job (a separate issue, recently devastatingly summed up by Kevin Birmingham), but many others simply don’t know what else to do. It’s possible to leave a Ph.D. with a polished dissertation, a teaching portfolio, and selection of well-crafted cover letters for academic jobs, but with no resume, no contacts outside academia, and no idea of what jobs you’re qualified for. It’s also difficult for many Ph.D.s to articulate their many skills for employers beyond the content of their dissertation and teaching. For example, few non-academic employers will value my deep knowledge of fifteenth-century religious education and how to revise comma splices, but they could certainly appreciate my grant-writing techniques, my proficiency as a researcher, and my ability to set goals and work independently to reach them.

What every Ph.D. student needs to create, preferably before the frantic last lap of the dissertation process, is an exit strategy. This plan goes beyond writing a strong resume (though that’s a great start). Students should be able to name a couple of career paths they’d like to pursue, and should have conducted research into the vocabulary and required skills for these fields. They should talk to Ph.D. alumni, explore internships, sit down with employees in these potential careers, write for audiences outside academia…the list goes on. Basically, every student should start thinking about what he or she wants do after graduation long before finishing the Ph.D., even if the main goal is an elusive tenure-track job.

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At the recent meeting of the “Living Humanities” Ph.D. project on “Mentor the Whole Person: Career-Wise Counsel, Promising Partnerships,” faculty members and administrators from different departments across the humanities shared their initiatives to help students prepare for careers after graduation. These insights highlighted several avenues for improving graduates’ confidence on entering a non-academic job market. One suggestion involved expanding the role of the placement officer to include non-academic careers. In the Philosophy department, a member of faculty now works on enhancing non-academic placement, while the placement officer focuses on academic appointments. In the English department, the placement officer is now assisted by a Job Placement Committee, who can draw on a wider range of teaching (and life) experience to assist students on the job market.

Several departments are focusing on expanding their students’ teaching skills. In Philosophy, there are plans to hold a summer camp for high schoolers, so Ph.D. students will have the opportunity to work in K-12 teaching. In English, the placement officer is working to prepare students for careers at community colleges, independent high schools and beyond. Discussions with English Ph.D. alumni in the Peace Corps and the Park Service have highlighted how their employers valued their teaching experience, so focusing on this aspect of the Ph.D. could also help students answer questions about the value of their Ph.D. on the non-academic market.

Another key factor is not only normalizing non-academic jobs, but also raising their prestige among faculty members. Of course departments should still promote their graduates’ achievements on the academic job market, but they should also highlight that a tenure-track academic job is not the norm; more students will find careers outside this category than within it. One goal in the Theology department is to teach faculty to see non-academic jobs as equally attractive, so that this perception could also trickle down to students and pervade departmental culture. Departments can easily contribute to the valuing of non-academic careers by promoting students’ achievements from outside the academy as well as within it. Why not send out a congratulatory email with the list of students who received competitive internships or post links to articles students have written for non-academic publications?
Another way to demonstrate a commitment to non-academic positions as well as academic ones is to Invite alumni in exciting careers back to the department to speak to current students about their jobs and how they got them. Students can then get ideas for what to look for, and will feel encouraged to take the initiative and search for opportunities on their own.

Alumni in particular are an excellent resource, offering tangible proof of the many careers a Ph.D. can lead to. As well as showing how to market a Ph.D. for a variety of careers, alumni can also provide that oh-so-elusive quantity for many Ph.D. students – professional contacts outside academia. Many departments currently don’t track their alumni working in careers outside academia, even as they meticulously list which graduates hold postdoctoral fellowships or academic positions. But Jason Pedicone, President of the Paideia Institute and a guest speaker at the last “Living Humanities” Ph.D. meeting, emphasizes the value of talking to alumni and showcasing their career paths. The Legion Project, a Paideia initiative that tracks students who pursued advanced degrees in Classics and publicizes their current careers, not only shows what can be done with an advanced education in Classics, but also helps create a community that Ph.D. students and graduates can tap into. Such projects can also be aspirational for students. For instance, the series of Compatible Careers seminars held by Fordham’s Medieval Studies program, at which former Medieval Studies MAs discuss their current careers, not only provides insight into the range of jobs available to graduates but also shows students that getting such jobs is possible, and that their skills from graduate school have value outside the academy.

So if you’re a graduate student, whether a starry-eyed first year or a world-weary dissertator, take some time to brainstorm what you’d like to do after graduation. Research how you could prepare yourself for this coveted career, be it with an internship, an informational interview, or a plan to publish in an online magazine. If you’re a faculty member, think about reaching out to former dissertation mentees – are they all in academia, or have some found fulfilling careers elsewhere? As the soon-to-be Ph.D. at the start of this piece, I’m trying to follow my own advice – as I prepare myself for my defense, I’m also thinking about what I’ll do next.

  • Samantha Sabalis, Graduate Assistant, NEH/GSAS Grant, The “Living Humanities” Ph.D. for the 21st Century 

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For more about the “Mentor the Whole Person” planning theme and suggestions for further reading, see its description on the website for “The ‘Living Humanities’ Ph.D. for the 21st Century.”

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