Expanding Career Horizons: Possibilities, Pitfalls

Originally published in the Summer 2014 MLA Newsletter

In recent years, the MLA has been exploring a new project to expand career opportunities for PhD holders, one we expect to refine and develop in the years ahead. Before I tell you more about the project, I want to acknowledge several potential objections to it. Some MLA members have told me that discussions of careers beyond the classroom are the wrong kind of conversation for us to have. This group of members believes that the MLA should concentrate on fighting for tenure-track positions on campus in language and literature fields—even though staffing decisions are particular to each institution. Some argue that the employment conditions of those already working as adjuncts deserve more of our attention. Still others note that, to the extent graduate education needs reforming, it should, if anything, focus more on preparing PhD candidates for the research expectations that they will face should they win one of the coveted tenure-track jobs.

I can see why members might feel this way, yet this project doesn’t need to be an either-or effort. The association has worked extensively on issues related to academic careers (full- and part-time), and we won’t abandon our advocacy and research role in these matters. We will continue to collect and analyze data, to argue for appropriate working conditions, and to create models for departments and institutions to follow. We will speak out and act up by naming harmful practices and calling for solutions. We will increase our support for graduate students, adjuncts, and unemployed members. And we will also provide resources so that PhD students can expand their career horizons.

When we began this collaborative project with the American Historical Association (AHA), our aim was to collect and disseminate information about long-term employment outcomes for humanists who hold the PhD and to develop structures that individuals and departments can use going forward as far as careers are concerned. Most people assume that the relative paucity of tenure-track jobs translates into long-term unemployment or underemployment for PhDs who don’t land a tenure-track position. Yet PhDs who desire full-time jobs can indeed find them—though not necessarily as professors. Data show that PhDs have had diverse employment outcomes for some time now. David Laurence, director of research at the MLA, has studied this issue. He observes that “people who enter the long and arduous path of doctoral study in the humanities do so having a postsecondary faculty career as their primary goal, and people who pursue graduate education in the humanities actually find careers in a far broader range of professional positions than postsecondary teaching, even if their first job after graduate school is a postsecondary faculty position on or off the tenure track.” The question, then, is not whether PhDs should pursue careers other than teaching, but rather how we as a field will respond to the evidence that they do.

From what PhD students report informally, the field has typically responded in ways that prove less than constructive. Students say that when they express their inclinations to explore careers other than tenure-track assistant professorships, they often receive little support from their graduate advisers, who perhaps don’t know how to help or disapprove of the choice. Advisers may also feel compelled to adhere to the existing rewards structure for job placement: Research I university placements count big, liberal arts colleges count medium, and nonacademic jobs don’t count at all. The first necessary change is attitudinal. Andrew Green, associate director at the Career Center at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that PhDs who “take jobs that they find very rewarding in business, government, or a non-profit—but are not faculty positions—typically become non-entities within their graduate programs” (qtd. in Segran). Put simply: graduate programs must recognize that a significant percentage of PhDs can and will get jobs that are not like those of their mentors. As a profession, we must support students who pursue these careers, which should be viewed not as “alternative” but as valid options in their own right.

What can scholarly associations do to make it possible for PhD candidates to broaden their career horizons? With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the AHA has embarked on a project that holds great promise for history PhDs (“AHA”), and the MLA is planning its next steps. A major report to be released soon from the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature, chaired by Russell Berman, past president of the MLA, will map out the essential changes that departments can undertake as they seek to meet the needs of PhD students today and to engage in better tracking of graduates’ careers. The recommendations in this report lay the foundation for a more expansive view of what we train PhD candidates to do and what they can do with that training.

The MLA has begun offering panels and workshops at the annual convention to showcase a variety of careers, and the ADE and ADFL Summer Seminars for department chairs have also taken action on the topic. Under the title Careers for Humanists, the Vancouver convention will feature a suite of activities, including a job-search workshop for those interested in pursuing careers beyond the classroom or the campus. Attendees at the session I organized for the 2013 convention, “Leaders on the Right Track in the Academy,” told me that they felt encouraged that the distinguished PhDs on the panel had found successful jobs related to the academy, jobs that involve high-level decision making, a degree of autonomy, responsibility for overseeing major projects and supervising teams, and so on. These career paths don’t come into view in most graduate programs.

What’s next? The possibilities we are exploring include establishing campus-based projects, creating regional networks, using MLA Commons for career development, and perhaps even holding a job fair. Graduate students will lead many of the projects and develop transportable leadership skills in the process. Our data collection and analysis will also evolve as we learn more about the employment choices of PhDs in our fields. For any of our efforts to be successful, however, three things have to happen. First, graduate departments need to take an expanded approach to job preparation and career tracking. Second, graduate students and faculty members must recognize that, while the assistant professorship may be the primary career goal, a multitude of opportunities are out there, and people can find immense satisfaction when they elect to pursue them. Third, employers need to see PhDs in the humanities as potential hires. The MLA is one such employer, and the dozen plus staff members who hold the PhD can attest to the applicability of the degree to the work of the association. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the Expanding Career Horizons project.

Works Cited

“AHA Receives Grants to Expand Career Tracks for History PhDs.” AHA Today. Amer. Historical Assn., 20 Mar. 2014. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Laurence, David. “Our PhD Employment Problem, Part 1.” MLA Commons. MLA, 26 Feb. 2014. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Segran, Elizabeth. “What Can You Do with a Humanities Ph.D., Anyway?” The Atlantic.com. Atlantic Monthly Group, 31 Mar. 2014. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.


Neal Woodruff

It is satisfying to find the MLA being concerned with non-academic employment in these times of contraction. It may be superfluous for you to hear this from a member long retired, but your piece evokes the past and signals an unfortunate continuity in some attitudes of members of the Association.
Some 30-odd years ago, I chaired the ADE and subsequently what we then called the Job Market Committee. The latter, in an earlier time of contraction, developed a ground-breaking report recommending study of non-academic employment for holders of advanced degrees in English. When it surfaced, the then chief administrator of the MLA roundly criticized me for allowing such a subversive suggestion to come to light. He, or more probably those he listened to, thought only academic work worthy for such people. This alienated me from the MLA for many years. The important thing, though, is that such attitudes persist. They must not be allowed to control.
When, after chairing a session on jobs at an MLA convent in NewYork, I was asked by a writer for the New Yorker, what the internal jobs problem was, I replied “autism,” and this was published. Though hyperbolic and born of frustration, this was not, it still seems to me, really off the mark. We humanists seem often to believe that our professional values are ultimate values, and that the world should respect them. But they are not what makes the mare go, while economic and cultural values do. We have long needed to study more than Chaucer and Proust to define our situation realistically.
Good luck with your effort to wake us up.

Neal Woodruff

Lanae Isaacson

In response to Rosemary G. Feal’s column on Expanding Career Horizons:

Pardon me but it’s a little late in the day to talk and write about alternative careers for PhDs. For years, Academe has eagerly educated and prepared PhD students for non-existent careers. Established professors have built their own safe niches by acquiring disciples and then trading their disciples with those of their colleagues at other institutions. This is the way the system (a highly political and politicized one) has worked and, well, there is probably a good deal of pressure on to maintain the ever-lovin’ status quo. After all, there are plenty of pleasant, naive, earnest young students out there. Those students can be tapped for their ideas, their creativity, their insights, and, then, they can be set free. I know first-hand, I was one such student and was easily discarded when my service to Academe was done.

At no point in my life did my own professors do more than was necessary to support my journey through the hallowed halls of Academe. Once I had finished my degree, I was done and was forgotten, more or less. I went on to write and conduct research, all the while publishing AND perishing. I kept on believing that I could earn my place in academic society; needless to say, I no longer believe that. Instead I believe that the disciples in Academe are identified right from the start of their studies and they are set on a course that will bring them a position and will bring honor and glory to their thesis directors. That is the way the game is played and will be the way it is played even if it ends up destroying the lives of many other also-rans and the Academy itself.

For my part, I am on the cusp of beginning my second book after a break of four years. I initially tried to approach the Academy for some sort of consultation, for some sort of support. However, any approach to Academe will ultimately means curtains for my proposed topic; established professors are disinclined to reach out to anyone outside the Ivory Tower and looking up at them on their perch. They look askance at those with new ideas and insights, especially if the ones with all these new ideas and insights do not enjoy their status and renomme. And woe to anyone who plans to approach a general audience, who seeks to engage people who don’t belong in the Ivory Tower either. If you’re an academic with no connection to Academe and with ideas that appeal to general readers and are not the stuff of heavy, dusty tomes, well, woe to you!

I do not believe that the MLA can fix a system that is engrained and supported on so many levels. This ultimately means that people like me are going to get hurt and are going to live lives unheard of by the academic establishment. I have learned to disregard most if not all academics and most if not all connections to my alma mater and similar such institutions. I served the ends of my professors and mentors at my doctoral institution; I provided them with the means to build and enhance their careers; what happened to me did not matter at the time and does not matter now.

I can either keep knocking on the Academic Door or I can go away and do my own thing. I have chosen to do the latter and find support and interest for my ideas way, way beyond the Ivory Tower. I would advise younger PhD students to do the same or, better yet, to skip the PhD experience entirely and find a life that is not at the behest of someone who is self-serving and malevolent at best, evil and vindictive at worst. Sorry to be so bleak about it but, well, I have learned how it goes in Academe.

Lanae Isaacson


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