(Illustration by James Yang)

The future of PhDs

How can we better prepare PhD students for nonacademic careers?

There have long been more doctoral candidates than tenure-track positions available. In the humanities especially, landing an academic job has gotten more difficult. The Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association have reported 30–50 percent drops in English and history positions in recent years. In October AHA president Anthony Grafton, AB’71, AM’72, PhD’75, coauthored a Perspectives on History essay arguing that universities must not treat students’ nonacademic career choices as “Plan B.” In an e-mail discussion adapted here, Grafton, the Henry Putnam university professor of history at Princeton, discusses the road forward with Martha Roth, dean of Chicago’s Humanities Division and the Chauncey S. Boucher distinguished service professor of Assyriology; Andrew Abbott, AM’75, PhD’82, the Gustavas F. and Ann M. Swift distinguished service professor in sociology and the College; and Meredith Daw, director of the University’s Career Advising and Planning Services.

Martha Roth The perception on the part of a large segment of our current young aspiring scholars is that all the hard labor and effort that go into obtaining the highest academic credential in the world, the PhD, might be futile if it does not lead to a tenure-track position in a certain kind of institution. … To have “made it” in the academy … one usually has had some combination of highly honed technical field skills, the instinct to smell out original questions, the ability to communicate compellingly, sitzfleisch, and (most important) luck. … What matters … is that we recognize [and] encourage that particular student who might just have the potential to realize that magic combination to begin the journey. … At the same time we must recognize that not everyone who starts will finish at the same place, and so we need to be sure that we value the journey itself—and also all the possible multiple outcomes.


Andrew Abbott My own policy recommendation is that we should teach to the top of the market. That many of our graduate students don’t end up there is a longstanding fact. We dealt with it in our own youth, and there’s no reason today’s graduate students shouldn’t deal with it in theirs. We should not at all modify our teaching, our aspirations, and our emphases. We are in the business of perpetuating critical scholarship, not of making sure that all of our graduate students have a fulfilling (i.e., elite academic) life trajectory. The latter would be nice, but it is not our first priority.

Anthony Grafton Of course we can’t guarantee students fulfilling lives. But we promise them more than a technical training when they come to us. We promise to do our best to help them find jobs in which their training is an asset. In history, we won’t be doing that until we help students, more systematically and more substantively by far than we do now, to think about and prepare themselves for public history, in its older forms at historical societies and museums and in its newer digital versions, and for many other kinds of jobs as well.

AA The thing we do to prepare people for nonacademic jobs is give them elite academic training—the exact thing we do for everyone. … In general, the nonprofit and private sectors very much value the training our students get in reading, thinking, project management, deferred gratification, etc. … My department has a long tradition of placing people in the census, not-for-profits, survey houses, and so on. Our students find interdisciplinary centers and collateral schools to work in. The ones who have the urge for market research get jobs in seconds.

Meredith Daw At Career Advising and Planning Services, we have seen an increase in PhD students discussing postacademic careers with us. In 2009–10, 61 percent of PhD students working with CAPS (557 unique PhD students) were interested in exploring careers outside the academy. I concur that employers are seeking prospective employees who can think analytically, construct an argument, and communicate ideas. However, our students feel trapped between expectations inside and outside the academy. On the postacademic side, they often feel unprepared and out of touch. It is difficult for them to recognize transferrable skills, values, and interests that can be applied to employment possibilities. … Some students are terrified of telling their professors that they are seeking anything less than a tenure-track position at a top-tier research institution. Unfortunately, this also limits their options because students shut themselves off from the people who could lend the most discipline-specific expertise. It could help if senior faculty at elite institutions would speak in public and in print about the worthiness of student employment pursuits outside of tenure-track positions at elite universities.

AA The reality is that we are about producing the people who will keep knowledge going. It’s a precarious trade, and the rest of the world will crush it in a second if given the chance. We cannot afford for an instant to take our eyes off the main prize. Most of our students are not, in fact, going to end up in the graduate-program departments. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have fine lives. … There is no reason to develop all kinds of new programs and handshakes, in the departments or elsewhere.

AG I agree with Andy that we have to keep the knowledge machine rolling, and that elite departments should be preparing people to join that machine at the top. … But I also agree with Meredith. … The same young people who, as entering students, have the wide interests and the confidence we expect from graduates of good colleges often emerge from the PhD programs I know best with a much narrower sense of their own possibilities. Over time, history graduate programs have evolved in response to the job market their students face. … They have recognized that teaching experience plays a big role in placement. … A good many departments, accordingly, not only have graduate students run sections or teach courses but also offer formal programs to help them develop their pedagogical skills. It’s a modest change, but still a substantive one. A next step would be to think seriously about how to prepare history students for tracks parallel to those that have attracted so many sociology PhDs from Chicago: public history above all, in the government and elsewhere, but also policy think tanks, foundations, and other employers that also form part of the knowledge machine. … But I continue to think that we and other humanities fields could go much further, without compromising intellectual demands and standards, in part by changing our language and culture, and in part by informing ourselves about the careers our students have really adopted. …  I don’t see why doing this would diminish our commitment to producing the best scholars we can.

MR We are working hard to convey to students, to their teachers and mentors, the reality that a doctorate is the credential that one obtains at the end of a well-defined and finite set of experiences. … Is someone who holds a PhD in art history and produces three or four art historical monographs in her career any more or less “valuable” than another person with a PhD in art history who leads a civic-renewal program or transforms a family business? My answer is “no.” But, how to convey this convincingly? This leads back to language and culture. Why is it that when a person with an MBA decides to teach elementary school, we say that this is wonderful, noble, and that her MBA training will make her a better elementary teacher? Why don’t we have the same sense that PhD training will make her better at whatever she does? I don’t mean to imply that this is all about packaging and marketing, about “spin.” It is, however, about changing the message.