Today, the structure of higher education is changing with the casualization of labor. One outcome of this is a decline in placement rates of PhD graduates in tenure-track faculty positions—and an attendant rising interest in “alternative academic” careers.
The American Studies Association conducts a yearly survey of new PhDs in American studies and produces an annual report on the PhD. Recent findings suggest that, with roughly 1 in 5 (or fewer) PhDs finding a tenure-track position within the first year of graduation, “newly minted PhDs continue to face a difficult job market, and are responding by taking on part-time and non-renewal positions, or searching for positions outside of the academy” (see the 2014-2015 report).
In response to these trends, several resources and projects have emerged to address how to best prepare humanities PhDs for a wider range of careers.
NEH Next Generation Humanities PhD Planning Grants
In 2015 the National Endowment of the Humanities launched a pilot program, “Next Generation Humanities PhD Planning Grants” to encourage a rethinking of how humanities PhD programs prepare their students:
In recent years, research published by Humanities Indicators, among others, has revealed that humanities PhDs pursue careers in many different professions—both inside and outside academia. Yet most humanities PhD programs in the United States still prepare students primarily for tenure-track professor positions at colleges and universities. The increasing shortage of such positions has changed students’ expected career outcomes. NEH therefore hopes to assist universities in implementing a new model of doctoral education, which can both transform the understanding of what it means to be a humanities scholar and promote the integration of the humanities in the public sphere. (Brief Summary, Next Generation Humanities Phd Planning Grants, Office of Challenge Grants NEH)
Inside Higher Ed and Other Blogs
Well before the NEH announced the Next Generation Humanities PhD program, “alternative academic” careers were a popular topic on several blogs. While the term originally referred to careers in higher education other than tenure-track faculty position, it now refers to a broader spectrum of careers: administration, public scholarship (e.g., museums), non-profits, consultants, and government positions. If you do a search for "alt-ac careers" at www.insidehighered.com, you will find excellent blogs and contributing essays, including Stop Resisting Non-Faculty Jobs and on Having the Talk with your dissertation adviser.
The Versatile PhD
The Versatile PhD is an excellent site that features multiple resources for identifying alt-ac careers. The site also offers tips to prepare for a broader spectrum of careers while working for your degree—for example through for example digital literacy, statistical literacy, grant writing, and policy writing. Several universities are subscribers, but you can also access many of the resources by simply visiting the site. Alt-ac career advice can be round in the PhD Career Finder.
Bibliotech at Stanford
One of the best and most developed university programs that focuses on preparing humanities PhDs for a wider array of careers in industry is Stanford University’s Bibliotech program. Originally conceived as a way to promote humanities PhD for positions in Silicon Valley, Bibliotech helps humanities PhDs translate their academic skills into skills sought by private industry or corporate employers. The entire website is worth exploring for ideas, particularly for how they present the skills of a PhD and instruct job-seekers in smart resume-writing tips.
Humanities Unbound: Careers & Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track
Katina Rogers of the University of Virginia Scholar Lab and Praxis Network put forward an early study on alt-ac placement of PhDs in Humanities Unbound: Careers & Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track (2013). For this report, Rogers and the UVa Scholar Lab created a public database to collect data on where students end up outside of tenure-track positions. The site conducted two surveys with two sets of respondents: people who consider themselves working in "alt-ac," and employers who oversee people with advanced humanities degree. The results remain relevant and useful for training and preparing graduate students for more than one career possibility.
Best Practices for American Studies Programs
Doctorate programs looking to support the transition of PhDs into tenure-track and “alt-ac” alike should look to engender cultural changes in their department and with their faculty—so students are encouraged to evaluate their career goals and faculty are encouraged to support students exploring alt-ac careers. To help give students skills in communicating their strengths as advanced degree holders to potential employers, programs can offer graduate classes or direct students to career counseling programs in the graduate school (if available) which may give training and experience in “alt-ac skills.” Additionally, programs should identify a list of mentors for graduate students looking at other career tracks by keeping track of their alums who go into alt-ac careers.
Advice for PhD Applicants
If you know before entering a PhD program that you may not be focused solely on the tenure-track, you may wish to explore the culture of the PhD programs to which you are applying. The ASA’s annual report on the PhD has found, even with its limited sources, that some faculty have a difficult time imagining their doctoral students not wanting to be tenure-track faculty. Anecdotal evidence from doctoral students in some blogs note that expressing an interest in jobs outside academia might result in being taken less seriously as a student and intellectual. All of these possibilities are contingent on the particular institution and doctoral tradition, however, and cannot be generalized. It is important to talk to other graduate students in the program and to ask about job placements and what kind of training each program provides.