Okay, let’s assume the worst. You’ve spent the last 5-10 years focused like a laser on researching and writing your dissertation. You haven’t attended any conferences, let alone presented any of your research. You haven’t taught any courses, and maybe haven’t even served as a teaching assistant. You haven’t published any of your research. When you’ve talked to your committee members about preparing for the job market, they’ve dismissed your concerns telling you that “everything will work out” and “you don’t need to worry about it.” And now here you are, Ph.D. in hand, dissertation behind you, and the yawning chasm of adult professional life gaping before you…
So, the bad news: unlike during the fantastic world of yesteryear, there are no ready jobs waiting for you now that you’re credentialed. The slightly better news: there’s a lot you can do to make yourself appealing to potential employers, in and out of the academy. And the best news? There are many possible professional paths your Ph.D. has prepared you for, but it will take a lot of work to prepare for applying to those jobs.
Now, hopefully you already know all of this, and you’ve spent the last several years preparing yourself for the kind of job you are interested in, whether in the university system or outside of it (or maybe both). One of the best things you can do as you prepare to go on the job market — say a year or two out — is to start paying attention to job advertisements. Ads list the kinds of qualifications that they’re looking for, from specializations (teaching methods and intro, especially, as well as courses in your area) to the kinds of documents that they require (graduate transcripts, teaching statements, CVs or resumes, writing samples, syllabuses, and more).
If you’re looking at jobs outside of the university system, they’ll likely be looking for other kinds of documentation: white papers, policy documents, portfolios, etc. The best preparation for these paths is to complete coursework in relevant areas, if not actually achieve accreditation (like getting a Master’s degree in Public Administration, Public Health, or Museum Studies, for example). Beyond helping acquaint you with professional genres, they should also help to develop professional networks in the right areas. If you’re really on the ball, you can complete these degrees alongside your coursework for your Ph.D., using whatever tuition waiver you might have to cover the cost of enrolling in these complementary courses. But you might also have to go back to school to get these credentials and develop new professional networks.
In 2015 I ran a professionalization workshop with current graduate students and alumni who had moved into non-academic careers. The collected professionals painted a relatively positive picture of moving into careers outside of the university. One of them pointed out that in the university system, almost everyone has a Ph.D., making it a rather banal credential; outside of the university, a Ph.d. is treated totally differently, and coworkers respect the expertise that it represents. They also pointed out how a lot of Ph.D. students think that they’ve been deskilled, but that the kinds of skills one learns as a graduate student can be translated into desirable workplace competencies. “Teaching” is “Public Speaking,” “Writing a Dissertation” is “Copyediting” and “Research-based Writing,” and “Finishing a Dissertation” is “Research Management.” Then there are skills like grant writing and data management (all that data sorting and labeling) that you might have picked up along the way. After spending thousands of hours researching and writing a dissertation, you have more skills than you might think; but, as these professionals helped to make clear, academics don’t tend to think of all of the skills they have as marketable proficiencies.
That said, there might need to be an intermediary step to hone those proficiencies into actual skills that produce deliverables that employers can do something with. And there are opportunities like Congressional Graduate Recruitment Program that seek to do just that. There are also organizations, like RAND, that hire qualitative researchers — as do many of the think tanks and policy organizations in Washington D.C. (you just have to be cool with doing research on topics that other people determine, and, potentially, stomach their politics as well).
Over the last several years — thanks to the Great Recession and the blogosphere — there has been growing attention to the exploitative and demoralizing political economy of adjunct labor in the university system. If you’re not aware of what people have been saying, it boils down to this: there are fewer full time, tenure line jobs than there were before, and to meet enrollment demands, more part-time laborers are being hired to offer courses. These adjuncts tend to teach on limited contracts (one semester or one year), lots of courses, and for little pay — often a fraction of what faculty are paid for the same course. Sometimes, rather than adjunct labor that looks like this, it can come in the form of a Visiting Assistant Professorship or even a postdoctoral position, both of which may be better, since they likely offer benefits on top of the salary. Beyond the obvious bummer of being low paid for the same job, and having lots of work to do — which often is very intro-level focused — adjuncting can create a lot of anxiety as people struggle to secure future employment, and there’s not a lot of time to produce the stuff that would make one appealing for full-time positions (which is sometimes referred to the “adjunct trap”). If you find yourself in the adjunct trap, you’ll need to engineer a way out, which may mean refusing work in the short term in order to prepare yourself for a long term career (which may mean going back to school to get another degree).
If you’re interested in pursuing alternative to academic careers (sometimes shortened to “alt-ac”) there are growing resources to help Ph.D. recipients to navigate the divide between the university and other career possibilities. One of the challenges that job seekers face is confronting assumptions about what policy jobs or market research look like on an everyday basis. If you’ve spent the last however-many-years essentially being your own boss and working alone, many professional careers mean being managed and working with actual coworkers. Friends who have made the jump into these kinds of jobs report being surrounded by great, creative people — just as smart as any academic, but skilled differently.
So, hopefully you’re reading this as an early graduate student (or before enrolling in graduate school) and can take the time to plan appropriately. A recent conversation hosted by the Society for Cultural Anthropology on academic precarity got me thinking that it was about time for a post like this, since the initial foray on the topic made it seem as if it was a real shock that getting academic jobs is hard and that there are very few out there. I had also heard from a friend that she had witnessed a group of recent Ph.D.s openly fret about the prospects of going on a bleak academic job market since they hadn’t been prepared for the reality of it, and thought they might just jump into some alternative career — which is sure to be a rude awakening.
You might beat the odds and get one of the few academic jobs available in any given year. If so, remember that just as much as it’s about your hard work, it’s also about contingency, and that it’s important to make sure that the world of the university is more open to promoting diversity and fair hiring practices — as opposed to yesteryear (which largely favored white men from elite institutions). For everyone who works in the university system — faculty, staff, administrators, adjuncts, students — we need more attention to what makes desirable job candidates and support for creating more full time employment opportunities.