With Academic Jobs Scarce, Ph.D's Seek 'Alternative Careers'

Would you like Nietzsche with that?

When Ezra Nielsen graduated from Rutgers last year with a Ph.D., he followed the usual path to pursuing a professorship. He wrote articles and submitted them to scholarly journals. He applied to all the jobs in his field of 19th-century American literature, and even some outside the field.

When the phone didn't ring, Nielsen had a backup plan in place. After considering positions as an academic librarian (a "last-ditch option") or a test-question writer, he found what he sees as a happy medium: teaching English at Bard High School in Queens.

At Bard, says Nielsen, students read Nietzsche, Marx, and Kafka, and graduate with an associate's degree from Bard College. "I love teaching," he says. "This is a continuation of my doctoral work. I wouldn't trade places with anyone."

Illustration by Kristian Bauthus


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Nielsen is one of many recent Ph.D.'s who are turning to alternative careers in response to the precipitous decline in academic jobs since the economic downturn. The Modern Language Association reports that the number of English positions advertised in its annual job listing declined by 726, about 40 percent, in 2009–10. History Ph.D. jobs fell from 806 to 569, the smallest number in 25 years, according to the American Historical Society.

With the academic job market in free fall, career services at many universities and colleges are working harder than ever to market Ph.D.'s outside the academy. And Ph.D.'s looking for a way out of the "jobless market" are lining up for advice.

"There were alternative career workshops 10 years ago," says Trudy Steinfeld, assistant vice president of the Wasserman Center for Career Development at NYU, which provides career-building workshops for both undergraduate and graduate students. "But not with the same frequency and certainly not with the same number of students in attendance. Students are definitely more interested in this."

The staff at the Wasserman Center meets with 7,000 graduate students each year, up from half that number 10 years ago, Steinfeld estimates. There are fewer jobs out there for everyone, of course, not just for academics. But for the jobs that are available, Ph.D.'s, with their intensive training in research and writing, have a leg up on the competition. Still, they need guidance that department faculty, who may have never worked outside of academia, are not always equipped to provide.

"Ph.D.'s often don't know how to leverage and sell themselves to a nonacademic world," says Steinfeld. "We can do that for them." Steinfeld and other career counselors at Wasserman stress that the discipline that is needed to earn a doctorate degree makes Ph.D. candidates attractive to financial firms like Morgan Stanley and service firms like McKinsey and Boston Consulting.

One recent Wasserman workshop on alternative careers, "What You Can Do With a Ph.D. in the Humanities," featured Michael Shae, who earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale in 1992, and two years later began work at the New York Review of Books as an editorial assistant; he is now a senior editor. Another annual workshop, "Careers Outside the Academy: Sociology and Social Science Options," featured a panel of career switchers with Ph.D.'s, including Preston Beckman, the executive vice president of scheduling for Fox Network. Beckman holds a Ph.D. in sociology from NYU.

Emi Lesure, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at NYU, says she attended the workshops every year for the past few years and found them heartening. The panelists, she says, noted the perks of their jobs over academic careers: intellectual stimulation, reduced hours, better pay. "I've lived the life of a poor, stressed-out, overworked grad student for seven years now," says Lesure. "I can't keep that up for another decade." 

The good news, says Steinfeld, is that considering non-academic jobs is no longer career suicide. "Years ago, if you were a Ph.D. student at NYU and you talked in public about looking outside of academia for a job, you were put aside as not a serious candidate," she says. "Faculty today have a much more realistic understanding of the pressures of job hunting."

Still, some Ph.D.'s keep mum about their non-academic job searches. While many professors are sympathetic to the Ph.D.'s plight, some still see candidates who seek alternative careers as throwing away years of intellectual rigor.

Lesure, for her part, says she hasn't discussed with faculty her aspirations to find a job at a think tank rather than in academia. When she started the doctoral program at NYU in 2004, she says, she told her mentor that she wanted to work for the United Nations. He told her that that was fine, but not to talk about it with other people. "Faculty are trying to produce the next generation of academics," Lesure explains.

Nicole Stahlmann, director of fellowship programs for the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), insists that the push to sell Ph.D.'s skills doesn't diminish the values of academic research and reflection. "Anyone who writes a 400-page essay certainly knows how to organize a project," she says. Stahlmann understands why faculty, who value reflection, may bristle at the word "skills," but she believes that a person can be an intellectual and still find rewarding work outside the academy.

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