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

Would you like Nietzsche with that?

ACLS aims to prove this point with a new fellowship for Ph.D.'s called Public Fellows. The program will place eight recent humanities and social sciences Ph.D.'s in positions in the government and nonprofit sectors. Jobs advertised include positions in the U.S. State Department, Association of American Universities, and New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. A position of Muslim Engagement Specialist in the State Department, for example, will require the fellow to "monitor intelligence reporting, cables, and articles by other organizations that contribute to our understanding of Muslim communities overseas."

"There hasn't been a lot of directed encouragement for Ph.D.'s, especially in the humanities, to consider careers outside of academia," Stahlmann says. "It's unguided and often stigmatized, in that it's perceived to be a loss of intellectual capital rather than a fruitful way to use the skills that one develops."

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), says that while the top priority should be creating academic jobs, universities and colleges still have a responsibility to help Ph.D.'s find other options from the start. "Alternative careers should not be an afterthought," Nelson says, "or a second-status option after a failed academic job search."

Illustration by Kristian Bauthus


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But will this change the way doctoral students are educated, and so diminish their traditional intellectual qualities?

Harvard English professor Louis Menand acknowledges that there is a huge pool of Ph.D.'s who will need to find alternative careers and that it's better to have an organized response to the problem rather than "throw them out of the boat." Still, he doesn't think training candidates to be anything other than academics is an efficient solution. "It's like training people to be doctors, but telling them that you're also going to train them to be accountants," he says. "Ph.D. programs are designed to produce professors."

Menand says several of his students have decided not to seek academic careers, and he can't help but see working with them as a waste of his and their time. "What's in it for me to give a huge amount of energy to their work if they're not going to become scholars?" he says. "I can't teach them about budgets. I'm a professor. I can't even balance my checkbook. I want to give most of my time to the students I know are committed to the profession."

Although Ph.D.'s greatly outnumber the academic jobs available, the number of applicants to humanities programs continues to grow, according to Catharine Stimpson, who recently left her post as Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at NYU, where for 13 years she was an advocate for alternative careers. "Of course, very good students say, 'I can beat this.' They love their fields of study desperately and they want to have an academic career, so they are willing to take the risk."

Some say institutions should have caps on the number of Ph.D.'s they can produce. But there is no organization with the power to regulate Ph.D. production, according to Nelson. And there's little question, he says, why many departments need graduate students. They constitute, along with a growing adjunct faculty, cheap labor.

Stimpson thinks this isn't fair to graduate students. "I believe in truth in advertising," says Stimpson, "It's incumbent upon doctoral-granting institutions to be realistic and not give out more degrees than they think the world will accept." At the same time, she says, faculty will have to recognize that some students may never have academic careers, and respond by providing more administrative and budgetary training of Ph.D.'s. "If you're going to live in an ivory tower, you've got to at least know its ledgers," she says.

Nielsen, for one, is relieved to have escaped academia. He recently received an email from Rutgers inviting him to apply for an instructorship in expository writing. The teaching load was seven courses over two semesters for $35,000. The positions were created to help Ph.D.'s who can't otherwise find jobs. But Nielsen points out that anyone who takes such a job is doomed to an "unimaginable amount of grading," leaving no time to do their own work and finally land a decent position.

"I felt a dual sensation of abject terror at the thought of having to do this job and exhilarated relief that now I don't have to," says Nielsen. "That's the nature of the job market right now. I'm just relieved and grateful that I don't have to go that route."

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Melissa Boone
Melissa Boone

"What's in it for me to give a huge amount of energy to their work if they're not going to become scholars?" he says. "I can't teach them about budgets. I'm a professor. I can't even balance my checkbook. I want to give most of my time to the students I know are committed to the profession." This is really sad to me. First of all, that a professor thinks it a waste of time to develop a scholar that will simply bring their scholarly skills to a world other than academia, and secondly, that a grown man will admit to not being able to balance his checkbook and thinks it's some kind of badge of honor. Even academics can be practical-minded, and in many fields (including my own) writing and managing grants is a huge part of the job of a professor. So if you can't balance a budget, you're pretty doomed.


Ultimately, every technical school, community college, state university, four-year college and for-profit college will have available an entire academic array of online degree programs from which students can choose to enroll in from their personal computers. It goes without saying that each of the online courses must have a qualified online adjunct instructor teaching it.

Ian Bickford
Ian Bickford

While Iasevoli describes a real and valid response of many new PhDs to the faltering job market, I'm confused by her choice of Bard's early college faculty as an example -- and I fear she misconstrues Dr. Nielsen's remarks. Incredibly, she transitions from Nielsen's characterization of his new position as "a continuation of my doctoral work" to exactly the opposite conclusion that "Nielsen is one of many recent Ph.D.'s who are turning to alternative careers...."

Bard High School Early College, where I also teach at the Queens campus, is a partnership between Bard College and the New York City Department of Education, housing a high school program as well as a degree-granting college program. Far from turning away from scholarship, the faculty there teach college courses just as they planned and prepared to do in graduate school. Many are active and accomplished scholars, publishing and performing research in their fields. Iasevoli's portrayal of this faculty's work as "nonacademic" is misinformed, which is strange because Nielsen seems to have gone out of his way to inform her otherwise.

Ian BickfordAssistant Professor of EnglishBard High School Early College Queens