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


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.”

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.

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.”

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.”