Discerning Unexpected Paths
How can humanities scholars find signposts to alt-ac careers when all of the paths are characterized by unexpected twists and turns?
January 08, 2014
The problem with signposts on the alternative academic track is that they aren’t where you expect them to be. Not only have I found this to be true in my own experience but, based on my recent work researching career paths of humanities scholars, I also believe unpredictability to be the norm in alternative academic career paths.
As part of my role with the Scholarly Communication Institute—an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded humanities think tank that dedicated ten years to investigating the changing environment of scholarly communication, graduate education, and more—I designed and administered a survey of people with advanced humanities degrees who had pursued careers beyond the tenure track. Though respondents worked in a wide range of fields, the survey revealed an incredibly common pattern: that of serendipity and unpredictability in the individual’s career trajectory. Many reported finding themselves in satisfying jobs that they not only didn’t expect to pursue when starting their graduate studies, but frequently ones that they didn’t know existed.
This refrain resonates with my own path. For me, the survey has not only provided thought-provoking material in the results; conducting it was also representative of the unexpected directions my own path has taken (and, I hope, the unexpected twists that may still be in the future). When I began my position at SCI, I had no prior background in quantitative analysis or survey methodology, and so I knew I would have to learn and apply a complex set of new skills quickly. While I have no doubt that the result is not as robust as a trained social scientist would have accomplished, it’s still far beyond what I would have been capable of doing even a year ago. To have opportunities for such continued growth is exciting, and I think these kinds of opportunities are possible precisely because of the combined circumstances of deep academic training and a non-faculty job.
It can be difficult to know where a career path actually starts; for me, the first significant step in my post-academic career was primarily a means of hedging my bets. I had moved cross-country while working on my dissertation, so I no longer had institutional funding and needed an income while I continued to write. I started working with a temp agency whose clients were primarily foundations and non-profits. The work was, honestly, not very interesting in itself, but learning about the inner workings of grant-making organizations fascinated me. A few of my short-term jobs were with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds research in science and technology. I established strong relationships with a number of the Foundation’s staff members, and when a full-time position opened, they invited me to apply.
As I see it, this opportunity worked out for a number of reasons. For one thing, Sloan is an institution that places a high value on scholarship. Though I was trained in a different field than most of my science-minded colleagues, they respected the discipline and deep curiosity that earning a PhD implies. In addition, my résumé showed that I was already effective at translating complex scientific ideas into clear language for non-specialists or scholars in other disciplines. I had previously worked part-time at another science organization, the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics; I didn’t expect that job to have anything to do with my future career path, but I’m convinced it made me a more appealing candidate to Sloan. Finally, and perhaps most vexingly to those looking to break into a new field, I had a foot in the door through the temp jobs. The staff had seen the quality of my work, as well as my personality, and were eager to keep me with them full-time.
While at Sloan, my responsibilities steadily increased, and by the end of my employment I was actively contributing to the strategic development of an entirely new program area, Digital Information Technology. While still rooted in STEM fields, the new program had much in common with the digital humanities and the changing terrain of scholarly communication across all academic fields. At the same time, I had gained invaluable understanding about the grant evaluation process, as well as the nuts and bolts of organizational structures and operations. I began keeping my eyes open for positions that would provide new challenges, and where I could apply what I had learned in an environment that was more directly linked to my humanities background. SCI turned out to be a perfect fit—but without the work I did at Sloan, I doubt that I would even have thought to look for such a position.
Putting the Pieces Together: My Own Path
Each step on my professional journey has been unpredictable but increasingly enriching and exciting. At each transition point, I haven’t known what the subsequent change would be, and so my path has been characterized by a great deal of searching, self-evaluating, and maintaining flexibility. I found that the PhD was a slippery credential; in some professional settings is wasn’t relevant at all; in others, it led people to trust me to take on difficult tasks (like strategic development at Sloan or the survey at SCI) even though they were outside my area of expertise. In almost all cases, holding a PhD meant that I enjoyed a greater degree of credibility, especially among current and former faculty members or others deeply involved in higher education.
One of the most important factors for me throughout each step of my career path has been finding ways to stay intellectually engaged, even at the points when my job wasn’t providing that fulfillment. Social media makes it easier than ever before to stake a claim in areas of interest; even at the moments when my day job was something quite unrelated to my scholarly interests, I was able to begin writing about the professional issues that I wanted to think about and to start defining my own agenda. Indeed, I am quite sure that this engagement helped me to make connections that would become professionally important later on and also gave me a venue in which I could develop my thinking in areas that interested me. In some ways, a truly nine-to-five job affords a luxury of brain space that other positions lack (including—or perhaps especially—academic positions, where the perpetual sense of more work to be done can become stifling, even with a flexible schedule).
In addition to determining a space of interest, I also needed to learn my own capacities and learn to express my strengths in terms that make sense to hiring managers. One thing that every grad student excels at is mastering complex material quickly, which was a crucial skill for me in my position at SCI. However, graduate students aren’t necessarily trained to think of this as a skill that sets us apart—it’s simply something that most of us learn so that we can keep our heads above water. Realizing how graduate school has provided skills that seem peripheral to our degree—discipline, focus, the ability to synthesize complex material—is incredibly important to translating that degree into an alternative academic career. The topic of my dissertation may not matter to a hiring manager, but the fact that I completed a lengthy, complex project on deadline and with successful results certainly does.
Learning to articulate skills in a way that resonates with various employers is a key step in opening up a range of possibilities beyond the professoriate. At Sloan, I had a wide range of responsibilities, and each called on my skills in different ways. Contributing to long-term programmatic development required me to assess existing work in a field that was relatively new to me; determine key players and emerging scholars with strong potential; and provide editorial feedback during the early stages of grant development. In an environment like Sloan where many of the staff and grantees have deep academic training, my PhD was also valuable because it gave me familiarity with the academic systems (both formal and tacit) that were a key element in the way others around me worked. Though the discipline was not my own, my research background was critical, as were my writing and editorial skills. I also held operational responsibilities related to HR, legal, and financial procedures, and even for these areas that were decidedly not part of my humanities training, I found that my ability to read, interpret, evaluate, and communicate the importance of highly complex material meant that senior colleagues trusted my judgment on many matters of critical importance.
Similarly, a key element of my position at SCI was survey development and administration, which was out of my range of experience. I was uncomfortable with the gap during the interview process, but responded honestly that I would draw on both the network of people that I knew with expertise in quantitative social science and would research additional resources to bolster my areas of weakness. I believe these statements had credibility in large part because the academic process is all about exploring areas that are initially unfamiliar, assessing available resources, and gaining new expertise.
The Bigger Picture: Graduate Education Reform
All these questions—how to articulate academic skills for different workplaces, assessing common areas of strength and weakness, and understanding what provides intellectual satisfaction—were part of what we at SCI wanted to explore in the recent survey. (Links to the full report, data tables, and more are available here.) What we learned is that the bar for career preparation (for any kind of career, whether in, around, or outside the academy) in most graduate programs is currently so low that any small change would be an improvement. Indeed, we hope the survey results themselves help to provide more signposts so that graduate students can prepare for a range of employment possibilities from an early stage in their studies. There’s an opportunity both for low-hanging fruit and for systemic overhauls.
For instance, even with little or no institutional support, a single professor can rethink the structure of a graduate course such that rather than writing yet another single-author research paper, students instead develop a collaborative project designed for a specific audience—an exercise that requires no less scholarly rigor but much more closely resembles work done in most professional circumstances. Institutions committed to investing in career development might consider partnering with libraries, presses, cultural heritage organizations, and even businesses in the community to encourage students to explore ways that they might apply their education to a variety of fields. Indeed, such partnerships could be incredibly fruitful, since the survey results suggest that one of the qualities that employers value most highly in the PhDs they hire is their ability to act as a bridge between the place of employment and the complex structures of higher education. Even having one graduate course with an outcome that is aimed at a new and different audience could be the beginning of an important change to graduate training.
One of the most difficult aspects of even small reforms in graduate education, of course, is that it’s not an isolated element of the academic system—changing it has implications on hiring, scholarly publishing, public humanities engagement, and tenure and promotion for those on the tenure track. But academics are good with complexity, so we shouldn’t shy away from the problems that matter.
My happy story is still unfolding, and I’m well aware that I’m in a precarious position. My job will vaporize in August 2013, when SCI’s Mellon grant concludes. I don’t know what I’ll be doing next, and that is not comfortable. But I’ve learned an enormous amount in the three-and-a-half years since jumping off-track and moving to New York, and I have to think that the lessons will continue to guide me well. The key factors for me have been to seek mentors, open myself up (both to people and to opportunities), to take steps that seem promising even if I don’t know where they’ll lead, and not to be afraid of back-up plans. I haven’t planned each step in advance, but I’ve always maintained a sense of growth and progress that helps ensure that I’m a competitive candidate for new kinds of roles. The flexibility of my path is, for me, one of its most appealing qualities; I feel a stronger sense of agency in crafting my career than I might have if I had followed a more straightforward path.
Update, October 2013
Since writing this essay in January 2013, SCI’s final phase of funding has come and gone, and I am happy to say that the uncertainty of what would come next has also resolved itself. In September, I began a new position as managing editor of MLA Commons, the Modern Language Association’s new online platform to foster increased possibilities for scholarly communication and collegial networking for its members. I’m delighted to see my trajectory take this new turn, and I anticipate learning a great deal, both through my own responsibilities and simply through being a part of a long-standing professional association.
Image: "National" by Kate Elliott