Laying Your Own Track

Making your way off the academic track

Contributed by Maureen McCarthy Assistant Director of Advancement and Best Practices at the Council of Graduate Schools
January 07, 2014
maureentmcc's picture
Part of the Cluster:

Looking for Signposts

As I completed my Ph.D. in English at Emory University, I applied for several tenure-track positions, but I also pursued jobs in a range of fields, from writing center administration to nonprofit advocacy. To arrive at the point where I could even apply for this diversity of positions, I had to find my own way in a climate that notoriously values the tenure-track professorship as the only measure of success. When I finally decided that the tenure track was not my “plan A,” I felt liberated. Suddenly, the possibilities were endless—there were a million things a Ph.D. in the humanities could do! Unfortunately, that very sense of possibility was completely overwhelming because now I was unmoored.[1]

When you follow the academic track straight to the tenure track, you know what is expected. You know that you need to publish articles and book reviews, present at conferences, and meet others in your field. When you decide to shift direction and focus your energies on an alt-ac or nonacademic career, your adviser might not be able to guide you to the next step. I am here to tell you that just because you’ve changed direction it doesn’t mean you’ve derailed! There are many steps you can take while still in graduate school to explore “alternative” career options and prepare for a career beyond the professoriate.

On Success

I entered the Ph.D. program in 2007 because I had enjoyed my undergraduate thesis research and because it offered me (what then seemed) a princely sum to read novels and think. Unlike so many of my colleagues, I did not anticipate a tenure-track job as the object of my studies.[2] I was not, however, immune to the pervasive attitude that the professoriate is the only acceptable outcome of doctoral study. I cannot remember being told this explicitly, but it was implied in how we were trained and in how the faculty spoke to us about “the profession” (the article sounding so definite that one need not specify which profession was implied). I received the message, but harbored nagging doubts. How could so many highly intelligent people believe that there was only one thing that they could or should do? I simply did not understand the attitude that the tenure track was the only valid definition of success. I found my confusion reflected in an article by Natalie Henderson (the pseudonym for an administrator who writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education). She asks,

In an environment dominated by research agendas that often seek to right historic wrongs, question power, undermine hierarchy, and give voice to the voiceless, why are intellectual status and respect given so grudgingly to smart and engaged people who have jumped off the tenure track? (Henderson)

Henderson identifies exactly why I had such a hard time squeezing my deep training in the humanities into this narrow definition of success. My liberal arts background and my humanities specialization had prepared me instead to think about the skills I had been acquiring in graduate school and to what contexts they would transfer. Because I had not set my heart on a career as a professor in the first place, it was not as difficult for me as for others to seriously consider an “alternative” career. This brings us to my first piece of advice for laying your own track.

Visualize Yourself Elsewhere

Begin imagining yourself in careers other than the professoriate as soon as possible. This can be as simple as observing an exhibit curator or a writing center director and thinking, “I could do that!” Visualize yourself in careers that have the potential to be intellectually challenging and emotionally fulfilling. Begin thinking of your future in terms of possibilities, instead of solely in terms of the grad-school-to-tenure track. Such visualization is essential if you are even casually considering an alternative career, especially in the humanities. Enduring six, seven, or even ten years of graduate education with only one goal in mind can result in a major crisis if that goal does not materialize. Protect your sense of self-worth (not to mention your earning potential); imagine your future in multiples.[3]

Pursuing a career in an alt-ac or a nonacademic field should not be your backup plan in case you do not land a tenure-track job. It should instead be a viable Plan A, something that you really love to do and that you have prepared for.[4] Considering alt-ac as merely a backup perpetuates the myth that such jobs are somehow less important or less interesting than tenure-track faculty positions. Keep in mind that alt-ac and nonacademic careers for Ph.D.’s still require deep skills such as creative thinking/problem-solving, data analysis, and ethical decision-making.[5] These are careers, with the potential to be intellectually, economically, and emotionally rewarding. These are not just jobs, and the distinction is important.

Even when you visualize yourself in other careers, you may find it difficult to make the “final” decision not to pursue a tenure-track position. I remember distinctly the moment that I decided to tell my adviser I would not launch a nation-wide faculty job search. I was relieved, terrified, and excited all at the same time. I was happy with my decision but unsure of what his reaction would be. I was fortunate: he fully supported my decision, validated it as the right one, and asked me how he could help me in my newly articulated goals. For him, this announcement came as no surprise, and it helped him to know how he could best support me from that point forward. Communicating as best you can with your advisor is essential so that you give her the opportunity to learn more about alt-ac careers and give her the information she needs to help you succeed in your chosen path. (More on this later.)

Discover What Drives You

The self-knowledge I gained in graduate school made it clearer to me what I want in a career. I want to pursue a career that enables me to draw connections between people and organizations and to build collaborations both at the individual and the institutional levels. I want something that challenges my intellect and provides a mix of independent and team projects in an environment where I can be constantly learning. I want something that (ideally) provides flexible hours and opportunity for advancement, along with a steady paycheck and benefits. And as someone whose seven-year relationship endured four years of long distance, I also want to be able to choose where I live (a luxury a nation-wide academic search does not afford). Many careers fit these criteria and also match the skill set I possess. For a successful career search, you need to know your values and discover your strengths and weaknesses. The good news is that graduate school provides the perfect opportunity for this process of self-discovery.

Many graduate students enter a Ph.D. program because of a passion for their subject matter. Others entered graduate school with an interest in their subject, but with a more general curiosity about the world, and I fit the latter category. A passion for learning in general might indicate that you would be happier in an alt-ac or nonacademic position. I recognize that the tenure track offers many opportunities for exploring new subject areas and allowing curiosity to blossom. For me and people like me, the external pressure to produce scholarship stymies my curiosity rather than spurring it—a distinct barrier to a career in the publish-or-perish culture of academia.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “But my subject matter does drive me! And I love the external pressure to publish!” then academia sounds like a natural home for you. And remember, it is not impossible to find a tenure-track job in your academic field. It is, however, impossible for all Ph.D.’s to find one.[6] You might also consider, however, that other careers exist that can utilize your intensive knowledge of your subject area. Academic publishing, cultural organizations, humanities advocacy groups, museums, and other areas might be in need of someone who understands both the intricacies of John Donne and the importance of reading him.

Identify and Learn to Articulate Your Skills

The market for Donne scholars outside of academia may be admittedly slim. However, a Donne scholar who has had no training outside their Ph.D. program still has valuable skills to offer an employer beyond academe. Unfortunately, she often does not know what those skills are. Take a step back and consider what you have learned; then take a look at this handy list of Ph.D.’s “transferable skills,” compiled by the University of Michigan’s Career Center. Ph.D.’s possess deep analytical skills, the ability to handle ambiguity, and the ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate elements. They typically know how to communicate, to practice empathy, and to manage large projects. Most of all, Ph.D.’s generally are curious, intelligent people with the ability to learn quickly. Given the rigors of their training, most of those who complete a doctorate are autodidacts who require only minimal direction; they’re hard workers who will go out of their way to exceed expectations. These are qualities that employers in every sector need,[7] but they do not know that you possess them unless you tell them. Practice describing what you can do. If you feel awkward saying “I am exactly what you need! I can do X, Y, and Z,” frame your skills in terms of someone with your degree or someone who completed your graduate program.

Be honest, too, about gaps in your knowledge and experience, and seek out opportunities to strengthen these areas. Honestly expressing a desire to learn something you do not know will impress a potential employer far more than boasting false expertise. Learn as much as you can about careers you might pursue so that you can realize what you don’t know. I found that the best, simplest, and easiest way to learn was to speak with those who had made the transition from graduate school to an alt-ac career.

Cultivate Relationships

In order to make the case to someone about why they should hire you, you have to be talking to them in the first place. When you move outside the tenure track, you cannot rely on your adviser to build your network for you. Often you must take the initiative to build it yourself. If, like me, you are a little shy about meeting new people, ease yourself into this thing known as “networking.” Begin with people you meet on campus or with recent graduates who have diverse careers. Invite a librarian with a Ph.D. to have coffee and ask her how she got where she is. Ask a recent Ph.D. to have a drink and talk about his job search. These informal meetings are sometimes called “informational interviews,” and their purpose is to teach you about different types of careers you are considering. Even if you’re almost sure you do not want to pursue that particular career, ask the person about their journey. Listen, listen, listen—it’s the best way to learn.

Build a digital network of colleagues by engaging in discussions on discussion boards and through social media.[8] Models of career pathways, demonstrated through “a week in the life” guest blog posts, are collected at PhDs at Work. A large community of academics considering the prospect of an alternative career (or already happily engaged in one) convenes on Versatile PhD. Versatile PhD hosts a multitude of resources for graduate students and new Ph.D.’s seeking information on alternative careers, as well as discussion boards addressing specific topics in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields. I have also found a supportive, engaging, and intelligent community of young scholars on Twitter who share my interests. Twitter opens up worlds of ideas to me that I would not otherwise have access to. On social media, you should ask questions, participate in conversations—do not use your platform solely for self-promotion. Always be aware of the public persona you are crafting through your online interactions. Remember that everyone from potential employers to your grandmother to your students can access what you post on a site like Twitter, and behave accordingly.

Through person-to-person and online interactions, identify people who might be willing to serve as mentors to you. Talk to the people you meet about your goals, even if you have not fully articulated them yet. Ask others if they know of anyone in related careers you might be able to talk to, and ask for an introduction. If you know you will be searching in a particular geographic area, ask about people they might know who live and/or work there in any field. It’s much easier to ask a friend of a friend out for coffee than a complete stranger. Then, return the favor! Connect people you know with each other. Do not just call people when you need something. Be kind and generous in your interactions with others, because they will remember if you are and they will also remember if you aren’t.

Find Allies

When considering a career outside of academia during graduate school, take care to surround yourself with others who understand your choice as a positive one. Avoid spending too much time with students or faculty who disapprove or who make you feel small. Spend time in traditional alt-ac spaces on campus such as the library and learning centers such as the writing center. Lingering in these spaces will lead to meeting people pursuing these alt-ac careers who can provide context, guidance, and advice. Socialize with other graduate students who are considering many career options and with professionals outside of your academic department. This network of peer support will enable you to share resources and frustrations, feel more supported, and likely enable you to move through your program more efficiently.

If at all possible, choose a dissertation committee supportive of your flexible goals. The most important benefit of a supportive committee is that they will understand the steps that need to be taken for success. In other words, a supportive committee understands that for you, more teaching experience or a part-time job as a project manager on campus might be a better investment of your time than trying to publish an academic article. Regardless of whether your committee supports your choices in an ideal manner or not, you must keep the lines of communication open. If they do not know that you are considering an alternative career, they will continue to harbor expectations that you have no intention of meeting. Explain to your committee why you’ve come to this decision (even the decision to consider a flexible career path may be a revelation), and some of the steps you have determined you need to take in order to be successful. If you experience resistance, become active in this alternative field in ways that are recognizable to your committee, such as publishing an article, editing a book, or attending a professional conference. Hopefully these conversations and actions will convince your committee of your serious consideration and commitment to success. If they fail to do so, you may want to consider adjusting your committee structure.

Take Advantage of Opportunities

An increasing number of graduate programs now offer professional development opportunities explicitly for graduate students interested in alternative careers. At Emory, the Laney Graduate School partners with the Alumni Office to connect alumni and graduate students in a couple of different ways. The “Pathways Beyond the Professoriate” lecture series invites graduate school alumni who have pursued careers outside of academia to speak to current graduate students. The Alumni Mentor Program pairs Ph.D.’s with grad students for a more sustained relationship. Through these opportunities, I met many talented, committed Ph.D.’s who have found success and fulfillment beyond the tenure track. Consider approaching your own alumni office with questions about possible mentors or contacts. They are likely searching for ways to engage alumni, and may already have programs in place.

Take classes to develop skills and knowledge that you might need in an alternative career but would not receive in your traditional program such as statistics or grant writing. Volunteer for service to your department, the university, your alma mater, or your community. Volunteering offers fantastic opportunities for professional development, relationship building, and skill development. Go to workshops offered on campus or anywhere else accessible to you (partner campuses, libraries, etc.). Workshops can sometimes offer information or resources that you might not expect to receive.[9] Pursue internships and part-time employment that can offer explicitly “transferable” skills and which might help you decide what career paths to pursue (and those not to).

 ***

If you do these things—visualize yourself elsewhere; discover what drives you; identify and learn to articulate your skills; cultivate relationships; find allies; take advantage of opportunities—I cannot guarantee you a fulfilling career, but you will be well on your way to laying your own track to one. My best advice is to keep your mind and your future open. Say “yes” as much as possible without having a nervous breakdown. Take time to understand your strengths, weaknesses, needs, and opportunities. Give generously of your own expertise and seek that of others. Remain patient. Remember that an “alternative” career should not be a backup plan, but rather one option in a flexible plan for your future.

Works Cited

Basalla, Susan and Maggie Debelius. So What Are You Going to Do With That?: A Guide for M.A.’s and Ph.D’s Seeking Careers Outside the Academy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. Print.

Brennan, Shelia A. and Jeremy Boggs. “Intentional Alts.” Recorded conversation. 6 May 2011. #Alt-Academy. Web. 15 Aug. 2013. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/pieces/intentional-alts

Cassuto, Leonard. “Keyword: Placement.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 9 Apr 2012. Web. 1 Aug. 2013. http://chronicle.com/article/Keyword-Placement/131437/

“Pathways Beyond the Professoriate.” Laney Graduate School Website. 2013. Web. 23 Dec. 2013. http://www.gs.emory.edu/professional_development/mentoring.html

___. “Ph.D. Attrition: How Much Is too Much?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 1 Jul 2013. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
http://chronicle.com/article/PhD-Attrition-How-Much-Is/140045/

___. “What If We Made Fewer Ph.D.’s?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 3 Dec 2012. Web. 1 Aug. 2013. http://chronicle.com/article/What-If-We-Made-Fewer-PhDs-/136083/

Wendler, Cathy, Brent Bridgeman, Ross Markle, Fred Cline, Nathan Bell, Patricia McAllister, and Julia Kent. Pathways through Graduate School and Into Careers. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 2012. Print.
http://pathwaysreport.org/rsc/pdf/19089_PathwaysRept_Links.pdf

Giang, Vivian. “Logitech CEO: ‘I Love Hiring English Majors.’” Business Insider. 20 Jun 2013. Web. 10 Aug. 2013. http://www.businessinsider.com/logitech-ceo-bracken-darrell-loves-hiring-english-majors-2013-6

Golde, Chris M. and Timothy M. Dore. “At Cross Purposes: What the Experiences of Today’s Doctoral Students Reveal about Doctoral Education.” Philadelphia, PA: The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2001. Survey on Doctoral Education and Career Preparation Website. Web. 5 Aug. 2013. http://chronicle.com/article/Changing-the-Way-We-Socialize/125892

Grafton, Anthony and James Grossman. “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History.” Perspectives. (Oct 2011). American Historical Association Website. 26 Sep 2011. Web. 1 Aug. 2013. http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/october-2011/no-more-plan-b

Henderson, Natalie. “A ‘Non-Academic’ Career in Academe,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 20 June 2005. http://chronicle.com/article/A-Nonacademic-Career-in/45009/

Jellison, Jerald M. Life After Grad School: Getting from A to B. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

Lord, Alexandra M. “Open-Mindedness and the Ph.D. Placement Problem” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 29 Jul 2013. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
http://chronicle.com/blogs/phd/2013/07/29/open-mindedness-and-the-ph-d-placement-problem/

Martinuzzi, Bruna. “Why English Majors Are the Hot New Hires.” Open Forum. 11 Jul 2013. Web. 10 Aug. 2013. https://www.openforum.com/articles/why-english-majors-are-the-hot-new-hires/

Millennial Branding. “Student Employment Gap White Paper.” Millennial Branding Website. 14 May 2012. Web. http://millennialbranding.com/2012/05/millennial-branding-student-employment-gap-study/

Modern Language Association. MLA Surveys of PhD Placement. Modern Language Association. 30 May 2013. Web. 15 Aug. 2013.
http://www.mla.org/surveys_phdplacement

Newhouse, Margaret. Outside the Ivory Tower: A Guide for Academics Considering Alternative Careers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Office of Career Services, 1993. Print.

Nowviskie, Bethany. “#alt-ac: Alternate Academic Careers for Humanities Scholars.” Bethanie Nowviskie (blog). 3 Jan 2010. Web. 15 Jun. 2013. http://nowviskie.org/2010/alt-ac/

___, ed. #Alt-Academy. Scholarly Communications Institute, University of Virginia. 15 Aug. 2013. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/

Erickson, Michelle. PhDs at Work. Website. 2011-2014. Web. 23 Dec. 2013. http://phdsatwork.com/

Posner, Miriam, Brian Croxall, and Stewart Varner. “Creating Your Web Presence: A Primer for Academics.” ProfHacker. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 4 Feb 2011. Web. 2 Aug. 2013. http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/creating-your-web-presence-a-primer-for-academics/30458

Rhoades, Gary. Managed Professionals: Unionized Faculty and Restructuring Academic Labor. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1998. Print.

Sternberg, Robert J. “Giving Employers What They Don’t Really Want.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 17 Jun 2013. Web. 10 Aug. 2013. http://chronicle.com/article/Giving-Employers-What-They/139877/

Versatile PhD. 2010-2013. Web. 10 Aug. 2013. http://versatilephd.com/


[1]Alexandra M. Lord describes this ambivalent sense of panic and liberation in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Her article calls for those who complete the Ph.D. to cultivate a level of comfort with uncertainty in the nonacademic or alt-ac career search, concluding that such comfort “has forced [her] to be incredibly open-minded” (“Open-mindedness and the Ph.D. Placement Problem”)

[2]Much like Leonard Cassuto, I “applied to graduate school uncertainly, comfortable with the knowledge that I might not get a Ph.D. (I intended to get a master’s degree at the least.) I knew that even if I did finish, I wouldn’t necessarily end up as a professor…. Yet I wanted to give graduate school a try. I assumed that I would learn more about whether to continue once I was there” (“Ph.D. Attrition”). My view was that a master’s or a Ph.D. could not possibly close doors and that I would be able to navigate opportunities more competently with an advanced degree than without one.

[3]Some excellent resources exist to help you with this process, such as Life After Grad School by Jerald Jellison; So What Are You Going to Do With That? by Basalla & Debelius; and Outside the Ivory Tower by Margaret Newhouse.

[4]For more on the socialization of graduate students to desire a professorial career and the need for reform in this area, see Pathways through Graduate School and Into Careers, a 2012 report highlighting the need to understand and track graduate students’ career pathways (Wendler, Bridgeman, et. al).Enlighteningly, At Cross Purposes, a report from a 1999 survey of doctoral students describes an almost identical situation (Golde and Dore). For a bit lighter reading on the subject, see also the oft-cited “No More Plan B” by Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman, and listen to a conversation between two “Intentional Alts,” Shelia Brennan and Jeremy Boggs.

[5]I often find myself returning to Bethanie Nowviskie’s description of these careers, which require those in them to “bring their (often doctoral-level) methodological and theoretical training to bear on problem sets” outside “the orbit of the academy” (Nowviskie).

[6]Most sources of data tracking career outcomes of humanities Ph.D.’s places the number of those who find traditional academic employment at some point in their career somewhere around 50%, depending on the discipline. In English, for example, the number is closer to 60% the first year out of a Ph.D. program, according to the MLA Survey of PhD Placement. There is some discussion as to whether or not this number includes adjunct or contingent faculty appointments, which can differ drastically from tenure-track appointments and now make up an increasing majority (in community colleges, contingent faculty make account for 70%) of the teaching labor at higher education institutions (Rhoades). Another problem with these data is that they often only reflect first jobs, not career trajectories of humanities Ph.D.’s.

[7]A recent spate of articles by and about CEO’s explaining why they “love hiring English majors” corresponds with data collected by researchers (Strauss; Martinuzzi; Giang). A report by Robert J. Sternberg and Michael Barnes says that employers want graduates with “soft skills” such as “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems”; the ability to “demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning” (Sternberg). The Millennial Branding Student Employment Gap Study similarly found that “employers target liberal arts majors” (Millennial Branding).

[8]Congratulations! You’re obviously already doing this, since you’re visiting the #Alt-Academy.

[9]For example, I have Brian Croxall, Miriam Posner, and Stewart Varner and their “Creating a Web Presence” workshops to thank for introducing me to a vibrant community on Twitter.