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“Small Bets” and the PhD Process: Alt-Ac Careers for Humanities PhDs

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 39, Issue 4, December 2013
pp. 17-20 | 10.1353/esc.2013.0048

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In a recent survey of the “alt-ac” community, 74 percent of respondents stated that when they initially started their graduate work, they planned to become a professor and “of that 74%, 80% report[ed] feeling fairly certain or completely certain that professorship was the career they would pursue” (Rogers). These statistics match my personal experience and my conversations with other grad students. I am one of those grad students who originally planned—and continues to plan—a career in a tenuretrack position. Yet because of the sheer relentless, nigh apocalyptic nature of job market forecasts, I’m now in the position of considering careers beyond academia. For the past year I’ve been attending workshops at my university’s Centre for Career Action, talking with my supervisor, other professors, and career counselors, meeting with mitacs representatives, conducting informational interviews with people in the private sector, and trying to immerse myself in the extremely active online discussions about the academic job market and the alt-ac path. So with that said, I’d like to present some of my concerns and ideas from the perspective of a grad student. What I’d like to suggest is an open, curious, iterative, versatile, non-teleological, or even “antifragile,” approach to career preparation for humanities PhDs.

In the survey quoted above, the respondents, in their postacademic careers, did not end up in any specific sector. When humanities scholars move beyond academia, there is no set path. According to Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius, in “So What Are You Going to Do With That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia, many alt-ac career paths only have a “logical continuity to them in retrospect” (34); Basalla and Debelius therefore suggest “be[ing] open to unexpected possibilities” (74). Similarly, in Geoffrey Moore’s presentation, “Crossing the Chasm from Academia to Business,” at Stanford University’s Bibliotech conference (a conference for “Connecting Liberal Arts PhDs with Forward-Thinking Companies”), he claims that humanities PhDs have skills to offer every sector of business, provided we’re willing to learn a totally new vocabulary. The vocabulary we currently use (“semiotics,” “John Donne,” and so on) won’t translate, but what we can do with that vocabulary translates extremely well to any sector. At another bibliotech talk, Patrick Byrne, ceo and founder of Overstock.com (and a philosophy PhD), argues that in the private sector humanities scholars make naturally good team leaders and are good at nurturing a team’s ideas.

Some businesses have realized that humanities scholars offer a unique skill set that can be trained or modified to adapt to very different industries. There are now management consulting firms hiring not just mbas and stem scholars but humanities PhDs as well, because of the “raw horsepower” in critical thinking of which the PhD serves as evidence (quoted in Montell). Geoffrey Moore uses the metaphor of professional football teams that draft running and track stars who’ve never played football, because the team is after the “best available athlete” and the team can train the athlete for a specific football position. My point is not just that humanities scholars can succeed in other industries but that the PhD itself can be leveraged if PhD students are willing to branch out and if they are given the chances to do so. Often they need something else on the resumé, since obviously not every company will take a chance on the “best available athlete.” For grad students this will require early open-mindedness toward pursuing a career other than as a tenured professor.

Cal Newport, in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, argues that the uncritical repetition of advice like “follow your passion” is downright dangerous and damaging when people become convinced “that somewhere there’s a magic ‘right’ job waiting for them” (22). Doesn’t this ring a bell, in light of the frightening stories one hears about PhD adjuncts moving around the continent for years in a series of low-pay, limited-term contract positions—in some cases even going on food stamps (see Patton)—all in the hope that they’ll finally land that magic “right” job, even as the odds become increasingly against them?

Instead of focusing...

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