After the Academy: Whither next?

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What comes after Graduation? (Wikimedia Commons)

Whether it’s Stockholm Syndrome, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or Survivor’s Guilt, those of us considering a career outside academia find it nearly impossible to imagine just what life after the academy might actually look like. Part of this is because we find it hard to envision a career path beyond the university. We spend at least a decade sheltered in our departments, surrounded by and receiving our career socialization from other scholars. At the same time, academic departments are rarely the most supportive environments for discussions of non-academic career paths. Having just completed fourteen years of university in the middle of a major recession, I nonetheless see this as a time of opportunity rather than desperation. But I still ask myself, whither next?

I would love an academic job. I’m also a realist, and realistically it’s lean times. Most of us with PhDs will ultimately find employment outside the academy. Graduate school trained me to use proper Chicago citation style, how to manage a classroom, and the intricacies of navigating foreign archives, but I had little preparation for life beyond the university walls—until now. I’m suddenly tallying my “transferable skills,” creating professional networks in multiple arenas, and forging an online presence to promote myself as a scholar? a writer? a researcher? a photographer? It’s daunting and exciting. And there’s a wealth of online support.

Interviewed for Sabine Hikel’s “Leaving Academia” podcast, Krista Scott-Dixon relayed her own trajectory to a non-academic career. She discovered that it wasn’t a precise occupation she was searching for. Naming a job title didn’t resonate with her. Instead, she realized that seeking a path that allowed her to do the values that were important to her, rather than the tasks that she was trained for, would lead to her ideal future. She’s now a web/magazine editor and research director.

These sites like Hikel’s that have sprung up to support a generation of scholars who are moving beyond academia clearly speak to an important issue. Names of some, like “Sellout,” make clear the associations and fears they seek to dismantle. As soon as we start talking about leaving the academy, there’s a sense of failure, or of accepting failure by discussing possibility. This needs to be overcome! And advice like Scott-Dixon’s makes it easier to speak openly about PhD grads’ possibilities, whether inside or outside academe.

I found Scott-Dixon’s advice especially resonant. Beyond the generic “professor,” many of us have not actively formulated a career goal, myself included. But I do know what I value: social justice, the power of language, desirable location, and challenge. Thinking in terms of values spoke to me more than most things I’ve read about possibilities beyond the Ivory Tower. But it’s not an answer, it’s just a signpost, and this series “After the Academy” will trace where the sign(s) point.

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9 Responses to “After the Academy: Whither next?”

  1. Jana Says:

    I’d like to see my department announcing graduates who land non-TT jobs as enthusiastically as those who do. In my mind that would go a long way towards validating outside-of-academia career options.

  2. Justin Bengry Says:

    Jana, you’re absolutely right. It’s a change in culture that’s needed in academia to value a range of careers beyond TT positions. But that change in culture isn’t impossible to achieve, and it’s things like you suggest that could propel it forward.

  3. Lizzie Says:

    Since traditional historians and history departments generally treat public history as a sort of illegitimate sibling, making public history training and internships part of the mandatory curriculum for grad students might also help change the culture of academia.

  4. Justin Bengry Says:

    Lizzie, this is a GREAT point, and one I think I’ll return to in another post. But for now… With changing professional realities, our depts should do more to train students for a range of possible career paths that are historically oriented. Most of us will not get TT jobs. Of course we have significant transferable skills, but we need to be realistic and strategic about what our job prospects are, and where we are likely to find employment. As Jana suggested, changing the culture of our depts is one step. And as you say, we need to take more seriously programs that offer other opportunities, like public history, like oral history, like digital technologies in the humanities.

  5. Angela Sutton Says:

    There’s a fantastic book by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius called “So What Are You Going to Do With That?: A Guide for M.A.’s and Ph.D’s Seeking Careers Outside the Academy” that offers concrete ideas for transferring skills gained in academia to the working world. I’d encourage anyone on the job market to take a look and realize just how many options people with graduate degrees have. Even in a recession, our skills are at high demand. Although many of the jobs available seem unconventional to someone who has just spent 5+ years in the academy, it is psychologically beneficial to be aware of just how good we’ve got it.

  6. Shellen Xiao Wu Says:

    This is a great post on a very timely issue. While I, too, believe that our academic training have left most of us with tunnel visions of our futures, I also believe that it’s a bigger problem within academia – that is, the devaluation of a humanities education. It is perfectly acceptable and even encouraged for Ph.D.s in engineering and computer science, for example, to enter industry. At the same time, precisely because there is competition from industries, it is also easier to enter these fields as academics. I recently received a rejection email from a postdoc with over 1,000 applicants – at those odds, I have a better chance to getting hit by lightening.

  7. After the Academy: Changing the Culture of Humanities PhD Programs « History Compass Exchanges Says:

    [...] this goal before we finish our degrees. But we cannot do it alone. Several comments from my last “After the Academy” post brought up important issues in this regard. We need departmental support for options [...]

  8. Justin Housman Says:

    I am so pleased to have found this website. I am three weeks away from deciding if I accept PhD program offers or end my career with the MA. One thing that I am somewhat surprised about is the lack of interest I see in advanced degree holders teaching high school. I entered college with the idea that I would be a high school history teacher. Grad school altered that plan, but right now starting a career in high school teaching and making a go at “real life” sounds a great deal more satisfying than chasing an academic dream for the next 5 years.

    • Laura Mitchell Says:

      Justin, I know a lot of high school teachers with PhDs…or unusual combinations of MA degrees that help them to be uniquely prepared for what they teach. I think the culture of most PhD granting departments does encourage conversations about high school teaching for its graduates, but there are plenty out there.

      Perhaps the real question is not whether you want to get a PhD to teach high school, but rather whether you’ve got a real commitment to a research project–and you want to do the research enough to make the financial insecurity of more years of grad school feel like a good trade off.

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