Inside Higher Ed: ‘No more plan B’

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

October 3, 2011

For years now, humanities and other disciplines have promoted “alternative” careers for new PhDs, trying both to increase the range of opportunities available to new graduates and to ease the competition just a bit in the academic job market.

The president and executive director of the American Historical Association have just released a statement calling for their field to abandon the idea that any career path – including those paths outside academe – be classified as “alternative”. It is time, they argue, to admit that the academic job market is not coming back any time soon, that many new PhDs who find jobs outside academe find rewarding work (both financially and intellectually), and that the doctoral experience needs to change in some ways so that new PhDs have more options.

“...[G]raduate programs have proved achingly reluctant to see the world as it is. For all the innovation in the subjects and methods of history, the goal of the training remains the same: to produce more professors; the unchanged language of supervisors and students reflects this,” says the statement. “We tell students that there are ‘alternatives’ to academic careers. We warn them to develop a ‘plan B’ in case they do not find a teaching post. And the very words in which we couch this useful advice make clear how much we hope they will not have to follow it – and suggest, to many of them, that if they do have to settle for employment outside the academy, they should crawl off home and gnaw their arms off.”

The statement – “No More Plan B” – appears in the new issue of the AHA publication Perspectives and was written by Anthony Grafton, a Princeton University historian who is president of the AHA, and James Grossman, executive director of the association.

Grafton and Grossman cite data from the last year (and the last several years before that) in which more history PhDs are entering the job market than there are tenure-track openings. Despite the talent of the new history PhDs, “many of these students will not find tenure-track positions teaching history in colleges and universities”, they write.

Furthermore, they say that people cannot simply wait for the economy to improve. “As many observers have noted, this is not a transient ‘crisis’,” write Grafton and Grossman. “It’s the situation we have lived with for two generations. And it’s not likely to change for the better, unless someone figures out how to work magic on the university budgets that lead[s] administrators to opt for flexible, contingent positions rather than tenure-track jobs. AHA supports and joins in efforts to convert contingent to tenure-track jobs – but it’s unrealistic to expect these to pay off on a large scale. We owe it to our students and to our profession to think more broadly.”

In this environment, Grafton and Grossman write that the idea of working outside academe needs to be basic to all discussions with graduate students, from the time they look at programmes to their dissertation defences. But history departments also need to consider “bigger” changes than just talking about options, and those changes, the statement argues, should include adjustments in the doctoral curriculum. “If we tell new students that a history PhD opens many doors, we need to broaden the curriculum to ensure that we’re telling the truth. If the policy arena offers opportunities, and we think it does, then interested students need some space (and encouragement) to take courses in statistics, economics, or public policy,” they write. “Accounting, acting, graphic design, advanced language training: students thinking at once creatively and pragmatically have all sorts of options at our research universities. And of course there’s the whole exploding realm of digital history and humanities, and the range of skills required to practice them.”

Throughout the time students are in graduate school, they need to feel that their faculty members will support their choices to work in or outside academe, they write. “Most important is that we make clear to all students that they will enjoy their advisors’ and their departments’ unequivocal support, whether they seek to teach at college or university level, join a nonprofit agency or head off into business or government,” write Grafton and Grossman. “We teach our students to question received ideas and to criticize inherited terminologies and obsolete assumptions. It’s past time that we began applying these lessons ourselves.”

And they call on historians in academe to stop looking down on those who build careers elsewhere. Writing of the present biases in the academy, they say that “many of our students who actually do leave the historical profession, and take what they’ve learned in graduate school to the business world, are seen as having crossed the line from the light of humanistic inquiry into the darkness of grubby capitalism – as if the life of scholarship were somehow exempt from impure motives and bitter competition.”

Their statement does not address another approach some have suggested to deal with the humanities job market: shrinking doctoral admissions. Both said that they viewed that as an issue to be determined programme by programme. (Since the economic downturn hit in the autumn of 2008, some top graduate programmes have opted to admit smaller classes to some doctoral programmes, but the most recent data from the Council of Graduate Schools suggest modest overall growth in new PhD enrolments.)

In interviews, Grossman and Grafton both acknowledged that they were seeking to change the way most professors and graduate students think.

“We’re trying to say, ‘Wake up. Times have changed.’ There are more opportunities and that’s a good thing,” said Grossman. “This is not about the negativity of wringing our hands and saying that there are no more jobs.”

When some humanities leaders have talked about growing the non-academic job market for PhDs, they have been criticised for focusing on issues other than the erosion of public support for higher education. Grossman said that he agrees that the erosion of public support is a significant problem that he would like to see changed. And more public funds for higher education would produce more academic jobs, he said.

But he said that realism is needed. “I don’t think the AHA has the political clout in the United States that facilitates universities’ funding or not funding history departments. We do not command a lot of votes in state legislatures at this point,” he said.

He added that one way historians might have more influence is if more of them enter the worlds of government and business. This isn’t far-fetched, he said, noting that John A. Lawrence (chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House of Representatives and current leader of House Democrats) and Newt Gingrich (another former speaker and current Republican presidential candidate) both hold history doctorates.

Historians also need to start framing their skills in ways that suggest the strengths they would bring to other fields, Grossman said, citing investment banking as “the perfect example” of a fit that many people don’t think about. “You have people who as part of their occupation need to be able to assess how two companies will get along in a merger. What does that require? It requires exactly the same conceptual framework historians use when we think about structure, human agency and culture,” he said.

Grafton said that it’s time to switch the vocabulary used in discussing career choices. “We don’t see why we have to phrase [non-academic careers] as if these were less satisfactory choices,” he said. “I think that the only way to make this work is to reconceive the whole idea of how we think about careers.”

In many social science fields, he said, significant numbers of new PhDs seek and find work outside academe, and it’s time for history, as a field that he said bridges the humanities and social sciences, to follow suit.

Both Grafton and Grossman acknowledged that many historians in academic positions look down on those who aren’t, and that many graduate students don’t feel comfortable talking about non-academic career plans with them. Grossman said that he was recently at a meeting where an academic historian made a negative comment about people without a university affiliation. “I raised my hand to say that was a problematic statement,” Grossman said. Whether someone is a historian is not determined by a university job, he said.

An unscientific scan of the websites of several leading history departments suggests that the messages they offer prospective students point towards academic careers as the goal of a history doctorate. The Princeton history site states: “Students leave the program with a far-reaching understanding of the past and prepared to engage in discipline-defining research. They go on to careers writing and teaching at top universities and colleges around the world.” The University of Chicago history site introduces its placement section by saying: “The University of Chicago is justly called the teacher of teachers, because of the number of Chicago graduates who go on to teach and conduct research at colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. Together with the support you will receive from your dissertation director during your academic job search, there are several services to help you find an appointment as a professional historian and teacher.”

Columbia University’s history website says: “The section entitled placement sketches how we prepare our students for the academic job market and reports on how our students have done in that market in recent years.” (Those who go to the placement page will find that, after boasts about the prestigious universities employing Columbia history PhDs, there is this line: “Some of our graduates have chosen not to remain in academia and have pursued careers in, among other things, government, foundations, journalism, business, and law.”

Aaron Marrs, chair of the AHA’s Graduate and Early Career Committee, applauded the new statement from the association leaders, which speaks directly to his career path. Marrs works in the US State Department’s Office of the Historian, which publishes research and documents about US foreign policy. Marrs earned his PhD in 2006 from the University of South Carolina, whose graduate programme introduces itself with a message that is not focused on any single career path: “Graduate study in history at USC provides training for a variety of rewarding careers.”

Marrs said that the South Carolina programme’s emphasis on public history encouraged him to work while in graduate school on helping to edit an encyclopedia, and that this work made him a good candidate for his job at the State Department. “Different career paths were never looked down upon” at South Carolina, he said, adding that most programmes “don’t have that kind of view”.

For most graduate students, the message coming from AHA leaders is much needed, Marrs said, because of the mindset in most programmes that an academic career should be the goal for graduate education. “These ideas are pretty entrenched and it’s going to take a while” for people to think more seriously about non-academic options. “Let’s face it – the ideal of the academic life is pretty nice, so it’s understandable that people would be interested.”

At the same time, he said, there are people like himself who are using the knowledge and skills from their history doctorates and are happily employed outside academe. And not only are many of these people happy, but they are generating more interest in the field.

“I’m in favour of more history,” he said. “If we can get more people taking history out to the people, that’s a positive thing.”

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