Wanf Lei / Xinhua News Agency / Landov

A different reason to go to grad school

Why noncareer academia can be a good thing

July 5, 2014 12:00AM ET

Every summer, thousands of new graduates find themselves with no idea what to do next. For those who did well in school and have mixed feelings about entering the workforce, graduate school in the humanities is an appealing option. On first glance, entering a prestigious doctoral program in English or history looks a lot like being in college — only with a stipend, the lure of an impressive degree and five years of job security. Yet grad school differs from college in one significant way: It is, at its core, vocational training. The academy selects those who will replicate and repopulate its ranks, and, in addition to reading and meeting like-minded peers, a significant part of being a grad student is preparing to do exactly that.

Historically, the Ph.D. machine has had its troubles, but these were radically amplified in 2008. When the economy crashed, the job market in the humanities went with it, and suddenly there were far fewer jobs than Ph.D.s to fill them. Complaining about the job market is a cherished pastime for academics, but until the recession, the number of advertised tenure-track positions in English and history had been more or less aligned with the production of new doctorates. After 2008, that was no longer the case: According to data from the leading professional organizations, there were 713 tenure-track jobs in English posted in 2012–13, and 686 in history over that same period. Meanwhile, between 1,000 and 1,100 doctorates were awarded in each of those fields that year (PDF).

These numbers, which are typical for recent years, don’t sound too dismal until one considers that the figures don’t account for the backlog of applicants who go on the market year after year, nor do they factor in people who get Ph.D.s in related subfields. The blunt force of the economic crash also brought to light other factors — such as defunding, people taking more time on average to get their Ph.D.s, negative public perceptions about academia — that have hobbled the humanities job market and are likely to persist in coming years. In general, the combination of a weak academic job market and a weak economy overall have led to a slight shift in the way humanities Ph.D.s think about their relationship to the academy. While it’s certainly not the norm, fewer people appear to be entering doctoral programs with the idea that academia will be their only option. With no guarantee of employment at the end of a multiyear commitment, it’s harder to treat getting a doctorate purely as career training.


I’ve heard many anecdotal examples of cross-pollination between the “real world” and the university — the doctoral candidate who started a successful rare book business during his first years of grad school; the English Ph.D. who launched a copy editing career on the side — but these stories are often hard to track because of the stigma that exists within academia around discussing outside projects. I’m an editor, so the way I’ve observed the porousness between the academy and the outside world is through publishing. While it used to be frowned upon for untenured academics to write for a popular audience, grad students now regularly contribute to outlets such as The Awl, The New Inquiry, the Boston Review and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and even occasionally join the mastheads. In a February blog post challenging the idea that academics had vanished from public life, Corey Robin named more than a dozen grad students who had distinguished themselves through their nonacademic writing, which they publish in venues ranging from edited group blogs to the pages of The Nation.

Outside of magazines, over the past few months, Nikil Saval, Yascha Mounk and Leslie Jamison — all recent or current grad students — released well-reviewed books with respected trade publishing houses. (One even turned in a book in lieu of a dissertation.) All of this reflects deep structural changes in publishing and the fact that there are more places to publish than ever before, but it also suggests something else: That it’s increasingly acceptable to have professional engagements outside academia while still being in school.

Greater transparency about extra-academic activities has been bolstered by the fact that the recession and larger structural crises in fields such as journalism have pushed people into the academy who might not have been there 10 years ago. This became apparent to me while commissioning and editing essays for the book “Should I Go to Grad School?” One contributor, Stephen Squibb, liked to claim that he went to grad school only because he needed the health insurance; another, Sara Marcus, went in with plans to write a dissertation she would turn into a trade book. (It’s worth noting that despite their initial ambivalence, their thinking about grad school changed significantly since entering academia and they now plan on pursuing academic jobs in their fields.)

Assuming it’s possible to avoid debt and endless academic politicking, there are obvious benefits to being in grad school while working on outside projects: It provides time and resources, and enables students to become experts in their chosen fields. A seventh-year doctoral student in English told me that there’s been a striking shift in the composition of students during her time in grad school. While her program used to be populated exclusively by people with ambitions of becoming academics, over the past five years there has been an increase in the number of journalists and independent scholars, people happy to treat doctoral programs — particularly funded ones — as something like a patronage system. Writers and artists have always relied on private donors and grants to support their work; now people in the humanities are starting to treat universities the same way. Additionally, since many universities also require grad students to teach in exchange for their stipend, students often leave school with valuable teaching experience. 

Between a fifth and a quarter of humanities Ph.D.s over the past decade haven’t gone into academia — and found high rates of professional satisfaction in totally different fields

Opening doors between academia and the larger world is a positive development for both students and the university. On an individual level, embracing engagement with the nonacademic world encourages grad students to think expansively about their skills and knowledge (and could prepare students who have never left the confines of the ivory tower for other fields); and on an institutional level, an influx of people with different perspectives and ambitions can only help academia break out of the patterns that have facilitated the current job crisis. It might also enable universities to stop thinking of their function purely as professional training and more as part of a larger social mission. Outside of academia, having humanities Ph.D.s in fields such as government, journalism and computer science would bring a degree of scholarly depth and expertise to these fields, and underscore the relevance of doctoral training in nonacademic realms. Finally, and most important, not to acknowledge the fact that many Ph.D.s will go into fields outside of academia is to ignore a reality that already exists. According to a 2013 study, between a fifth and a quarter of humanities Ph.D.s over the past decade haven’t gone into academia — and found high rates of professional satisfaction in totally different fields. It’s irresponsible for universities not to account for, or prepare students for, this possibility.

New models

There is also evidence that universities are coming to terms with these shifts. While doctoral programs are routinely (and lazily) maligned for being hyperspecialized, some are recognizing the need to prepare students for alternative career paths. Over the past five years, for example, Harvard and Stanford have held summits designed to teach graduate students in the humanities to write for nonacademic audiences, and the fruits of their labor are often found in op-ed pages and outlets such as The Chronicle of Higher Education. On a larger scale, professional organizations such as the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association have undertaken a series of initiatives designed to broaden the conversation about employment opportunities outside of academia. Even more significantly, these two organizations recently commissioned sweeping studies to gather data about the career trajectories of humanities Ph.D.s over the past several decades (no such data currently exist) and make policy recommendations based on the findings.

These are promising starts, but they’re only the beginning. The ways in which doctoral candidates are looking outside of their programs for greater flexibility is a sign that students are already acknowledging what universities have not. Rather than simply complaining about the market, it’s critical that universities recognize the ways in which grad school is actually being put to use, and, more important, facilitate the intellectually engaged work that’s taking place between the classroom and the outside world. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter